Apple stalk

Another day, another reason to be paranoid. It turns out that my seemingly trustworthy iPhone has been secretly recording my every move, for goodness knows what nefarious purpose.

I would be worried, were it not for the fact that, sadly, I haven’t been anywhere remotely compromising in longer than I care to remember.

The (Un)Freed Weed

This time last year we were celebrating International Marijuana Day and looking forward to political developments on both sides of the Atlantic that promised a brighter future for aficionados of the noble weed. Sadly, our hopes turned out to be as insubstantial as smoke in the breeze; in the UK the Liberals did end up in government, but have, as yet, failed to rationalise the drug laws, while in California Proposition 19 fell agonisingly short of success.

So, another year of furtiveness beckons. I guess the habit might lose some of its outlaw charm if it was legalised, but a more relaxed approach would reduce the risk of burning out.

Spaced Out

Talking of Yuri Gagarin’s historic space-flight prompted me to revisit a favourite spot in Second Life, the International Spaceflight Museum. They have nicely-rendered models of various rocket-ships from around the world, including the latest Indian and Chinese models:

The big rocket second from the right is a Soviet N1, designed to take cosmonauts to the moon; unfortunately all the test flights exploded shortly after take-off, and the programme was abandoned. Next to it is an American Ares V, which was set to be the launcher for the Moonbase and Mars expeditions, but that programme was cancelled last year.

More successful Soviet craft are featured too, from the Vostok and Voskhod boosters of Gagarin’s day, to the Soyuz workhorses, and the current Proton rocket which, now the Space Shuttle has retired, is the only way to get big things up into orbit:

The Museum also has an earth-orbit exhibit, featuring the International Space Station. I felt a little exposed in my normal clothes, so I quickly scored a nice retro-style space-suit (from Aurican’s Pyramid Store), before venturing into the vacuum:

Now I had the suit it seemed a shame not to do some more space exploration. Back at my little mountainside home I quickly build a mini launch pad, and picked up a cool little space-coupé (a PS-1 Dart by PlasmaStorm Industries at Port Clarke):

My original plan was to zoom around my neighbourhood (which, incidentally, seems to have gone completely to the dogs since last time I looked, abandoned land everywhere, but that’s a topic for another day), but after a few jarring collisions, presumably with the sim borders, I gave up on that and headed into deep space.

First stop was Tranquility Base on the Moon:

Then on to see the big starships at Talmont Space Port:

Finally, some chill-out time at Inspire Space Park, where one can meditate while tumbling through the celestial sphere:

and relax in front of a nice warm fire:

Recreating outer space is perhaps the perfect use for Second Life, since the relatively featureless terrain means it all renders nice and quickly, and the characteristic lack of other people adds to the verisimilitude. I would quite like to get into some space-based role-play, but I don’t really have the time to devote to that right now. Another project to add to my list for later in the year.

Red star shines on

Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin climbed into a small capsule atop a Vostok rocket and blasted off to become the first human in space. The Soviet programme had previously launched a few dogs into orbit, and had brought most of them back alive, but, even so, Gagarin must have known that his mission was insanely risky, and his courage is still inspiring today.

Gagarin’s historic flight resonated far beyond science, deep into general culture and Cold War politics. This wasn’t just a man going into space; it was the frontier of humanity being expanded by the son of a farmer from Smolensk, the technological triumph of a nation that just half a century before had been a pre-industrial backwater, the ultimate demonstration of the superiority of Soviet planning over the capitalist economies left struggling in its wake.

Of course we now know that this confidence was misplaced, for a number of reasons. The drawn-out failure of the Soviet experiment ushered in an era where it became accepted wisdom, even on much of the left, that inequality and injustice were the natural state of the world, and talk of building a new society freed from want by the application of human intellect was utopian. The best we could do, we were told, was to let the market run free, and trust to the charity of our rulers, with some light government regulation, to spare us from the worst excesses of unrestrained capital.

The financial crisis of the past few years has seriously undermined this theory, as living standards for the mass of the population have plummeted, while the rich have continued to get richer. People are again wondering whether there may be a more efficient way of organising society; the hope of a better future embodied by Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts still has some life in it. The Soviet model of a planned economy may not have lived up to its initial promise, but the next iteration could still take us to the stars.

Reality intrudes

Regular readers will know that this blog oscillates between fairly frivolous virtual-world and cultural commentary and weightier posts about the state of the world. The former have been predominating recently, partly because I’ve not been too busy this last month or so, and thus have had more time to waste online, but mainly on account of events in the real world being just too depressing to think about. Still, we have pretensions of seriousness here, so I guess we should try to acknowledge that there are things going on beyond our immediate preoccupations.

When we last wrote about the Libyan situation it looked as if a lengthy civil war was brewing, which was tragic enough, but the subsequent intervention by NATO has made things even worse. Now that neither side has any motivation to negotiate, and the airstrikes have, unsurprisingly, failed to halt the fighting, the pressure for an escalation of Western involvement will only grow. Our own dear government have been the biggest cheerleaders for war so far, but I suspect even they know that the public won’t support an Iraq-style invasion, so it seems likely that some sort of covert-operations-plus-arming-local-forces strategy will be put in place. We’ve been down that road before of course, in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and look how well that worked out.

It’s surely more than a coincidence that this latest war has broken out just as a cut in the defence budget was on the cards, giving the generals another chance to warn us that we will all be murdered in our beds by rampaging [insert current focus of xenophobic paranoia here] unless we keep handing blank cheques to the military-industrial complex.

The defence cuts may end up being reversed, but the government shows no sign of backing down on its plans to slash other areas of public spending, despite half a million people turning up to register their opposition last weekend. (The event was rounded off by the now-customary police riot, allowing the cops call for an immediate reversal in police budget cuts, else we will all be murdered in our beds etc). Government ministers continue to tell us the cuts are regrettable, but necessary, as the public finances are totally shot, despite the growing body of opinion that says that the economy isn’t actually in such bad shape, and that in fact it looked worse for most of the last two centuries, during which Britain managed to build an Empire, defeat the Nazis and found the Welfare State. The Tories’ claim that the country will be bust unless all public employees take a pay cut, work to 75 and settle for a miserable pension is being exposed as a threadbare cover for their ideologically-driven agenda to privatise the whole public sector, for the benefit of their cronies, who will be given free rein to make us poor suffering citizens pay through the nose if we want the most basic of public services.

See? Pretty much a downer, huh? And I haven’t even touched on the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, the war in the Ivory Coast, the assault on organised labour in the US, or the myriad of other reasons to believe we are collectively headed to hell in a handcart.

Are there any reasons for optimism? I’d like to say that the left is resurgent as people wake up to the reality of the system, but it doesn’t seem that that is true. There is a lot of anger about the cuts for sure, but not much organisation, and there is a sort of learned helplessness around, a feeling that our opponents are just too strong, and we can only keep our heads down and try to ride out the storm.

I might be too pessimistic. I’m just a tired old man in a tired old country; the young comrades seem more up for the fight. The London demo was encouraging, as is the pro-union campaign in Wisconsin, and of course the masses in the developing world are already showing us the way. I guess I’ll keep doing what I can, but I suspect I’ll feel the need to escape to a peaceful fantasy world more often than ever.