The history of the Soviet Union, told through Tetris

March 31st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I am the man who arranges the blocks

Tetris and Communism: not an obvious combination. They make for a glorious song, though, in the form of A Complete History of the Soviet Union, Arranged To The Melody Of Tetris. Take revolutions, breadlines, broken ideals and dreams of brotherhood, and turn them into…blocks. Falling endlessly from the sky:

What gets to me, I think, is the worker’s face. Sometimes he’s downtrodden, sometimes triumphant. Sometimes he’s a sculpture-worthy proletarian hero — clutching a sledgehammer, his gaze stoically fixed into the distance. Always there’s something grotesque about him, an unnerving manic undertone. Revolutionary glee shifts into a forced grimace: “Long live Stalin! He loves you! Sing these words, or you know what he’ll do“. This is a one-man mob, permanently caught up in the passionate trauma of one historical moment after another.

And when the end comes, it’s beautifully understated:

I work so hard in arranging the blocks
But each night I go home to my wife in tears -
What’s the point of it all, when you’re building a wall
And in front of your eyes it disappears?
Pointless work for pointless pay
This is one game I shall not play.

Bike helmets and theft

March 30th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

A nice fact, and one that seems too neat to be true: theft of motorbikes declines when the law requires helmets. The idea is that you might pinch a motorbike if you saw it left unattended. But if you don’t happen to be carrying a helmet, it’s going to be much harder to ride away on it:

After Texas enacted its universal helmet law, motorcycle thefts in 19 Texas cities decreased 44 percent between 1988 and 1990, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Motorcycle thefts dropped dramatically in three European countries after the introduction of laws that fined motorcyclists for failure to wear helmets. In London, motorcycle thefts fell 24 percent after Great Britain enacted a helmet law in 1973. The Netherlands saw a 36 percent drop in thefts in 1975 when its law was enacted. And in former West Germany, where on-the-spot fines were introduced in 1980, motorcycle thefts plummeted 60 percent [source]

The implication, surprising to me, is that most motorbike theft had been opportunistic. Getting hold of a helmet doesn’t seem a very high bar for the would-be thief.

Inter-generational equality

March 29th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

The angry unemployed graduates were right: todays youth have been thoroughly shafted by the baby-boomers. It’s taken me a long time to accept that. I remember reading bloggers like Laurie Penny, sharing the rage but disagreeing with the diagnosis:

After the crash of 2008, Generation Y realised with a rush of horror that no matter how good we were or how relentlessly we hammered our minds and bodies into the grooves laid out for us by our parents, our teachers and a culture of mandatory capitalist self-fashioning, everything was definitely not going to be fine. Instead, we are going to spend our lives paying for the excesses of our parents, who have bequeathed us a broken economy, a stagnant job market and a planet that’s increasingly on fire.

Yes, I thought, you were promised a mirage. Anybody who goes through childhood believing what they are told — “work hard, pass your exams, and the world is your oyster” — is lined up for a rough awakening. Your parents lied to you — but, mostly, they lied because they believed. That doesn’t mean they had it better themselves.

Except, it turns out, they did. And they continue to — the old in Britain are wealthier, relative to the young, than they have been in a very long time. According to the FT:

the living standards of Britons in their 20s have been overtaken by those of their 60-something grandparents for the first time…
The data, which underpins government publications on living standards, takes no account of housing costs or wealth. Had it done so the results would have been even more dramatic, showing median living standards of people in their 20s have now slipped below those of people in their 70s and 80s.

If the figures show it, so does the human reality. My struggling twenty-something friends encounter from their parents a kind of bewilderment. The older generation, often sympathetic, nonetheless rarely comprehend the living conditions of their descendents. There’s a lingering assumption that jobs are out there somewhere, that they will provide a livable income, that housing is a matter of choice rather than desperation.

For all that, I remain very suspicious of the narrative of inter-generational competition. The inequalities within an age group are far, far higher than those between one generation and the next. Class, race, even gender are far greater inequalities. And much of the noise comes from a small segment of the population: the frustrated children of the salariat, being denied entry to a shrinking class. Still, the facts are there: the youth are getting it in the neck.

Shitting on the people

March 25th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Jamie of Blood & Treasure despairs over the Tories’ impact on Manchester

It’s different from living in Hulme: that was a neighbourhood that had already hit bottom, and there was a kind of resilience, even the occasional bout of optimism, available from knowing things couldn’t actually get any worse…..
But it’s something else living in a working neighbourhood, which in normal times flails along with its collective head just above the water, being gradually and through the systematic application of government policy suffering a kind of collective punishment; and the organic commerce which had evolved to serve it beginning to go down with it….It’s an odd feeling watching economic repression imposed around you; like living in the middle of a crime in progress.

OrgCon: Cory on the war on general computation

March 24th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

[tldr: Cory Doctorow speech; go to the source instead]
Cory Doctorow thinks the online freedom movement needs to get over the entertainment industry. They just happened to be the first belligerants in a long war”, he says; the big guns are just getting going.

I’m listening to him at the Open Rights Group annual conference, giving a talk he first presented at Berlin’s Chaos Communications Congress last December.

The Coming War on General Computing“, is how he titles it. Military metaphors are omnipresent here. Maybe because this is conference is still a boy’s world. Maybe because of the lingering idea of the “electronic frontier”, virgin territory to be fought over. Or perhaps this is the world seen by a generation of video-gamers, where everybody expects to fight through a series of increasingly-powerful bosses until we finally win.

Cory’s war on general computing, then, consists of many powerful interests reacting similarly to the threat of devices which can be modified by their users. “We’d like it to be able to do everything“, they say, “except this…

Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can’t you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The RIAA were the first. “We’d like you to be able to share everything“, they thought, “except our music“. Now computing power is breaking out of the box on the table, into the rest of the world, the same pattern is being repeated. “3D printers are great — if only we could stop them making weapons. Or forgeries. Or sex toys“. “Self-driving cars are great — if only the police could shut them down”.

But it doesn’t work like that. User modification really is all-or-nothing. Trying to shut down one use of a computer means locking down the entire system. “All attempts at controlling the PC will converge on the rootkit. All attempts at controlling the internet will converge on surveillance and censorship”:

We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don’t like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a computer with spyware

Cory, as a speaker and activist, is a professional optimist. He thinks we can win this battle — we can force the powers to accept freedom over spyware. But if the nature of computers forces us to be this black-and-white, we end up in an unwinnable fight. No plausible government is likely to allow everything without exception. So, even if they 99.9% of uses are acceptable, the last 0.01% will force us into spyware.

Councillor as community organizer

March 22nd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Guardian journalist and Peckham Councillor Rowenna Davis sees herself as a community organizer. When her constituents come to her with complaints, she looks for ways to help them join forces with their neighbours. So when a tenant complained about a private landlord overcharging her for a damp and unsafe flat:

It turns out the Landlord owns all the properties on her block. An angry letter from one tenant won’t do much, but a letter signed by ten tenants, who are prepared to collectively withdraw their rent, is a lot harder to ignore.
But the real advantage of doing things this way isn’t just that the damp gets fixed faster. It’s that it builds leadership and develops power in a way that relying on your middle class councillor can never do.

That is, it breaks what Davis calls “relational poverty“: “Poverty understood as the absence of meaningful relationships. As isolation“. She sees this isolation in the August riots, as well as generally in the powerlessness of her constituents. So she’s setting out to change it:

My job as a councillor is to do what I can to carry on deepening and spreading those relationships, so that none of us have to feel the loneliness that we felt in August, and the powerlessness that it breeds.
Because it’s the relationships that are transformational, not just for overcoming poverty, but for fulfilling who we are and how we should live together, flourishing, as human beings.

Sady Doyle on identifying with Sarah Palin

March 22nd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Sady Doyle is no fan of Sarah Palin, for obvious political reasons. And yet Game Change, a film about her catastrophic vice-presidential candidacy, leaves Doyle “full-on, gut-level IDENTIFYING with the enemy“. And that, even when the film itself is “a big, steaming pile of disingenuous crap“. Because Palin’s campaign is the story of somebody getting in over their head, realising that too late, and tearing themself apart in the attempt to escape or deal with a very public failure:

She commits historically evil acts because she’s lonely, and sad, and wants to be loved. It’s the worst, smallest, pettiest, most inexcusable excuse for evil you will ever hear. And most of the evil that I’ve witnessed, in my life, has been committed for the same reason.

Links & Snippets: deaths, diplomats, and a pistol-duelling 9-year-old

March 16th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Bolivian activist Domitilla Barrios de Chungarahas died. Working in the tin mines, she criticized the hard work and poor treatment of miners, and became a union leader. Denouncing military coups in Bolivia left her unable to return home for several years, and also brought her international attention. But, she complained, this was fickle:

When my book came out everyone was interested. Everyone loved the drama and the repression and our struggle. Now the fight is just as hard but it’s not so romantic, so it seems people have lost interest. I believe that the Bolivian people are going to continue struggling. Things aren’t going to stay as they are now. On the contrary, it’s going to get much harder. I think that’s why the US troops have arrived to build their runways.4 They’re not building that runway at Potosi so that we Bolivians can travel, as if we had the money! They’re building it so that they can control events in the whole of South America when things get really tough. I think that people in other countries who value democracy, freedom and who recognize that we need work, I think that they should do solidarity work with us. Now – not just when it’s romantic.

The New York Times on Carne Ross, who has set himself up as a kind of consulting diplomat for states without formal recognition:

The Independent Diplomat tries to ensure that poor and neglected regions get access to the decision makers and international forums that make policy, such as the United Nations and the European Union.
In 2005 Mr. Ross attended a Security Council discussion of Kosovo with its prime minister at the time, Bajram Kosumi. “He wasn’t allowed to talk,” Mr. Ross recalled. “The U.N. didn’t even provide an interpreter for him, and we had to find an Albanian-American student to do the translation.” Nor, he said, could Mr. Kosumi respond to an attack by the Serbs. “It was very frustrating.”

And a classic example of the best sub-genre of obituary: extreme, larger than life, and hard to take seriously:

At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.

At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate.

Being black in Libya

March 15th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Being black in Libya is pretty shit. The video currently doing the rounds shows black Africans tied up and forced to eat Gaddafi’s flag. This isn’t new news, though; it’s been a constant undercurrnent of the war in Libya. During the war there were continual reports of rape, beatings and killing. Here’s one eyewitness account:

We left behind our friends from Chad. We left behind their bodies. We had 70 or 80 people from Chad working for our company. They cut them dead with pruning shears and axes, attacking them, saying you’re providing troops for Gadhafi. The Sudanese, the Chadians were massacred.

Before the war, black Africans formed one fifth of Libya’s population. Some were mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi — the common excuse for later attacks on them. Many weren’t. They were migrant workers, encouraged by Gaddafi in his persona as Africa’s benevolant ‘king of kings’. Or they had tried to reach Europe, were stopped in the Mediterranean, and sent to Libya under a cooperation agreement between Gaddafi and the EU. Now, the bulk are doing whatever they can to get out of Libya:

While a few Nigerians look relieved to return home and laugh with comrades, the majority are in despair. After a costly and arduous car trip with smugglers over the desert into Libya, they have spent most days searching for piecemeal day labour, and living in perpetual fear of being harassed, robbed and detained by the Libyan militias policing the streets. They will now return to families – often indebted to smugglers – empty-handed.

Links and Snippets: repression as a virtue

March 14th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

From a 1970 edition of the New York Review of Books, a review article on Victorian sexuality. Among other things, makes the case that yes, repression really was the cornerstone of Victorian civilization:

If anyone had asked an intelligent broad-minded member of the mid-Victorian clerisy what was the greatest achievement for which future generations would revere his own age, it is doubtful whether he would have cited humanitarianism, or thrift, or the triumphs of industrialism. He would not probably have staked out a claim for godliness since the church parties were so bitterly sectarian. More likely he would have replied that nothing had changed society more than the reform of sexual morals and the serious condemnation of what Matthew Arnold called Lubricity.

Testing the limits of a pacifist:

the Bloomsbury Group writer, Lytton Strachey… was – how shall I put it – a confirmed bachelor and also a conscientious objector and a pacifist. And he appeared before the conscientious objection board and they were obviously going to quiz him on whether or not he truly was it or was just a coward trying to get out of serving. They said, “Mister Strachey, are you married?” “No.” he said. “Well,” they said, “Do you have a sister?” “Yes I do have a sister.” And they said, “Well, suppose a German soldier came and tried to rape her, what would you do?” He said, “Well in that case, I would endeavour to place myself between them.”

Russia without Putin: apocalypse tomorrow

March 13th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Putin didn’t pull any punches before last week’s presidential election. He came up with the most extreme attack ad imaginable. It’s called Apocalypse Tomorrow, and it does what it says on the tin:

The story is pretty obvious from the pictures: the fate of Russia without Putin. By March, the liberals and the fascists have allied to form a government. Activists divide up Russian corporations between them. There are strikes, hyperinflation, famine, riots. An Islamic Caliphate forms in the North Caucasus. Georgia invades, takes over the 2014 winter olympics. Opposition leader Navalny flees to the US, where his memoir wins him both the Nobel Peace and Literature prizes. Russia, meanwhile, is in a state of civil war.

Wagner and Bakunin: the odd couple of political pyromania

March 12th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Wagner and Bakunin, friends and comrades, fighting together on the barricades in doomed rebellion against the Prussian army. It seems comically incongruous. Hitler’s favourite composer — the fervent nationalist and anti-semite — allied with the anarchist firebrand. But it was the case — and Wagner, at least, was deeply affected by their short time togeher.

Bakunin, wanted by the Austrian authorities for his role in the 1848 Pan-Slavic Congress, was hiding in Dresden. Here Wagner, then conductor of the Dresden orchestra, had chosen to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a show of liberal sympathy:

Michael Bakunin, unknown to the police, had been present at the public rehearsal. At its close he walked unhesitatingly up to me in the orchestra, and said in a loud voice, that if all the music that had ever been written were lost in the expected world-wide conflagration, we must pledge ourselves to rescue this symphony, even at the peril of our lives

Three weeks later, Bakunin would burn down the Opera House.

By that point Wagner was overawed by Bakunin and by revolution, to the point of being filled with “strength and freedom” on the destruction of his workplace. It was ugly anyway, he rationalised.

The Opera House was a victim of was the Dresden May Uprising, one of the last aftershocks of the revolutions of 1848. Its aim was to force the Prussian king to accept a constitution. To Wagner, it appealed to his mythic sense of German nationalism. Bakunin didn’t much care about Dresden or German nationalism — but he loved nothing more than a good fight.

So Bakunin and Wagner both joined the rebels, each in his own style. Bakunin jumped straight in, won over a public meeting, arranged defence, stayed with the rebels even when they had obviously failed, was consequently arrested and spent eight years in jail. Wagner hesitated, wrote articles, made weapons, stood watch, got off lightly ,and fled to Zurich.

Given the circumstances and Wagners own ideals, it’s no surprise that Bakunin made such a great impression on him. His extreme and nihilistic politics (“dreadful ideas”) mattered little, personal energy much more:

I was immediately struck by his singular and altogether imposing personality. He was in the full bloom of manhood…. Everything about him was colossal, and he was full of a primitive exuberance and strength.

in this remarkable man the purest impulses of an ideal humanity conflicted strangely with a savagery entirely inimical to all civilisation

Bakunin, in short, embodied the epic personality which Wagner would spend a lifetime trying to describe. As his opera Tannhauser was described by Baudelaire:

On the satanic thrill of an indefinite love soon follow ecstasies, raptures, victory cries, the groans of gratitude, and then a wild howl, accusations of slain victim and the nefarious hosanas of the bucher, as if the blinde brutality taking in the drama of love, always place and the pleasure of the senses, would lead to an inescapable satanic logic, to the daylights of the crime.

Steampunk Opera

March 11th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The Steampunk Opera blog is full of oddball historical episodes from the 19th century. It’s the perfect period for them: newspapers seeking out the most dramatic half-truths, ready to be further fictionalised in the penny dreadfuls. And traumatic social upheavals often lead to some truly bizarre shit.

There’s Spring-heeled Jack, a batman villain with — literally — a spring in his step. Supposedly he would bounce over walls, attack men and molest women, then leap away again. On one occasion, he stopped long enough to breathe blue fire at one of his victims.

Also the interesting idea of teenage boys being less bloodthirsty than adults:

Thus penny dreadfuls began the shift to the youth market. Sweeny Todd and Varney the Vampire continued to sell well and heaven knows, boys ate their adventures up with great relish also, but despite everyone’s assumption that the working class youth was out of their minds with lust for the high gore content of the penny bloods, the truth was that they perferred high adventure and heroism with protagonists they could identify with over the murderous content that had thrilled their fathers.

Links and snippets

March 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Eleanor Saitta on depression and group psychology among activists:

I watched people see-sawing back and forth between spectacular hopes for the future and deep despair — the sense that we can do anything, that the future is ours to remake as we wish, and the sense that there’s no way forward, no escape from this pit we’ve dug ourselves into. As people get together into larger groups, the despair seems to be shed as a function of group cohesion, leaving behind a hope that is frankly irrational until a sudden tipping point hits and it breaks.

Far from the first time Laurie Penny has written about anorexia, but one of the better ones:

[anorexics] lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard; eat less; consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good; conform and comply; push yourself to the point of collapse. It is no accident that eating disorders are often associated with obsessive overwork and perfectionism at school, in the workplace or in the home. We followed all the rules, sufferers seem to be saying – now look what you made us do.

Jay Owen on mobile phone privacy:

Your mobile phone leaks….

Take location. In exchange for offering Google Maps as a free service, Google extracts the price of knowing where your phone is at all times, even when the app isn’t running. Your home and work addresses are easy to identify (your habitual locations at 3am and 10am respectively). These can be cross-referenced against MOSAIC (market research company Experian’s consumer classification) or Zoopla house price records to transform location into income and demographic data, allowing users to be sold as micro-targeted ‘market segments’ of high value to advertisers.

debt and morals

March 9th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

John Holbo on markets and morality:

the Plato I was teaching was, to a surprising extent, about debt, reciprocity and, generally, the convertability of moral into monetary categories, and vice versa. Euthyphro on piety. It’s ‘care of the gods’, which – this is his final suggestion – turns out to be the capacity to enter into healthy exchange relations. Meno on whether being good boils down to getting your hands on the goods. Cephalus, the old man, launches the mighty ship, Republic, with the thought that justice is ‘speaking truth and paying debts’, which morphs into the lex talionis thought that justice is payback – doing good to friends and harm to enemies. Plato, like Graeber, is really really concerned to shred this stuff, if he can.

Penny Gaffs

March 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Penny Gaffs” were small, informal theatres which became very popular in English slums from the 1820s:

The pieces which would be presented here can be related to several of the dramatic forms which developed mostly outside the patent theatres, and which could evolve and be critical to degrees forbidden to “straight” plays: these included burletta and assorted dramatic pieces presented at the minor theatres and fairgrounds, pantomime, and the entertainments of strolling players…. A penny gaff was usually a shop adapted as a theatre in which an entertainment comprising sketches, songs, farces and drag acts would be presented when enough people were assembled.

Most of the internet is recycling a small set of eyewitness accounts. Here is a trio of full articles:

It was not a commodious building, nor particularly handsome, the only attempt at embellishmentappearing at the stage end, where for the space of a few feet the plaster wall was covered with ordinary wall paper of a grape vine pattern, and further ornamented by coloured and spangled portraits of Mrs. Douglas Fitzbruce in her celebrated characters of “Cupid” and “Lady Godiva.”

Here’s another overview.

Self-doubt: placed by culture, removed by mad science

March 7th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Brain manipulation via electricity.
Sally Adee does what makes Wired actually good, underneath the manic trend-jumping and the boosting of dubious shiny gadgets. She takes a cyberpunk-seeming story, explains it is already happening, and points out social implications.

The cyberpunk story goes like this. Putting some electrodes on your brain can double the rate at which you learn. Why? Because it turns off the inner voice that constantly tells you how much a mess you’re making of life:

Me without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head; I’eve experienced something close to it during 2-hour Iyengar yoga classes, but the fragile peace in my head would be shattered almost the second I set foot outside the calm of the studio. I had certainly never experienced instant zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at.

And once you realise how much self-doubt drags us back, you can’t help but wonder where it comes from:

could school-age girls use the zappy cap while studying math to drown out the voices that tell them they can’t do math because they’re girls? How many studies have found a link between invasive stereotypes and poor test performance?

Crazy bastard Lyotard

March 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Apparently at some point Lyotard was channeling Warren Ellis:

The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body

Blacklists in the construction industry

March 5th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Shocking. The UK’s major construction firms maintained a blacklist of troublemakers to be denied work — radicals, trade unionists, or simply workers who pointed out on-site safety issues. According to the investigator at the Information Commissioner’s Office:

the relationship between the Consulting Association [which maintained the blacklist] and the police and security services appeared to have been nurtured when the organisation went under an earlier guise as the Economic League, at a time when the state was keen to liaise with major building firms to discover as much as it could about Irish construction workers amid the threat of IRA terrorism.

Of course this stuff just gets easier and easier as time goes by. I’d bet money that some counterpart to the Consulting Association is right now identifying troublemakers from facebook or linkedin, selling their names to one employer or another. Perhaps the police are collaborating, perhaps they aren’t — it maybe matters less than it once did, as police records are only one information source among many.

Community organizing in London

March 4th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Community Organizing, a system of social campaigining, concentrates attention on linking local residents into a political group, identifying their common interests and turning these into the goals of campaigning.

It is most associated with the civil rights movement in the United States, where the work of Saul Alinksy was crucial in giving it shape, both through his direct involvement in campaigning and through books such as Rules for Radicals. More recently, Barack Obama’s involvement gave it greater prominence.

Unlike many USian ideas, this went decades without really taking root in the UK. Perhaps this is a result of it targetting local communities, rather than the free-floating trend-following activist international. Perhaps not.

But now it’s starting to change. Citizens UK are pushing community organizing in London and beyond. They’ve had impressive success in forcing the Living Wage onto the political agenda. There’s even a MA Course at Queen Mary.

For me to judge community organizing based on books and the internet seems entirely alien to its principles. Still, I can’t deny loving some Alinsky’s combination of community-building with tactically-planned attacks on the powers that be. In his words, “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.

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