"Our history shows that most of the people can be fooled for a very long time. But now all this idiocy is coming into clear contradiction with the fact that we have some level of openness."
Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons
Writer Vladimir Voinovich broke onto the Soviet literary scene in the 1970s with the satirical novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. But as the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union ossified, he soon fell afoul of the authorities. Stripped of his citizenship and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980, Voinovich settled in Munich and worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Russian Service. In 1986, he published his classic dystopian novel Moscow-2042, which depicts a totalitarian Soviet Union run by a combination of the KGB, the Orthodox Church, and the Communist Party.
For Voinvovich's 80th birthday on September 26, I spoke with the author about how present-day Russia compares to his dark vision of the future.
Did you think that you would see so much of what you predicted in Moscow-2042 already in 2012?
Well, there are only 30 years left until 2042. ... But, to be honest, I didn't expect this. I described a future that I hoped would never happen -- it was not a utopia, but a dystopia. But now reality, it seems, is already exceeding what I wrote then. In my novel, the country is ruled by the KPGB -- the Communist Party of State Security.
And there was an ideological pentagon -- patriotism, security, religion, and so on. I have heard many times that the patriarch is sometimes referred to as Father Zvyozdony [editors' note: Father Zvyozdony was the major general of religious service in "Moscow-2042"].
But the stupidity and vulgarity that are becoming the banner of our times -- no one could have expected that. The most idiotic laws are passed, the most monstrous trials are going on. Take the notorious Pussy Riot case. That exceeded everything that could be written in satire.
Moscow-2042 was published in 1986 -- a time of transition, perestroika. Now many in Russia are speaking of another looming transition. Do you see such a thing coming?
In 1986, perestroika was just getting under way. But already then -- in its very first stages, I viewed it with enormous hope. But, to get back to the novel -- since those times I have begun to think that reality somehow moves in the other direction and, God willing, things won't turn out as they did in my novel.
But then I look and I see -- no, things are unfolding as I imagined them, as if someone didn't want reality to drift too far [from the novel]. I don't consider myself a prophet. But some things really do seem prophetic.
But it wouldn't be right to compare the present with those times because the beginning of perestroika was the beginning of hope. Events now produce a despairing pessimism, though, the kind that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Then can you compare the present with the years before perestroika, when you were expelled from the Soviet Union. Did the hopelessness of those times differ from the current hopelessness?
The situation then, surprisingly, fostered hope. I could see that the Soviet authorities were doing stupid things that would ultimately lead to destruction or to an attempt at renewal, which, in fact, happened in the mid-1980s with the arrival of [Mikhail] Gorbachev. When I left in 1980, I was saying all the time that radical change would begin in the Soviet Union in five years. Maybe I was off by a couple of years, but that isn't important -- I turned out to be pretty correct. If you build your optimism on the expectation of collapse, then I guess you can say the same thing about the present.
Let's take a look at the ideological pentagon of your novel. Populism -- we already have that. Party loyalty -- only about half of what we had back then, but we still have it. Religiosity -- no doubt about that. State security -- well, of course. Vigilance -- we have that. Four and a half out of five. What can we expect going forward, according to Moscow-2042?
I already said that we are once again in a phase when it is possible to make optimistic forecasts based on pessimistic assumptions.
This is because all branches of power are working as one. The Duma writes some laws; the courts try Pussy Riot; the church does its work -- in short, all the social institutions and branches of power are approaching some sort of explosion. That explosion will definitely come because it isn't possible to upset such a large -- and daily growing -- number of people day after day.
Someone once said that you can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.
That someone was Abraham Lincoln, and he didn't really have Russia in mind.
Yes -- our history shows that most of the people can be fooled for a very long time. But now all this idiocy is coming into clear contradiction with the fact that we have some level of openness: RFE/RL's Russian Service exists, there are some opposition publications, the Internet can't be controlled, although they try to restrict it.
But against this background, it all looks very stupid. A naked person only seems natural in a sauna. When he goes out into the street, people will either laugh at him or stone him.
People often say about you that your predictions were self-fulfilling.
Yes, they have said that. They've even proposed that I write another book -- with an optimistic view of the future. It really does seem that reality is trying to imitate my imaginings -- so if I think up something optimistic, then reality will imitate that.
And do you take such suggestions seriously?
As soon as we finish this interview, I'll start working. I'll write a glorious future -- communist -- and then we'll [see]. ... By the way, in Soviet times they more or less said the same thing -- that writers must depict the glorious future and then people will imitate it and it will be brought about.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
They’re stuck between corporations trying to extract maximum profits from each flight and passengers who can broadcast their frustration on social media.
Two weeks ago, a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after being told it was overbooked. And late last week, American Airlines suspended a flight attendant after a fight nearly broke out between a passenger and the crew, over a stroller. What did the two incidents have in common? Both stories went viral after passengers’ videos showcased the rotten conditions of flying in coach today. But also, in both cases, it’s not particularly clear that the airline employees caught on camera had many better options.
On the infamous United flight, employees, following protocol, had to call security agents to remove a passenger in Chicago, due to a last-minute need to transport crew to fly out of Louisville the following day. United’s contract of carriage gives employees broad latitude to deny boarding to passengers. On the other hand, it is terrible to force a sitting passenger to get up and de-board a plane. So, the attendants were stuck: Either four people already seated had to leave the plane, or a flight scheduled the next day would have been grounded due to the lack of crew—which would have punished even more paying customers.
Those who speak Toki Pona say linguistic simplicity can enable a more profound form of communication.
In Chinese, the word computer translates directly as electric brain.
In Icelandic, a compassis a direction-shower, and a microscope a small-watcher.
In Lakota, horse is literally dog of wonder.
These neologisms demonstrate the cumulative quality of language, in which we use the known to describe the unknown.
“It is by metaphor that language grows,” writes the psychologist Julian Jaynes. “The common reply to the question ‘What is it?’ is, when the reply is difficult or the experience unique, ‘Well, it is like —.’”
That metaphorical process is at the heart ofToki Pona, the world’s smallest language. While the Oxford English Dictionary contains a quarter of a million entries, and even Koko the gorilla communicates with over 1,000 gestures in American Sign Language, the total vocabulary of Toki Pona is a mere 123 words. Yet, as the creator Sonja Lang and many other Toki Pona speakers insist, it is enough to express almost any idea. This economy of form is accomplished by reducing symbolic thought to its most basic elements, merging related concepts, and having single words perform multiple functions of speech.
The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.
Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)
A lab has successfully gestated premature lambs in artificial wombs. Are humans next?
When babies are born at 24 weeks’ gestation, “it is very clear they are not ready to be here,” says Emily Partridge, a research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Doctors dress the hand-sized beings in miniature diapers and cradle them in plastic incubators, where they are fed through tubes. In many cases, IV lines deliver sedatives to help them cope with the ventilators strapped to their faces.
Each year, about 30,000 American babies are born this early—considered “critically preterm,” or younger than 26 weeks. Before 24 weeks, only about half survive, and those who live are likely to endure long-term medical complications. “Among those that survive, the challenges are things we all take for granted, like walking, talking, seeing, hearing,” says Kevin Dysart, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
From Anaïs to Zizek, a brief list of "shibboleth names"
In October 1937, the president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, devised a simple way to identify the Haitian immigrants living along the border of his country. Dominican soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley—perejil in Spanish—and ask people to identify it. Those who spoke Spanish would pronounce the word's central "r" with that language's characteristic trill; the Haitians, on the other hand, would bury the "r" sound in the throaty way of the French. To be on the receiving end of the parsley test would be to seal, either way, one's fate: The Spanish-speaking Dominicans were left to live, and the Haitians were slaughtered. It was a state-sponsored genocide that would be remembered, in one of history's greatest understatements, as the Parsley Massacre.