From charlesreid1


At eighteen, presenting original work at the All-Union Mathematical Congress, he measured his success by his ability to get the yellow-fingered, chainsmoking geniuses to stop being kind. When they gave up being encouraging, when they made their first sarcastic remark, when they started to sneer and to try to shred his theorems, he knew they had ceased seeing a kid and started to see a mathematician.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 10 - Loc. 245-48 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:37 AM

He had been doing a bit of consultancy. It went with being attached to the Institute of Industrial Construction; you had to sing for your supper every so often. And he didn’t really mind. It was a pleasure to put the lucid order in his head to use. More than a pleasure, a relief almost, because every time the pure pattern of mathematics turned out to have a purchase on the way the world worked, turned out to provide the secret thread controlling something loud and various and apparently arbitrary, it provided one more quantum of confirmation for what Leonid Vitalevich wanted to believe, needed to believe, did believe when he was happy: that all of this, this swirl of phenomena lurching on through time, this mess of interlocked systems, some filigree-fine, some huge and simple, this tram full of strangers and smoky air, this city of Peter built on human bones, all ultimately made sense, were all intricately generated by some intelligible principle or set of principles working themselves out on many levels at once, even if the expressions didn’t exist yet which could capture much of the process.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 11 - Loc. 261-69 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:39 AM

He was lucky enough to live in the only country on the planet where human beings had seized the power to shape events according to reason, instead of letting things happen as they happened to happen, or allowing the old forces of superstition and greed to push people around. Here, and nowhere else, reason was in charge.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 11 - Loc. 272-74 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:40 AM

He might have been born in Germany, and then this tram ride tonight would have been full of fear. On his professor suit would have been a cotton star, and dark things would have looked out of people’s faces at him, just because his grandfather had worn earlocks, had subscribed to a slightly different unverifiable fairytale about the world. He would have been hated there, for no reason at all. Or he might have been born in America, and then who could say if he would even have had the two kopecks for the tram at all? Would a twenty-six-year-old Jew be a professor there? He might be a beggar, he might be playing a violin on the street in the rain, the thoughts in his head of no concern to anyone because nobody could make money out of them. Cruelty, waste, fictions allowed to buffet real men and women to and fro: only here had people escaped this black nonsense, and made themselves reality’s deliberate designers rather than its playthings. True, reason was a difficult tool. You laboured with it to see a little more, and at best you got glimpses, partial truths; but the glimpses were always worth having.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 12 - Loc. 274-81 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:40 AM

He had thought about ways to distinguish between better answers and worse answers to questions which had no right answer. He had seen a method which could do what the detective work of conventional algebra could not, in situations like the one the Plywood Trust described,

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 14 - Loc. 302-4 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:42 AM

It was 3% of extra order snatched out of the grasp of entropy. In the face of the patched and mended cosmos, always crumbling of its own accord, always trying to fall down, it built; it gained 3% more of what humanity wanted, free and clear, just as a reward for thought. Moreover, he thought, its applications did not stop with individual factories, with getting 3% more plywood, or 3% more gun barrels, or 3% more wardrobes. If you could maximise, minimise, optimise the collection of machines at the Plywood Trust, why couldn’t you optimise a collection of factories, treating each of them, one level further up, as an equation? You could tune a factory, then tune a group of factories, till they hummed, till they purred. And that meant – ‘Watch what you’re doing!’ cried the short woman. ‘Take your head out of your arse and watch what you’re doing, why don’t you?’

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 15 - Loc. 324-31 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:45 AM

But here it was possible to plan for the whole system at once. The economy was a clean sheet of paper on which reason was writing. So why not optimise it? All he would have to do was to persuade the appropriate authorities to listen.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 16 - Loc. 339-41 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:46 AM

though he already understood that it would take a huge quantity of work to compose the necessary dynamic models.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 17 - Loc. 353-54 - Added on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 09:47 AM

America was a torrent of clever anticipations. Soviet industries would have to learn to anticipate as cleverly, more cleverly, if they were to overtake America in satisfying wants as well as needs.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 31 - Loc. 556-57 - Added on Thursday, August 15, 2013, 08:28 PM

Whether or not they wanted him there, the force and capacity of the Soviet state had obliged them to let him in. Think of it! Miners had gouged at the stubborn earth, railroadmen had blown on their hands at dawns colder than rigor mortis, machinists had skinned off bright curls of swarf, soldiers had died in the shit and the mud, so that one of their own could demand to be received in this quiet, rich room as an equal. Here he was. They had to deal with him.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 33 - Loc. 582-85 - Added on Thursday, August 15, 2013, 08:32 PM

Here he was, plodding along in the heat, and all his education and all his good prospects didn’t make him any less a human speck, inching across the wide, flat floor of Russia. After another while, he started to laugh. Let this be a lesson to you, Mr Economist, he told himself. Any time you get imperious, any time you start to mistake the big enclosing terms you use for the actions and things they represent, just you remember this. Just you remember that the world is really sweat and dirt. But the descriptions of the world in economics were powerful.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 64 - Loc. 1032-36 - Added on Friday, August 16, 2013, 10:24 AM

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. That was Marx’s description, anyway.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 66 - Loc. 1069-77 - Added on Friday, August 16, 2013, 10:29 AM

In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d'état – and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime. Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and opportunists found themselves running the country that least resembled Marx’s description of a place ready for socialist revolution. Not only had capitalist development not reached its climax of perfection and desperation in Russia; it had barely even begun. Russia had fewer railroads, fewer roads and less electricity than any other European power. Its towns were stunted little venues for the gentry to buy riding boots. Most people were illiterate. Within living memory, the large majority of the population had been slaves. Despite this absence of all Marx’s preconditions, the Bolsheviks tried anyway to get to paradise by the quick route, abolishing money and seizing food for the cities directly at gunpoint. The only results were to erase the little bit of industrial development that had taken place in Russia just before the First World War, and to create the first of many bouts of mass starvation. It became inescapably clear that, in Russia, socialism was going to have to do what Marx had never expected, and to carry out the task of development he’d seen as belonging strictly to capitalism. Socialism would have to mimic capitalism’s ability to run an industrial revolution, to marshal investment, to build modern life. Socialism would have to compete with capitalism at doing the same things as capitalism.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 83 - Loc. 1257-68 - Added on Friday, August 16, 2013, 10:54 AM

A pentode is plugged together with a signal inverter, so that the current switches off if it was on, and on if it was off. This is NOT. And that’s all it takes. Wired together in the right order, these are the only moves required to mechanise the whole panoply of reasoning; to set the yes–no picture growing towards the complexity of a Rembrandt in the Hermitage. Sixteen of AND, six of OR and three of NOT, arranged in a branching tree, make this board capable of adding. It can add the 1 in our first pentode to a zero in another pentode, and produce (of course) 1; then add that 1 to another 1 carried over from a previous addition, and produce 0, with an extra 1 to be carried over in turn, down a wire to the circuit board next in the stack, where the next addition is about to commence. 1 plus 0 plus 1 equals 0, carry 1. Of course, Sergei Alexeievich, sitting up late in 1943 manipulating 1s and 0s with a pencil, could do this himself, and operations so much more demanding that the comparison is ridiculous. But he couldn’t do it in one ten-thousandth of a second, and do it again ad infinitum every ten-thousandth of a second. Here’s the power of the machine: that having broken arithmetic down into tiny idiot steps, it can then execute those steps at inhuman speed, forever. Or until a vacuum tube blows. And in fact ten thousand operations per second is no longer so very fast, as these things go.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 111 - Loc. 1648-58 - Added on Friday, August 16, 2013, 10:43 PM

It almost looked like the hospitable home for a million separate stories which every great city was. It almost looked like Paris. But he had seen Paris. Moreover he worked in film: he saw this city, and he couldn’t help but notice the way its surfaces habitually turned face-outward to be seen, instead of inwards for the comfort of the inhabitants. He recognised the thinness of the scrim, the cutting of corners where the audience would have its attention elsewhere and be content to register a general blur of grandeur. Those doors would be out of focus anyway: who needed to make sure they actually fitted their frames? The skyscrapers blocked out bold volumes of air, the walls of the city were receding planes, leading the eye back to a sky painted on glass. Moscow was a set, and like all sets looked more convincing from the middle distance than close up.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 128 - Loc. 1893-99 - Added on Monday, August 19, 2013, 07:08 PM

‘Do not worry, my soul,’ said the wise wife. ‘Go to sleep. The morning is wiser than the evening.’

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 138 - Loc. 2037-38 - Added on Thursday, August 22, 2013, 10:13 AM

Where the United States (for example) was a society ruled by lawyers, with a deep well of campus idealism among literature professors and sociologists, the Soviet Union was a society ruled by engineers, with a well of idealism among mathematicians and physicists.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 146 - Loc. 2120-22 - Added on Thursday, August 22, 2013, 10:21 AM

(Contemporary joke: Khrushchev asks a friend to look over the text of one of his speeches. ‘I can’t deny, Nikita Sergeyevich, that I did find some errors. “Up yours” should be two separate words, and “shit-ass” is hyphenated.’)

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 148 - Loc. 2158-60 - Added on Thursday, August 22, 2013, 10:26 AM

These old men were not ordinary people; they were the Freezer, the Glutton, and the Magician. The Magician drew a picture of a boat on the sand, and said: ‘Brothers, do you see this boat?’ ‘We see it.’ ‘Sit in it.’ All of them sat in the boat. The Magician said: ‘Now, little light boat, serve me as you have served me before.’ Suddenly the boat rose in the air …

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 150 - Loc. 2173-75 - Added on Thursday, August 22, 2013, 10:28 AM

‘And the person he’s talking to’ – slight, ascetic, horn-rimmed glasses – ‘is Professor Ershov of the computer centre.’ ‘Who says –’ ‘Who famously says –’ ‘“A programmer”’, they chorused together, ‘“must combine the accuracy of a bank clerk with the acumen of an Indian tracker, and add in the imagination of a crime writer and the practicality of a businessman.”’

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 167 - Loc. 2422-26 - Added on Thursday, August 22, 2013, 06:41 PM

There isn’t much logical difference between not being able to find something you can afford, and being able to find something you cannot afford. Is there?’

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 178 - Loc. 2605-7 - Added on Thursday, August 22, 2013, 06:58 PM

She too was a believer in a world that could be reduced, along one dimension of its existence, to information: only in her case, it was the information of the genes, not the information of the computing circuit, which stood as the pattern of patterns. And once you had seen it, once you had parted the curtains of the visible world and seen that human beings were only temporary expressions of ancient information, dimly seen in tiny glimpses by the light of science’s deductive flashlight, but glimpsed enough to tell that it was vast, and intricate, and slowly changing by indifferent rules of its own as it went on its way into a far future – then all the laws and plans of the self-important present looked like momentary tics and jitters in comparison. A dark message, posted from the past to the future; a dark armada, floating through time. Dark masses, moving in the dark. Dark water. Dark ocean swell.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 180 - Loc. 2628-34 - Added on Friday, August 23, 2013, 12:51 PM

later on in samizdat whisperings,

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 206 - Loc. 2969 - Added on Friday, August 23, 2013, 01:14 PM

When his own base of operations in the Academy expanded into the fully autonomous TSEMI, the Central Economic-Mathematical Institute, with a building out among the muddy new boulevards of the Sparrow Hills and a banner in the hall reading ‘Comrades, Let’s Optimise!',

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 207 - Loc. 2982-84 - Added on Friday, August 23, 2013, 01:16 PM

from bone to bone the marrow flows, like pearls poured from one vessel to another.’

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 211 - Loc. 3032-33 - Added on Friday, August 23, 2013, 01:20 PM

A little problem with Solkemfib, the viscose plant at Solovets, away off in the green gloom of the north-eastern forests. It was one of Maksim Maksimovich’s new generation of chemical-fibre operations, along with the big new installations at Barnaul and Svetlogorsk, and it ought not to have been causing trouble at this point in its life-cycle, with machines only four years old and the trials of running them in safely behind. It had its own wood-pulp mill, to provide cellulose, and a nice big lake for water. Power came by 220-kilovolt line from one of the hydro stations on the upper Volga. Everything else arrived and departed on a railroad spur. Really, it was only salt, sulphur and coal in, viscose out. That was the particular simplicity of viscose production from the planner’s point of view. None of the more complex chemical inputs the process required – sulphuric acid, lye, carbon disulphide – could easily be transported in bulk. They all had to be manufactured on the spot, at the plant itself; which meant that, to the remote and abstracting eye of someone chiefly concerned with supply chains, a viscose plant could be treated as robust. It was relatively insensitive to disruption. It could be supplied from multiple sources. It was not a hostage to problems elsewhere. Feed it its raw materials, and it chugged along, an economic black box, busily turning trees into sweaters and cellophane and high-strength cord for car tyres. This always struck Maksim Maksimovich as a very obliging way for a physical process to work – and charmingly close to the political textbooks too. Trees into sweaters! Brute matter uplifted to serve human purposes! What could be more dialectical?

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 217 - Loc. 3108-19 - Added on Friday, August 23, 2013, 01:27 PM

Lenin’s core of original Bolsheviks, and the socialists like Trotsky who joined them, were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these 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 – the vydvizhentsy who refilled the Central Committee in the thirties – 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; people whose adherence to Bolshevik ideas was inseparable from the power that came with them. Gradually their loyalty to the ideas became more and more instrumental, more and more a matter of what the ideas would let them grip in their two hands.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 271 - Loc. 3848-54 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:32 PM

High-level Party meetings became extravagantly foul-mouthed from the 1930s on, as a way of signalling that practical people were now in charge, down-to-earth people: and honest Russians too, not those dubious Balzac-readers with funny foreign names. ‘Ladies, cover your ears!’ became the traditional start-of-meeting announcement.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 272 - Loc. 3854-57 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:32 PM

Stalin took his philosophical obligations entirely seriously. The time he spent in his Kremlin library was time spent reading. He held forth on linguistics, and genetics, and economics, and the proper writing of history, because he believed that intellectual decision-making was the duty of power.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 272 - Loc. 3858-60 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:33 PM

A sculptor dared to tell him he didn’t understand art: ‘When I was a miner,’ he snapped, ‘they said I didn’t understand. When I was a political worker in the army, they said I didn’t understand. When I was this and that, they said I didn’t understand. Well, now I’m party leader and premier, and you mean to say I still don’t understand? Who are you working for, anyway?’ Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist. Khrushchev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be governed by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 272 - Loc. 3864-69 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:34 PM

now drought and falling yields had pushed the Soviet Union to the brink of bread rationing and forced them to waste precious foreign currency on importing wheat, ten million humiliating tonnes of it. He had tried to stick his thumb in the scales of the strategic balance by putting the missiles in Cuba; and the world had nearly burned. He was getting angrier and angrier, more and more impatient, more and more puzzled. ‘You’d think as first secretary I could change anything in this country,’ he told Fidel Castro. ‘The hell I can! No matter what changes I propose and carry out, everything stays the same. Russia’s like a tub full of dough …’ The yeasty mass kept pushing back, and all he knew how to do was to keep trying the same methods, more and more frantically, more and more frenziedly, announcing new policies, rejigging the organisation chart, tinkering and revising, even to the point of messing with the basis of philosophical kingship itself.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 273 - Loc. 3883-89 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:36 PM

till by October 1964 there was a solid majority around the Presidium table for replacing him. Which left the question of what to do about his promises.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 274 - Loc. 3892-94 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:37 PM

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

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 275 - Loc. 3894-95 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:37 PM

And he stalled at the lights! The starter motor chugged fruitlessly, he pumped at the choke, and the engine only started as the lights turned back to red. When they went green, the Volga, released, bounded forwards in a series of humiliating hiccoughs. ‘What a balls-up!’ he muttered, meaning more than the junction. ‘Steady on,’ said Melnikov, looking at him sharply. ‘Leave him be,’ said the boss, from the back seat.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 281 - Loc. 3980-83 - Added on Saturday, September 07, 2013, 09:44 PM

‘No one needs me now,’ he said to the air straight in front of him. ‘What am I going to do without work? How am I going to live?’ It was unbearable seeing him so reduced. The driver pulled out his cigarettes. ‘Would you care for a smoke, Nikita Sergeyevich?’ he asked. ‘I’ve lost my job, not my senses,’ the boss snapped. ‘Put that crap away.’ That was better.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 282 - Loc. 3991-95 - Added on Monday, September 09, 2013, 10:03 AM

‘Mokhov; Gosplan,’ he said, holding out a hand bristled with dark hairs right down to the knuckles. ‘You’ve dropped your cigarette. Have one of mine instead. They’re Swedish; not bad.’ Ceremoniously, he held up his lighter for Emil and then for himself. The blue flame was almost dissolved into the blueness of the day, and the smoke only tasted like an intensification of the hot summer air, but it was soothing. Emil breathed in a welcome numbness from it. Mokhov arranged himself on the railing in an arch of spindly black segments, and waited. He looked like an allegory of famine.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 294 - Loc. 4161-66 - Added on Monday, September 09, 2013, 10:16 AM

So the days stretched out, extraordinarily long and extraordinarily empty. He had gardened like crazy at first, laying out long ambitious vegetable beds, pruning and composting from dawn till dusk, except when Nina Petrovna called him in to meals – but it grew old, after a while. And you couldn’t fill a mind with such things. Before, whenever he doubted, he had worked. Whenever he had been troubled by a memory, he had worked, telling himself that the best answer to any defect in the past must be a remedy in the future. The future had been his private solution as well as a public promise. Working for the future made the past tolerable, and therefore the present. But now no one wanted his promises. The hours gaped.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 358 - Loc. 5039-44 - Added on Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 05:56 PM

Little by little, in the most undisciplined way, things he had never wanted to remember drifted up from the depths; foul stuff, past hours and minutes it did nobody any good to recall, leaving their proper places in oblivion and rising up into the mind, like muck stirred up from the bottom of a pond to stain the clean water above.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 358 - Loc. 5045-47 - Added on Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 05:57 PM

God forbid that he himself should ever be so weak: but he could see now the appeal of the idea of being purged of it all, of it all somehow being taken magically away, so you could leave this life as innocent as you had entered it.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 358 - Loc. 5050-52 - Added on Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 05:57 PM

Sometimes the stuggle in his head seemed so disconnected from the eventless world around him that it felt as if the whole thing, the whole bloody history, the whole of the vast country out there beyond the wheatfield, might have been a dream of his, one of those particularly intricate and oppressive fever dreams whose parts you struggle over and over to try to put into order, yet never can; as if there might never have been a Soviet Union at all, except in his head, only this field of Russian wheat.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 359 - Loc. 5054-57 - Added on Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 05:58 PM

While he was actually watching, he felt only a veteran’s mild, containable annoyance at the things the director got wrong. It was later that it would all turn poisonous: in the night, in the still solitary centre of the night. He would dream all the vile detail of war that the film had left out, and when he awoke, beside the steady breathing of Nina Petrovna, he would find the images he had dreamed of still equally vivid in his mind’s eye; and hoisting up unstoppably behind them, lifted from the murk as if on hooks, out would come the other memories.

- Red Plenty (Francis Spufford), Highlight on Page 359 - Loc. 5062-66 - Added on Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 05:59 PM