DeCommissioning Families

May 23, 2009

 “ … we must rescue children from the harmful influence of the family… We must nationalise them…To oblige the mother to give her child to the Soviet state-that is our task.”  V. Zenzinov  1918

If you want to get away from the strident furore over the appointment of Christine Rankin as one of seven commissioners to New Zealand’s Family Commission get hold of Orlando Figes’  The Whisperers. It is an intimate portrayal of family life, to the limited extent that it was still possible, in Stalin’s Russia.

After the euphoria of the Bolshevik victory, the deadly trials of a civil war and the death of Lenin, the tyranny which developed under Stalin created an uncivil society where everybody spoke in whispers either to protect their families and friends, or to inform on friends and neighbours. 

The tentacles of tyranny controlled every aspect of private life. In fact, for the regime, there was no such thing as private life. All was the domain of the state  involved in the historic struggle. The aim was nothing less than the eradication of individualistic  “bourgeois” behaviour inherited from the old society. The battle was to transform human nature. Marx, of course, had taught that the alteration of consciousness was dependent on changes to the material state, not vice versa.

In the 1920s the Bolsheviks took as an article of faith that the bourgeois family was socially harmful because it was introspective and conservative. They do not quite set up an Anti-Families Commission but they may as well have done. The approach was much more totalitarian than that of the Nazis, where at least senior personnel could come home from a hard day’s work at the concentration camp to an eerily normal family life.

In its social dimension the Bolsheviks saw education as the key to the creation of the brave new society. In the vanguard were the pioneering leagues for children the Pioneers and the Komsomol. The dissemination of Communist values was the very raison d’etre of the Soviet school curriculum. “Lenin corners” in schools were secular shrines. The school was the anvil for reforging society.

In the words of the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina “By loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe …”  No personalised learning here. 

The children of 1917 were involved in structured play to assimilate the Soviet values of collectivity, social activism and responsibility. Russian educationalists had been influenced by the ‘learning through play’ European pedagogues such as Maria Montessori.

 The young were certainly imbued with a sense of purpose through the power of their belief in the party’s cause. They also learnt that loyalty to the state was higher virtue than family ties and that informing on one’s family and friends was public spirited.

With the number of parents executed or sent to the Gulag  orphanages were a growth industry. Weak family ties and the strong collective approach made them one of the main recruiting grounds for the NKVD and the Red Army.

World War II brought a new sense of patriotism, purpose and pride which for a time transcended the fear of the regime. Fear and suspicion rolled back like a Moscow fog almost as soon as the war finished and whispering  became a gale.

Despite the revelations of the excesses of Stalin’s power by Krushchev at the 20th party Congress in 1956, Figes points out that many older Russians -from a demographic decimated by war and repression-today look back in pride at what was accomplished in the great Patriotic War with Germany and even by forced labour in the Gulags. The surviving innocent can still feel a sense of accomplishment from the gruelling work of their stolen years. The retrospective search for meaning allows myths and nostalgia to wipe out the manipulation, the betrayals, and the sheer fear which marked day-to-day life in Stalin’s Russia.

The whisperers left a lingering legacy.  In the words of Orlando Figes, “It was Stalin’s lasting achievement to create a whole society in which stoicism and passivity were social norms “. 

Despite that -or perhaps because of it- four years after Stalin’s death the Russians circled the Earth with the first satellite. In the engineered society the engineers had the last laugh.


Wolfram Jack

May 23, 2009

At the end of the day, Wolfram Alpha is a tool – and once you take some time to learn its ways – it can become a very powerful tool.”   ReadWriteWeb 

 The hyper heralded launch last week of boy wonder Stephen Wolfram’s new computational  search engine Wolfram Alpha www.wolframalpha.com/  has  stirred mixed reviews. Some reviewers have praised its ability to find the solution to complex problems. Others complain that it can’t answer simple questions. 

The Telegraph’s Matt Warman says Wolfram Alpha is a glimpse at the future of the web-a new “computational” approach. Rather than simply providing links to bits of the internet that might contain the right answer, new processes will provide, in themselves, the answers in organised depth. He says that while Google’s search, currently, is essentially parasitical, the next evolution will be to take the web and re-present it in more accessible form. 

This is where WA is heading. Not great for magpies but good for those who want  in depth information for analysis in relevant domains.

The system can’t yet cope with the complexity of history. I did an egocentric search of my birthdate (not that I’m implying that this was a watershed date).   http://www47.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Nov+27+1941   threw up some depressing statistics: this was 67.48 years ago or 24,649 days ago (mercifully it didn’t remind me that this marks more than two thirds of a century).

 I did discover that the date of my birth was marked by a “waxing gibbous moon”, which may explain some personal predilections.  The only other riveting rabbit it pulled out the hat was that I shared my birthdate with country musician Eddie Rabbitt.  Could have been Roger or Brer, I suppose. 

(In fact, unbeknown to WA my birthdate marked another more historical-and at the time secret event-the Imperial Japanese Navy steamed out of Tokyo Bay bound for a staging post within striking distance of Pearl Harbour, which was attacked 10 days later.  What price for a predictive search engine?).

It’s early days for the new search engine. It is at the Model T stage of development, with revolutionary implications for the future. Its success will depend on the kinds of questions asked-how they are framed and in which domain-not on keywords, which merely aggregate the already popular and lack computational  power.

As Mrs Beeton might have said: first catch your question.


Fake School for Scoundrels

May 23, 2009

It is reported from London that thousands of young Pakistanis exploited a hole in Britain’s immigration defences to enrol as students at a network of sham colleges. Many of the “students” came from the hotbed heartland of Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taleban. 

The ersatz Manchester College of Professional Studies had three small classrooms and three students for the up 1797 students on its books. Now that’s a highly productive teacher/student ratio. It charged NZ$2,600 for admission places and fake diplomas and falsified records to help often militant immigrant students stay on in Britain.

The three “headmasters”,  or rather headshysters, earned an estimated $NZ15.5 million from the scam. I’m all in favour of lifting the financial rewards for education professionals but that’s a little over the top.  

The  phantom college was removed from an official government register of education providers last year, though other fake schools have sprung up mushroom like  elsewhere. 

One wonders how they get on the official list in the first place. No doubt because education quality controls in Britain, as elsewhere, involve creating and pursuing paper trails which may bear no resemblance to reality but satisfy bureaucratic box- ticking behaviour whether the schools are bogus or not.


A heart stopping moment

May 3, 2009

“A fatal coronary is nature’s way of telling you to slow down”.

 My father died suddenly at age 68, from a heart attack, a medical book of symptoms open beside him. He hadn’t managed to summon any help. When I had a slightly tight feeling in my chest last Sunday before embarking on a bike ride I put it down to a possible chest infection and pedalled more slowly.  I should have known better.

Before dawn three days later, when I had more pronounced chest tightness plus a bit of indigestion -discomfort not pain- I was on the verge of dialling for a medical opinion or even an ambulance but the symptoms subsided so I left my call to the doctor and a subsequent visit until later in the morning. One just-in- time enzyme test  later, which indicated some possible heart damage , and I was on my way to hospital by ambulance, feeling that my doctor was being overcautious and that if I were to have some tests just to be on the safe side, I was quite capable of driving myself the short distance. My doctor, who disagreed, was, of course, spot on.

Now in my 68th year I was conscious of, but not overly concerned about, coronary illness risk factors. After all, you can’t change some factors such as age and gender and hereditary. Sure, you can do something about diet, lifestyle, stress, smoking and fitness, but I had given up smoking 30 years ago, my blood pressure was good and while my cholesterol rates were a little elevated,  I thought that for my age I was pretty fit. Sure, I was a bit slower in last year’s 160 km Taupo Cycle Challenge than the year before, but I put that down to the hotter day.

 It now turns out that 70% of the main artery to the front chamber of my heart was blocked and four days ago a blood clot bunged up what was remaining. Nothing dramatic, no great chest pains, but I was in the throes of a serious heart attack.

 The treatment at Christchurch Public Hospital was first-class both in terms of the excellent medical team and the top class technology as well as the useful and timely post-operative pre-rehabilitation advice and information.  In the space of  four hours there was a  well handled triage process, a battery of tests and quick decision making,  followed by an angiogram and an angioplasty procedure plus two stents to let the bloodflow and again and I was back in the coronary care unit having a cup of tea and a sandwich. Two days later I was home, clutching a large cache of chemicals,  most of which I will need to stay on for the rest of my life.  The DIY pharmacopoeia of drugs is a small price to pay fiscally and figuratively.

 Most people are aware (though many not so the time) that President Franklin Roosevelt was a polio sufferer; fewer know that he had very high blood pressure, which his doctors could do nothing about. They had to stand on the sidelines and watch one of the most important people in the world die before World War II was finished.

 65 years later we have access to marvellous surgical and medical treatment to extend our life spans and improve our quality of life.  If we make the first call in time.