View from Vitalia: Of dates, titles and technology terms

In the second instalment of his new blog, Vitali Vitaliev looks at some confusing anniversary dates and some vague - from his point of view - technology terms

Here’s a tricky question: when did the October 1917 coup d’etat in Russia actually happen? ‘What do you mean when?’ most readers would ask. ‘In October1917, of course!’

And just like in my recent After All quiz about dead lightbulbs and their uses in the 1980s Soviet Union (for the results, see my next After All column in issue 11 of E&T), most readers would be wrong. The October revolution in Russia (or, to quote my issue 7/8 After All, some local fracas with far-reaching consequences in Petrograd as a result of which the Bolsheviks usurped power) took place on 7 November 1917 and should therefore be referred to as ‘the Red November Revolution’!

So why is it then that everyone, including the respected BBC Radio 4, hurry to mark (if not to celebrate, for how can you seriously ‘celebrate’ the 20th century’s most tragic event, which led – directly or indirectly – to the premature loss of millions of innocent lives and unimaginable sufferings) the occasion on the last week of October?

The answer lies in the difference between the Gregorian Calendar first introduced by Pope Gregory XIII (hence the name), which is in use in most countries now, and the Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian one and was popular in some Orthodox nations, like, say, Greece and Russia until the 1920s. Interestingly, Russia only switched over to the Gregorian Calendar in 1918, which explains the fact that the turmoil there occurred on the 26th of October by the Julian Calendar, or on the 7th of November by the existing Gregorian Calendar, and this is the date when it should be officially marked everywhere. Interestingly, whereas the rest of Russia has long switched over to the Gregorian Calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church hasn’t, and many Russians now celebrate both Christmas and New Year twice – more valid excuses for getting drunk.

It was an obvious miscalculation (in more than once sense) therefore to time the long-awaited release of Armando Ianucci’s “comedy of terrors” (a rather awful pun, if you ask me)  ‘The Death of Stalin’ for October 2017.

Always a proponent of grotesque and intelligent well-researched social satire, I hated every moment of that (from my personal point of view) pretentious, tactless and ignorant jamboree – an insult to the memory of 50 million innocent victims of Stalinism, and those include my own family.

Not the ‘comedy of terrors’, but simply a terrible comedy. Without going into detail, the makers of the movie could have at least done some research and got Stalin’s official title right, for in the film he is referred to as “The General Secretary of the Soviet Union”, whereas his proper ‘position’ was “The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”. And this is not just nit-picking on my part. To be really powerful, satire must be precise… Just like technology terms.

Here I have to admit that the precision of the latter often leaves much to be desired.  For quite some time now, I have been having an issue with the use (bordering on abuse) of the word ‘smart’ in describing machines, devices, apps, streets, towns, cities and almost everything else.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favour of ‘smart roads’ to ease up the traffic, but tend to take the frequently used (and often abused) concept of a ‘smart city’ with a grain of salt. That scepticism of mine originated a couple of years ago after attending an international public transport jamboree in Amsterdam. Or, possibly, in Berlin – can’t remember. The thing that amazed me most was that every single city (or town) represented there – and there were literally hundreds of them – was referring to itself as ‘smart’. One could be led to believe that there were no more ‘unsmart’ settlements left on the map of the world. Indeed, which city or town (or human being, for that matter?)  would want to refer to itself/himself/herself as ‘dumb’?

It looks like the adjective ‘smart’ has itself become a fairly meaningless cliché, which is  a shame because it is a really nice word – curt, quick and laconic, like the very concept it is supposed to denote…

There’s definitely a growing need to introduce a less clichéd synonym to ‘smart’. How about ‘cool’, say? ‘Cool cities’, ‘cool houses’ etc.? The only problem is that it can lead to misunderstandings, if taken climatically.  Finland, for example, could be safely branded as a permanently ‘cool’ country, with the inevitable double-entendre involved…  A ’cool’ house may not be always taken as a compliment either, particularly in winter and in colder climes…

There’s also a Russian equivalent of ‘cool’ or ‘smart’ – ‘krutoi’ meaning ‘steep’. ‘Steep city’? Hm…m… Not sure it would suit a lot of places outside San Francisco… And the connotation is entirely different, for in Russian it is not unusual to refer to a person (if not to a city/town)  as ‘krutoi’ meaning ‘smart’.

Imagine that: “He is a steep bloke, isn’t he?”

Coincidentally, I read in a popular science magazine recently about yet another new Chinese initiative whereby Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, having gathered video feed, traffic information, social media and other data in the city of Hangzhou, came up with the so-called ‘City Brain Project’ which allows tracking down absolutely everything that happens in this or that particular city street. That includes drivers’ and pedestrians’ (if any) verbal, text and email exchanges. Alibaba can interfere with them under the pretext of helping drivers and pedestrians find their way and plan routes. The magazine quoted Alibaba’s spokesperson (probably called Mr Alibaba Junior – only joking) as saying that “In China, people have less concern with privacy, which allows us to move faster.”

“To move faster” where to? Towards further control of people’s thoughts and behaviour?  

The article asserts that the trial of the City Brain Project was so successful that the company is now packaging it for use in other Chinese cities, including Shanghai. If you ask me, they should also try Russia (Mr Putin is going to love it!). And perhaps North Korea too…

Hangzhou is of course frequently referred to as a ‘smart’ city (like most other cities of the world – see above). Yet, with the City Brain Project expanding, it could soon be called ‘snoop city’ too.

Well, as it often happens, life itself has come up with a relevant synonym. I got an invitation to attend a conference on ‘Intelligent Transport’ to take place in London on 31 October. I do think that ‘intelligent’ in this case is much more appropriate than ‘smart’. In any case, it would be nice to try and chat up an ‘intelligent’ double-decker bus or, say, an ‘intelligent’ train. I wonder if The Golden Eagle, Russia’s first fully en-suite private train, launched 10 years ago, could be regarded as such? I think it could and it should, for what can be more ‘intelligent’ (and ‘smart’, if you wish, too) than your own little bathroom in your own cosy train compartment? I doubt, however, that The Golden Eagle will be represented at the exhibition, just like the St Olga Chapel Wagon – a small railway temple on wheels with lush incense-smelling interior, constructed at the Krasnoyarsk Electric Railway Carriage Repair plant and designed to reach Orthodox believers in Russia’s remote areas… I would love to attend a colourful Orthodox New Year liturgy in it. On 13 January, no doubt…

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