The Guardian

The Guardian July 24, 2002


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Little known products of socialism

Remember Rubik's Cube? That devilish complex of 27 small cubes that 
twisted this way and that and always ended up with one or more squares of 
the wrong colour on one of the faces no matter how hard you tried to 
remember the proper sequence that would unscramble the damn things?

Of course you do. No one who was alive in the '80s could forget Rubik's 
Cube (and those infuriating smart Alecs who could unscramble one in a 
matter of seconds!). But did you know it was a product of Socialism?

It was not widely publicised at the time, but Rubik's Cube was invented by 
a Budapest professor and marketed abroad by Konsumex, the Hungarian State 
Trading Company. And a good little money earner it was too.

Erno Rubik, whose birthday fell on the 13th of this month, was a sculptor 
and architect who in the '70s was Professor of Design at Budapest's Academy 
of Applied Arts and Design. His hobby was building geometric models.

He designed one using 27 wooden blocks formed in the shape of a cube. He 
painted the faces different colours and then scrambled them. It took him a 
"month" to restore the cube to its proper arrangement (Blimey. Even I was 
faster than that!).

Rubik patented his cube and Konsumex began marketing it in late 1977. By 
1980 it was a global phenomenon.

In the next three years, over 100 million legitimate cubes were sold, 
together with an estimated 50 million rip-offs. Rubik became a multi-
millionaire.

For reasons no doubt connected to capitalist propaganda's prevailing line 
that the downtrodden slaves in the socialist countries lived wretched lives 
devoid of joy (and frivolous toys) in which individual initiative was 
stifled, the cube was carefully marketed so as not to emphasise its origins 
"behind the iron curtain".

Not that Rubik's cube was frivolous, you understand. As the Encyclopaedia 
Britannica so soberly puts it: "It proved a useful tool for teaching 
algebraic group theory". Sounds like the desperate excuse of a student 
caught playing with the cube in class: "No sir, I wasn't wasting time, I 
assure you. I was studying algebraic group theory."

Actually, Rubik's Cube became a minor industry. Did you know that 
roughly "50" different books were published on how to solve the puzzle of 
the cube? Surely one would have been all that was required?

* * *
Jail or death
Did you see that item last weekend about the 92-year-old Californian man who suicided after losing an appeal to stay in jail? Coval Russell was jailed last year for trying to stab his landlord. It was the WW2 veteran's first offence. In jail apparently he was well treated by both guards and his fellow inmates, who not unexpectedly called him "Pops". Blind in one eye, poor and suffering from prostate cancer, Russell appealed to the court to allow him to remain in jail until he died. The appeal was denied and he was "released". As the newspaper account put it, "after his release he spent his days in a dingy motel, unable to afford basic pain medication". Alone, in pain and living in poverty, Coval Russell could see no way to alleviate his suffering in the richest country on Earth other than taking his own life. He jumped to his death off a bridge over the Feather River in northern California. People who have spent years in jail often become institutionalised and find it hard to cope outside. But Coval Russell had only been in jail a matter of months. What does it say about life in "sunny Cal" when an old man seeks the sanctuary of a US prison rather than trying to survive on social security benefits, and when denied even this, kills himself?
* * *
What a horrible, inhuman system.
Pay or die

The morality on display in the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona last week was staggering. "You need to make a deal with the drug companies you can live with", said Bill Clinton. The drug companies are sitting on the formulae for the medicine that turns AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic illness and for drugs that prevent babies from getting the virus from their infected mothers via breast milk. But the drug companies won't part with those medicines and drugs unless they are handsomely rewarded for the privilege. We are not talking about cough medicine here, but essential drugs that save lives. They should not be peddled for profit, sold to whoever has the money to pay for them and denied to those who don't. They should be manufactured by the state as a public service at the lowest price, and supplied to all who need them free. But I can't see the likes of Bill Clinton advocating that, can you? Smacks too much of socialism, if you ask me.

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