peteg's blog - noise - books - 2013 05 13 FrancisSpufford RedPlenty

Francis Spufford: Red Plenty

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This is the fairy story you write when you are erudite, learned and funny, and have ingested a library of texts on a particular subject. (Take note Ghosh and Rushdie.) Astoundingly Spufford does find room for most of everything.

This history-lightly-dusted-with-fiction shows why people without political power tried so hard to make the Communist project work; as he observes, not all of its failings were apparent to the citizenry at the time. Spufford focuses on individuals, real (such as Leonid Vitaliyevich Kantorovich) and imagined, who mostly lie outside the dictatorship of the proletariat, as well as offering up a sympathetic portrait of Khrushchev in decline, after he was deposed. Alongside these biographies and vignettes we see the impact of the philosopher-kings' dreams on the small people, without a lecture on ideology.

I found this book from a glowing review in the New York Times by Dwight Garner, and as there is plenty of material out there about it already, including some analysis by left-leaning economists and social scientists, I will just gesture at the memorable parts. The description of the development of cancer in the lungs of Soviet computer pioneer Sergey Alexeyevich Lebedev (Part VI, Chapter 1: The Unified System, 1970) is fantastic, as is the story of childbirth in the USSR (Part V, Chapter 3). The section on the genesis of Akademgorodok (Part III, Chapter 1) canvasses Soviet romance / sexual mores (single mothers, frisky young students, proper university-don-equivalents) alongside the kind of idealism I ascribe to engineers (p175):

'[...] Plenty is the condition that will let us distinguish, for the first time, between avoidable and unavoidable suffering. We solve the avoidable stuff — which seems pretty bloody generic to me, given that a bowl of soup cures everybody's hunger and a painkiller cures everybody's headache — and then we know that what's left is a real tragedy, boo-hoo, write a play about it. Who the hell ever said that plenty was supposed to abolish unhappiness? But what it will do is free our hands to concentrate on unhappiness. If we're so minded. [...] Plenty will let a truly human life begin.'

Part IV, Chapter 2 is titled Prisoner's Dilemma and more-or-less lays out how estimates for software development are still made. Somewhere in there he talks about Soviet cinema as if it is worth seeking out.

Interspersed with tales of the novelties of the Soviet computer industry (p338: "[Brusentsov's being] the only one in the world to explore three-state electronics."), its death, and sundry parts of economic theory is the odd short unsourced snippet. For instance:

Once a turnip said, "I taste very good with honey." "Get away, you boaster," replied the honey. "I taste good without you."

While I hate endnotes, I scrupulously paused at the end of each chapter to read all of them, for Spufford generously tips his hand by pointing to his sources and revealing how much he was reworked them. One of the richer is Seth Graham's PhD thesis, titled A Cultural Analysis of the Russo-Soviet Anekdot.

Here's the kind of arcana Spufford shares with us (notes, p401 for p244):

Russian has no 'h', and renders the 'h' sound as 'g' rather than (as the other option) 'kh'. The USSR was invaded in 1941 by a German dictator called Gitler.

Another on history's keen sense of humour (p417 for p346):

'They say he's saving the steel-tube industry now, since they wouldn't let him save the world?': A sarcastic allusion to Kantorovich's important role, throughout the second half of the 1960s, in a project to rationalise production scheduling in the rolling mills controlled by Soyuzglavmetal, 'Union Metal Supply'. The team he led created the part of a vast software ensemble that automated and optimised the traditional paper files of bronirovshchiki, production schedulers. Kantorovich may well have thought of the project as a very large-scale demonstration of the viability of optimal planning. Needless to say, while the planners were happy to let him use his shadow prices as an analytical tool for tuning a mill's output, they declined to take up his larger scheme of using them to automate and decentralise their own activities. It was claimed that, by the second half of 1969, the optimised method was giving an extra output of sixty thousand tonnes of steel tubes. Whatever the exact truth, the irony remains that, in the 1970s, it was down Kantorovich's optimised pipes that the oil flowed which Brezhnev's government used as their free-money alternative to sorting out the economy. See Ellman, Planning Problems in the USSR: The Contribution of Mathematical Economics to Their Solution 1960-1971 (CUP, 1973).

I was mildly allergic to the fictionalisaton in Logicomix; this is the kind of book I was hoping that would be, and I'd like to see the same thing done for the Zionist project of the first half of the twentieth century. Ironically the author is a raving Christian, the theological opposite to Dawkins and Hitchens. I have to say I'm much keener to read Unapologetic than anything by that pair, however.

On Spufford's advice I picked up Let's Put the Future Behind Us by Jack Womack, which canvasses the post-Soviet Russian kleptocracy. It's been OK so far.

2014-10-13: A piece in the New Yorker about Stafford Beer's efforts in Chile.