Thursday, March 07, 2013

Russia: The New Frontier

I know that Russia is a very old frontier, probably somewhat explored well before most of North and South America were populated for the first time, and by some of the same people, judging by the similarities of the circumpolar languages, but now it appears to be the cutting edge of lawless innovation. A hundred years ago the vast majority of the population were uneducated peasants. Not stupid or incapable: they operated farms and other pre-technological businesses in a harsh climate in isolated areas where they made what they need out of what they had. They "electrified" and technologized that country in a few decades, but didn't lose the can-do spirit that got the crops in and and the cows home no matter what the weather. Today much of the population has benefited from free and fairly high-quality education under the communists, along with a national pride in science and engineering, and they continued to need innovation and guile to survive their own government. Котоматрица, the Russian equivalent of I Can Haz Cheeseburger? reveals little examples of how the Russians live in a more rugged, less processed society. Food that happens to be in the background of the pictures will be potatoes rather than french fries, fish in a bucket or a chicken waiting to be plucked rather than supermarket meat on a foam slab and there's less of a sanitized safety infrastructure.

Now this can be very bad. But it's also an environment in which innovation occurs. And stuff like this.

I was thinking that the seat of innovation and adventure would move to somewhere in Africa for a while, and I know there are some batshit crazy things done in Africa, with and without airplanes, but while chaos is conducive to invention, there may not be enough money or education in Africa to fuel the next wave of crazy cool stuff. It's not that what is probably a twenty-year old ultralight is innovation in itself. It's just that there doesn't seem to be a lot of attitude stopping it from going further. Not like the time I built a sea-going vessel out of driftwood and old bicycle tires, and some old lady called the coastguard on me. Apparently she thought I was too young to be out there. I was over thirty. I just act young.


Sarah said...

Russia is .... different. Leaving aside the supposed melancholy nature ( no one does doleful like a Russian ) I was impressed by the recent dashcam videos of the Chelyabinsk meteor.

You'd see this BOLT FROM GOD streaking across they sky, and the driver would look up, signal a turn and keep going. Like Jon Stewart commented, watching a video: "OK, now I'm going to hear what's Russian for Holy S**T!" .... "what? He didn't say a word and just kept driving??"

zb said...

Seems to be true. Some of the coolest threads in an electronics Q&A/wiki forum I enjoy are started by a guy from Moscow. Here's an example of him taking some of the most basic parts available and tryimg to use them in the most clever way. Exceptions exist, but judging from the overall style of all threads there, the Western/civilized way of developing electronic circuits seems to be: Take a readymade, integrated circuit and add a bit of clumsy stuff to make it work. And even, judging by some comments and answers in the above thread, discouraging experimentation.

Tinkering with junk parts is a most important way of engineering education, and this is a recent example of a big US company being worried about the quality of their new hires. What they call an Engineering University Program and offer as a tidy lunchbox-style "lab" can be found on junk boards of old radios and TVs. Kids in places like Croatia, Serbia or Russia probably won't need "labs" like these when it comes to practical experience needed as a pre-requirement for engineereng college classes.

I guess the brains exist everywhere, but it's brains and culture what is needed for engineering innovation. Westerners, don't just put your art into museums.

zb said...

Sorry, bad link. The recent example I was trying to link to is here (pdf).

Cedarglen said...

Wonderful, talented and often brilliant people, saddled by some awful governments. Now, if they could just improve their video quality...