"Hi, I'm ya new neighbor Toadfish. I'm moving in. That's right, I'm taking ovah!" | News | Coagulopath

…is an episode of The Simpsons, but also an odd video.

Few have seen it. Those who have might actually understand it less than those who haven’t. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a comprehension black hole.

Here’s the thing about the weird internet: words don’t work. The more I describe something the more confusing they become. Light doesn’t illuminate their darkness, it deepens it. Chernobyl has special radiotrophic funguses that resist radiation; the internet has special funguses that resist explanation. There’s stuff that just seems broken, barely existing in reality, and well-meaning “explainers” all seem like mathematical treatises on four-sided triangles.

Goatse.cx is a good example. Although I can tell you what it is – a long-gone website which hosted a photo called hello.jpg, showing a man stretching his anus to the width of a toilet’s outflow pipe – I can’t capture its essence.

I’d have to write reams about the surrounding culture, how it became an easy-bake recipe for trolling and griefing, how some scrub would ask for CS hacks on IRC and you’d link him to goatse.cx and laugh while imagining his face, how it then became the flashpoint for various internet dramas (the scrabble to secure the goatse.cx domain name after the Christmas Island authorities intervened, the search to identify “the goatse dude”, etc), and eventually became a shibboleth for the weird web: something you either “get” or don’t.

For many of us, goatse was a shock, a loss of virginity, the moment the safety rails fell away and we realized just how bad the internet was. It’s also a humbling reminder that no matter how weird you are, you’re probably fairly normal in the grand scheme of things. But I don’t think I’m making much progress at explaining goatse. In the end, it just exists: this awful, inexplicable thing that everyone knows about but nobody talks about, a cancer the internet is slowly dying from. A few days ago, the Toronto Sun put this on their Twitter feed, and everyone went “haha” without even acknowledging what it was. That’s the correct way to experience goatse. Wordlessly.

Bart the General is a similar case. It can’t be done justice. This Youtube comment by “Fudgaboutit” sums it up.

Have you ever been scared by something as a kid because you can’t comprehend what you’re seeing, but you know something is wrong? It is so strange to be feeling that again as an adult.

It’s a deliberately bad Simpsons parody created in 2005 by a UK art collective known as Famicon (most particularly, someone called GHXYK2). Their other “work” is varied: books, music, videos, comics, and homebrew PC games. Bart the General was animated in Multimedia Fusion 2, with sprites apparently drawn in MS Paint. It shares a name and nothing else with the fifth episode of The Simpson’s first season, and I assume GHXYK2 titled it that way to trick people searching for the actual episode. When viewed in a blurry 320×240 thumbnail, Bart the General kinda looks like the Simpsons.

It begins with an ear-bleeding, distorted remix of Danny Elfman’s Simpsons theme. You’ll want to mute your audio. There’s a loudness war, and this is its A-Bomb. Hallucinatory imagery flashes on the screen. Animated gifs loop in corrupt circles, distorted by digital filters. It’s an uncomfortably long introduction, but what follows is just uncomfortable.

An Australian convict called Toadfish shows up on the Simpsons’ street. He throws Ned Flanders out of his house, gruesomely murders Scott and Todd, and then enters the Simpson home for reasons unclear. I should note that Homer is “Omarn”, and Bart is “Burton”, but GHXYK2 occasionally refers to these characters by their original names, and so will I. Lisa is mentioned several times but never seen, and Maggie doesn’t seem to exist.

Toadfish out-alphas Homer (“Oi’ll break yorr legs!”), and seduces Marge with his antipodian charm (“thought you were the daughta, ya so fit”). He moves in, and Homer is thrown out of the house and forced to live in a crackhouse with Ned, where he cries incessantly. Even his son Bart begins to persecute him.

This has an odd air of pathos – as though the creator is taking it half-seriously. You feel sad for Homer. Generally, tragedy takes a Shakespearian form (the hero’s downfall occurs because of their mistakes or personality flaws), and a Grecian form, where the downfall is unavoidable, the will of the gods. I’d call Bart the General a Grecian tragedy. Homer hasn’t done anything wrong. Stonefish has just walked off the street into his life and taken everything from him. It’s arbitrary fate, unearned and cruel. But this is merely the polar inversion of the regular Homer Simpson.

It’s often observed (even on the show itself) that Homer makes no sense. How could a man that stupid work as a nuclear safety technician? How could a man that selfish have a loving and loyal wife and family? In its own way, it’s as mind-breakingly wrong as anything in Bart the General. Homer doesn’t deserve to lose everything. But nor does he deserve to have everything. The symmetry is fearful.

The final thirty seconds are incredible. Homer stops bewailing his fate and returns home, as though it’s all a bad dream and he can overturn it by re-establishing his usual routine. But as he enters the house, he sees Marge having sex with Toadfish on the famous brown Simpsons couch and suffers an emotional collapse. He groans “Marge…you’re breaking my heart!” in such hard-rending gravity that you might think it’s a reference to The Room (which it probably isn’t, that film achieved fame a year after Bart the General), before sitting down and scooting his ass back and forth on the carpet, moaning like a broken vacuum cleaner.

Then it ends.

Toadfish, by the way, is a character from the Australian sitcom Neighbours. This meaningless yet oddly specific detail typifies Bart the General. Why is Toadie in the Simpsons? And why is he so different to the original character? Jarrod “Toadfish” Rebecchi was a class clown who was later recast as the show’s voice of wisdom, but he was never a brutal sociopath. It does explain some creative decisions, though. For example, this digitally defaced man is actor Ryan Moloney atop a picture of tetractenos glaber, the Australian toadfish.

The original video has gone down, but re-uploads exist. Bart the General has a hydralike tenacity. It probably has more fans than the Simpsons episode it stole a name from, which was a tepid and safe effort from a show whose writers were still gaining confidence.

GHXYK2 made three more Bart the Generals. They didn’t recreate the success of the original, and didn’t try to. Instead, they took an already-weird story even further into a landscape of nightmare.

Bart’s voice completely changes. A few Simpsons characters appear (Mr Burns, Otto the busdriver), along with Dr Gregory House and still other characters I cannot identify. There are Lynchian touches – such as the entire fourth episode, which has a reddish tinge suggesting sundown, or a spiritual and perhaps actual apocalypse. Not even the length of the videos makes much sense. There are sophomoric gross-out touches, such as a plane with a shitting anus on one wing-tip.

Homer’s troubles only get worse. Toadfish’s brother Stonefish arrives at the house (“I’m fucking ruining your life from this day on!”), and joins in the bullying of Homer.

Stonefish doesn’t even look like his Neighbours character. He also possesses magical powers. One of Bart the General’s most gruesomely effectly visuals involves Stonefish electrocuting Homer and then literally pouring himself down a phone line (link because it’s possibly seizure inducing, and too annoying to have on the page).

Other subplots: Marge is pimped out by Toadfish and stars in porn videos. Bart sells them to buy fuel for a sports car he has purchased somehow. Dr House falls out of a plane. The Simpsons house is taken over by a gang of terrorists led by a panther-headed figure with a British accent. Bart loses his car, returns to Homer, and apologizes by performing oral sex on his father.

All of it is fairly incidental. Plot threads just begin and end, usually unresolved. But you see the cracked remnants of TV plotting. The terrorists (who kill someone, leave, and are never seen again) are your classic villains-of-the-week, for example. And Stonefish is the “worse bad guy appears after hero defeats the first bad guy” season 2 plot device. The fact that it’s all wrong – Homer hasn’t even defeated the first bad guy, and Stonefish and Toadfish join forces! – make it all the funnier.

It seems different artists created different parts: as they vary a lot in style, quality, and tone. Will there be a Bart the General 5? Time will tell. The fourth installment ends with a big “TBC”. But the fact that it was made thirteen years ago (and nothing since) probably mean this was just trolling on GHXYK2’s part.

Bart the General received hundreds of thousands of views when originally uploaded, although not all of them were organic.

In 2006 Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka (of SomethingAwful fame) took the somewhat gay step of trying to turn it into an internet craze.

So I was wondering if the power of the SA Forums could be used to turn this seemingly unpopular, random video into a meme, into some viral Internet sensation which will immediately become played out and obnoxious. Here’s the general outline of how these things happen:

1) Video is linked ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TezHbHnPXZw )
2) The link is passed around through blogs, emails, and IMs.
3) Photoshops and parodies of catchphrases from the video start popping up.
4) Video collections of the photoshops and parodies pop up.
5) News media outlets catch wind of it and talk about it in their “lighter side” part of the newscast, before “panda gives birth” and after “cute kittens play with yarn”
6) Merchandise cashing in on the original media starts coming out.
7) Everybody associated with the original media expresses their desire to kill themselves for ever being involved.

As he later put it:

“I was curious to see how difficult it would be to artificially manufacture a viral Internet fad. I didn’t really have any target until I saw this video: This is one of those things so completely random and messed up that, I figure, it’d be the LEAST likely to ever turn into a meme or successful viral Internet fad.”

But if you were doing that, you’d pick a video that’s actually boring.

Bart the General isn’t boring, not by half. Nor is it “completely random”. There’s obviously a degree of thought behind it, obviously a desire to entertain. The fact that it works different beats to most mainstream entertainment doesn’t make it meaningless:  9223372036854775808 seems random to the casual eye, while a computer scientist sees the values for a signed 64-bit integer. To those who “get it”, the video is extremely fascinating and rewatchable. Kyanka’s edict to spread this “unpopular, random video” is like a viral campaign to get people to look at porn. The video is great on its own terms, not because of some ironic gesture on Kyanka’s part.

Regardless, the SomethingAwful “goons” followed Kyanka’s instructions and obligingly spammed the video everywhere they could. You can see the remnants of their publicity blitz here, along with idiots ruining the gag by talking about FYAD and whatnot It’s saddening to me, and cheapens the video, I think. Just like when I see people on Youtube posting banal comments and upvoting each others’ feeble jokes (“still better than ‘Lisa Goes Gaga‘, am I right guys? Hurr hurr.”) It’s like watching chimps handle a Joseon porcelain vase. Bart the General is too good for them, and for Kyanka, and for me.

I’m fascinated by the reactions – or non-reactions – internet commenters have to Bart the General. Some return to it because they’re fascinated by it. A lot of them are burned out, 40 year old goons who remember Lowtax’s campaign.  But they all keep coming back to it. I am just glad to live in a world where it exists.


The strange case of a strange case | News | Coagulopath

I think about this image a lot.[1]I do not.

What’s the purpose of the cubes? If they’re blocks in a building, the “intelligent” worker made his cube useless. He’s really going to look like a dumbass when he arrives at the construction site and they can’t use it. He should have carved his cube into a cylinder. That way he can roll it on his side, but it can still be used as a load-bearing element.

Speaking of cylinders, and rolling, and uselessness…

It’s my latest acquisition: a PC case from the wilderness of AliExpress.

This case is advertised around the internet under a half-dozen different names: the GAMEKM Spirit, the GAMEKM Genki Bomb, the TGEARS GAMEKM Genki Bomb Cyclops, the Space Capsule, the JF-TVQJ, and a different company called Vetroo sells an unbranded variant called the V2. I don’t know if they have the rights to the design or if heft-spelled-with-a-t is going on.

It’s clearly intended for Asian teenagers who want a cool-looking PC that doesn’t take up space. Other companies have repeatedly failed to bring cylindrical case designs to market, mostly because they made your computer look like a literal trash can. The GAMEKM SpiritGenkiBombCyclopsJFCapsuleV2 is a different story: it sits on its side (supported by two sled mounts), and its 180 degree acrylic panel (and a 200mm front-mounted fan) encourage you to absolutely stuff it with RGB rainbow puke.

This case would be right at home at a Chinese wangba or Korean PC bang: GAMEKM/Vetroo should have made it a prebuilt loaded with the latest games with cheats, hacks, and scripts preinstalled. Do I have to come up with all the good ideas around here?

I didn’t add the “Amazing !!!!!” and “666666”s and so forth, those were on the marketing copy, which is full of lies.

– there is no tempered glass on the case. All transparent elements are acrylic sheet.

– There is no way in fuck you will fit a 165mm CPU cooler in this case. There might be that much internal clearance with a motherboard and CPU installed, but the top of the case is curvedIf your cooler is 120mm wide, its height must be approximately √(315^2-120^2)/2 = 145.5mm to fit[2]In more detail: Slice out a cross-section of the case and you have a circle with radius = 157.5mm. What’s the longest 120mm-wide rectangle you can fit in this space? Put another way, the … Continue reading Remember that you also need fans.

– it ships with a 200mm fan, but it can’t be connected to AuraSync, RGB fusion, and so on. It has a proprietary 2 pin cable. While I haven’t probed the contacts, I assume one would be ground and the other PWM.

– A fan mounted in the position would draw air in to the case, not expel it as the arrows indicate.

– “vertical installation” of the GPU: technically true, but only because your motherboard is flat. You literally just put your GPU in the way you normally would. There’s no other way to install it and I have no idea why they advertised this like it’s a special feature.

– I hope “450*3158*350mm” is a mistake.

“This little guy can make you a star in your circle of friends”. Very questionable.

It’s “fruity and small”, though. I’ll give them that.

Anyway, let’s build.

* * *

PC builds have a way of going to hell. I can’t count the times my “this will take 2 hours and then I’ll be done” plan has become “this took 8 hours and there’s a gun in my mouth”. This was one of those times.

(Images can be expanded by clicking on them)

My parts were:

  • Gigabyte B550M Aorus Elite AM4 mATX Motherboard
  • Ryzen 5 3600 CPU
  • AMD Radeon RX 570 (cringe)
  • MSI MAG CoreLiquid 240R AIO
  • 500GB Samsung 970 NVME m.2 drive
  • 2×16 3600MHz GSkill DDR4
  • Super Flower modular PSU, not sure on wattage
  • 6x Thermaltake Riing Trio 120mm fans
  • 1x Thermaltake Riing Trio 200mm fan (replacing the stock GAMEKM fan)

Things started well. I removed the acrylic panel and the two sleds, installed the modular power supply, and routed the cables through the grommets. I’m trying to get things as close to their final configuration as possible – my 24 pin exits near my motherboard’s power socket, and my EPS and VGA connectors terminate near my CPU and GPU power. There are things that are easy when you have an empty case but nearly impossible when the case is full.

I also replaced the 200mm fan, which did not spark joy, with a superior Thermaltake Riing Trio 20. I needed motherboard connectivity. ALso, I liked the outer circle on the Riing model fans. They also have a light diffuser bar that smears out the LED hotspots, avoiding the annoying “Christmas lights” effect of many cheap RGB fans.

The chassis is made of SPCC cold-rolled steel. It feels good to touch. There’s something about the tactility of curved metal that goes away when you have straight lines.

Next I installed the motherboard, and then the NVME drive (many of these components, by the way, came from a previous PC.) Wanna know an ancient Chinese secret? Only screw in one of your motherboard standoff screws while you’re working on it. That way your motherboard can bend and flex, allowing you to thread small cables underneath it.

My original intent was to water cool the PC. As the ad copy observes in bastard English, the top of the case supports “cold rows” (liquid cooling, presumably) of 240mm in length. By chance, I had a 240mm radiator I wasn’t using. I had a brilliant idea. I would put two 120mm TT Riing fans on both sides of the radiator block, in push-pull configuration, and mount the entire thing to the top. I’d never seen anyone do anything like that before. I’d make a radiator sandwich!

However, often there’s a reason why nobody’s done something before. Immediately, I ran into three problems. The TT Riing Trio fans are extremely thick, and none of the screws I possessed could reach through to the radiator thread (which was annoyingly deep-sunk).

I prised off the rubber pads at the corner of each fan, thinking that this would give me enough clearance. But I soon realized that having screwing two layers of fans onto a fairly thick radiator would make an absolutely massive brick, extending down far into the case. This would impact thermal performance, and additionally block the view (thus largely defeating the purpose of the Genki’s design).

I might still have gone ahead with it…but then I tried to mount the AIO pump to the AM4 bracket, and one of the retention screw literally snapped. I checked for replacements. There were none.

At this point, I abandoned the entire idea of water cooling, grabbed a crappy AMD fan I had lying around, clipped it on, and plugged it into my CPU_OPT.

I put two ThermalTake Riing Trios on the top, sans sadiator. An exhaust design wouldn’t have made sense given the downdraft fan two inches underneath them, so I turned them into intakes blowing additional air into the case. The Genki thingo has slots cut into the side so that air can escape. The third Riing Trio went on the back.

Here we were:

Note the scratched paint on the fan bracket. I was already running out of patience, slapping things together.

Next, I took the fan cables and very carefully escorted them down into the basement of the case, using zipties to keep them tight. That’s not the only way to combine basements and zipties.

Notice the empty cavity where my hard drives are supposed to go. I have no external HDs, NVME makes them obsolete. I’m reclaiming the space to store cables and other crap.

I turned the computer on and it POSTed. By this point, we were 95% done. I just had to connect the fan cables into the included Thermaltake controller. What could go wrong with such a simple procedure?

I plugged my 20mm fan into port 1 and 2 (it uses two!), my three Riing Trios into ports 3, 4, and 5, turned them the PC on.

The fans didn’t spin. I assumed that there was some driver issue with the controller and USB link into the motherboard…but my computer identified that there was a controller attached. The fans just wasn’t receiving any power. Curious.

I tried several different things (different fans, different motherboard headers, etc). Eventually, I discovered the culprit: Molex cables, and the fact that they are dogshit.

Molex is a cabling standard invented by a company from the 30s that used to make flower pots (I’m not kidding). Although they technically carry more power than the competing SATA standard, they are far easier to break, as they rely on just four crimped or soldered points of failure. I don’t know why Thermaltake expects me to power any device in 2021 with Molex. Probably someone has a spreadsheet showing that updating to SATA power would drop their MMR by 0.4% this quarter and cause the planet to explode and Hitler to come back to life. I don’t know.

Here’s what happened: the female Molex on my PSU had slightly bent pins.

When I plugged the controller in, the misaligned rings failed to accept the +5v and +12v metal prongs, and literally pushed them out of their housing. I destroyed two Molex cables by plugging them in!

This wasn’t good. I could only use my fans if the controllers had power. And the controllers no longer had a way of receiving power.

Lacking a crimping kit and also lacking tolerance, I did the laziest and most dangerous thing possible: I pulled all of the prongs out of my ruined Molex housing, wrapped them in 400v electrical tape, and shoved them individually into the female Molex.

This seemed to work.

I stuck both my controllers (each set of Riing Trio Plus fans came with one) together with double-sided tape, and stored them directly next to the motherboard. This wasn’t my original plan, but if anything explodes or catches fire thanks to my disastrous solution, at least I’ll be the first to know about it. I might fix this long term. Or I might continue to do nothing.

Everything is now ready to go, and I’m typing using this machine now.

It has unimpressive specs, high noise, high heat, and has a questionable upgrade path. I like it a lot.

With builds, my goal is generally to equal or surpass the test build they used to advertise it. I think I did it with this one. Notice how they have an ugly run of cabling over the exhaust fan? Not on mine.

The case’s name has probably changed six times since I wrote this, so I think I’ll give it one of my own: POLYPHEMUS.

“He [Odysseus] then sailed for the land of the Kyklopes (Cyclopes), and put to shore. He left the other ships at the neighbouring island, took one in to the land of the Kyklopes, and went ashore with twelve companions. Not far from the sea was a cave, which he entered with a flask of wine given him by Maron. It was the cave of a son of Poseidon and a nymphe named Thoosa, an enormous man-eating wild man named Polyphemos (Polyphemus), who had one eye in his forehead. When they had made a fire and sacrificed some kids, they sat down to dine; but the Kyklops (Cyclops) came, and, after driving his flock inside, he barred the entrance with a great rock. When he saw the men, he ate some.
Odysseus gave him some of Maron’s wine to drink. He drank and demanded more, and after drinking that, asked Odysseus his name. When Odysseus said that he was called Nobody, the Kyklops promised that he would eat Nobody last, after the others: this was his act of friendship in return for the wine. The wine them put him to sleep.
Odysseus found a club lying in the cave, which with the help of four comrades he sharpened to a point; he then heated it in the fire and blinded the Kyklops. Polyphemos cried out for help to the neighbouring Kyklopes, who came and asked who was injuring him. When he replied ‘Nobody!’ they assumed he meant no one was hurting him, so they went away again. As the flock went out as usual to forage for food, he opened the cave and stood at the entrance with his arms spread out, and he groped at the sheep with his hands. But Odysseus bound three rams together . . . Hiding himself under the belly of the largest one, he rode out with the flock. Then he untied his comrades from the sheep, drove the flock to the ship, and as they were sailing off he shouted to the Kyklops that it was Odysseus who had escaped through his fingers.
The Kyklops had received a prophecy from a seer that he would be blinded by Odysseus, and when he now heard the name, he tore loose rocks which he hurled into the sea, just missing the ship. And from that time forward Poseidon was angry at Odysseus.”

[3]POLYPHEMUS & ODYSSEUS. Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E7. 3 – 9 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :

The gematric and symbolistic parallelism of the tale is hard to ignore. I am Odysseus. Wine represents time: the computer drank all I could give it, and still demanded more. Fire represents electricity: it attracted the giant, but eventually destroyed the giant. I grew tired of the beast’s threats, hardened a spear in the flame, and drove it directly into the 200mm cyclops eye, “blinding it” by destroying the Molex controller cable.

Like Odysseus, I then engineered an embarassing but effective solution to escaping the blinded beast’s clutches. I am now sailing away, and although the beast throws rocks, I will surely prevail.

Polyphemus is a Romanisation of the Ancient Greek Πολύφημος (Polúphēmos). More specifically, πολύ (polú) +‎ φήμη (phḗmē) +‎ -ος (-os), literally “many-voiced”, “much spoken of”. This could be broadly interpreted as “many-titled”, or a reference to the fact that it has so many different names.

This case and I were destined to meet, just as I was destined to slay it. Poseidon’s angry with me, though. Not sure how I’ll get out of that one. But for now, I have Polyphemus.


1 I do not.
2 In more detail:

Slice out a cross-section of the case and you have a circle with radius = 157.5mm. What’s the longest 120mm-wide rectangle you can fit in this space? Put another way, the rectangle has vertices ABCD. If AB = 120, what’s BC?

The trick is that the rectangle’s diagonal measurement (AC) is the same as the enclosing circle’s diameter, so AC = r*2 = 315mm. Treating this diagonal as a triangle’s hypotenuse, Pythagoras’s Theorem (BC^2 = AC^2 – AB^2) tells us that side BC is √(315^2=99,225-120^2=14,400) = 291mm. Since the available area is a semicircle, the measurement is 145.5mm. I’ve cheated a little: the motherboard isn’t located precisely at the 50% line on the circle, but it’s close – particularly since you will also want fans installed on the top. This method can, of course, be adapted to other cooler sizes like 90mm and 140mm.

3 POLYPHEMUS & ODYSSEUS. Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E7. 3 – 9 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
The Tomb of the Unknown Citizen | News | Coagulopath

On March 1954 the annual edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia was published by Moscow’s Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya. Under B was a glowing article on BERIA, LAVRENTIY, the great hero.

Beria was denounced as a spy, tried, and executed later that year. The Encyclopedia’s subscribers received a letter asking them to cut out and return the page on Beria. They were sent a replacement article (this one on the BERING STRAIT) which they were to insert into the volume so there’d be no missing page, no jump of numbers, no indication that a change had been made. Beria had been annihilated: cut from history, and the cuts also cut.

In the Soviet Union it was easy to cease to exist at any time and for almost any reason. It didn’t matter who you were: a decorated war hero, an inner party member, a useless artist, Stalin’s own daughter. Nobody was safe, nobody was above suspicion. The Soviet Union did scary things to be people, far more unsettling than mangled bodies in a ditch. Execution takes away a future: the USSR tried to take away everything.

By 1952, Soviet historical revisionism was becoming common knowledge. In Foreign Affairs Vol. 31, No. 1, journalist and ex-communist Bertram David “Bert” Wolfe laid out the case[1]Wolfe, Bertram D. “Operation Rewrite: The Agony of Soviet Historians.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 31, no. 1, Council on Foreign Relations, 1952, pp. 39–57, https://doi.org/10.2307/20030940. for this in embarrassing detail: they weren’t particularly subtle or worried about being caught. Important historical figures weren’t present in the USSR’s textbooks, facts were retooled and adjusted to fit narratives, and in some cases, entire races of people seemingly vanished.

Stalin warps history into a Procrustean bed of his own design […] Deletions from, and insertions into, the original texts of Lenin’s Collected Works as well as his own. The object in this method is to establish his infallibility during and after the October Revolution. […] expunging of the name of Trotsky from all available records. […] Omar Khayyam ceases to be a Persian poet of Nishipur and becomes “a natural product of the Tadzhik people” (a Soviet Republic). Shamil is no longer to be remembered as a hero of the Caucasus who led his people in resisting Tsarist oppression; he is now a “reactionary serving the interests of Britain and Turkey” more than a century ago. […] Companions of Lenin who opposed Stalin became unpersons — their names erased from the scrolls. Nationalities suspected of disloyalty in war, such as the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tartars, became unpeople, — their identities evaporated, and their peoples scattered through the steppes. Material things which offended him, such as museums devoted to native arts instead of to Great Russian benefices, became unobjects, — their contents marked for the trash can. […] When Stalin changes his line or attitude (toward anything under the sun, past or present) the historians must push the new concept backward to include all that went before. The present enemy must be viewed as having been the enemy always. Books, articles, statements, and so on to the contrary, must be purified or burnt. […] To quote the 1934 Stalin in Russia 1952 would be to take one’s life into one’s hands.

Wolfe describes this red-pen attack on reality as “Operation Palimpsest”, which is an odd way of putting it. Palimpsests are old pieces of parchment where the writing has been scraped away so that another layer of text can be overwritten (literally) in its place. In the 21st century, with the aid of chemicals and spectral analysis, we can usually recover the original text. Palimpsests, in other words, are failed acts of removal. The writing is hidden…and yet it remains.

In other words, just like Stalin’s censorship.

As the Beria story illustrates, you can’t just hide something, you also have to hide the act of hiding. It’s no good for a magician to make a rabbit vanish if the audience can see the pulley and wires and trap-door. Political history is replete with examples (Watergate, Lewinski) of bungled coverups that probably did more harm than the original crime, and poorly-done censorship can draw attention to the very thing it tries to cover up.

Below is an infamous pair of photos, synonymous with Orwellian creepiness. They half-depict Nikolai Yezhov (Stalin’s NKVD head from 1936-1938) before and after a history adjustment.

Is it a good fake? I don’t think so.[2]Although I have the benefit of hindsight. The editing is reasonable, but the shot’s framing gives it away. No photographer would compose a  shot this way: with all the people packed onto the left and the right showing just empty water. Clearly there’s supposed to be someone on Stalin’s right.

This picture would pass casual inspection, but if you knew that government photographs were prone to censorship, this one would raise red flags (in many senses). Nikolai Yezhov is gone, yet he’s more present than he was before. It’s a method of censorship that reverse-censors, like hiding something beneath a spotlight.

Even if the editor had cropped the photo tighter, it’s possible in theory that Yezhov’s presence could be re-established by a sufficiently advanced machine learning algorithm. We’ve been teaching computers to read emotions from contextual clues since 2003[3]M. Pantic and L. J. M. Rothkrantz, “Toward an affect-sensitive multimodal human-computer interaction,” in Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 91, no. 9, pp. 1370-1390, Sept. 2003, doi: … Continue reading. Perhaps the reverse can happen – an AI reconstructing context from an emotional state. Perhaps there’s something subtle about Stalin’s expression or posture that indicates there’s a man on his right. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but we’re absolutely getting closer to a world where it’s possible.

Technology is the specter at the feast. What will it allow us to do? How soon? Palimpsests appear clean to the naked eye, but to a technological eye the writing’s still there. This artificial gaze (unlike the human one) grows sharper as the years pass: picking out more and more signal from the noise. Historical crimes once considered unsolvable might soon be cracked by increasingly sophisticated uses of forensics and genomics, and so will historical omissions.

Unfortunately, the same fruits of technology will be repurposed to become tools of tyrants and monsters. An advanced deep learning algorithm might be able to recover Yezhov, but a far simpler one would be able to scramble or distort the image to make this impossible, in the same way that a simple freeware program like DBAN can, within seconds, wipe out data in such a way that the entire NSA, given infinite money and years, couldn’t get it back. Entropy’s a bitch. The USSR tried to delete their citizens, but failed because they didn’t have a delete key. The will was there, the technology wasn’t. Seventy years later, a real technological delete key is either coming soon or already here. When it’s finally used, we’ll be the last to know.

Stalin used more crude methods to reframe reality. Ironically, his attempts were rather democratic: he tried to unperson his enemies by public consensus.

Consider the absurdity of the Beria omission. The NKVD wasn’t raiding homes and confiscating copies of the Encyclopedia. They (via Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya) were issuing instructions for citizens to voluntarily censor their own books. They were explaining what needed to be done with full confidence that their instructions would be followed. People were at perfect liberty to leave the page on Beria in the book, but they didn’t think that would happen. After all, Beria didn’t exist in the new history. Why would you possibly want an entry for a nonexistent person in your encyclopedia? A lot of decisions make more sense when you let go of assumptions that the truth is important.

That’s maybe the cruelest, most humanity-defying thing about the USSR in this period: the way they made the people party to their own destruction. It’s not that difficult to crowdsource oppression: East Germany’s Stasi, over the course of its existence, had over 600,000 informants [4]Helmut Müller-EnbergsDie inoffiziellen Mitarbeiter.(Table 9, page 36) In: BStU: Anatomie der Staatssicherheit – Geschichte, Struktur, Methoden, Berlin 2008, a substantial proportion of the population. It’s a frightening thought that if we ever disappear, it won’t just be the work of Big Brother but also Big Sister and Big Daddy and Big Mommy and Big Neighborhood TV Repairman. Everyone will collaborate on your unpersoning without shame, perhaps without awareness. They’ll do it out of rightness. A new reality has been imposed where you don’t exist, and thus you don’t. It takes a village to raise a child (as the aphorism goes), and it takes a village to bury a child, too.


1 Wolfe, Bertram D. “Operation Rewrite: The Agony of Soviet Historians.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 31, no. 1, Council on Foreign Relations, 1952, pp. 39–57, https://doi.org/10.2307/20030940.
2 Although I have the benefit of hindsight.
3 M. Pantic and L. J. M. Rothkrantz, “Toward an affect-sensitive multimodal human-computer interaction,” in Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 91, no. 9, pp. 1370-1390, Sept. 2003, doi: 10.1109/JPROC.2003.817122.
4 Helmut Müller-EnbergsDie inoffiziellen Mitarbeiter.(Table 9, page 36) In: BStU: Anatomie der Staatssicherheit – Geschichte, Struktur, Methoden, Berlin 2008