Alternative Oxfords and the Red Atlas

I attended the Bodleian Library’s fascinating webinar on unconventional maps of Oxford on Tuesday evening, where the star turns were easily the secret Soviet maps of the city from the 1970s.

It’s a fascinating, and not fully understood story. The Soviets produced top class maps of pretty much the entire planet between the 1950s and 1980s, which remained entirely secretly and unknown to the world until the early 1990s. So good are they, that the Bodleian itself still uses some of them for reference, particularly for Turkey and Greece, apparently.

Depicted, a detail from the Red Atlas featuring Dublin city centre, from c. 1980.

No one knows entirely why the Soviets did this, especially when you couldn’t even get a map of Moscow in Moscow until the very late 1980s. I can testify that when I lived in Minsk, there were no maps available. I ended up drawing my own in a notebook just to be able to get around.

The Red Atlas probably weren’t invasion maps, but they definitely were for restricted access. All sorts of fascinating locations are carefully marked up in purple, including the usual suspects like police stations, prisons and military bases, but also places of more curious interest, such as universities.

Chicago published a selection of them a few years ago, primarily of British and American locations, and called ‘The Red Atlas’. As for the Bodleian map librarians, ownership of this is probably useful if you can read a little Russian and don’t mind your maps being about five decades out of date.

It was a little disappointing though to discover that the Bodleian’s map librarians had never heard of the map of Lyra’s Oxford, from the fiction of Philip Pullman. Clearly they aren’t familiar with his work, despite it being probably the most famous and popular of speculative geographies of the city of dreaming spires.

Their other choices of alternative Oxfords included legendary town planner Thomas Sharp‘s vision of an automobile-enabled Oxford of the post-war period, and a civil war era map which may have been deliberately inaccurate in order to throw off enemy parliamentarian forces.

But the best of the rest, secret Soviet maps apart, was the 1883 ‘Drink Map’ of Oxford, produced in a spectacular example of an own goal, by the Temperance Movement. Its reverse featured a lengthy lecture on the dangers of alcohol and the evil magistrates allegedly facilitating excessive drinking in the city, but one gets the strong feeling that, as with other such drink maps of Britain at that time, they were more likely used by thirsty people seeking a nearby locale for some fortifying adult beverages.

Nowadays, such drink maps are basically pub crawls in cartographic form. They even come in formats where one may colour in images of pubs, like a drunken infant, thereby ticking off hostelries which you have deigned to feature with your sozzled presence.

Full Metal Racket

Nickel is a metal used in electric cars and stainless steel. Russia produces 20% of the world’s supply. So when Russia invaded Ukraine, obviously people were concerned about that supply and the price rocketed, from around $29,000 a ton to over $100,000.

Ordinarily, nickel doesn’t move much and floats between $10,000 and $20,000. So this was a serious and unprecedented move in price. However, one Chinese company, owned by a guy known as ‘Big Shot’ (seriously) had attempted to short the market. His firm Tsingshan was apparently on the hook for tens of billions.

But the London Metal Exchange, which for some historical reason is allowed to set the global market price for most base metals, decided to undo the trading. Not suspend it (they tried that too) but actively cancel all the trades.

Bug, Pee-Wee and Shrek deciding the price of base metals on their nice red sofa.

This has made some people who thought they’d made lots of money very unhappy. It may be mere coincidence that the LME was bought out by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange a number of years ago, of course.

Lawsuits are now flying, and the price of nickel is back to around $30,000 a ton at the time of writing, only a little above where it was before the invasion.

But I’m still a little confused why a boy’s club where many of the traders are related to one another and go by nicknames like Bug, Shrek and Pee-Wee, where daytime drinking was recently the norm, and where trading only happens on Wednesdays, and must be conducted while sitting on a giant red circular sofa is considered the best and only method for deciding the prices of most of the metals we use on Earth.

The Chinese now want to run the world’s metal markets themselves, but I’m not sure that would entirely resolve the problem.

The fundamental problem is inherent to the five century old stock exchange system itself, and a small market like nickel with a singular point of price discovery like the LME simply exposes the flaws of this antiquated method for setting prices.

It shouldn’t be possible for a commodities market in an industrial metal like nickel to literally treble in a matter of a day, no matter how supply might be threatened. Nor should it be possible for a single man to short an entire commodity market to the extent that he did. Nor should it be possible for agreed deals to be undone.

Here we have an example of traditional rules-bound capitalism – a largely closed shop with its weird in-group habits – but as soon as the market became systemically challenged by its own methodologies, all those rules and traditions were jettisoned with shocking disregard.

I don’t think you get to come back from that. I think the day of the red sofa is likely over.

What’s the cure for conspiracy theories?

The world seems rife with conspiracy. Never before have we had a population so well educated, yet apparently so vulnerable to believing in vast conspiracy narratives. It seems like a contradiction. Researchers at UCLA have been using AI to work out how such conspiracy theories seem to emerge and subsequently collapse with ever greater velocity. But they struggle to explain why these ideas emerge at all.

The attraction of conspiracy theories is the promise that beneath the apparent chaos of the world is some underlying order and meaning, even if that meaning is negative and the order is destructive. It’s a desire to feel control, to possess agency over one’s own life.

Conspiracy theories • NPC • meme • funny • catchymemes

In an ever more individuated and atomised world, the natural human desire for bonding en masse, for submerging into a gestalt and having a sense of belonging, therefore becomes subverted by such theories. Conspiracy theories are less ideas than they are communities.

The question is not why do conspiracy theories occur. They occur because of the human need for meaning and desire for order. Nor is the question how they may be combated or defeated. They can only be challenged and overcome by implementing transparent order in society. Transparent in this sense includes the underlying principles of fairness and dignity, because people will also strive for alternate explanations when they are treated unfairly or suspect they are being stripped of their human dignity.

The question that remains about conspiracy theories is why certain narratives prosper and others do not. To an extent this is a cui bono question – who benefits? Who makes money from proliferating certain conspiracies? And certainly, there are many who make a healthy living propagating nonsense and half-baked ideas to the masses. They may even be acting in good faith, believing in the attenuated and baroque web of connections they themselves are weaving. But more significantly, it’s an issue of what cultural anxieties are exposed by conspiracy theories.

The current most prolific conspiracy theory – that shadowy cabals of elites operating both in and out of the public eye are attempting to implement population reduction and totalitarian rule – is in this sense a throwback to the unequal and undignified social structures of the laissez-faire 19th century or even earlier, to feudalism. But it also expresses very contemporary anxieties about the Covid pandemic, and deeply held suspicions about the democratic unaccountability of transnational bodies in particular, be they the EU, the IMF, the World Economic Forum or the UN.

There are, in short, no easy answers to conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories ARE the easy answers. They satisfy the atomised citizen’s need to bond in dignity with fellow citizens and they provide a simple and moralistic order against which to resist, thereby providing meaning.

History suggests that people, no matter how well educated, will be inclined to prefer such easy moralistic explanations of the world in which they live. The attraction of such explanations is as hardwired as the desire for sugar or animal fats, and as difficult to break as a habit.

Only a world which offers its citizenry ever greater fairness and dignity, which entrusts them with agency over their own lives, has any hope of competing with the memetic addiction to conspiracy. Until such a world is in place, people will continue to believe that shadowy forces secretly rule the world and wish them harm, be they demons, or Illuminati, Elders of Zion, or psychotic men in the boardrooms of Brussels and Washington.