Tuesday, 23 August 2011


During the final decades of the Soviet Union, the failure of Soviet agricultural policy, which was the ultimate cause of its demise, led to it enacting a series of reciprocal trade agreements with Western nations in which much-needed grain and agricultural products were exchanged for Soviet oil, minerals, and even scientists and technical specialists (the real "Brain Drain").

One of the most intriguing deals was the one that the USSR struck with the British government, in which agricultural diesel engines for use in tractors were exchanged for cultural products. Included in the deal was part of the output from The Upper Volga Corngrowers Co-operative Association Choral Dance Troop Ensemble, including their great morality tale concerning Vladimir Andropyornosin, a sub-nucleonic particle physicist who struggles to be a model Soviet citizen despite definite tendencies toward incorrect thinking and incorrect actions.

The Foreign Office, unclear about the best way to distribute this great work, managed, through contacts with their propaganda arm the BBC, to persuade the disgraced, decadent "pop" band The Stranglers to host the Ensemble's work on their b-sides and side projects. Quite what the deal with the band consisted of is still obscure, but we do know that the band gained access to the previously off-limits "Cheggars Plays Pop", and saw their music utilised as ambient music for various cookery programmes.

Vladimir's struggles with illicit substances, sailors, camels and Cuban bar owners are meant to offer an instructive discourse on the perils that await even the most sincere citizen when encountering backwards and corrupt elements both at home and abroad. The seriousness of the work's message cannot be understated, and, despite the demise of the Soviet Union, offers us profound insight even today.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Star Balls, Brain Drain

From the outset, Reagan moved against d├ętente and beyond containment, substituting the objective of encouraging “long-term political and military changes within the Soviet empire that will facilitate a more secure and peaceful world order”, according to an early 1981 Pentagon defense guide. Harvard’s Richard Pipes, who joined the National Security Council, advocated a new aggressive policy by which “the United States takes the long-term strategic offensive. This approach therefore contrasts with the essentially reactive and defensive strategy of containment”. Pipes’s report was endorsed in a 1982 National Security Decision Directive that formulated the policy objective of promoting “the process of change in the Soviet Union towards a more pluralistic political and economic system”. [The quotes from Peter Schweizer, Reagan's War.]
A central instrument for putting pressure on the Soviet Union was Reagan’s massive defense build-up, which raised defense spending from $134 billion in 1980 to $253 billion in 1989. This raised American defense spending to 7 percent of GDP, dramatically increasing the federal deficit. Yet in its efforts to keep up with the American defense build-up, the Soviet Union was compelled in the first half of the 1980s to raise the share of its defense spending from 22 percent to 27 percent of GDP, while it froze the production of civilian goods at 1980 levels. 
Reagan’s most controversial defense initiative was SDI, the visionary project to create an anti-missile defense system that would remove the nuclear sword of Damocles from America’s homeland. Experts still disagree about the long-term feasibility of missile defense, some comparing it in substance to the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars. But the SDI’s main effect was to demonstrate U. S. technological superiority over the Soviet Union and its ability to expand the arms race into space. This helped convince the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev to throw in the towel and bid for a de-escalation of the arms race.

Ashton Carter, a fellow at MIT, assessed SDI for Congress in 1984. He said there were a number of difficulties in creating an adequate missile defense shield, with or without lasers. He said X-rays have a limited scope because they become diffused through the atmosphere, much like the beam of a flash light spreading outward in all directions. This means the X-rays needed to be close to the Soviet Union, especially during the critical few minutes of the booster phase, in order for the Soviet missiles to be both detectable to radar and targeted by the lasers themselves.
Opponents disagreed, saying advances in technology, such as using very strong laser beams, and by "bleaching" the column of air surrounding the laser beam, could increase the distance that the X-ray would reach to successfully hit its target. Physicist Hans Bethe, who worked with Teller on both the atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb, both at Los Alamos, claimed a laser defense shield was unfeasible. He said that a defensive system was costly and difficult to build, but simple to destroy, and claimed that the Soviets could easily use thousands of decoys to overwhelm it during a nuclear attack. He believed that the only way to stop the threat of nuclear war was through diplomacy and dismissed the idea of a technical solution to the Cold War, saying that a defense shield could be viewed as threatening because it would limit or destroy Soviet offensive capabilities while leaving the American offense intact.

AUTO ACCIDENT--Professor Keith Bowden, 45, computer scientist, Essex University. In March 1982 Bowden's car plunged off a bridge, into am abandoned rail yard. His death was listed as an accident. 
MISSING PERSON--Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Godley, 49, defense expert, head of work-study unit at the Royal Military College of Science. Godley disappeared in April 1983. His father bequeathes him more than $60,000, with the proviso that he claim it be 1987. He never showed up and is presumed dead. 
SHOTGUN BLAST--Roger Hill, 49, radar designer and draftsman, Marconi. In March 1985 Hill allegedly killed himself with a shotgun at the family home. 
DEATH LEAP--Jonathan Walsh, 29, digital-communications expert assigned to British Telecom's secret Martlesham Health research facility (and to GEC, Marconi's parent firm). In November 1985 Walsh allegedly fell from his hotel room while working on a British Telecom project in Abidjan, Ivory Coast (Africa). He had expressed a fear for his life. Verdict: Still in question. 
DEATH LEAP--Vimal Dajibhai, 24, computer-software engineer (worked on guidance system for Tigerfish torpedo), Marconi Underwater Systems. In August 1986 Dajibhai's crumpled remains were found 240 feet below the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol. The death has not been listed as a suicide. 
DECAPITATION--Ashaad Sharif, 26, computer analyst, Marconi Defense Systems. In October 1986, in Bristol, Sharif allegedly tied one end of a rope around a tree and the other end around his neck, then drove off in his car at high speed. Verdict: Suicide. 
SUFFOCATION--Richard Pugh, computer consultant for the Ministry of Defense. In January 1987 Pugh was found dead, wrapped head-to- toe in rope that was tied four times around his neck. The coroner listed his death as an accident due to a sexual experiment gone awry. 
ASPHYXIATION--John Brittan, Ministry of Defense tank batteries expert, Royal Military College of Science. In January 1987 Brittan was found dead in a parked car in his garage. The engine was still running. Verdict: Accidental death. 
DRUG OVERDOSE--Victor Moore, 46, design engineer, Marconi Space Systems. In February 1987 Moore was found dead of a drug overdose. His death is listed as a suicide. 
ASPHYXIATION--Peter Peapell, 46, scientist, Royal Military College of Science. In February 1987 Peapell was found dead beneath his car, his face near the tail pipe, in the garage of his Oxfordshire home. Death was due to carbon-monoxide poisoning, although test showed that the engine had been running only a short time. Foul play has not been ruled out. 
ASPHYXIATION--Edwin Skeels, 43, engineer, Marconi. In February 1987 Skeels was found dead in his car, a victim of carbon-monoxide poisoning. A hose led from the exhaust pipe. His death is listed as a suicide. 
AUTO ACCIDENT--David Sands, satellite projects manager, Eassams (a Marconi sister company). Although up for a promotion, in March 1987 Sands drove a car filled with gasoline cans into the brick wall of an abandoned cafe. He was killed instantly. Foul play has not been ruled out. 
AUTO ACCIDENT--Stuart Gooding, 23, postgraduate research student, Royal Military College of Science. In April 1987 Gooding died in a mysterious car wreck in Cyprus while the College was holding military exercises on the island. Verdict: Accidental death. 
AUTO ACCIDENT--George Kountis, experienced systems analyst at British Polytechnic. In April 1987 Kountis drowned after his BMW plunged into the Mersey River in Liverpool. His death is listed as a misadventure. 
SUFFOCATION--Mark Wisner, 24, software engineer at Ministry of Defense experimental station for combat aircraft. In April 1987 Wisner was found dead in his home with a plastic bag over his head. At the inqust, his death was rules an accident due to a sexual experiment gone awry. 
AUTO ACCIDENT--Michael Baker, 22, digital-communications expert, Plessey Defense Systems. In May 1987 Baker's BMW crashed through a road barrier, killing the driver. Verdict: Misadventure.
HEART ATTACK--Frank Jennings, 60, electronic-weapons engineer for Plessey. In June 1987 Jennings allegedly dropped dead of a heart attack. No inquest was held. 
DEATH LEAP--Russel Smith, 23, lab technician at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment. In January 1988 Smith's mangled body was found halfway down a cliff in Cornwall. Verdict: Suicide. 
ASPHYXIATION--Trevor Knight, 52, computer engineer, Marconi Space and Defense Systems. In March 1988 Knight was found dead in his car, asphyxiated by fume from a hose attached to the tail pipe. The death was ruled a suicide. 
ELECTROCUTION--John Ferry, 60, assistant marketing director for Marconi. In August 1988 Ferry was found dead in a company-owned apartment, the stripped leads of an electrical cord in his mouth. Foul play has not been ruled out. 
ELECTROCUTION--Alistair Beckham, 50, software engineer, Plessey. In August 1988 Beckham's lifeless body was found in the garden shed behind his house. Bare wires, which ran to a live main, were wrapped around his chest. No suicide note was found, and police have not ruled out foul play. 
ASPHYXIATION--Andrew Hall, 33, engineering manager, British Aero- space. In September 1988 Hall was found dead in his car, asphyxiated by fumes from a hose that was attached to the tail pipe. Friends said he was well liked, had everything to live for. Verdict: Suicide.

Monday, 15 August 2011

From Russia With Love

The Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" was for much of the post-war period the symbol of the Cold War. These sinister, silvery machines were regular visitors to British airspace in the 1970's and 1980's, and would often be pictured in British newspapers being gently shooed away by Royal Air Force jets. The missions that these planes undertook were nominally reconnaissances, but their real purpose was intimidatory, and it was intimidation that worked.

The "Bear" was a nuclear bomber, and its appearance was a constant reminder that the UK was easily within range of even the most basic Soviet nuclear capabilities. But what the Tupolev delivered was not bombs or missiles, but small, pearlescent balls of dread that would fall to earth and roll into the national nervous system. This submerged dread was never at the forefront of public consciousness, but always seemed to tick away in the background, a kind of ultimate nightmare that hid behind the more pressing social issues of the day.

It was another form of dread, immersed in the sounds imported from Jamaica that was to allow its expression - a hesitant, febrile leaking of psychic poison. The sound of screams suppressed by social convention.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Dispatches From The Dawn Of Neoliberalism

How long ago it all seems, but it's all preserved in these videos - the City Of London as a relentless, merciless taskmaster, impossible to evade or resist as it pushes your nerves to the grindstone in the service of its obscure and contradictory drives....

It's all starting to look a bit quaint now, isn't it?