Sunday, September 26, 2010

now you tell us

This Clinton person is making sense, on Israeli politics, on settlements, and on this:
Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.

"It's just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that," said Clinton.

iterative post mortem

Theo Farrell has published a new paper on the British Army in Helmand, which makes some more progress in explaining just how it went so wrong.


Elsewhere: how the Lib Dems learned to love Nemesysco's fake lie detector and outsourcing to Crapita. Yes, really.

in this week's edition of the Low Expectations Journal

OK, so let's remind ourselves of the rising chatter about a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan from a couple of months ago. We know that there was some evidence of Hezb-i Islami cooperating with ISAF. The first group targeted as part of the diplomatic effort were the Haqqani network.

Since then, we've learned about the build-up of US reconnaissance in Afghanistan. As a result, the drones strike more and more often. Here's Sean Naylor on what seems to be a broader offensive against the Haqqanis. Note that this also refers to even more reconnaissance and intelligence assets being deployed, transferred from Iraq. (Looking at this, a subplot of getting out of Iraq seems to have been getting better at data analysis in the field.)

Noah Schachtman's piece does connect this with the negotiating track, but not in the way I think they are related. This reminds me of two things - one of them is the IRA concept of the Tactical Use of Armed Struggle, from the 1990s. The basic idea was that the main effort was the negotiations, and the violence was intended to support their negotiating position. The other one is, yet again, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which the Russians often carried out operations that were intended to put pressure on particular warlords to get on side.

Armchair Generalist has interesting quotes from the IISS's recent report on Afghanistan:
A tripartite dialogue between Afghanistan, India and Pakistan is desirable; not least to diminish risks that enduring conflict could escalate to civil-war proportions. Central Asian states, Russia and Iran will have competing concerns in Afghanistan that will have to be reconciled, but a less ambitious coalition military posture in Afghanistan should be used to make this possible.

This is close enough to my line to make no difference, although I do suspect that the key factor in this will be good old low expectations.

Meanwhile, Joshua Foust would like everyone to know that Turkey has no possible advice to offer on fighting separatist guerrillas or transitioning from a military dictatorship towards democracy without achieving a 626% electoral turnout, and Indonesia knows nothing whatsoever about a complex, sometimes violent polity with radically different levels of development and a tradition of guerrilla activity.

I add this merely to remind myself that the Pajamas Media brand retains significant value as a counterindicator.


Arising from this, it struck me that there is something very important about continuity in politics. In many ways, it's a habit - the group of professional rightwing publicists who invented "teabaggers" in late 2008 were clearly very well aware that a movement survives by acting out its emotional rituals and internalised skills. Whether it's accurate to say that they looked at the new organising models and styles of the 2000s and installed them onto their wetware, they got the trigger-movement right. (This is roughly what I was thinking of at OpenTech a couple of weeks back - even if most of the people who signed up for Democracy Club would drift off after the elections, the ones who didn't would be the ones you'd need for the next election. It's a kind of neural Darwinism.)

So I reckon Labour is recovering, while the Lib Dems have just discovered the joy of doing the exact opposite of whatever party conference votes for.

"Cyberwar" and Iran: the other side of the hill

If I hadn't been fiddling with file permissions to get Wordpress running last Sunday, I'd probably have been writing about the Haystack saga. I'm a bit gestört by some of the coverage of it - Evgeny Morozov, typically, has been doing good work in the general war on bullshit, but I'm less convinced of his broader conclusions. See here.

What stands out about Haystack isn't so much the technology - which we can't really make statements about, because they kept everything secret until it all fell down, and the implementation is apparently so awful nobody wants to release the code in case someone tries to use it - but the meta-technology. As this post makes clear, perhaps the biggest problem was that it was half-open, half-closed. The code wasn't released, so it was impossible for anyone to review it, but it was circulated widely enough that the core development team had little or no idea how far it might have spread. In fact, some people who did have the source code thought it would be a good idea to compile it, package it, and share it with people who might need it.

And although there is apparently a client-server element in it, the server was allowed to accept connections from the wider Internet. So they'd accidentally allowed the unfinished and untested project to start operating in production.

The Guardian is mocked; John Graham-Cumming is right (and check out the remarks about Tor in comments) and points out that Haystack's crypto was reliant on a source of random numbers that, well, isn't random. The EFF has good advice.

Now, this week has another superspy Iran story, Stuxnet, the worm that apparently attacks a Siemens SCADA application. Here's JGC again, being sceptical. There's a rundown at Alliance Geostrategique. The author of the theory that it's an attack on the Bushehr nuclear power plant is self publicising here - I, for one, am not convinced that the fact they hadn't got some software licence key in 2009 is great evidence, especially as the Windows .lnk exploit involved wouldn't care either way. It's the one from July in which Windows will execute code packed into the icon file for a desktop shortcut on a USB stick, so how pleased the Business Software Alliance is with the Iranians is here or there.

And it also seems to target Indian and Indonesian systems. Maybe its authors are protesting against Eat, Pray, Love.

To put it another way, I think we're under a cyberattack from a sinister network of chancers and self-publicists who have glommed on to the whole issue as a way of getting their faces in the news and their hands into the till. As our occasional reader Bos puts it:
When you say "weapons-grade cybermunitions developed by nation states", I hear "this patchwork of consulting gigs won't cover my coke bill."

Meanwhile, what's going on in Iran? In many ways, this is much more interesting. Way back in 2006, I blogged about how the Iranian government was putting impressive resources into aid to Afghanistan. One facet of this was that they had laid a fibre-optic cable from Iran to Herat; another was that the cybercafe in Kabul with the most bandwidth and the least censorship was the one in the Iranian cultural centre.

Now, it looks like the Iranian wholesale telco monopoly, DCI (Datacomms Iran), is becoming a significant transit provider to networks in Iraq, specifically Kurdistan, and Afghanistan, including the Afghan Government. As the good people at Renesys point out, this is perfectly sensible for the Kurdish operators - they're getting rid of their expensive and slow VSAT links, and diversifying their sources of transit - but this is dependent on actually diversifying, rather than just replacing.

The Afghan government's network, it turns out, has recently started to show up through DCI as well as through Pakistan and an Uzbek provider. For a while, all the Afghan prefixes were being routed via either Iran or Uzbekistan and Russia, after a fibre cut on the route to Pakistan.

You can certainly see why the Afghans might not want to pass all their traffic through Pakistan. But treating this as a political issue does have a point. Back in the summer of 2009, the Iranian state found an elegant way to use DCI as an instrument of political power - rather than turn everything off, as in Burma, or call out the troll army, as in China (although they do have that capability), they rate-limited everyone down to about 20% of the typical throughput. As all Iranian ISPs have to use DCI for transit, this meant that a lot of hostile Internet activity will just not have happened, although the really determined would get through.

They are, of course, the ones you want to catch. Squelching down the bandwidth also probably meant that the traffic was reduced to a level where their lawful-intercept infrastructure* could capture and process it all. Almost certainly, they can do the same to any of their downstreams, or continue to pass customer traffic while squelching their own.

It is impressively ironic that a few router configuration rules can mean freedom in Herat and tyranny in Tehran.

Admin Notice: Migration

You may have noticed that the blogspot version of TYR looks funny. The news is that we're moving - with luck, our national nightmare of blog bifurcation and manually maintained archive links (there's a reason the ones on TYR classic haven't been updated in years) will be at an end.

Before this happens, though, I'd like to thank whichever bloody idiot at Google has broken the Blogger Data API, so that Blogger-Wordpress exports no longer work. This has made my life a misery for the last week or so. I've so far tried - the official, server-to-server migration, which doesn't work, the horrible hack of trying to server-server import the Blogger blog into a temporary blog, then dump the Wordpress export file, then upload that (12MB over a crappy ADSL uplink topping out below 100Kbps), the even worse hack of dumping the Blogger export, then uploading that to, the same thing having "converted your template to New Blogger" after Blogger refused to give me the dump file, etc, etc.

And no migration. Also, it turns out to my utter horror that the thing about not liking anything with a <script tag> - like Google Maps (although they have finally and grudgingly accepted that one) or IBM ManyEyes - exists in an independently hosted Wordpress install, too. Apparently there's a plugin. Seriously - a third party extension to stop it mangling my stuff. Shouldn't this just be a config option so I can just turn it off? So I'm actively considering binning WP and installing Movable Type instead. Such, such were the joys.

So I'd like to apologise to anyone I've been grumpy towards as a result. And the blog will soon be back, better, stronger, more orange, and 50% less bifurcated. If you link to us, you will soon be notified of the new URI, and I will chase you up. Once the Neo-Ranter is operational (technically it's operational now, just there's nothing in it), I'm going to close comments on the other versions and eventually shut them down, once I've SQL-d the links so that they all point within the new blog.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I was about to comment on this Jamie Kenny post about the blackly comic way that 10 years after the 11th September attack, the US or at least its media-political complex is in thrall to some book-burning nut in Florida who got thrown out of Germany for helping himself to the communion plate. Then I realised I couldn't remember the Bruce Sterling quote I wanted exactly. Here it is, for the record and to make the original point:

The American national character really wasn't suited for global police duties. It never had been. Tidy and meticulous people such as the Swiss and Swedes were the types who made good cops. America was far better suited to be the World's Movie Star. The world's tequila-addled pro-league bowler. The world's acerbic, bipolar stand-up comedian. Anything but a sombre and tedious nation of socially responsible centurions.

The amusing thing is that, before I gave up and grabbed my copy of Distraction, I googled for Bruce Sterling American world policeman diva. Which is a near-SHA1 hash of the content of that paragraph, no? The fifth result for that search is part one of my response to the UK Strategic Defence Review as a Blog.

And come to think of it, it's actually quite relevant, although the fact AFOE links to Troubled Diva probably has something to do with it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

survival of the survivors

A thought, while writing the last post. Thinking about international politics invariably involves a lot of rational-choice stuff, or rational-choice at one remove. Although this may not make sense in a platonic game-theory way, how do so-and-so's interests, preferences, and meta-knowledge of their own situation have to differ from yours to make it work? They've been arguing about this over at Crooked Timber for some time.

It struck me, anyway, that this is a lot like the notion of "fitness" for biologists, which is famously problematic. Everyone's heard of "survival of the fittest", but what is "fit"? Clearly, it means something like "able to survive". So we're talking about the survival of the survivors, which is not very useful. Survivors survive. No shit, Sherlock. Similarly, how do we know that some actor did something on the basis of a rational judgment? Because if it didn't fit their preferences they wouldn't have done it!

There's another issue here, too. The statement that the survivors survive is tautologous, but it's not a stupid statement. Reflect on the survival of survivors, and you will actually learn something about evolution - that it is driven by chance, that it is without aim, that it is not teleological or value-laden. Ug's genes were conserved because the cave didn't collapse on him. We are full of hacks and errors that continue to exist not so much because they helped our ancestors survive, but because at some crisis in the past they were irrelevant and therefore not selected out. Survival itself is often a matter of chance.

We look around and see rational choices, but we're afflicted by enormous survivorship bias - however irrational your choices, if they didn't lead to total failure, they will be justifiable in hindsight as rational on some terms. Now, the biologists eventually got rid of the survival of the fittest, and biology as a science gained immensely from unpacking the idea. Rational choice has something else in common with the survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer probably didn't mean the phrase as an exact statement of theory, but as an elegant popularisation. And rational choice is a bit like that, too - the very simplicity of the idea explains why it survives.

2006 again, and a brief history of recent wrong

Adam Elkus has a piece out entitled The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare, in which he criticises what he sees as a tendency to over-rate the power of guerrillas in the light of the 2006 war. Having read it, I think the real question here is about expectations and goals. Hezbollah didn't defeat the Israelis and hold a victory parade in Tel Aviv, but then nobody least of all them expected or aimed for that. The outcome of 2006 can only be understood in the light of a realistic assessment of the conflict parties' capabilities, interests, and priorities. A score draw is a much better result for Stoke City against Manchester United than it is for Manchester United against Barcelona.

For Hezbollah, the first and overriding goal was surely survival - as it is for everyone, it's even the title of the IISS Journal - followed closely by survival as a force in Lebanese politics, survival of their capability to maintain their self-declared insecurity zone in northern Israel, and finally, inflicting casualties and costs on the Israelis in order to create a deterrent effect. In that light, the result of 2006 was surely just as good from their point of view as they made out - they came away still in the field, still firing rockets, and with their status in Lebanese politics enhanced.

For Israel, well, perhaps one day they'll work out what their strategic aims were.

Elkus argues that the tactical situation at the point when the UN ceasefire went into effect was favourable for Israel, and that had the war gone on they might have done better. This is possible. However, it's also very common for wars to end like this. The Israelis' campaign in 1967 was designed, once they got the upper hand, to get to the Canal and onto the Golan before the UN blew the whistle - one of Ariel Sharon's frequent blind-eye manoeuvres in 1973 was also intended to complete the encirclement of the Egyptian 3rd Army before the UN ceasefire went into effect. The Indian plan for the 1971 war was explicitly intended to take Dhaka before a ceasefire was imposed. More recently, the Russian operation in Georgia was subject to a similar deadline. International intervention is part of the environment, and only fools wouldn't take it into account as a planning assumption.

An interesting sidelight on this, also from Elkus, came up in a parallel blog debate about "network-centric warfare" - he pointed to this gung-ho but good piece about the action in northern Iraq in which John Simpson was blown up. What struck me about it, however, was more that it was an example of this kind of thing - which should certainly make you think about 2006, especially in the light of this.

Tangentially, Sean Lawson's essay on the history of "network centric warfare" is well worth reading, especially for the way so many US officials in 2001-2006 seem to have been competing to see who could validate all the most extreme stereotypes of themselves the fastest, and more broadly on the way a basically sensible idea can become a sort of gateway drug to really insane strategic fantasies.

Cebrowski talked of a “booming export market for…security” and warned those who would resist, “If you are fighting globalization, if you reject the rules, if you reject connectivity, you are probably going to be of interest to the United States Department of Defense” (Cebrowski, 2003c).

Measured against the sort of capabilities the NCW thinkers knew they had, and the kind of goals they dreamed on the basis of them, what possible results wouldn't look like failure? Compared with the enormous arrogance of this vision - they really did want everyone who thinks the CIA wants them dead, dead - what resistance wouldn't look like success?

mildly amusing roundup

Extremists. ur doin it rong

I can't help but think this is a contribution to the ongoing debate about hero-of-the-blog Diego Gambetta's work on engineers and terrorism. If stuff is upside down before you start the riot, fire, explosion, etc., your extremist cell could probably do with more engineers. Meanwhile, the SELF THOUGHT SPIRITUAL SCIENTIST guy next to him looks like he's on a demo to demand that ordinary decent schizophrenics can de-compensate without the EDL lowering the tone.

Due to the 30th birthday, I didn't cover this at the time, but there's a really nice piece on the Bradford EDL rally and counter-demo here. "It's the middle of Ramadan, as if we're bothered about this lot", indeed. And the EDL were the only people ever to decide that the Rubble Zone was a great place to hang out.

Something else I missed, except for the last 15 minutes: the Challenge Cup final. Lee Briers got the Lance Todd. Kevin Sinfield got his third runner's up medal. He must be really desperate to escape the fate of another Loiner, Garry Schofield, who played in four finals and never won, a record.

Elsewhere: I'm sticking the boot in over at Stable & Principled again. What is it about the Blair/Gove academies that makes them so suited to influence peddling?

Monday, September 06, 2010

ambassador, with this pdf you are spoiling us

So I was trying to parse the London Diplomatic List (this month's edition yet to make an appearance). Cian suggested pulling out the fontspec tags on the grounds that they're often redundant and it might be possible to identify groups among them. So I did just that and then a little bit of data reduction.

25 tag declarations squash to 11 unique font/size/colour declarations. Mmm, compression. The bad news is that, for example, countries and ambassadors (or rather, chiefs of mission - not all of them are ambassadors) are in font 1 - but font 1 is actually identical to fonts 2, 7, and 8, which include diplomats' names, spouses, and styles. The good news is that at least font-grouping will help to filter the crap like lists of national days and page numbers and obvious MS Word copy-paste artefacts.

( still eats embedded spreadsheets: here's a link.)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

this land is...

I mentioned that the Economics Fairy gives those people who prove themselves worthy of her their greatest wish: a chance to fail. That is, of course, as nothing to the opportunities for failure and disaster offered to people with good ideas about agriculture. (You ask Nikita Khrushchev, come to think of it.) Joel Hafvenstein reports on a British Provincial Reconstruction Team discovering the truth of this in Afghanistan.

In the FZ’s case, while the money was available on time, the expertise was not. The technical advisors hired to help with the project were stuck in Britain. The PRT team on the ground in Helmand (civilian and military) went ahead with buying the wheat to make sure they made the deadline for distribution. Because they weren’t development agriculturists, however, they made some critical mistakes – notably buying most of their wheat seed from local farmers. You can see how this seemed like a good idea.

Yes. Yes.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has put a lot of work into developing, certifying, and monitoring a network of improved-quality wheat seed producers in Afghanistan. Most of the aid agencies working in Afghanistan are aware of this and insist that any wheat seed bought locally needs to come from FAO-certified suppliers.

Another data point for my as-yet unlaunched campaign to go round newsrooms making journalists say sorry to the UN for all the shit and vitriol they heaped on it over the last 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, the inexperienced Helmand PRT team responsible for FZ did not make use of the FAO network. They – or rather, the Afghan-staffed contractor agency operating under their instructions – instead bought thousands of tons of “seed” from local farmers outside the network. Then, showing that the PRT team knew just enough to be dangerous, they screened the wheat to remove weed seeds and treated it with fungicide. The resulting wheat seed was – in technical language – crap.

Oh dear.

When the distribution started, it was also a major disruption to local markets. A lot of previous US and UK money has gone into supporting agricultural input traders, particularly in Nad-i-Ali district, the heart of the biggest US-funded irrigation network. These bazaar merchants were understandably peeved that their pricy commercial stocks of improved seed now had to compete with handouts that looked suspiciously like trash. They sent samples of the Food Zone seed off for testing. When the test results confirmed that the seed was far below the national standards for seed distribution, they started to raise an almighty stink, with the added voices of Nad-i-Ali elders.

The FAO privately informed the PRT that its seed was flawed, and that the only responsible recourse (since it had been dressed in toxic fungicide) was to destroy all the remaining stocks. This didn’t happen. Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture made an exception to its quality standards to allow the shoddy Helmand Food Zone seed to be distributed, and the PRT sent the seed to district officials for distribution.

And it goes on from there. Unsurprisingly, anyone with any sense is growing poppy, because whatever dangers international heroin smugglers expose you to, at least they don't pull this kind of stupid crap. There's more here, including the good point that many of the accusations of direct corruption (rather than just bungling) come from someone who's probably in the poppy biz.

There's an interesting data point in there - apparently, Helmand produced about 300 tonnes of opium over and above total world illegal demand last year. Evidently, if it was produced, not seized, and not demanded, it must be in store somewhere. This implies we'll probably see a significant fall in production some time soon, as the supply chain's buffers fill up and the market overhang drives down prices.

there's a catch...

Am I right in understanding the legal comments in the NYT piece to mean that the only way to get the police to disgorge whether or not your phone was monitored is to sue the Screws and serve a notice on the Yard for disclosure of relevant documents?

It seems that the primary barrier to getting an actual list together is that you have to sue the paper (or the police), and you can't sue the paper unless you have good cause to think you were spied upon. The police, for their part, have been managing the row down by only telling some of the people on the list that they were spied on. Unless you have some other evidence that you were spied on, you can't force the police to tell you if you're on the list.

All clear so far? Frankly, the 2,978 names weighted by the number of calls to each would be a truly classic document of our society.


This is interesting; Brazil is currently carrying out a national census. How? With 150,000 LG 750GM smartphones, and a canny bit of software. Photos are here. Things that struck me - the Americans decided to build a dedicated device and it cost like hell. The operating system on the 750GM, however, is MS Windows Mobile 6.5 - these days, Windows is the cheap and nasty option! But why not, if they're going cheap?

And one of the biggest problems for the enumerators is getting access to gated communities.

not stable, not principled

Elsewhere: we resume blogging at Stable & Principled.

Via Jamie Kenny, the Conspiracy's roundup. Here's the first comment:

so this is the biggest news me the day? Not the fact that the Guardian has endorsed David Miliband?

Review: Francis Spufford's Red Plenty

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the "fifties' Soviet dream" but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties - the period from Khrushchev's consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way - it's always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it's also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective - chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich's students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev's interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev's adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he's a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman - an egghead and expert dancer and ladies' man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it's never clear if he's being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can't be restarted - as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn't been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let's optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich's significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology - if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union's economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it's often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek's idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren't without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition - the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn't considered that great at the time - it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don't, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments - no man, no problem - and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were....were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force's SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn't happen. There's a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy's grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it's always the same one - a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy's magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That's a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA - they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs' take on the Soviet Union - the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy's underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It's no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR's history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznesensky's term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book's aim is a prehistory of perestroika - one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn's genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.

Friday, September 03, 2010


Creepy google searches of the week: "who writes the blog for yorkshire ranter" and "identity of yorkshire ranter". Someone in a BT dynamic-IP pool.

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