Have Bong – Will Travel

It’s been a few years since we last posted a 4/20 piece, and in that time things have certainly been looking brighter for fans of the noble weed, thanks largely to the good citizens of Uruguay, Washington and Colorado.

Marijuana has been on sale in the Centennial State for nearly four months now, and, contrary to the predictions of the prohibitionists, it has yet to descend into a orgy of drug-fuelled madness. Add in the fact that the tills have been ringing pretty much non-stop since the start of January and the pro-legalisation case begins to look unanswerable. Sure, the federal government still officially frowns on the trade, but they have agreed to turn a blind eye to banks doing business with dope dealers, suggesting that they know that legal pot is here to stay.

Or there to stay at least; sadly there is no sign that progressive change in the drug laws will be happening in this country any time soon. I guess I’ll just have to pack my bags and plan a trip to the Mile-High City

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…

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.

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.

First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait

Sad news about Lou Reed this week. I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of Reed’s post-Velvets work – I have a copy of Transformer of course, but it’s on vinyl, so I haven’t listened to it for years – but The Velvet Underground & Nico is still one of my all-time favourites. I’m especially fond of I’m Waiting for the Man, which always reminds me of the one and only time I bought dope in NYC (at Washington Square Park rather than uptown), when I managed to score $20 worth of the city’s finest cardboard.

My God Is The Sun

Normally around now is when we start posting gloomy pieces about the falling leaves, the lengthening nights, and the looming onset of yet another brutal North European winter (usually shoehorning the change of season into some clumsy metaphor for the dread of mortality), but this year my characteristic summer contentment has persisted well past August for the first time in while, and I’m actually feeling fairly upbeat about the coming months.

This may be because I had a relatively straight-edge summer – I didn’t sign the pledge or anything, but I did largely eschew intoxication in favour of healthy outdoor pursuits. Back in high school they told us that a natural high was sweeter than any drug, and while I probably wouldn’t go that far, I will say that it was different, and it’s certainly left me in a better physical shape than I’ve been for ages. Perhaps it’s this echo of youthful vitality that’s allowing me to face the winter without the gnawing subconscious fear that I won’t see the spring, or it could just be that I spent enough time in the open air to be healed by the fire from above.

Either way, I can feel my natural slothfulness reasserting itself, so I expect I’ll soon be slipping into my default winter mode of minimal exertion and comforting overconsumption, and undoing all the good work I did over the summer. On the positive side this should mean that I have time to devote to more cerebral pursuits, like reading and watching movies, or even blogging, so there might be a little more activity in this space than there has been of late.

Green Typewriters

And we’re back… Slightly longer summer break than usual this year, for various reasons, not all connected to idleness. Mostly connected to idleness though.

But who can blame us for staying away from the internet? What with twitterised death threats, cyber-bullying, extreme porn everywhere, topped off by the NSA snooping on us all, browsing the web these days feels less like strolling around a virtual utopia, and more like dodging the cops in the town’s sleaziest neighbourhood.

It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago everyone was saying that social media was going to save the world, and even nominating the internet for the Nobel Peace Prize. One might almost suspect that these scare stories (mostly concerning phenomena which, while obviously serious, have been around for years) were being hyped up by the authorities, and their allies in the old media, to convince us that we should steer clear of any online content that isn’t government-approved.

Anyway, I’m thinking that we should take a tip from the Russians, and start producing SLS on paper, with typewriters. We could hand out hard copies in the street, to anyone who looked vaguely interested. Our productivity and readership couldn’t be any worse than they are now…

Roboshrink

Slightly alarming news from Los Angeles, where researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies have developed a virtual therapist. The system interacts with the client through an avatar named Ellie, analysing verbal and non-verbal responses using a webcam and a gaming sensor. The current version uses a real psychologist in the next room to guide Ellie’s questioning, but future iterations promise increasing autonomy.

Ellie’s creators say that she is not meant to replace human therapists, but rather to assist them by taking care of routine information gathering and screening, leaving us old-fashioned flesh and blood shrinks with more time to do the actual healing stuff. That sounds fairly benign, but I can’t help worrying that if our managers hear about a worker who doesn’t need paid, never goes off sick, and always sticks to the treatment protocols, then it won’t be long before we’re all out on the street.

But, you may say, won’t patients resent being fobbed off with an ersatz therapist and demand to see a real live doctor? Well, according to the research, most people find computer-delivered treatment perfectly acceptable, so, yeah, basically we’re doomed…

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