Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia

Joshua Yaffa (2020)

A study of the compromises needed to live in a totalitarian society, and the difficulties this causes for anyone wanting to operate there.

The simple view of an oppressive regime is that everyone is ground down and cowed by the corrupted police and courts, But some people always manage to succeed, and even more manage to soften the edges of the system by acts of kindness and rememberance. This book is about the latter group, and how they manage to keep some pieces of a gentler vision alive.

Yaffa knows Russia well, and understands the arbitrariness of it: it’s never entirely clear what is permitted and what is forbidden, and even the written rules provide little guide. He observes that people manage to find the edges of what the authorities will permit, and stay within within them voluntarily – meaning that the actual application of oppression or terror become less necessary as time goes by and people self-censor.

Along the way he meets several people who are doing just that. Perhaps the most interesting are the lady providing health services in conflict zones, which she manages only with the co-operation of the State – who can therefore claim some credit and whitewash their own behaviour by pointing to her humanitarian activities. Or the founders of a museum to the Gulag, who are driven out of their leadership positions and replaced by someone who better understands the authorities’ goal for the museum, subverting its message without actually closing it down.

It’s hard to know what to think about these actions. On the one hand, one might hope for a more forceful and uncomprimised rebellion against oppression; on the other, such a rebellion would need to be widespread to stand any chance of success, and the individual costs would be horrific. Perhaps the situation that Russians have arrived at is good for now, while they wait for the winds to change in a more liberal direction. They could have a long time to wait.

4/5. Finished Saturday 29 July, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology

Chris Miller (2022)

Part history and part prediction, this is a book that takes a deep-dive into semiconductors both as a technology and as an agent of political and economic change.

The history of semiconductors is fascinating in itself: a rivalry between individuals and companies, each striving to improve the features of chips and the yields of their manufacturing processes. Chips are now so ubiquitous it’s sometimes hard to imagine that the first recognisable microprocessor debuted in 1971. But even before that the world was being changed, as electronics started to appear in consumer devices and – more critically – weapons systems, with the US Paveway laser-guided bomb revolutionalising precision munitions delivery. (The description of how this system works is a eye-opener in its simplicity.) The exponential growth in the speed, power, and capability of semicondictors has brought us the modern world.

But where Miller really shines is in taking this history and placing it in the context of grand strategy. Having a electronics industry incentivised the US (and NATO more generally) to invest in “smart” munitions, and therefore reduce the size of their armies while increasing their lethality – and the cost of using them. That decision made sense in the context of the Cold War, but now looks more shaky given the rise of a China that has a home-grown semiconductor and IT industry of rapidly increasing sophistication. Is this a cause for concern? Miller thinks so. But he also argues that the West has sufficient levers to retain control, not least because building the latest generations of semiconductors relies on a very few “choke” technologies, each essential to the process, each requiring as astonishing degree of know-how, and each monopolised by a single company. It is this that allows technological sanctions of the sort that the US has imposed to be so effective.

One can always imagine new techologies being developed entirely independently, or more innovative uses of older processes: there’s a lot one can do with older sensing and processing systems, for example, which are still almost unbelievably powerful in comparison to those of only a few years ago. So control of the techological frontier may not be enough to prevent hostilities breaking out.

5/5. Finished Sunday 25 June, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Rare Metals War: the dark side of clean energy and digital technologies

Guillaume Pitron (2018)

Is the “green” revolution actually a “ruse”? This book would have one believe so.

It’s certainly useful to have “the dark side of clean energy” explored in some depth. Many of the observations are chilling, from the environmental impacts of mining to their political consequences in those parts of the world where they occur – and the ever-present shadow of China seeking to get a lock on strategic minerals that will power a world increasingly dependent on rare-earth magnets and specialist semiconductors. In many ways these consequences are the “resource curse” of oil repeating itself, as countries with minerals to extract are exploited and bullied by the companies (and countries) wanting to extract them.

I have to say that the book isn’t a convincing read, despite its wealth of anecdotes and quotes. Perhaps this is because the quotes tend to be unattributed, and the science quite shallow. Having said that, it’s pacey and well-structured, and a warning that the move away from fossil fuels involves a lot of shady dealing.

3/5. Finished Saturday 24 June, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Lost Café Schindler: One Family, Two Wars, and the Search for Truth

Meriel Schindler (2021)

A vivd memoir of pre-war Central Europe and the café culture that so much defined it (and still does). The Schindlers of the title are not the now-more-famous branch of the family, but they attained centrality by their catering and social status centred around their Innsbruch café.

This is both a family history and a broader social treatment of how confused and interwoven the various stories from that period and location can be. Schindler starts on her quest to understand her own family after the death of her awkward and domineering father leaves her with access to tantalising clues as to his own involvement in the events, as well as her memories of her refugee relatives, their allusions to their previous eminence, and her own childhood memories of running from her father’s creditors. In the process she uncovers the ways in which Jews integrated into Austrian society – and were then expelled and victimised, amid much confusion, when the political tide turned.

The inclusion of recipes in the back of the book is just a joyful addition to an already quite fascinating tale.

4/5. Finished Monday 19 June, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Now the Chips Are Down: The BBC Micro (Platform Studies)

Alison Gazzard

A look at the BBC Micro through a very academic prism: I’ve never seen some popular games dissected or considered as topics for post-modern readings! In this sense it’s a very different treatment to the more common histories of computers from this era, and one that I suspect for most people will be a lot less satisfying.

3/5. Finished Friday 9 June, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)