Forty Years Of Insularity

I’d like to be able to join in the tributes to the late Gabriel García Márquez by quoting passages from his works that have inspired me, but the sad truth is that, while I have of course heard of him, and I am familiar with his critical reputation, I have never actually got round to reading any of his books. I’ve pretty much completely avoided magical realism in fact; Angela Carter, Juan Rulfo, not much else.

This rather embarrassing lapse has prompted me to reflect on how anglocentric my reading habits are. How many translated works have I read? There are the ancient classics – Homer, Ovid, Virgil, some other Greeks and Romans. Skip a millennium to Dante and Cervantes, then another gap to the 19th Century; quite a lot of Russian stuff – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov – Flaubert, Zola. Into the 20th Century there’s Kafka, Hesse. Nothing I can think of post-war though.

This is most unsatisfactory. The cultural life of entire peoples is literally a closed book to me. Inexcusable, in an age where just about any volume is available at the click of a button, but unlikely to change, since I’m already well behind with my list of English must-reads, and new stuff comes out all the time. I will try to tackle One Hundred Years of Solitude this summer though; Márquez did win the Nobel Prize, so I guess it might be worth my time…

This “Internet” thing might catch on

It’s a quarter of a century since Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for what became the World Wide Web; I got on board in 1996 via a 14.4 modem, Compuserve, Netscape Navigator and Geocities, but it wasn’t until May of 2007 that the medium finally reached its full potential with the debut of Second Life Shrink. I think it’s fair to say that there have been no significant developments in online culture since then, but we’re working on it…

Into the valley of Death

It was just a couple of months ago that I was fondly reminiscing about the political landscape of the 1980s, but events of the past week have reminded me that the Cold War was actually pretty scary at times. It might seem unlikely that we would go to war over Crimea, but that’s probably what they said back in 1854 too.

Vladamir Putin may have in mind a more recent conflict; the USSR’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, when his predecessors allowed themselves to be drawn into a bloody quagmire which hastened the collapse of Soviet power in Europe. The CIA had more than a little influence in the instigation of that conflict (though of course it would later come back to haunt the US), and Putin may be thinking that a similar trap is being laid for him in Ukraine.

There seems to be no need for the Russians to start an actual shooting war though, since they have already demonstrated that they could if they wanted to, and that there is nothing that the US or the EU would do about it, which should be enough to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. That’s the sort of realpolitik that stopped the Cold War from ever getting too hot, so hopefully similar logic will prevail today.

The value of application

I’m middle-aged, and sensible, and a bit dull, so of course I have a monthly contract for my cellphone, with unlimited minutes and texts (not that I ever use many of either, since I don’t have much of a social life to speak of). Anyway, I guess that means that I’m well outside the target demographic for WhatsApp, and not really in a position to even begin to understand why it might be popular among the youth, or what its revenue model might be.

Even if I did comprehend how money can be made by facilitating gossip among teenagers, I’m still not sure that I would be able to get my head around the fact that Facebook just paid $19 billion for the app. How did they come up with that valuation? Why not $12 billion, or $25 billion, or some other random figure? For $19 billion they could have got a proper, profit-generating, corporation like ConEdison, and still had some change left. I know that the deal was mainly financed with Facebook stock, which may or may not hold its value, but reportedly there was about $4 billion in actual real cash involved too. The guy who sold them Instagram must be feeling he left some money on the table.

I probably shouldn’t care what Silicon Valley venture capitalists choose to waste their money on, but it’s impossible to read about these astronomical sums being thrown around and not wonder if some more productive use might have been found for the cash, like, you know, fighting world hunger or something.

No doubt such naive sentiment would earn me a stern lecture from today’s tech entrepreneurs, about how enriching the wealth-creators is the true road to global prosperity, just like Ayn Rand said, but even if I was a hard-headed capitalist rather than a soft-hearted communist the WhatsApp deal might raise a few concerns. If the rate of profit in traditional industries has declined to the point where capital is forced to find a home at the risky edge of new technology, then it doesn’t auger well for the economy as a whole. Of course tech enthusiasts will argue that we’re talking about a new, disruptive paradigm, and that the old rules don’t apply, and that the sky-high valuations of internet stocks are completely justified and not at all based on any sort of irrational exuberance, but that’s what they’ve said about every bubble since the days of tulip mania.

At least us poor folks can look forward to the whole edifice collapsing at some point in the future, though the Googles and Facebooks are probably already preparing plans to lobby the Government for a bailout when the crash comes, because these arch-objectivists do tend to embrace corporate socialism when times turn hard (for them). In the meantime I guess we just have to keep organising, and resisting where we can.

Pete Seeger RIP

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of folk music, (though I did enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis on a rare trip to the cinema this weekend) but I was sad to hear that Pete Seeger had passed away today, at the grand old age of 94. His songs seemed to soundtrack much of US radical politics in the last 70 years, from pre-war labour struggles, through McCarthy witch-hunts, civil rights marches and anti-war movements, right up to the Occupy protests of the last few years.

I’m not sure that the protest ballad as a cultural form is quite so popular on this side of the Atlantic, but hearing Seeger deliver a fine old union song like Which Side Are You On? certainly still rouses some revolutionary fervour.

All power to the Soviets!

Today was the 90th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Bolshevik revolutionary and first Premier of the Soviet Union.

Regular readers will know that I count myself a committed communist, so it will be no surprise to learn that Lenin is one of my political heroes. What he had – and what is missing from much of radical scene today – was an understanding that the central questions in any political struggle concern power – who has it, and what they do with it. “Who, whom?”, as Lenin succinctly put it.

This insight was given practical form in Lenin’s famous April Theses, delivered to the Bolsheviks on his return to Petrograd from exile in 1917. These few paragraphs, outlining a programme for action in the tumultuous days following the fall of tsarism, form one of the most influential documents in history – without them the October Revolution would not have happened, events in the 20th century would have taken a dramatically different course, and the world we know today would never have come into being.

I know from experience that my enthusiasm for Leninism is not widely shared, even on the left, which is perhaps understandable in light of how the Soviet Union developed in the years after Lenin’s death. It’s a shame though, because the key question that faces those of us trying to change the world today is the same one that the Bolsheviks grappled with a century ago – what force can we mobilise to counter the power of capital, which keeps us in subjugation? The answer, now as it was then, involves the organisation of the working class through a revolutionary party, a task that Lenin successfully accomplished. We could do worse than try to follow his example.

2013: The Year in Review – Part 2: Blogging

The less said about this the better probably; the liveliness and relevance of my limited output this past year can perhaps be gauged by the observation that close to half of the posts I did manage were either obituaries or concerned historical subjects.

Anyway, here’s our top ten posts by traffic:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. On Second Life and addiction
  3. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
  4. Second Life, with graphics, on the iPhone?
  5. Free Pussy Riot!
  6. Zombie Epidemiology
  7. There is no land beyond the Volga
  8. What’s up
  9. Ferrisburg, Vermont
  10. The Social Network

Mostly old favourites, though I was glad to see that our commemoration of the heroes of Stalingrad made the list, since I think it was our best post of the year. I was also encouraged by the popularity of our “Free Pussy Riot!” message, which, who knows, may have been the crucial factor that persuaded President Putin to pardon Nadezhda and Maria (though I’m not entirely sure that everyone who viewed the post after searching for “second life free pussy” would have been similarly satisfied).

We continue to draw traffic from all corners of the globe; a total of 100 countries from Albania to Vietnam. Here’s the top ten:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Canada
  4. Germany
  5. Australia
  6. France
  7. India
  8. Brazil
  9. Italy
  10. Sweden

So what of next year? Will I keep this blog going? I think so. I know that I have a guaranteed audience; my future self. I always enjoy looking back at my old posts, and reading what I thought about this and that. I’m annoyed that I didn’t write more this year; there were lots of stories that should have inspired me, and would have fitted in well with our general themes – stuff like the Chinese going to the moon, legalised pot in Uruguay (and Colorado and Washington), the omission of internet addiction from the DSM 5 (though Internet Gaming Disorder did make it into section III) – but now I’ll have to trust my unreliable memory to record my reaction to these events. That should spur me to more activity, for a while at least.

And will there be more Second Life content, like I promised not so long ago? Unfortunately my tablet broke down shortly after I posted that, so things will be on hold until I get round to fixing it. Don’t hold your breath…

2013: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

After my poor showing on the cultural front in 2012 I set myself some rather modest targets for this year; every month get two new records, read two new books, and see two new films. How hard could that be? Harder than I thought evidently.

I didn’t do too badly with music, managing to acquire 30 albums, mostly new stuff, and getting along a few live shows too.

Here’s this year’s mix tape (and here it is on Spotify, with a couple of substitutions for tracks that aren’t available):

Untitled 28 – The Twilight Sad (Killed My Parents and Hit the Road)
Nil - The Twilight Sad (No One Can Ever Know)
Holy – Frightened Rabbit (Pedestrian Verse)
Xcommunication – My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (I See Good Spirits And I See Bad Spirits)
Girls Are The New Boys – Saloon ((This Is) What We Call Progress)
Partners in Crime – The Strokes (Comedown Machine)
Subway – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Mosquito)
S.O.S. In Bel Air – Phoenix (Bankrupt!)
Husbands – Savages (Silence Yourself)
Magic Bullet – Wire (Change Becomes Us)
W/ Glass In Foot – Guided By Voices (English Little League)
Turn Each Other Inside Out – Primal Scream (More Light)
I Sat By The Ocean – Queens of the Stone Age (Like Clockwork)
Bad For My Body – Deap Vally (Sistrionix)
Bagboy – Pixies (Bagboy)
Tomorrow Tomorrow – Eleanor Friedberger (Personal Record)
Athsma Attack – The Fiery Furnaces (Gallowsbird’s Barkl)
Navy Nurse – The Fiery Furnaces (Widow City)
Canary Island – Houndstooth (Ride Out The Dark)
Morningstar – Grant Hart (The Argument)
Low F – Superchunk (I Hate Music)
Pandora’s Box – Throwing Muses (Throwing Muses)
Hitch – Speedy Ortiz (Major Arcana)
State Of Mine – Sebadoh (Defend Yourself)
Joan Of Arc – Arcade Fire (Reflektor)
Opiates – Throwing Muses (Purgatory/Paradise)
No Shelter – Blouse (Imperium)
Turning Violent – The Flaming Lips (The Terror)
I Need My Girl – The National (Trouble Will Find Me)
Only Tomorrow – My Bloody Valentine (mbv)

I’d have to admit that my musical tastes haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, hence the somewhat retro look of the above selection. My favourite album of the year – Major Arcana by Speedy Ortiz – is a new band’s debut, but the sound is distinctly 90s. Similarly the concerts I attended – Pixies, The Breeders – had a definite nostalgic edge.

It’s downhill from here I’m afraid. I only managed eight full-length novels, though in my defence I would say that I was on a bit of a modernist binge, and books like Gravity’s Rainbow, To the Lighthouse and Umbrella take a while to get through. Rewarding though, and in particular I found Will Self’s tale of psychiatric exploration and wartime loss both structurally intriguing and professionally fascinating, which made it my favourite read this year. In lieu of serious literature I did consume a lot of shorter pieces; reviews, essays, medical and political articles, and rather too many blog posts and other bits of online trivia. I like to think that this is a reflection of the fragmented nature of contemporary cultural discourse, but it probably has more to do with my ageing brain’s declining attention span.

My cinematic experience was similarly underwhelming; I just about managed one film a month. Behind the Candelabra was probably the best of these, and I also liked Before Midnight, though it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the previous instalments in the series.

So, pass marks for music, but could do better for books and movies. Will things improve over the next twelve months? I’m not sure that I’ll see more films, since I seem to have lost my old cinema habit, but I have bought a few volumes that were on the critics’ “Best of 2013″ lists, so I might catch up on current literary trends, albeit a year behind. We’ll see.

The Spy in the Cab

As if we denizens of Second Life were not paranoid enough already, we learned today that US and UK intelligence agencies have been covertly recording our in-world activity over the last few years.

In reports published in the Guardian and the New York Times, drawing on files provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it was revealed that the spooks viewed virtual worlds like SL and World of Warcraft as a “target-rich communication network”, which could be used by terrorists and subversives as a tool to plot the overthrow of Western civilisation. At one point “so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life … that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions”, and “while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications”.

Interestingly, while Blizzard have denied they were aware of the WoW snooping, both Philip Rosedale and the current Linden Lab management declined to do likewise when invited to comment by the NYT, which also reported that Cory Ondrejka, then Chief Technology Officer at LL (and also apparently “a former Navy officer who had worked at the N.S.A. with a top-secret security clearance”) had “visited the [NSA's] headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members”.

I used to believe that no one would ever bother to trawl through the minutiae of SL interaction looking for subversion, but it seems that my faith in the anonymity of the virtual crowd has been badly misplaced. It’s certainly made me think about some of the political conversations I’ve had with people in SL over the years, which, for all I know, may have triggered all sorts of automated warning bells, and landed me on some agency’s watch list. Scary stuff. I’ll certainly be more circumspect in the future.

Nelson Mandela RIP

I’m not going to try to summarise Nelson Mandela’s many contributions to the progress of humanity; that’s been well covered elsewhere, though it should be noted that much of the mainstream media have presented a rather toned-down take on Mandela’s politics, glossing over his more radical side. More than a few of the world leaders now rushing to eulogise Mandela have more in common with his oppressors than the man whose legacy they seek to appropriate.

Mandela’s passing has reminded me once again what a long time ago the 1980s were; looking back at some of the political questions that seemed so important to me in those days – the fight against apartheid, the Cold War, the war in Ireland, and no doubt others I’ve long forgotten – it seems like another planet. On the other hand, the fundamental injustices that underlay the struggles we were involved in back then are still around today; some of them in new forms, but others depressingly familiar.

It can seem that the fight to make a better world is endless, and that our foes hold all the advantages, but the greatest lesson that Mandela taught us was the necessity of taking the long view; it may take decades, and at times things might seem hopeless, but history is on the side of progress, and we will win in the end.

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