What an unusual book. Being myself a mathy/sciency Eastern European with the b(I read this on Cosma Shalizi's suggestion: see his review at his blog.)
What an unusual book. Being myself a mathy/sciency Eastern European with the best of intentions, I really enjoyed reading this bizarre set of vignettes about mathy/sciency Eastern European with the best of intentions.
Basic idea: although we all know how badly Soviet Communism turned out, there were in fact people who believed it could be done well. In principle, shouldn't we be able to optimize production to a higher degree of efficiency when it's all under state control than in the comparative anarchy of the free market? Spufford's book explores several aspects of how and why this didn't, in fact, work out.
Some parts work better than others, but overall it's a worthwhile read for this curious perspective on Eastern European history, with some great slice-of-life snippets about Soviet academics.
Chapter I.1 (happily available on the book's website) includes a truly beautiful look inside an applied mathematician's head, starting with a simple request for help: "The Plywood Trust produced umpteen different types of plywood using umpteen different machines, and they wanted to know how to direct their limited stock of raw materials to the different machines so as to get the best use out of it." (p.12) ...through his thoughts on how to abstract the problem from plywood and machines to an unsolvable set of equations -- then to the realization that they may be solvable after all, and how -- then to how such a solution could optimize not only one factory but several, hundreds, all of them -- then to how such an optimized economy could, over time, "free the world from scarcity ... And he could hasten the hour, he thought, intoxicated. ... It might be a lifetime's work. But he could do it. He could tune up the whole Soviet orchestra, if they'd let him." (p.16-17) Beautiful, and ironic. As the book continues, we see that the mathematician in question fought for his ideas, and made some headway with the authorities, but never enough to implement his ideas in a really efficient manner. For human and political reasons, the local and national authorities always insisted on having enough discretion in their decision-making to deviate from the mathematically-optimal plan -- which disrupted the delicate balance and made the whole optimal-planning thing break down. (In addition, Cosma's blog post above explains why solving the mathematical problems simultaneously for the whole Soviet economy at once would take impossibly long with today's computers, never mind the computers they actually had available.)
Notes to self: * p.12: "The Plywood Trust produced umpteen different types of plywood using umpteen different machines, and they wanted to know how to direct their limited stock of raw materials to the different machines so as to get the best use out of it." Using "umpteen" instead of "A" or "X" or "theta" strikes me as simple way to make math far more readable for nonmathematicians. Reminds me of the comment that "I've never seen a county with n towns in it. Talk about, I dunno, eight towns instead." * p.41: "They volunteered for things. At first the things were tiny ... But reassuringly quickly, it seemed to be understood by those who made such matters their business that the two of them were indeed electing themselves (which was the only way it happened) into the ranks of the energetic and reliable, and then the activities they were called on for got more important; more interesting, even." This is absolutely how it works, in my experiences. * p.66: I love the "zombie dance" passage, quoted in full in Cosma's review. * p.70: A big-city economist sees the poverty in a small village: "'There's a supply problem,' he said uncertainly. 'No,' she said, 'there isn't.' 'But --' 'There isn't,' she said. 'This is the back of the queue, that's all. Always the back of the queue.'" * p.81-91: Great overview of the practical problems the Soviets ran into when they finally got control and realized Marx's writings didn't apply here: Marx expected the revolution to happen in rich capitalist countries, where the factories and skilled workers already existed -- not in the agricultural backwater of Russia. * p.86: "...fairytale-rapid rises for those who could fill the Soviet state's insatiable hunger for skills. The economy needed whole categories of trained people to spring into existence in the twinkling of an eye: teachers, nurses, doctors, chemists, metallurgists, pharmacists, electricians, telephonists, journalists, architects, designers, book-keepers, aviators, car drivers, truck drivers, locomotive drivers, and engineers, engineers, engineers of every description." What a nice image, to think that a society would reward training/skills consistently and generously. Of course that's not quite how it worked out, but a nice image all the same. On the other hand, see p.144... * p.88: "For a society to produce less than it could, because people could not 'afford' the extra production, was ridiculous. By counting actual bags of cement rather than the phantom of cash, the Soviet economy was voting for reality, for the material world as it truly was in itself, rather than for the ideological hallucination. It was holding to the plain truth that more stuff was better than less." Of course, this failed to allow for a balance between lots-more-of-stuff-people-don't-actually-need vs. a-little-more-of-stuff-people-do-need. * p.117: "Ask the computer and it would obey, as ready as a genie in a bottle -- and as intolerant of badly-framed wishes." * p.141-149: Quick overview of the development of academia and its culture in the USSR. * p.144: The European-style curriculum was replaced with a tech-heavy focus: mostly engineering, then the sciences and medicine, and hardly any humanities or social science except for the compulsory Marxism-Leninism material. I've often wished that more students today had a passion for STEM fields, but not at the expense of wiping out the humanities entirely! I'd be curious to read more about how exactly that affected Soviet culture. * p.147: I'd like to find the novel Monday Begins on Saturday, "in which a secret department investigates, appropriately enough, the magical objects in Russian fairytales." * p.171: "'I'm afraid I don't know much about music.' Or care much, she politely didn't say. She could never hold patterns of sound in her memory for very long. Probably some specialized protein was missing." Cute inner thoughts of a geneticist. Also the jazz club/bar they want to visit is called Under The Integral -- adorable! * p.220: "Alas, the effect of moves like these was always to tighten the plan a notch or two further than anyone had originally intended. It would be pushed (everywhere, as other colleagues did what he was doing) that bit more towards a state where its goals could only just barely be achieved. Thus it would be more vulnerable to bad luck, and even more susceptible to proliferating gridlock should anything else go wrong. But the alternative was the incoherent wonderland of the mathematicians." All of this chapter (IV.1) is a very nice example of people having to rebalance when reality forces a swerve from the planners' mathematical optimum. And the surrounding chapters give a lovely, ironic example of where such failures may come from. It was something like this: A factory cannot meet its assigned production targets using its old-model machine, so it sabotages the machine with the hope of getting it replaced with the new model. But the new-model machine-manufacturers cannot make one for them, because the new model costs less, which means that selling a new model instead of an old one will not let them reach their newly-increased sales targets. These sales targets were increased only because of the increased budget they were granted in order to buy the materials needed to build the sabotaged machine's replacement in the first place. What a mess. * p.221: "It was not a very satisfactory objection to an event that it was unlikely, for in the nature of probability, unlikely things took place all the time." * p.221: "The gorgon, whose hair was rinsed the red of old blood..." Not a bad description of this era's middle-aged Eastern European ladies in "customer service" jobs. * p.223: "He could have wished that Solkemfib's No. 1 line had broken down instead. True, clothing manufacturers were waiting for the ordinary yarn it made, but compared to the tire plants they were a distinctly low priority; because, one single step beyond them, you arrived at the consumer, and the consumer was an end-point of the system, and therefore a natural sink for shortages. ... No one stood beyond them in the chain, so there were no consequences whatsoever for inconveniencing them, no farther balances to consider. You could inconvenience the consumer with impunity." * p.271: "But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato's admirers encountered ... The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue ... Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than with wisdom. Lenin's core ... were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages ... and they preserved those attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorised. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors ... were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous. They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative, the most greedy, the most sycophantic..." * p.290-291: "'I'm sorry,' said Emil with a flustered tenacity, 'but I have to insist on this point. Irrational pricing is not a transitional difficulty. It is a fundamental issue. ... If managers have only profit to guide them, but prices do not give them reliable information about the priorities of the plan as a whole, the the priorities of the plan as a whole will not be maintained. Output will wander off God knows where.' 'We've thought of that,' said one of the aides. [...they present their solution...] 'But... that defeats the entire object of the reform,' said Emil, whose hands had risen all by themselves and were now clasped over the sore apex of his head, as if incredulity might pop the top off his cranium, if he didn't hold it on. [...Emil explains why...] 'Pfft,' said Kosygin. 'As if people would blame the machine and not us, when it suddenly doubled the price of heating oil in December. Sorry, no. We'll just have to muddle along with the prices we've got. We're not going to tear up a working system for the sake of some little theoretical gain in efficiency.'" * p.360: "So much blood, and only one justification for it. Only one reason it could have been all right to have done such things, and aided their doing: if it had been all prologue, all only the last spasms in the death of the old, cruel world, and the birth of the kind new one. But without the work it was so much harder to believe. ... And the world went on the same, so it seemed, unchanged, unredeemed, untransfigured." * p.378, note on p.88: Westerners felt disquiet about possible Soviet growth in the '50s much like they later did about Asia's growth. See Krugman's article on this (official link, pdf). * p.381: look into the books Moving the Mountain: Inside the Perestroika Revolution and New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, the Siberian City of Science for more on the Siberian Science City and its residents * p.385, note on p.133: "at this time, the riverside site of the Patriarchate was occupied by a popular open-air swimming pool, which had filled in the hole intended to accommodate the foundations for a gargantuan Palace of Soviets. As of the present day, all of the twentieth-century changes to the site have been reversed, and the Patriarchate stands there again, as it did in 1900." This seems to be describing the same building whose sad story is told by Ryszard Kapuścinski in Imperium: it was built with great effort and expense, demolishes rapidly and plundered, and apparently has been rebuilt (Wikipedia). * p.395, note on p.212: Mentions the fascinating-sounding BBC documentary "The Engineers' Plot" (Wikipedia, Youtube). * p.396-7, note on p.215: apparently the Russian abacus differs from the better-known(-to-me) Chinese one (Wikipedia). * p.410: "Psychoprophylaxis, in a melancholy irony, is the basis of the phenomenally successful Lamaze method for natural birth in the West. The Soviet ideas were carried back to Paris by the French doctor (and community) Fernand Lamaze, and humanised there ... [It] may seem to Galina here to be just another form of compulsory pretence; but it would be equally just to see it as another piece of mangled Soviet idealism, another genuinely promising idea ruined by the magic combination of compulsion and neglect. Velvovsky and his colleagues were the century's pioneers in trying to see childbirth as something better than an illness to be endured." * p.415: I hadn't heard of "trinary" processors before (Wikipedia). I should read Pioneers of Soviet Computing. * General: read up on Oskar Lange, dachas, what happened to Napoleon at Moscow, and how exactly shopping worked in terms of money/coupons/bartering/etc....more
Great overview of the evidence-based approach to understanding and alleviating poverty. I'm not convinced by all of their conclusions yet, but it is rGreat overview of the evidence-based approach to understanding and alleviating poverty. I'm not convinced by all of their conclusions yet, but it is research after all, and their approach is much better than relying on untested assumptions and ideology.
They start by presenting the two extreme philosophies: Are people poor because they don't have the resources they need: family planning services, schools, insurance? Or is it because they choose not to take advantage of these things? Well, it's complicated.
First of all, the poor in developing countries have a lot stacked against them, not just in terms of making services available but making them easy to use and part of default everyday life. Those of us in the developed world never have to make certain decisions that are set for us by default: our drinking water is clean from the tap, our salt is usually iodine-fortified already, we direct-deposit from paychecks into retirement savings/investment accounts, our kids are required to attend school... The poor have to deal with each of these issues actively and responsibly -- they are not set as defaults for them, so it takes more time and energy and mental space to deal with them.
Even when needed things are made available, the poor may not take advantage of them, with good reason: * Providing schooling for the children is great -- but not if the teachers don't show up for work, or if they have the (unfortunately common) attitude that smart kids are to be encouraged, but the rest are stupid and can only be babysat. (p. 94: "The public-school teacher seems to know how to teach the weaker children and is even willing to put some effort into it during the summer, but during the regular school year this is not his job--or so he has been led to believe.") This philosophy is also shown in parents' decisions to invest all the higher-schooling in "the smart kid" in the hopes they'll win the job "lottery" and become a highly-paid government employee. The world is seen as a lottery where you bet on one kid as your ticket out of poverty, not a world where all your kids can get decent educations and then find decent jobs. * Insurance would benefit many of the poor -- if they could be made to trust that they'll actually get reimbursed. But decades of corruption and mistrust makes it hard to convince someone that your insurance company will really reimburse them after bad events, not just take their money and run. * Free clinics are available -- except that the nurses there are expected to work ridiculous hours including travel to/from villages, so in practice the clinic is often not staffed during officially-posted open hours. If you don't know whether the clinic will be open after a long trek to get there from your village, you're more inclined to just go to the village's traditional healer instead.
The authors talk frequently about S-shaped and inverted-L-shaped curves for Income Today vs Income Tomorrow. In the inverted-L curve, if the poorest invested a little more today into a business, they'd probably earn a lot more tomorrow. In the S curve, the poorest would need to invest a lot today just to earn a little more tomorrow. When the market for something is S-shaped, someone starting off poor would need a HUGE investment (and immense luck) to break into the L-shaped part where it makes sense to grow the business. Since that's unlikely, it's sensible to keep your business small and manageable, since trying to grow it will take a lot more effort for very little gain. So the authors encourage governments and nonprofits to find ways to make the poor's lives more like the inverted-L curve, not the S curve. ...more
A physics-inspired science of society still seems a bit loopy and unlikely to pan out, at least as a cohesive theory... but this book does collect a bA physics-inspired science of society still seems a bit loopy and unlikely to pan out, at least as a cohesive theory... but this book does collect a bunch of interesting approaches from physics, engineering, economics, computer modeling, math, sociology, etc. Some of it would have been super helpful a year earlier when I was still working in a transportation research lab.
Other interesting bits include computer simulation experiments that, while proving nothing, can at least give some indication of how weak your setup can be for you to see an effect. For example, you don't need to assume *severe* racism to end up with a segregated city -- if people have only a very *slight* preference for neighbors of their own race, you're still likely to end up with a lot of mostly-segregated neighborhoods after not-that-many iterations of people moving houses, even if the neighborhoods start out randomly mixed.
Not all of it is explained very well, and not all of it sounds like a good idea in the end... but there's a lot of inspiration to be found here for anyone interested in thinking about sociology etc. in new ways....more