Joint review: two books on Russia, and sausages

So I recently read Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and also Svetlana Alexeivitch’s La fin de l’homme rouge : Ou le temps du désenchantement
. The first is well known to readers, the second is a kind of oral history of the end of the Soviet Union as seen by self-identifying “Soviets”, i.e the people the people mocked as sovoks, supposedly a contraction of “sovetsky chelovek”.

Figes’ book gives a strong sense of Russia as a kind of internally colonial society, where the “nest of gentlefolk” celebrated in literature looks weirdly like the British empire’s quartet of engineer, doctor, district commissioner, missionary. Groups of privileged persons, claiming to be the bearers of culture, almost disappearing in the vast spaces and the masses of the unrecorded majority.

I really liked the point, which falls out of this, that the slavophil/westerniser distinction is really a false one because the slavophiles really had no idea and the westernisers by definition didn’t care. Figes argues that the astonishing achievements of 19th century Russian culture were in a way a consequence of the new sciences of archaeology, anthropology, and structural linguistics. Rather than speculating about the unknowably distant peasant universe, there was hard evidence of a pre-existing culture deeply influenced by Asia, by Islam, by Europe, and by its own Finno-Ugric, idiosyncratic, independent creativity. It was time to relaunch.

This left me wanting Erik Lund‘s view on Russian history. The combination, which Figes constantly pursues, of vast artificial cultural distinctions imposed on a background of identities changing yard by yard and hour by hour, and the paradox of a submerged past constantly romanticised, reminds me very much of his view of New England.

Alexeivich, meanwhile, shows the Soviet people, as distinct from the people who happened to inhabit the Soviet Union, as a follow-on aristocracy. This is probably unintentional, and may well be life imitating art, for good and for ill. For example, there is a weird absence of normal people.

Workers as such are not really included in the nostalgia for the state that called itself a workers’ state. Instead, there is a huge quasi-aristocratic condescension towards them. Picturesque individual say touching things, like servants in 19th-century literature. In practical politics, this manifests itself as the utter astonishment of the numerous party officials she interviewed at the outbreak of public protest. They were by turns horrified, amazed, exalted, and reduced to hunkering down in the bunker. Either Alexeivitch’s subjects, or her French translator, constantly speak not of workers or of the people but of the little people, les petites gens, like the ones who pay taxes. I couldn’t help but think that Russians (or Ukrainians, or Georgians) were the scum and the Soviets the elite.

Another odd thing is a strangely un-Marxist trope of contempt for materialism. What are Marxists, of all people, doing denying that economics is important? But so many of them express contempt for money, which isn’t bad, and then go on to whine that the rabble are only interested in money or even food. There is a PhD to be written just on the subject of sausages in this book. Literally everyone interviewed used the word “sausage” at least once. Very often, the very notion of food is considered a profoundly unworthy concern. This comes, needless to say, from people who weren’t going to go without.

There is a sort of complex of loathing that goes trade-Jews-food-kitchens-women in these recollections. Horrific sexism is a theme that explains a lot. A very important official (internal evidence suggests either Aleksandr Yakovlev or someone close to him) indeed remarks that the most surprising thing he and his colleagues noticed about Gorbachev was that he seemed to love his wife.

If worrying about what you might cook in your kitchen was unworthy, hanging out in it was cool. Another big theme is the strange sight of party officials celebrating the dissident kitchen circle of samizdat culture, or even taking credit for it. As in Figes’ Russia, a sort of equation exists balancing private culture with public obedience and what is very much an aristocratic loathing of trade or even work, with one exception.

That exception was the production of weapons of war. There is a hell of a lot of emotional militarism here. Nearly everyone quotes Sergei Akhromeyev saying that the factories couldn’t be expected to make pots and pans. The attitudes are most scary regarding the nuclear. People keep positively complaining that there hadn’t even been a war, and the USSR would have won.

There’s also a fair bit of pure tragedy and deep horror. Ex-prisoners’ children are astonished to encounter a cat because they’d never seen one or even heard of such a creature. An early Bolshevik recalls never learning to dance because his local branch considered it unsound. He later actually guarded trainloads of deportees.

There’s also a lot of whining from people who have clearly never imagined or even feared that they might have ever been wrong. After a while I started to think of it as Soviet UKIP, the human universal of being tiresome about the kids on your lawn. I set out on the book with the intention of being sympathetic, having occasionally thought that I might be British in the same sense that you might be Soviet or Yugoslav, the civil service as party. But if its mission is just to write down the reality, the reality is a lot of entitled old colonial district commissioners whining that they aren’t allowed to be self-important any more.

After all, there is a Maidan in Calcutta as well as in Kiev.

Many password. So changing. Much heartbleed

So #Heartbleed, perhaps the best software bug ever. I spent much of today checking websites and changing passwords. Fortunately, I use the Firefox password manager to store mine and sync them with the browser on my mobile phone, so I could open it, search for “https://”, and work through the list. I eventually used 30 or so random sequences from, starting with anything that had money attached. It was an advance on my plan, over a decade old, of using the names of Australian cattle stations.

That was fair enough, but I kept running into the same problem – I had to log in, root around in some e-commerce site to find the “change password” link, and then futz around still more to persuade Firefox to save the new password. The champion was probably a ticketabc site where I had to feign interest in a Pharcyde gig to change my password.

The problem that you can’t explicitly edit the passwords is solved with this extension, which also helps with some web sites that don’t flag the password fields properly. PayPal even stops you copying and pasting, to make absolutely sure you can’t use it without passing a typing test.

But this is all kludge. The main problem with passwords is that if they are any good, you can’t remember them. The other main problem with passwords is that if you can think them up, they probably aren’t any good. The other other main problem with them is that the whole life-cycle is so almost.

What I want is this: my Web browser generates a genuinely long and random password whenever I need one, and stores it. It fetches it whenever I want to log in. When I don’t want it any more, it deletes it. If there is some reason to think it’s been compromised, I press a button and the password is revoked and a new one generated.

Seems simple enough, and I was thinking about getting the JavaScript book out and making a browser extension…until I started changing the passwords. The problem is that there are so, so many daft, broken, almost ways of implementing simple password schemes. And wouldn’t it be that bloody horrible Verified by Visa mess that doesn’t either pass or fail the test for Heartbleed, when it is supposedly all that stands between my money and the scum of the Internet?, I’m looking at you.

What I want, then, is a simple standard that allows a Web site (or if you like, anything else using it) to trigger the creation of a password by the password manager, which then stores it for later use, and that provides for the password to later be changed. This must allow for an external device to generate the password if desired, for a master credential, and for the password store to be sync’d between machines if desired. It must also allow for a big REVOKE ALL THE THINGS button that causes all (or a subset) of the stored passwords to be expired and regenerated.

That’s basically an API with five calls:

>makePassword(site, username)

>login(site, username, password)

>logout(site, username)

>deletePassword(site, username, password)

>revokePassword(site, username, password)

and the fifth is really just a delete followed immediately by a make.

Why the hell hasn’t W3C done anything like this? It seems such a basic and useful project compared to the vast effort poured into the semantic web black hole.

Update: Naadir Jeewa objects.

I think he is wrong. Not only is OAuth in the sense of “sign in with Facebook”, i.e. the sense in which it gets used, a bad case of pre-Snowden thinking, it’s also true that it works for me about 25% of the time.

If Miller goes, so must Osborne.

So, down goes DCMS Secretary Maria Miller. Paul Lewis explains, with 140-character concision.

It’s probably time to delve into the archive for a TYR Flashback! I think Flipper is trying to tell us something. This post swung off a story in the Daily Telegraph, specifically this quote:

Shortly before Mr Osborne entered Parliament in 2001, he bought a large farmhouse in his Tatton constituency. Instead of taking out a mortgage on it he increased the mortgage on the London property to pay for his new home. When he had been elected an MP, he designated his London property as his second home with the House of Commons fees office, allowing him to claim back on his additional costs allowance the interest on the portion of the mortgage representing the farmhouse.

Two years later, Mr Osborne took out a separate £450,000 mortgage on the farmhouse and flipped his second home designation, enabling him to claim those mortgage interest payments on his ACA. Since then he has claimed up to £100,000 in mortgage interest payments for the farmhouse mortgage. During this whole period, Mr Osborne told the Inland Revenue that his primary residence for tax purposes was his London home.

In 2006, Mr Osborne sold his London home for £1.48million, making a £748,000 profit. Because it had been declared for tax purposes as his primary residence since he bought it in 1998, he did not have to pay capital gains tax.

Osborne, outrageously, got off scot-free, with more than a little help from the Telegraph, which chose to run this story buried deep in the paper, in a rare exception from the front-page treatment it gave all the other expenses dodgers.

Another Tory who was too important to make the front page was Michael Gove, who is suddenly all principles:

Michael Gove, the education secretary who was elected to parliament on the same day as Miller in 2005, said that her resignation should serve as a warning to the political class as a whole about their expenses.

In a sign that Downing Street acknowledges the need for further reform of the policing of MPs, Gove told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: “The political class as a whole need to reflect on the events of the last few days. It reinforces in my mind the fact that the public still feel a degree of anger about the expenses scandal.”

Yes, yes, we do. Anyway, playtime over, back to double maths.

That the Chancellor not only cleared a huge profit on his exes, but used the process for tax purposes, must be well known – the author of the piece is none other than enormously popular Tory journalist, Melissa Kite. Personally, I absolutely welcome the reopening of the expenses issue. Will Osborne finally pay his capital gains tax?

TYR open newslist, the first

I like this idea of Andrew Gelman’s, under which he publishes a weekly blog post with a list of potential topics and invites readers to comment on which ones he should blog. So much so, I think I may introduce it myself.

1) I recently read Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance and also Svetlana Alexeivich’s La Fin de’l Homme Rouge. I have a sketched-out joint review.

2) If you follow the Stiftung on twitter, he’s been talking about intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance as a deterrent to the Russians doing anything else to Ukraine.

3) Also on Ukraine/Russia, everyone involved keeps getting their phone calls tapped and released, probably by Russia but quite possibly by nonstate actors. SIGINT proliferation is a major issue.

4) A music post.

5) I need to review a biography of Gertrude Bell. It wasn’t very good.

6) Why don’t more people vote FN?

Ideas may be found here: for TYR, and for AFOE.


I find it really hard to believe that Leeds United FC can’t pay its wages, and hasn’t really been a viable business since 2001 or thereabouts, while Leeds RLFC remains a powerhouse club and one of the richest in Rugby League.

Dave Hadfield called the chapter on Leeds in Up and Over “League in its City”, but this is the UK and we’re talking about football. Football! Even in Yorkshire it’s just bigger than League. There’s something astonishing about the long-term career of mismanagement successive owners have pursued.

You could say something similar about the baffling proposition it’s impossible to sell rugby league tickets in Bradford at a profit.

Spam is a political issue

Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and this blog go way back. So I’m disappointed in this. Specifically, I am concerned about the exact service the drug pushers are paying Marshall for.

OK so. Basically everyone searches the Web. A lot of people who consume news get it from search-driven sources like Google News. Typically something like 99 per cent plus of search traffic goes to the first results page, and 90 per cent of that to the top three hits. So placing your message there is valuable. A whole spam industry exists to this end.

Search engines in general, and Google in particular, war endlessly against this practice. The most recent example of this was when the Google basically hit Demand Media, the folk who brought you “How to cough up mucus” and “one weird trick”, with the Internet death sentence.

This is important because Demand Media’s business model was basically to fill the Web with crap that matched a lot of keywords, so as to occupy that space on the results page and sell ads. (Hilariously, they discovered that relevant content was actually bad for business, because people read it rather than clicking on ads. It’s like the opposite of this blog.)

I think a lot of astroturfing is basically the same idea – trying to inject your propaganda into search results, and specifically news search results. This is where TPM comes in. Getting your crap onto a page in the domain immediately gets it googlejuice, and also defeats the filtering. If Marshall means any of his excuses, he’ll set a robots.txt line to exclude the advertorial from search.

As this would basically render it worthless, I’m not holding my breath, although I will be checking in on now and then. And I do think Google should treat advertorial as content-farming for the purposes of search integrity if it wants to be at all consistent. Yes, this is a political decision, but then zapping Demand Media and ignoring the Chamber of Commerce is also a political decision.

Ho hum. “I saw the finest minds of my generation trying to make you click on ads. That sucks”, indeed. How’s that Color app doing?

Update: If you want to monitor this: curl | zgrep idealab-impact

Fix Ubuntu 13.10 hibernation, don’t install hibernate

I got around to rebuilding the Linux dualboot setup that was destroyed in this post. Today’s beautiful thought, then, is as follows.

Apparently, as a matter of policy, suspend-to-disk or hibernation is not wanted in Ubuntu any more. As a result, Canonical removed the menu items and other stuff from 13.10 and beyond. You can read the discussion of this decision in launchpad here, which is a superb document of groupthink among other things.

Ask Ubuntu explains how to put it back. This didn’t work for me. Running sudo pm-hibernate just locked the screen, which was weird because it worked fine in 12.10. The explanation of this issue is that depending on your hardware and setup, you need to create the file as per the Ask thread above either in /etc/polkit-1/... or in /var/lib/polkit-1/... Having tried /etc first, I put a symlink in /var/ pointing to the new file, which solved the problem.

So, having made the file as above:

cd /var/lib/polkit-1/localauthority/10-vendor.d/
sudo ln -s com.ubuntu.desktop.pkla /etc/polkit-1/localauthority/10-vendor.d/com.ubuntu.enable-hibernate.pkla

Be very careful about this answer, which recommends installing the package hibernate. If you have an encrypted swap partition, which you probably do if you have an encrypted /home/, it will suspend to disk all right, perhaps via sudo s2disk rather than sudo pm-hibernate, but it will hang during the resume and you will not be able to boot the computer. The solution is to boot from a liveUSB stick, mount your /home/, chroot into it, and then uninstall hibernate.

sudo su
mkdir /media/temp/
mount /dev/sda5* /media/temp/
chroot /media/temp/
apt-get purge hibernate

*obviously, whichever partition your system lives in

Yes, this sucks.

Pop-Up Treatment Room 2014

I’ve just been to the Tate’s Richard Hamilton monster exhibition. A thought: here’s Hamilton’s 1984 installation Treatment Room.


The Treatment Room has been re-installed at the Tate and you can walk around it, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, photos usually centre on the TV with the Thatcher loop, putting the viewer in the position of the unfortunate patient. In the flesh, you can also view it from behind the reinforced glass screen, where the control panel is – the roles of victim, perpetrator, and spectator are equally available.

Second, the physical objects in the Room have changed their significance over time. Again, it’s less obvious in reproduction that the TV is a top-of-the-range Sony Trinitron, at the time a very expensive state of the art product. In reproduction, you can’t see at all that the VCR in the control panel is a similarly lavish Bosch. Hamilton was a massive product-design obsessive and certainly didn’t make these choices by accident.

When the installation was originally assembled, then, it combined a grim institutional aesthetic with the latest of high technology, both a fairly typical setting in hospital and also a version of J.K. Galbraith’s notion of private affluence and public squalor.

Today, though, although the institutional grimness is still what it is, the significance of the kit has reversed. Big CRT televisions are now signifiers of poverty and of neglect, the sort of thing landlords chuck in because they can’t be bothered to remove them.

It is in the nature of technology that this change would have started as soon as Hamilton presented Treatment Room for the first time; obsolescence, a core Hamilton preoccupation that he both celebrated and warred against with the constant reinvention typical of his work, was designed into it from the beginning. And the political punch of Treatment Room fits it well; going from an NHS with shabby buildings and world-leading medicine to one where the equipment was as dated as the architecture is just what it seems to warn against.

That said, Hamilton had other motives in presenting Treatment Room with the latest technology of 1984. In his accompanying essay (he explained his work constantly – it was a cost of the constant innovation) he described the putative patient as a “victim of the health service” being patronised by Thatcher, not a victim of Thatcher.

It was a time when the Left that created the welfare state had fallen out of love with its creation, especially its medical manifestation. It was a bureaucratic behemoth in which high technology largely served the selfish interests of elite technocrats and permitted them to impose judgment and control on the bodies and minds of patients. The treatment in Treatment Room is clearly psychiatric, after all.

This movement had some very important successes – the end of the Victorian asylum, the legitimisation of service-user activism, much greater respect for the needs of stigmatised social groups, the acceptance of palliative care as a full citizen of medicine – but in parallel, the radical turn against the welfare state must also have weakened its defence against Thatcherism.

What would today’s Treatment Room look like? First of all, there are no logos in the Room except for the electronics. It comes from a time when hospitals didn’t have marketing. In fact, beyond the electronics, there is no language in the Room at all – Thatcher’s voice has been dubbed out and there is no writing anywhere. Secondly, it’s clearly embedded in the institutional world. Unionised cleaners call every night. Thirdly, it is as paternalistic as it looks – today, by contrast, participation is demanded. Perhaps we would now have a gaggle of iPads open to the Universal Jobmatch front page, endlessly interrupted by blaring popup ads, the floor littered with looted Nike AF1s.

This would, of course, age and date like the original, and hopefully also show up how dated and irrelevant politicians doing a fake version of Tony Blair’s response to John Major’s effort to follow Thatcher are.

Experience the immense monotony

So far, the most embarrassing effort by a journalist to fill space on the MH370 story was certainly the ITN correspondent who opened their piece-to-camera with the words “Tuesday. Kuala Lumpur. The rain still falling.” You might hope that this was a deliberate allusion to “Tuesday. Africa. The hour of the lion”, supposedly the worst possible line of English prose, but this strikes me as optimistic.

Some people have more class. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has chosen to publish this short video about staring out of a small window in an aircraft at an unchanging sea, with the fine title Experience the Immense Monotony of an Ocean Search. Go on. Experience it.

There is an interesting rhyme here in the way that any hope is now symbolised by the image of Australian P-3C pilots staring impassively at the vast spaces of the Indian Ocean, presumably rather like the captain (or hijacker) of MH370.

Request for Blogs, Answered

So Francis Irving wants to read blogs again:

I was tempted to say that, hey, you hosted the blog all those years, but then the retort is obvious. Actually, traffic has risen gradually ever since the end of bifurcation and the beginning of the self-hosted era, and it’s gone up again quite a bit since the move to Bytemark in November; it seems to be driven by Twitter followers getting hooked on the blog.

So here are some recommendations. I’ve tried to pick relatively recent starts, mostly politics, and ones Francis probably doesn’t read. I’ve also confined myself to English language blogs as I don’t know which languages he reads.

Absolutely heroic reportage from the Mexican drug wars:

Intelligent group blog on the US Navy, China, and maritime strategy:

BT whistleblower on the failure of Broadband Delivery UK:

Punchy left-of-Labour politics straight out of Stoke-on-Trent:

Yorkshire, Bollywood, and the immigrant experience:

My school friend Lola Okolosie’s double hard feminist teacher blog:

David Hencke, ex-Guardian reporter now with more time to devote to journalism. Leveson, kiddy fiddlers, corruption:

Spotlight on Abuse, a blog collating historic child abuse cases. Very much “thank God someone else is writing this blog so I don’t have to”, but while this is a theme in public life we need it:

Thinkdefence, spun off from Richard North’s blog but don’t hold that against them:

Freedom from Command & Control, a Stafford Beer-informed blog about public services and management:

The Royal African Society’s superb blog on African politics:

JW Mason’s heterodox economics blog:

The history of social housing in the UK:

Unlearning Economics, does what it says on the tin:

Frances Coppola, veteran operations/transactions banker, blogs about the boring important bits of banking:

Brown Moses, legendary blog on the Syrian Civil War and also on Met Police corruption:

Red Brick, the London Labour Housing Group’s blog:

Watching A4e, a forensic examination of welfare reform and a blog you absolutely must read before going near a jobcentre: