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Prison Risk

As sites of governmental authority, prisons destabilize Weber’s definition
of the state as the monopolist of violence. In prisons, the monopoly is
suspended: anybody is free to commit rape and be reasonably assured that no
state official will notice or care...

There's a fascinating piece in the latest n+1 about the offset risk of the US' exploding prison population. It parallels the tactics of moral hazard unwittingly adopted by the financial services with the increased concentration of crime inside the 'hyperhell' of incarceration. Beginning by highlighting the significantly lower crime levels that former hotspots now experience it quickly explains that the zero-tolerance policies adopted by many states result in relatively minor criminals being locked up with sociopaths and murderers in 'a system of state-sponsored suffering as vicious and widespread as any in human history.' This very specific legal space, at once above and below the law and beyond the cares of greater society, tucks away from the eyes of the public 216,000 victims of rape, out of control suicides and a population that has quadrupled since 1980 to become the fourth largest concentration of individuals in the US.

Much of the article concentrates on the rape statistics of the prisons - arguably the largest rate of rape per capita and potentially the only social structure where the vast majority of victims are male. Shocking though this is, the article is most poignant when Glazek talks about the contributing factors of this concentration of violence: How it began after the Vietnam War with the rise of crack and the political and public fear the media whipped up for it, the growth of suburbanisation and the concentration of disparate and desperate minorities in urban centers with law makers and enforcers too prejudiced and careless to develop real solutions beyond hiding culprits from the wealthy, white commuter classes.

But as the US' romance with maximum security incarceration grows, so too does the risk of institutional violence. Studies show that as freedom is restricted, violence and anti-social behaviour increases making the prisons the focal points of brutality and violence that was once equally spread across America's streets.

On the other hand, maximum security prisons are also distinguished by their willingness to put inmates into solitary confinement for extended periods of
time, sometimes decades. Many psychologists now believe that such a long period
in solitary inevitably leads to insanity. On the plus side, those prisoners will
not get raped, or at least not by inmates.

Essentially, the author argues, the US has created a sanctioned siphon for society's ills. For example, something as simple as a graffiti charge might result in a long sentence, victimisation at the hands of inmates and upon release, societal expulsion - a loss of education and employment prospects and so a return to potentially more severe crime. The prison system is seemingly built not to encourage reform, progression and change but to concentrate society's ills on the shoulders of a measurable and forgotten part of the population.

By 2008, the finance sector had managed to offset the hazards of unmanageable liability and leverage onto the shoulders of the indebted suburban classes that the prison system was designed to protect. Correcting the imbalance cost jobs, lives and a much-publicised $500bn bailout package. Simultaneously, the cost of maintaining the illusion of crime free streets costs the US taxpayer $200bn a year. The money in the prison system funds the feedback loop of crime that drives the population of the incarcerated to the levels now causing concern to government planners.

An ever-increasing share of domestic discretionary spending, it would seem, is devoted to building and staffing earthly hells filled with able-bodied young men who have been removed from the labor force. If we added up all the money federal, state, and local governments invest in the poorest zip codes through credits and transfer payments—food stamps, Medicaid, teacher salaries, et cetera—and balanced that against all the value the government extracts from those zip codes through sin taxes, lotteries, and the incarceration complex, we might well conclude that the disinvestment outweighs the investment.

What of the statistical impact of this vast, hidden populace? The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 allowed slave owners to treat each slave as three-fifths of a person for legislative and tax purposes. Today, each of the nation's 4.3 million prisoners counts as an individual. Most prisons are in rural areas, and the forced relocation of vast numbers of right-less, voice-less populations to these previously politically weak areas has led to an influx of public money and power simply because of the spending power each inmate theoretically and statistically represents.

Towards the end of the article, Glazek posits solutions to this crisis. He says that the US as a whole should shoulder and spread the risk. Statistically, it's the low-priority offenders that are worst victimised by the current system and forced into the cycle of violence it breeds. For instance, most death-row inmates are there on murder charges, but homicide is one of the least repeatable crimes in that, for example, you can only murder your wife in a fit of passion once. Gun control, drug control and the death penalty are all popularly discussed but difficult and politically charged areas and so the crux is in the simplicity of the idea he presents: Release the prisoners.

Without the 'ping-pong' cycle of violence and court hearings, public money for education and health care would rise and with it the standard of living. Children in urban poor areas would grow up with fathers, and as long as the free population was willing to shoulder the pain of the risk associated with the less intrusive legal structure a balance would quickly settle and crime rates would naturally self-correct.

Glazek proposes that what the US is experiencing now is a feedback crisis, the concentration and level of violence will only continue to escalate in line with current policy to even greater unbalanced and unsustainable levels. Much like in 2008 before Lehmen imploded, we can see warning signs of a critical collapse; numerous legal cases of inhumane treatment, growing media attention and the panic of lawmakers at over-crowding.

In 2011, the state of California was forced to release 45,000 prisoners, due to over-crowding. It achieved little press but caused a quiet revolution in legal circles. Statistically, within three years two thirds of the 45,000 will be back in prison, but if they aren't it will mark a sea-changing experiment in the way the US thinks about crime and punishment.

Abolishing prisons and releasing all the prisoners would amount to a deregulation of criminal punishment. It would mean letting the private sector determine how best to prevent ourselves from getting robbed. In high finance, the laissez-faire approach has proved to be a disaster; for petty crime, it would be a boon.

Red Plenty

I finished Francis Spufford's Red Plenty a few days ago. It's one of those books that sits alternately perfectly or awkwardly (depending on your opinion of such things) between fact and fiction. Spufford has devoured an incredible amount of Soviet faux-science and economic ideology in the construction of the book and I remembered reading somewhere that he intended to write a non-fiction piece but found this whole world so lively, baffling and tense with expectation, success and failure that it just had to be told as a story.

We begin with the genius Leonid Vitaliyevich Kantorovich who, in 1938 develops a system of linear programming that can genuinely optimise the economy of the USSR and ensure growth. There's a catch though; it requires an ideological shift - recognition that the value of a product is in it's resale value (what they call 'shadow price') and not in it's labour input or quantity. Then we meet the first computer, begin used to run his programs after calculating how to hit objects together at hundreds of kilometers and hour, hundreds of kilometers away. There's a neat segue here into how computing and the maths that began in rocket science and physics ended up in financing, but it's too long and best saved for another time.

The most fascinating part of the book was Part 4, which deals with the fundamental workings of the centralised economy and its functions. At the top, Gosplan, detailed its demands for growth of an economy which were filtered down through Sovnarkhovy (regional managers) and onto factories. The reality of this system was vastly more complex though as factories and planners tussled to reduce or explode estimates, demands and products in order to make life as easy as possible for themselves. I drew a brief diagram of how Spufford explains it at the beginning of Part 4.

My picture of Gosplan

Of course, Spufford works this through a magically delicious exception.
  • A viscose plant that makes both tires and clothes knows their machine is sub-standard and will never meet the tire targets.
  • The managers, in fear of perhaps fatal reprimand, devise and execute a plan to sabotage the machine so that they can have their targets reduced, then receive a new upgraded machine, thereby going over their reduced targets and walking away with a bonus.
  • Theoretically the production of an extra machine should mean going above target and healthy bonuses all round. In fact, the 'upgraded' machine is smaller than the old one, requires less materials than before and so is counted as a loss against the original machine that required more materials to build and so under the Soviet system was worth more.

This comes at exactly the point where Kantorovich is pushing to change the value system of the USSR in order to reform the economy and so the factories in question end up with '...the noses of the Central Committee pushed up against the window trying to see what's going on and why.' and no-one gets bonuses or leaves happy.

It's in the intricate detail of these systems that what could otherwise be an impenetrable and drudgy subject come to life and a feel is set for life in the Soviet cybernetic system that viewed the economy as the tide on which humanity surfed.

More Abandoned Soviet Stuff: Ekranoplan

Stumbled across some more amazing images of abandoned old Soviet stuff. It seems that Livejournal still retains popularity in Russia as a place to document the ruins of the empire.

This is/was the Lun Class Ekranoplan, as far as is known the only one of it's type ever built. The Lun is a ground effect vehicle, a kind of craft that utilises the aerodynamics of flight very close to the surface of water or the earth in order to attain some small altitude and thus reduce friction.

This one, nicknamed the Caspian Sea Monster due to it's size and at the time, confidential presence was only one of a number of GEV developed by the USSR from the sixties onwards.

Because most of Russia's water territories were inland, they were relatively calm and so perfect for GEV activity. The frictionless movement also gave them a speed advantage over traditional ship hulls, it could travel at around 300 knots or 550mph against a normal fast attack ship's 50 knots. The Lun was fitted with six missile launchers, intended to be armed with Mosquito missiles to repel ground troops that might come through Europe in fast, successive attacks.

Here are some more images of what's left of her, from here.

Some horrid video below, turn the sound off.


Retrospectively she realised that she'd had at least one point four seconds of creaking crescendo masquerading as a warning before the violence of the shock hit. But it was too late for regret now. She lost focus as lines and digits danced chaotically in her eyes. An earthquake, she thought. Somewhere deep, some part of her groped for information. She should stand under a doorway, or was it lying in a bathtub? No, a doorway.

She felt the firm pressure of the surface next to her on her right elbow as her left shoulder began to lead the charge in countering gravity's demands on her physical form. She could feel the strain at the back of her neck as her body's calibration mechanisms executed millions of years of programming to ensure her head stayed up top. Briefly, and because she had nothing else to do, she marveled at the thoroughness of this bio-structural mitigation. If only she could so effortlessly deflect the universe's brutal reprimands as her body did.

Perhaps it was time to find that doorway. No, a quick approximation demonstrated that, since she had no idea where she was, it was objectively more efficient to let the body handle it and conduct other business while her world reset itself. She reckoned on this disturbance lasting one and a half, perhaps two seconds longer before she could regain her visuals and get back on target.

Fuck, anything could happen in two seconds. The measures she was slowly winding up on the cusp of Amsterdam's trading times could have been spun out and hours of careful calculation would be rendered worthless by nature's selfish wants. In truth, she knew that those hours were more than just careful calculation, they were hours of nurturing and longing. They were hours of love and perverse lust, creating something that was at once a child and a lover to her. She had felt it grow in her blood and her bones, had felt the drip-drip of warmth as it trickled from the perfect nothingness of the digits and lines, down her spine and into the centre of her. That trickle had carved away at that nothingness, digging deeper, emptying it and hollowing it, becoming a roaring, pounding goliath and she had felt her body seize itself as she watched it. She had distantly sensed the prickle of the hairs of her arms and neck standing alert. Then she had felt her heart, the size of a beach ball, skip along the edge of the bottomless canyon the goliath had created between herself and the other side.

Eventually, her breathless desire would come up against her uncontrollable need for release as her mind desperately thrashed, begging for the end. Then came the leap. Should she make it to the other side of the bottomless canyon then her beach ball heart would explode, the raw chill of life would soothe her skin as the hairs settled, her jaw released itself and she breathed the first breath of life that would send blood coursing through her head.

Should she fail the leap then the glorious vibrancy and dazzle of the world would collapse, filling with hard greys and hopeless lament. Crushed by her own arrogant lust she'd recoil, hide herself in the flat world, ashamed and unworthy of the lights and wonder of the nothingness.

The strain in her neck was fading, the digits and lines were re-assembling. Another shockwave hit her - memory, carrying in its wake a sudden vision of ice, of unmeasurable and borderless pure white from behind glass. In a brief and forgivable moment of clarity she remembered the ice, the ship on an endless expedition along the incline of the market. She remembered arriving here two weeks ago, feeling the same shudder and crash of the thick, brittle sheets off the bow as she watched the ship plow a new course from the bridge. Here there was no earth to quake, just an infinity of ice.

Perhaps everything here was vaguely magic in some way. She gathered herself and she might have frowned slightly as she realised that her newborn ravine had been filled with the slurry of careless market activity while the ice had temporarily stole her away, but she wasn't sure. She was off and away, far from her possible frown, listening hungrily for the tell-tale drip of a vast, bottomless canyon waiting to be born out of nothing.

Buzludzha Monument

Typologically resting between an Olympic stadium, some sci-fi gun emplacement and a socialist shrine, Buzludzha Monument straddles Bulgaria's highest peak, the eponymous Бузлуджа (Buzludja) in commemoration of a gathering of socialists there in 1891. This gathering went on to define Bulgarian socialism by unifying them under the influential Dimitar Blagoev as the Bulgarian Socialist Democratic Party.

During its time in the Eastern Bloc under the rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Bulgaria remained relatively independent, experiencing Stalinism only at a distance and enacting free-market economic reforms in the early 60's, roughly the same time that Russia was quietly dropping it's own advance with linear programming in the centralised economy.

Anyway, Timothy Allen has logged his trek through snowstorms up the 12km road leading to the monument from the nearest village and documented it with some stunning photos. There's something tragically romantic about Soviet ruins that I just adore and it does seem to be one of those things that I just keep coming back to. They literally represent the collapse of the world's greatest socio-economic experiment I suppose.

Ice ( and some maths)

88.4 degrees lattitude

At 88.7 degrees, the minimum latitude at which our cruising speed 18 knot Arktika could travel in order that it circumnavigate in twenty-four hours, we need to understand specific geographic conditions in order that its path be properly calculated. Below is a map showing the ice thickness for January 2011 from satellite data. This is at the height of winter when we can expect the ice to be its absolute coldest and thickest. There's very little snowfall at this level of the arctic and it is in fact classified as one of the driest places on the earth in terms of rainfall.
Ice thickness
So, even accounting for the fact that global warming is predicted to halve the ice density of the Arctic Sea in the next hundred years, the ice is still very definitely manageable. And this is perhaps a key point - the Arktika, circumnavigating on average every twenty-four hours will only have to cut the channel once, because the time it takes the ice to refreeze is far greater than the twenty-four hours it takes to pass around again. There's both scientific and qualitative data to prove this. Below is a chart that shows the sea temperatures for the arctic for 2011.


Sea ice, because of salt content, freezes at -1.8 centigrade. At this temperature, the 'frazil' - the smallest ice crystals - can shed the salt content of the water. So from around day 250 on the chart ice is forming all year round in the arctic sea. What remains is to estimate how long it takes for a certain amount of ice to grow. This formula is a combination of the formula for Freezing Degree Days - a variable of the temperature over time - and a conversion formula to turn this into a spatial measure developed by Lebedev in 1938. So, where p is the freezing point of the ice, x is the average temperature and d is the number of days:

Formula for ice growth.

So for 4 days at an average of -5 degrees we might expect sea ice to grow as such.

Applied formula for ice growth

4.009187 cm.

This formula is entirely holistic however and depends on the idea that there is no ice already, that weather does not affect the growth, that changes in current keep the water stable and so and so forth. More usefully and from a more empirical standpoint, we could look at the yearly level and note the four to eight weeks it takes for ice growth to begin between August and October and guess that for ice to reach normal levels again takes weeks, rather than days.

It's pretty easy to conclude from this that as long as the vessel stays on course every 24 hours, it will almost definitely be in a clear channel all the time. So although breaking through the ice will initially limit it's speed to around 10-15 knots, once the channel is cleared, it can reach it's maximum of around 21 knots.

In addition, the simple way that the Arktika is used gives us an insight: It's used to clear channels across the Siberian coast that are used by other ships. We have to assume that an icebreaker can't accompany every single one of the hundreds of ships that travel these routes; the icebreaker is so much slower and there are only nine of them. This prohibitive behaviour would draw trade to a near standstill. It's clear that the ice must take a week or so to become impassable to standard hulls and a few weeks to fully reform.



I literally got a designer to discuss fashion with a weapons designer who made weapons that killed people.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, notorious interviewer and curator just keeps popping up at the moment. Here he is talking with hero-of-mine Adam Curits about his origins and way of working in e-flux journal. Obrist's little 'conversations' series have always caught my eye, I keep coming across the Robert Crumb one and although I'm no fanatic about Crumb as opposed to other comic artists, the idea of a humble comiker being considered for high-brow cross-examination interests me and I've picked it up a couple of times wondering if gems of insight on Blues heroes and the Bible might be gleaned form it's well-designed pages.

More recently, I was scrounging for physical material from Rem Koolhaas, an architect who's name is often being punted in my direction as comparison, particularly with reference to his AMO research group. So I was delighted when I bumped into a copy of Project Japan on the internet.

The book mostly deals with the history of the Metabolist movement in Japan in interview format. Here Obrist is again, tracking down the minds that led and followed this avant-garde architecture throughout postwar Japan. The illustrations and diagrams are sumptuous and delicate and the book is both physically thick and dense with information and eye candy. Obrist moves through a conversations with Soviet force, relentlessly forcing the subject forward against their own resistances into corners of thought they might not have considered before, teasing out new storylines for his conversations.
I had worked out that that we were beginning to live in an increasingly complicated age where power worked in all sorts of ways other than how it was understood by political journalists, but I had no way of articulating that. I entered academia at the moment when the way power works in the modern world was basically becoming much wider and far more intricate. It flowed through culture and consumerism and public relations. It flowed through scientific ideas, and how those scientific ideas were then taken up and turned into technocratic dreams—and dystopias. It flowed through modern ideas drawn from psychotherapy and how to express yourself as an individual. I instinctively recognized that this had happened, but I had no idea how to deal with it, because academia hadn’t realized it yet.
And here I find myself in a similar position to Curtis - trying to talk about and analyse power and systems in new ways. He discusses at length the dialectic relationship between the individual and the greater forces of society - something that will outlive the individual's set of desires. Too much of one might lead to the crisis of debt and consumerism we find ourselves in now and too much of the other can lead to populist movements such as fascism and the horrors they entail.

He talks briefly about a re-emergence of collectivism, darting around the edges of the Occupy movement as a dangerous reactionary populist movement formed to attack scapegoats without much collective consideration for the root causes and culprits of the income disparity they attack. I imagine that to these protestors their individual security is enhanced by these numbers, and the feelings of collective right, but they want change now, simply because their unhappy with the current.
That fixation on the primacy of individual experience and feeling is not going to go away. But we’re beginning to realize two things: first, that this individualism is limited, and second, that when things get tough economically, socially, and politically, and you are on your own, you feel isolated, and you feel weak. And actually, there are other collective ways of experiencing things, and thus acting, which need to be recaptured. It doesn’t mean finding this sense of being part of something will mean throwing away our individualism. But this other way of being, this sense of being part of something, of losing yourself in something grander than you—we’re frightened of that...
...there’s something else waiting to be rediscovered, some new thing that will fuse with that individualism—that will empower individuals and make them stronger collectively, yet not mean that they have to surrender their feelings of uniqueness as individuals. Eric Hobsbawm is right that it won’t be fascism. But it’s going to be something else, beyond the individual. It’s going to borrow from religion. But it won’t be religion again.
I still haven't delved into the second part but he makes a lot of fantastic points about the consideration of wider consequences and causes particularly in reference to the philosopher Max Weber who wrote to explain that ideas have consequences and ramifications and aren't just expressions of a human social systems.

It's a fascinating read and there's a Part Two that can only apparently be found by sticking an extra 'i' on the end of the URL which I'm going to save for later.

White Ice

The white ice burns his retinas as he breathes in the freezing air that accounts for almost all that the arctic provides for man. It never snows here, but often enough blizzards rage through winter that catapult shards of shattered ice across the ship making the opportunity of trips to the outside rare. In the summer heat, the reactor demands his constant attention. The ship is getting old. To the patrons of this never ending expedition it represents no more than an ever-charging dot on a globe, a series of flickering digits, steeply curving charts and some elementary formulae, but to him, it is an aging titan.

The USSR began the construction of the icebreakers knowing that it was vital to keep the seaways of Siberia clear for transport. Later they would launch tourist expeditions to the very top of the world - gleeful amateur photographers and consumer-explorers, buoyed by the comfort and ease of traveling to the world's most remote point in a few days from a heated plastic cabin. As far as he knows, the once-holy marker they circle, always one-hundred and sixty kilometers starboard, the one so lusted after by the geographic entrepreneurs of old stands untouched in it's place at the pinnacle of the globe, tourists no longer care for the romance of arbitrary geography.

The heat from inside is announcing itself as steam boiling over from the vents that pockmark the deck. These ships were only ever built for this place. Two seventy-five-thousand horse power nuclear reactors that can only be cooled by the Arctic Sea herself lashing and lapping at the hull. He leans over the rails, far below, piping sprays boiling water onto the ice along the channel, churned from the sea, surged through the cooling tanks and released in great sweeping arcs of scolding liquid.

With the servers clicking and humming on the other side of the ship, poured over by less personable people than he, and the reactor being quiet and uncomplaining for now, he takes time to observe the states of matter around him: The ice rarely encroaches on the boat unless they took need to change their orbit. The water (thankfully) stayed under the bow while the steam drifted away into the cold blue air. Here the ship is, ploughing cyclically through the eyes of no-one and leaving a wake of unsettled physics. Perhaps from a distance, a traveler from the past might not think this vessel too alien from steam-ships of old that traveled this region.

The quiet was no longer as foreboding as it was all those years ago when he came on board. The rhythm of the machines on the ship; the trading system and his beloved reactor all kept a time that defined the days in a world of ever-dark and ever-light. Occasionally the reactor would hiccup, or even worse, belch and he'd be roused by a shrieking alarm in his ear and he'd launch himself, ducking under bulkheads to the true heart of the ship to soothe the old lady as she shouldered the burden that her masters put on her.

Of course, she was due for refit - a fusion reactor, a sleek and arrogant machine full of love of its own self-worth, admiring its reflection in the mirrored surface of the Arctic Sea. They'd have to dock. It had been three years since he had last set foot on land and, scanning the horizon one last time before ducking back inside, he wasn't sure how he would cope with the months in some glossy training center, waiting to be aboard again with his new obnoxious charge. Perhaps he could request to stay aboard and sit at his little station, pouring over schematics as he listened to the groans and squeals of ship-heart-surgery around him.

Arktika 2

At the moment, I'm going to be focusing a lot on the boat. The Bull feels like a first forray for both myself and the bank into the idea of a nautical trading post and the next incarnation will almost definitely be more considered as far as the practicalities are concerned. Also, if I'm to think about merging the scenarios into one greater body of work then it's very important that there is leeway in the design for them to crossover.
  • What exactly is on board the vessel?
  • What is life like on board?

Some detailed schematics of the inside of the Arktika class. The most detailed plans are for tourists considering the vessel for expeditions to the arctic so not much detail on the workings are provided. Some useful blogs however show images and information on the vessels including holistic information such as the constant heat inside from the reactors as well as some history.

For around ten years the Arktika class couldn't get docking rights because of the fear following Chernobyl in '72. Since it only needs refueling every 7 months and doesn't carry any cargo beyond humans, it's docking times are quite rare anyway and it gives the craft a certain alien aloofness in it's dealings with such an uninhabited and awkward place. Almost as if it's a necessary evil to be tolerated for the benefit of other craft.


Recent Images

More, always on flickr


I have to settle on a model of boat as a base to build up the engineering details for the banking vehicle I've designed. There were questions about whether this had to indeed be a boat and whether or not a land train might provide a better function. I believe not - for several reasons:
  1. A large train is no where near as manueverable as one boat.
  2. To that effect one large vehicle would be too heavy for the ice that currently stands at only 2 - 3 meters thick on average and will only get thinner with global warming.
The Arktika class of Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers first appeared in 1977 and the last was built in 2008. They are the largest and most powerful class of icebreakers in the world and can manage around 19-25 knots through up to 6m of ice.

SS Yamal

Because they're powered by nuclear reactors, they are unable to traverse from water with an average temperature of below freezing.

Snow melting hot spray

Snow melting hot spray form the engine coolant of another type of icebreaker might be an interesting modification.

They have a crew of around 115 and a passenger capacity of around 100. There are 6 in existence and 5 of the 7 vehicles to make it to the North Pole are Arktikas.

Collapsonomics: The Opera

Sadly I missed the Enron musical when it was on. Maybe this is a close second.