Quotulatiousness

July 9, 2014

Justin Raimondo reviews new biography of the Koch family

Filed under: Business, History, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:46

The archvillains of capitalism, Charles and David Koch, are the subjects of a recent book by Mother Jones writer Daniel Schulman. Justin Raimondo reviews Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Koch brothers are responsible for global warming and much else that’s wrong with the world. This is part of a strategy to demonize Charles and David Koch — the principals behind the country’s largest privately-held company — and make them the issue come Election Day. There’s a big problem with this strategy, however: a recent poll shows that most of Reid’s own constituents haven’t the slightest idea who the Brothers Koch are.

Daniel Schulman’s much anticipated book, the first biography of the Koch family, may help voters bridge the knowledge gap — but Democrats are going to be disappointed if they think it will help their smear campaign. Indeed, it is likely to do the opposite. It’s hard to write a biography of someone you hate, and Schulman, a writer for Mother Jones, clearly came to admire his subjects.

The story starts with Fred Koch, a son of Dutch immigrants who settled in the “poor but plucky” town of Quanah, east of the Texas panhandle. Ambitious, single-minded, and tough as nails, Fred made his fortune helping Joe Stalin extract oil from the Russian steppes — learning in the process that the rosy picture of a “workers’ paradise” drawn by the likes of Walter Durante was the exact opposite of the truth.

Driven to seek overseas markets by an onslaught of patent-infringement lawsuits from a Rockefeller-connected oil consortium, Fred Koch arrived in Russia in 1930 and “found it a land of hunger, misery, and terror,” as he would later recall. When he left that autumn, his Soviet minder — who had spent the whole time capitalist-baiting him — bid adieu with this warning: “I’ll see you in the United States sooner than you think.” What Fred had seen in Stalin’s Russia set him on a course that landed him in the ranks of the John Birch Society.

Robert Welch, the society’s founder, recruited him early on: Fred was at the 1958 meeting where Welch first laid out his plan to fight the Communist menace and roll back the New Deal. The John Birch Society was a hybrid of Old Right libertarian economics and the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s, and Fred — by this time a tycoon — relentlessly lectured his four sons on the evils of collectivism and the value of hard work. He had no intention of raising a brood of “country-club bums” who would coast along on the family fortune. The 1950s were almost over before he bought the kids a television, and even then they had little time to watch it.

July 7, 2014

The “Cambridge Five” were a boozy bunch of incompetents

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:34

In the Telegraph, Allan Massie reviews the boozehound “Cambridge Five” who spied for the Soviet Union:

So the Mitrokhin files from Soviet Intelligence reveal that they were wary and critical of some of the Cambridge spies. Burgess and Maclean were unreliable drunks – Burgess careless in looking after files he had removed from the Foreign Office for copying, Maclean given to speaking rashly when in liquor. As we used to say as prep-school boys: “Tell us news, not history.” All this has been known here for a long time. It would be astonishing if it wasn’t equally common knowledge in Moscow, where, one might add, alcoholism was scarcely unusual among members of the Soviet Politburo. The Cambridge spies flourished long before the days of “Only mineral water, thanks” at lunchtime.

Nobody is, even now, quite sure how much damage the Cambridge spies did, though Philby’s responsibility for the deaths of agents smuggled into Albania and other Soviet bloc countries is well established. Arguably they were less important than the “Atom spies”, scientists Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May. They were less highly valued by their masters than Melita Norwood, “the granny spy”. Working as a clerk for a company whose work contributed to the making of the atom bomb, she passed on innumerable scientific and technical documents of great use to Soviet industry. Her controllers described her as “a loyal, trustworthy and disciplined agent”. “Trustworthy and disciplined” were adjectives they would never have applied to Burgess and Maclean, while even Philby wasn’t granted the highest honour, “Hero of the Soviet Union”, perhaps because his masters in Moscow were never absolutely sure where his loyalties lay. The suggestion that he may even have been a triple, rather than merely double, agent, has been floated. Melita Norwood on the other hand was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Soviet Labour, and given a Soviet pension to ease her retirement in Bexleyheath.

For years after Burgess and Maclean decamped in 1951, it was said that Burgess had no need to do so, because there was no evidence against him and he wasn’t even under suspicion. Maclean’s case was different; he was about to be interrogated. Philby, who had learned of this, told his friend Burgess to tip him off. Burgess was about to be asked to resign from the Foreign Office, but this was because of a number of scandalous drunken episodes when he was attached to the Embassy in Washington. He was in greater danger of prosecution as a homosexual than as a Soviet spy.

June 27, 2014

QotD: The Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

[I]n any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

    First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

Jerry Pournelle, “The Iron Law of Bureaucracy”, Chaos Manor Special Reports, 2010-09-11.

June 24, 2014

QotD: Back in the boozy USSR

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The Soviet government recently issued one of its condemnations of public drunkenness and the usual warning about stern countermeasures. This is partly routine, like official attacks on rock music, jeans and other signs of decadence, but it’s also an indication that the legal booze supply is improving after a setback. Like every other industry in the USSR, the state liquor monopoly, Prodintorg, is appallingly inefficient, the constant victim of breakdowns and shortages. At such times the authorities’ attitude to illicit distilling, normally harsh in the extreme, mellows wonderfully. The bootleg stills spring up in their tens of thousands and the police look the other way until Prodintorg recovers.

Because, come what may, Soviet man has got to be given his drink. Some say the Russian Revolution of 1917 happened because the Czar had banned alcohol three years before as a wartime measure, or at least that was why it was so bloody. Certainly Russian attitude to drink is different from ours in the West, probably always has been. Centuries ago, travellers recorded that a typical Russian meal was one where everybody got speechlessly drunk, all classes, all ages, both sexes, seven days a week, that people were always falling down dead in public through over-use, that “drinke is their whole desire,” as an English diplomat wrote of his visit in 1568.

Drinking to get drunk is probably known in every country, and there are alcoholics in most places, but even the ordinary Russian drinks to be drunk with the minimum of delay — hence the down-in-one ritual, which of course also shortens the agony of getting down the local hooch. And once drunk he acts drunk. It’s expected of him; indeed the regard and sympathy shown drunks in public is something almost unknown in the West outside Ireland — a suggestive comparison. From time immemorial a Russian needing to buy a bottle has gone to the head of any queue in a grocery or market, not by law but by natural right.

Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.

June 21, 2014

QotD: The bureaucratic revolution

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In 1939, Bruno Rizzi, a largely forgotten Communist intellectual, wrote a hugely controversial book, The Bureaucratization of the World. Rizzi argued that the Soviet Union wasn’t Communist. Rather, it represented a new kind of system, what Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” What the Soviets had done was get rid of the capitalist and aristocratic ruling classes and replace them with a new, equally self-interested ruling class: bureaucrats.

The book wasn’t widely read, but it did reach Bolshevik theoretician Leon Trotsky, who attacked it passionately. Trotsky’s response, in turn, inspired James Burnham, who used many of Rizzi’s ideas in his own 1941 book The Managerial Revolution, in which Burnham argued that something similar was happening in the West. A new class of bureaucrats, educators, technicians, regulators, social workers, and corporate directors who worked in tandem with government were reengineering society for their own benefit. The Managerial Revolution was a major influence on George Orwell’s 1984.

Now, I don’t believe we are becoming anything like 1930s Russia, never mind a real-life 1984. But this idea that bureaucrats — very broadly defined — can become their own class bent on protecting their interests at the expense of the public seems not only plausible but obviously true.

The evidence is everywhere. Every day it seems there’s another story about teachers’ unions using their stranglehold on public schools to reward themselves at the expense of children. School-choice programs and even public charter schools are under vicious attack, not because they are bad at educating children but because they’re good at it. Specifically, they are good at it because they don’t have to abide by rules aimed at protecting government workers at the expense of students.

[...]

Working for the federal government simply isn’t like working for the private sector. Government employees are essentially unfireable. In the private sector, people lose their jobs for incompetence, redundancy, or obsolescence all the time. In government, these concepts are virtually meaningless. From a 2011 USA Today article: “Death — rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.”

Jonah Goldberg, “Of the Bureaucrats, by the Bureaucrats, for the Bureaucrats: The naked self-interest of the government-worker class”, National Review, 2014-06-20.

June 5, 2014

Conspiracy theorist’s festival day

Filed under: History, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:58

Matt Welch on the last few decades that paved the way for a re-expansionist Russia:

On September 10, 1990, U.S. President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev issued a simple and remarkable joint statement. “We are united in the belief that Iraq’s aggression must not be tolerated,” the former Cold War opponents declared after a seven-hour meeting in Helsinki to discuss Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. “No peaceful international order is possible if larger states can devour their smaller neighbors.”

Observers understood immediately the historical significance of two previously antagonistic superpowers agreeing on the principle that countries cannot swallow one another. What was less obvious at the time is that the moment would look like science fiction from the perspective of the future as well.

President Bush — we did not need to differentiate him as “H.W.” back then — was so giddy about the prospects of rules-based global cooperation that on the not-yet-portentous date of September 11, 1990, he gave an unfortunate name to the concept during an address to a joint session of Congress: new world order.

“Most countries share our concern for principle,” he asserted. “A new partnership of nations has begun, and we stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment. The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective — a new world order — can emerge: a new era-freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony. [...] A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

Because “new world order” sounded creepy and was already a phrase used by conspiracists worried about one-world government, Bush’s larger point got washed away in the ensuing brouhaha. But terminology aside, the creation of an international taboo against subsuming weaker countries was a worthwhile endeavor.

May 8, 2014

George Orwell was a socialist, despite what many right-wingers piously believe

Filed under: History, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:09

I’m not sure how you could characterize the great George Orwell as anything other than a socialist, unless you’ve never actually read any of his works:

Orwell's press card portrait, 1943

Orwell’s press card portrait, 1943

One wonders whether the confusion stems from what [Krystal Ball] thinks she knows about Orwell’s politics? Contrary to the devout wishes of many conservatives, it remains an indisputable fact that George Orwell was a socialist. He was not “confused” about his politics. He was not a “capitalist in waiting.” He was not merely “living in another time.” He was a socialist, and he believed that, “wholeheartedly applied as a world system,” socialism could solve humanity’s problem. By contrast, he was wholly appalled by capitalism, which he described as a “racket” and which he believed led inexorably to “dole queues, the scramble for markets and war.” Abandoning a comfortable upbringing that had included an education at Eton and a stint as an imperial policeman in Burma, Orwell not only went out into the streets to discover how the other half lived but went so far as to risk his life for the cause, fighting for the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. (He was shot by a sniper, but survived.)

When the Right seized upon 1984 (which his publisher quipped to his irritation might be worth “a cool million votes to the Conservative party”), Orwell reacted with controlled anger, explaining in a letter that was published in Life magazine that,

    my novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labor party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism.

So far, so clear.

And yet, admirably, he never lost his independence of mind, writing in the very next line of his explanation that,

    I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences.

This fear came to preoccupy him — and to the exclusion of almost everything else. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” he explained in Why I Write, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”

How he understood it was changing by the day. “Collectivism,” he warned in a 1944 book review, “leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war.” More important, perhaps, he admitted that this might always be so, suggesting that “there is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.” Like Wilde before him, he held that freedom of the intellect to be indispensable. The question: Could socialism accommodate it?

It is de rigeur these days to cast Orwell as being merely an anti-totalitarian socialist — a “democratic socialist,” if you will — and, in doing so to parrot the graduate student’s favorite assurance that, because Marxism has never been tried in any sufficiently developed country, its critics are condemning merely its “excesses.” Certainly, Orwell did not believe that the Soviet Union was in any meaningful way a “socialist” state: “Nothing,” he charged, “has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.” But, dearly as he hoped it could be realized, he also never quite managed to convince himself that his form of socialism was possible either — let alone that it could coexist with the English liberties he so sharply championed. For Orwell, it was not simply a matter of distinguishing between the “good” and “bad” Left, but worrying whether the former would lead always to the latter — a concern that the British literary classes, which indulged Stalin’s horrors to an unimaginable degree, did little to assuage.

April 16, 2014

Russia’s long and brutal relationship with Crimea

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:39

In History Today, Alexander Lee talks about the historical attitude of Russia toward the Crimean peninsula and some of the terrible things it has done to gain and retain control over the region:

… Russia’s claim to Crimea is based on its desire for territorial aggrandizement and – more importantly – on history. As Putin and Akysonov are keenly aware, Crimea’s ties to Russia stretch back well back into the early modern period. After a series of inconclusive incursions in the seventeenth century, Russia succeeded in breaking the Ottoman Empire’s hold over Crimea with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774), before formally annexing the peninsula in 1784. It immediately became a key factor in Russia’s emergence as a world power. Offering a number of natural warm-water harbours, it gave access to Black Sea trade routes, and a tremendous advantage in the struggle for the Caucasus. Once gained, it was not a prize to be willingly surrendered, and the ‘Russianness’ of Crimea quickly became a cornerstone of the tsars’ political imagination. When a spurious dispute over custody of Christian sites in the Holy Land escalated into a battle for the crumbling remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1853, Russia fought hard to retain its hold over a territory that allowed it to threaten both Constantinople and the Franco-British position in the Mediterranean. Almost a century later, Crimea was the site of some of the bitterest fighting of the Second World War. Recognising its military and economic importance, the Nazis launched a brutal attempt to capture the peninsula as a site for German resettlement and as a bridge into southern Russia. And when it was eventually retaken in 1944, the reconstruction of Sevastopol – which had been almost completely destroyed during a long and bloody siege – acquired tremendous symbolic value precisely because of the political and historical importance of the region. Even after being integrated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and – later – acknowledged as part of an independent Ukraine after the fall of the USSR, Crimea’s allure was so powerful that the new Ukrainian President, Leonid Kraychuk, claimed that Russia’s attempts to assert indirect control of the peninsula betrayed the lingering force of an ‘imperial disease’.

[...]

The non-Russian population of Crimea was to suffer further even worse under the Soviet Union, and between 1921 and 1945, two broad phases of persecution devastated their position in the peninsula. The first was dominated by the fearsome effects of Stalinist economic policy. In keeping with the centralised aims of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-32), Crimean agricultural production was collectivised, and reoriented away from traditional crops such as grain. On top of this, bungling administrators imposed impossibly high requisition quotas. The result was catastrophic. In 1932, a man-made famine swept through the peninsula. Although agronomists had warned their political masters of the danger from the very beginning, the Moscow leadership did nothing to relieve the situation. Indeed, quite the reverse. As starvation began to take hold, Stalin not only prosecuted those who attempted to collect left-over grain from the few remaining collectivised farms producing grain, but also hermetically sealed regions afflicted by shortages. He was using the famine to cleanse an ethnically diverse population. A true genocide, the Holodmor (‘extermination by hunger’) – as this artificial famine is known – killed as many as 7.5 million Ukrainians, including tens of thousands of Crimeans. And when it finally abated, Stalin took the opportunity to fill the peninsula with Russians, such that by 1937, they accounted for 47.7% of the population, compared to the Tatars’ 20.7%.

The second phase – covering the period between 1941 and 1945 – compounded the terrible effects of the Holodmor. On its own, the appalling casualties caused by the savage battle for Crimea would have decimated the peninsula. Some 170,000 Red Army troops were lost in the struggle, and the civilian population suffered in equal proportion. But after the Soviet Union regained control, the region was subjected to a fresh wave of horror. Accusing the Tatars of having collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation, Stalin had the entire population deported to Central Asia on 18 May 1944. The following month, the same fate was meted out to other minorities, including Greeks and Armenians. Almost half of those subject to deportation died en route to their destination, and even after they were rehabilitated under Leonid Brezhnev, the Tatars were prohibited from returning to Crimea. Their place was taken mostly by ethnic Russians, who by 1959 accounted for 71.4% of the population, and – to a lesser extent – Ukrainians.

February 13, 2014

“Minimize your therbligs”, or Taylor versus Gilbreth

Filed under: Business, History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

Sippican Cottage makes a strong case for Frank Bunker Gilbreth being the greatest man ever produced by Maine (republishing an older post from 2012):

Frank Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine, in 1868. He never went to college except to teach at Purdue eventually. He’s famous, in a way, and anonymous in another. He’s the father portrayed in the original Cheaper By The Dozen, using a stopwatch to figure out how to make his family more efficient. That was his thing — efficiency.

He was a bricklayer. Built houses. He got to wondering if the repetition of laying one oblong slug of fired clay atop two others in a bed of mortar could be improved by observing the motions of skilled persons, breaking these exertions down into their component movements, and eliminating the wasted motions in the routines. It can, and he did. I’ve been a hod carrier and mason tender, and I can tell you that working off the ground or a platform the same height as your feet would be backbreaking and slow way to assemble masonry. We always used the footing form boards and leftover planks to assemble ad hoc shelves just lower than waist height behind the mason so that they could turn and pick up a brick and some mortar and go back to the next slot in the wall. I had no idea Clifton Webb, er, Frank Gilbreth came up with the idea less than a century before. It would be literally impossible to calculate how much time, money, effort, and how many worker’s backs Frank Gilbreth (and his wife, who was his partner and carried on after his early death) saved anonymously. His method is now universal and uncontroversial. How many people are incalculably useful to their fellow men?

I first heard of Gilbreth in my first college semester, and while the biographical detail is new to me, the basic idea is the same as my (post-strike replacement) instructor described. So who’s the “Taylor” of my title?

Frederick Taylor is the progenitor of so many things that are in the common language today that he deserves to be discussed with the most influential people of his time. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Almost all the fruit of Taylor’s tree is rotten.

Taylor is the guy standing behind dehumanized workers with a stopwatch, keeping track of bathroom breaks, and generally treating all work as a series of unrelated steps that any unskilled human could do, and constantly finding new ways of measuring it and subdividing it to harangue a little more out of the continually less and less skilled worker. “Scientific Management,” they called it. The Soviet Union loved it. They thought all people were just cogs in a big machine anyway. Most of the terms for malingering in dead-end jobs come from Taylorism. Goldbricking. Dogging it. Taylor observed that when normal people are in a group and everyone has the same duties, it is human nature for everyone in the group to devolve and perform at the level of the least capable and energetic member. His solution was a big expansion of management. He is the busted idol of micromanagement, and by extension, big government.

I have a lovely leather-bound copy of Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management that I’ve never actually opened … it was on the used book charity fundraising table at my local bank branch, so I paid $1 for it. From Sippican’s description, I may not bother to read it, as I think I’ve encountered most of the content in the working world.

Minimize your therbligs until it becomes automatic; this doubles your effective lifetime — and thereby gives time to enjoy butterflies and kittens and rainbows.

That’s Robert Heinlein in his “Lazarus Long” character voice. What the heck is a therblig, and why is it in this post? Therbligs are Gilbreth’s basic motions of physical work; the essential parts of any manual task. Minimize them to make the work more efficient. The name is derived, as my college instructor put it, by spelling Gilbreth sideways.

November 5, 2013

Camelot? Not so much…

Filed under: Government, History, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:38

Gene Healy thinks that after fifty years, it’s time we stopped pretending that John F. Kennedy was a great president:

In a December 1963 interview, the president’s widow gave a name to the Kennedy mystique, telling journalist Theodore White of Jack’s fondness for the lyric from the Lerner and Loewe musical about King Arthur: “Once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

Much more than a “moment,” Camelot has proven an enduring myth.

JFK places near the top 10 in most presidential ranking surveys of historians, and in a 2011 Gallup poll, Americans ranked him ahead of George Washington in a list of “America’s greatest presidents.”

Kennedy’s murder was a national tragedy, to be sure, but an honest assessment of his record shows that our lawless and reckless 35th president was anything but a national treasure.

[...]

Indeed, JFK rarely let legal specifics deter his exercise of presidential power. At his behest in 1961, the Internal Revenue Service set up a “strike force,” the Ideological Organizations Project, targeting groups opposing the administration.

In 1962, outraged that American steel manufacturers had raised prices, he ordered wiretaps, IRS audits and dawn FBI raids on steel executives’ homes.

In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning national security journalist Thomas E. Ricks opined that JFK “probably was the worst American president of the [20th] century.”

In foreign policy, Ricks said, “he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”

True enough, after being buffaloed into the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation by the CIA, Kennedy helped bring the world to the brink of thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis — not because Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the strategic balance of power (they did not), but because, as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted, the missiles were “politically unacceptable” for the president.

Moreover, Kennedy’s aura of vitality and “vigah” depended on deliberate lies about his medical fitness for office: “I never had Addison’s disease … my health is excellent,” JFK told a reporter in 1961.

As Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves notes, JFK, who “received the last rites of the Catholic Church at least four times as an adult,” was “something of a medical marvel, kept alive by complicated daily combinations of pills and injections,” including a psychiatrically dangerous cocktail of painkillers and amphetamines regularly administered by celebrity physician Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson.

Update, 6 November: Nick Gillespie assigns the blame (for the still-going hagiography) on the boomers in a piece titled “JFK Still Dead, Baby Boomers Still Self-Absorbed”

Indeed, by the early 1970s, what American over or under 30 didn’t agree with the sentiments expressed in a 1971 New York Times Magazine story on youth politics co-authored by Louis Rossetto, the future cofounder of Wired magazine? “John F. Kennedy, one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties, is remembered for his famous line, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’” seethed Rossetto and Stan Lehr. “Today, more and more young people are instead following the advice of [author] David Friedman: ‘Ask not what government can do for you… ask rather what government is doing to you.’”

But boomers were so much older then, they’re younger than that now, right? Despite the raft of revelations not just about governmental abuses of power generally but those involving JFK specifically, boomers just can’t quit him (or their airbrushed image of him) as their own mortality comes into focus. Here’s Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, known for an “artful nastiness that’s long disappeared from his peers’ arsenal,” still going weak in the knees for Jack:

    I remember the light at the end of the school hallway reflecting off the floor as word went round and the weight in the air the days after. For kids my age, it was like losing a father, a father who had all of our motley fates in his hands…

As Splice Today’s Russ Smith — himself a boomer old enough to remember where he was when Kennedy was shot — notes, this is pure overstatement: “It wasn’t ‘like losing a father,’ and to suggest so is an affront to all the children who actually did lose their own father at a tender age.” Smith, who as the founder of the Baltimore and Washington City Papers and The New York Press knows a thing or two about reader appetites, is “betting that most of these books bomb, mostly because for most Americans those tumultuous days in 1963 are ancient history. Kennedy’s assassination might as well have occurred in the 19th century. Save for ascending and budding historians, where’s the audience for yet another encore of Camelot?”

September 27, 2013

The day World War III didn’t happen

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:59

In The Register, Iain Thomson takes us back to the depth of the Cold War, when it nearly turned very hot indeed:

Computer problems are an annoyance for us all, but thirty years ago a fault in the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile early warning system very nearly caused nuclear war, if not for the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces.

[...]

in the early hours of the morning on the September 26, there was panic when the Soviet early warning system Oko, a monitoring system of geostationary satellites and ground stations designed to spot ballistic missile launches, reported that the US had fired off a missile against the Soviet Union. Then four more launches were reported by the system in quick succession.

“An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock,” Petrov told Moscow News in 2004. “Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems — on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct.”

Petrov, then the officer in command of the Oko system at a bunker near Moscow, had the responsibility of informing the Soviet high command in the event of a US missile launch. Although he didn’t have launch control of the USSR’s huge nuclear arsenal, he was the first responder, and given the scant minutes available in the event of a surprise attack, his word would most likely have been accepted by the Soviet leadership.

But Petrov didn’t make the call. He knew that the Oko system, which had only gone live the year before, was buggy. He also later described how logically such a move made no sense. While a first strike by the US wasn’t out of the question, if the capitalists were to do so they’d launch everything they had, not a few missiles at a time, he reasoned.

August 15, 2013

MI5 – more Maxwell Smart than 007

Filed under: Britain, Government, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Britain’s counter-intelligence service, MI5, comes in for some unkind words on the BBC website from Adam Curtis:

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they — and all the reactions to them — had one enormous assumption at their heart.

That the spies know what they are doing.

It is a belief that has been central to much of the journalism about spying and spies over the past fifty years. That the anonymous figures in the intelligence world have a dark omniscience. That they know what’s going on in ways that we don’t.

It doesn’t matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do.

But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different.

It is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.

I want to tell some stories about MI5 — and the very strange people who worked there. They are often funny, sometimes rather sad — but always very odd.

The stories also show how elites in Britain have used the aura of secret knowledge as a way of maintaining their power. But as their power waned the “secrets” became weirder and weirder.

They were helped in this by another group who also felt their power was waning — journalists. And together the journalists and spies concocted a strange, dark world of treachery and deceit which bore very little relationship to what was really going on. And still doesn’t.

And no retelling of MI5′s hits and misses is complete without the time they accused their own chief of being a Soviet spy:

The small group in MI5 now became convinced that their organisation was not just penetrated by the Russians, it was actually run by a Soviet agent. They knew they had to get the truth out somehow even if it meant breaking the law. So they found a friendly journalist called Chapman Pincher and told him the hidden truth.

Here is Chapman Pincher being interviewed on the Wogan programme about what then happened. Up to this point Pincher had been the Defence correspondent on the Daily Express. He was successful for getting “scoops” from “inside sources” — although the historian EP Thompson said that really Chapman Pincher was:

    “A kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking.”

What the dissident MI5 agents now told Pincher was like super high-grade piss. Or, as he puts it in the Wogan interview, “it was like walking into an Aladdin’s Cave”. But what Pincher wrote was going to open the floodgates to a new kind of conspiracy journalism that still holds sway over large parts of the media imagination.

Have a look at him and decide yourself — high grade toilet or investigative journalist? Or maybe often they are the same thing?

August 5, 2013

Memories of the Alexandr Pushkin

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:18

Elizabeth sent me this link, saying “this video kind of gives a feel to the whole experience”. I asked her to write a bit about her trip on the Pushkin:

I’ve never visited a communist country but I got a real feel for it while travelling on this ship. I was twenty-two and going to live in England for a year.

Before embarking, I was given labels to put on my baggage. Cabin luggage was to be marked “Cabin” and other stuff was to be marked “Storage”. As I already had my storage stuff delivered earlier in a steamer trunk, the only luggage I had was marked “Cabin”. Imagine my surprise to find no luggage in my cabin. A tiny cabin with a small toilet/shower and handbasin with a porthole blocked by a ruddy great North American car. I went down to the Purser’s Office to enquire on where my luggage was. A grim looking pair were managing the booth and after checking the records the conversation went thus:

Them: “Your luggage is in hold”

Me: “But I had it marked ‘Cabin’”

Them: “No, it marked ‘Storage’”

Me: Can I have it delivered to my cabin?”

Them: “Is impossible”

Me: “Why?”

Them: “Hold cannot be opened when ship is sailing”

Me: “All my clothes are in there”

Them: (shrug)

Me: “What am I going to wear?”

Them: (more shrugs, waves me off)

I spent nine days wearing two sets of clothing and three pairs of underwear. Luckily, a kind young lady at the same dining table lent me a sweater and spare underwear and even more luckily I had a washroom in my cabin to handwash through the clothes I had just worn (most cabins didn’t have attached washrooms).

The ship was full of students going to Europe to study. The crew of the France had gone on strike and had forced many of the students to take the Pushkin instead. The crew hated us. We were a ship full of under-thirties who drank, played cards and liked rock’n’roll music — everything the Russian crew were not allowed to do. Three days out on a nine-day journey, the booze ran out. As the students were not real heavy drinkers and still getting their sea legs (the smell of vomit on the lower decks was awful), I suspect the crew or the senior officers had absconded with the alcohol.

We had a “talent” night where we had to listen to the crew perform Russian dances and folk songs. When it was the students turn, four or five had brought their guitars with them and started playing rock music. The audience was getting right into it singing along, clapping and dancing to the music when the Russians stomped onto the stage with “enough!”, “no more music”, and shut the performance down.

While playing pinochle one day, I met a young Scotsman from Long Niddry. He had just spent the last five years in the lumber camps of B.C. and to prove to his father that he wasn’t a layabout, he was bringing his car back to Scotland as a trophy of his success. Yes, it was his huge North American car strapped to the deck outside my porthole. How he proposed to drive it around the streets of Edinburgh, I have no idea.

And so, we spent nine dreary November days going from Montreal to L’Havre and then to the Tilbury docks in London. If the students had had rotten fruit they would have thrown it because on docking at L’Havre we were berthed alongside the France. The boos and catcalls were loud and I’m sure the people on the pier were wondering what the problem was.

This is my personal recollection of sailing on the Alexandr Pushkin. So much for the “queen of the Russian cruise ships”.

June 29, 2013

1948 and the “Black Friday” of cryptanalysis

Filed under: History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

In Salon, Andrew Leonard looks at the early years of the NSA:

On Oct. 29, 1948, the Soviet Union suddenly changed all its ciphers and codes. What later became known as “Black Friday” delivered a huge shock to the two U.S. intelligence agencies that had conducted the bulk of American code-breaking efforts during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Before Black Friday, the Army’s SIS and the Navy’s OP-20-G complacently assumed that they had acquired the keys to most of the world’s encrypted communications. But with a flip of the switch the U.S. was once again in the dark — just as the Cold War was heating up.

“One of the gravest crises in the history of American cryptanalysis,” writes historian Colin Burke, led directly to the 1949 merging of the SIS and OP-20-G into the Armed Forces Security Agency. Three years later, another bureaucratic shuffle transformed the AFSA into the National Security Agency. A sense of panic induced by the “Soviets’ A-Bomb, the Berlin Blockade, the forming of the satellite bloc in Eastern Europe, the fall of China, and the Korean War” — all of which “were not predicted” by the intelligence agencies — encouraged the U.S. government to authorize the NSA to spend tens of millions of dollars on computer research, in the hope that technological advances would help crack the new Soviet codes.

Colin Burke is the author of It Wasn’t All Magic: The Early Struggle to Automate Cryptanalysis, 1930s-1960s. Burke completed his history in 1994, but until last week, his volume of crypto-geekery had only a handful of readers. Part of a series produced by the NSA’s Center for Cryptological History, It Wasn’t All Magic was considered classified material until May 2013, and was only made available online on June 24.

Nice timing! With the NSA currently occupying its highest public profile in living memory, a look back at its early history is quite instructive. It is useful to be reminded that the mandate to spy and surveil and break codes was absolutely critical to the early growth and evolution of computer technology. Some things never change: The immense effort required to crack German and Japanese codes during World War II are an early example of the intimidating challenges posed by what we now call “big data.”

It’s actually quite surprising that it took the Soviets until 1948 to change their codes: from 1942 or so, Britain and the US were sharing their Enigma decryptions of top-secret German messages with the Soviet Union. Even if the information was provided without the original text, the Soviets were fully aware that this was the fruit of decryption, not human spy reports. At the end of World War 2, that Anglo-American expertise would obviously have been redeployed to other ends … and reading Soviet message traffic clearly would be one of the more interesting sources of data.

QotD: Orwell on nationalism and the world state

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing. All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves. Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood. Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to ‘enlightened’ and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the ‘sacred soil of the Fatherland’, etc. etc.), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered from. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

[. . .]

Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner. There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill’s estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells’s. The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials. The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells’s attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.

George Orwell, “Wells, Hitler and the World State”, Horizon, 1941.

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