Dreams of a Red planet

With events on Earth seemingly stuck in an endless cycle of discouragement, it was refreshing this week to hear some good news from another part of the cosmos, as NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars.

The fact that we can send a 1000 kg vehicle across 480 million km of space to automatically land more or less exactly where we planned does suggest that humanity, operating collectively, has no shortage of technical knowledge, the application of which could surely solve most, if not all, of the problems facing us today. What’s holding us back is a political culture which prioritises the enrichment of a few individuals over the advancement of the mass of the population. Unfortunately changing that is a challenge which makes space travel look easy.

Got myself injected

Having managed to dodge the coronavirus for the best part of a year, despite working in some relatively high-risk areas, last week I stood in line and received my first dose of vaccine. If the outcome data is as good as has been reported (and there’s no reason to believe that it isn’t) it’s looking like I have a reasonably good chance of coming out of this pandemic essentially unscathed, physically at least.

The jab I got was the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine BNT162b2, described in the product literature as “highly purified single-stranded, 5’-capped messenger RNA (mRNA) produced by cell-free in vitro transcription from the corresponding DNA templates, encoding the viral spike (S) protein of SARS-CoV-2”. The fact that our species is capable of even imagining such a thing, let alone developing and manufacturing it on an industrial scale in little over twelve months since the virus emerged, does give one some hope for the future of humanity.

Of course the mere existence of this vaccine, and the others that have become available over the last couple of months, would count for little without a reliable distribution system, but, happily, our local inoculation programme seems to be rolling out reasonably efficiently. Less happily, production problems have reportedly resulted in a shortage of supply in the rest of the EU, indirectly straining the Brexit trade deal barely a month after it was signed. I guess the last year should have taught me that, for every piece of encouraging news there is bound to be an equally dispiriting counterpoint.

Incomplete deliverance

Back in 2016 I identified the story of Donald Trump’s run for President as a narrative of national redemption; the US, having peered into the abyss of fascism, would reject such Old World extremism, and confidently carry on down the road of enlightenment and democracy.

It’s taken four years longer than I expected, but, with today’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, our transatlantic cousins do seem to be bringing the tale to a happy ending. Even the most optimistic liberal would have to recognise that it’s not that simple though. One can hardly say that the country unequivocally rejected Trump, when he won nearly 75 million votes, more than he received in 2016. He would almost certainly have been re-elected were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, and, even if the man himself is forced to retire from politics by his various legal entanglements, there are plenty of would-be successors ready to take up his mantle.

I would argue that Trump was not the antithesis of the American experiment, but rather its inevitable conclusion. The divisions that he exploited were there from the start, and while Joe Biden may be able to calm things for a while with an injection of administrative competence, in the long run more radical solutions will surely be required. Perhaps future generations will look back on the Trump era, not exactly with gratitude, but at least as the time when the need for change became inarguably obvious.

Premature insurrection

Events in Washington this week have, understandably enough, provoked a fair bit of pearl-clutching among both liberals and conservatives, the latter especially declaring themselves shocked – shocked! – that an unstable narcissist, whose every whim they had hitherto indulged, should stoop so low as to defile the sacred grove of democracy that is the US Capitol.

One does not wish to make light of an incident that cost five people their lives, but I think history will see this episode not as a thwarted rebellion, but rather a case of the deluded experiencing a hard collision with reality. Trump and his followers may yearn for a fascist coup, but there is no sign that the bulk of the US ruling class is ready to contemplate that level of disruption. Why would they? There is no significant anti-capitalist threat from the left – such movements that exist, particularly BLM, are asking the right questions, but the situation is nothing like Germany in the 30s, when there was a mass Communist Party, and the recent example of a successful proletarian revolution in Russia. US capital has time to give Joe Biden a chance to calm things down, and has no need to turn to Hitler figure just yet.

That’s not to say there won’t be more mayhem from the extreme right in the months to come, but the important thing to remember is that violence is not synonymous with a threat to state power, and, conversely, non-violence can be the strongest agent for change. This explains why the peaceful marches for racial equality over the summer were met with massed ranks of National Guardsmen, while Trump’s goons were allowed more or less free rein to run riot in the halls of Congress, at least until the spectacle became too embarrassing. The State knows which group presents a real danger to its existence, and which can be allowed to blow off a bit of steam.

My worry is not that the fascists will seize control of the government, but that their foot-soldiers will be co-opted by the government as a tool against the left. Countering this will require organisation and education, to win the disaffected away from the right, and into the struggle for progressive change.

Riot on the Hill

Wild scenes in Washington DC tonight, as pro-Trump mobs, egged on by the man himself, invaded the very heart of US democracy, storming the Capitol Building to disrupt the formal confirmation of the presidential election results.

This is clearly a massive embarrassment for the US political class, indeed for the whole nation; such behaviour is not what one expects to see in a country that likes to lecture the rest of the world on how democracy should work. The big question is whether these events will shock those Republicans who were prepared to play to the Trump-loving gallery into reflecting on the wisdom of such a course of action. My guess is that it will, and that today’s disruption will prompt a moratorium on Trump-style demagoguery, at least for the immediate future. The reactionary forces that the President and his enablers have nurtured in the last four years are not going to disperse overnight though, and there are still two weeks of potential chaos to navigate before the new administration takes over, so there may be further outrages to come.

The news from DC overshadowed what would normally have been the big story of the day; the twin Democratic triumphs in Georgia which have cleared the way for Joe Biden to pursue his modest centrist programme. I’ve no doubt that we’ll find plenty of reasons to criticise him in the years to come, but right now a period of relative calm in Washington seems exactly what the world needs.

New year, old problems

So, here we are in 2021, and it doesn’t seem that different from 2020; Donald Trump has kept on being cartoonishly villainous, and Boris Johnson is still cartoonishly incompetent.

At least our American cousins can look forward to some relief at the end of the month, since, apart from some grandstanding for the benefit of QAnon diehards, the GOP seems to have resigned itself to the reality of a Biden administration. They are probably fairly confident of picking up at least one of the two Senate seats on offer in the Georgia runoff election tomorrow, which would give them the majority needed to block any part of the Democrats’ programme they consider too progressive. It’s not hard to imagine the existence of a significant block of Republican voters who didn’t want to back Trump, but who will turn out to make sure Joe doesn’t have everything his own way, but it’s also possible that Biden supporters will be energised by winning in November, and will show up in sufficient numbers to carry the day. The early polling figures give some support to the latter scenario, so I’ll stick my neck out with our first prediction of the year; Democrats to sweep both contests.

Over here, alas, there is no immediate prospect of a change of government, so we seem fated to continue enduring the combined effects of Covid and Brexit for the foreseeable future, unameliorated by the ineffectual efforts of what passes for our national leadership. At least the frontline health services do seem a bit more on top of things, so I guess we’ll survive, but we’re going to have to draw deep on our famed reserves of British resilience to see this through.

2020: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that 2020 was an eventful year; certainly there has been no shortage of topics to blog about, and we managed to keep up a fairly steady stream of posts throughout the year.

Most of our pieces focused on politics. We obviously couldn’t avoid touching on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic (once we finally noticed how serious it was), but the bulk of our commentary concerned the two areas we had identified as important back in January; the US Presidential election, and the Brexit endgame.

The result in the US was not quite as good as we had hoped – our prediction of a President Sanders was a little over-optimistic – but nowhere near as bad as we feared during the summer, as the threat of a Trump coup turned out to be nothing more than empty rhetoric. Whether the election of Joe Biden represents a return to some sort of normality, or just a pause in the downward spiral, remains to be seen.

Over here, the Brexit saga dragged on through countless missed deadlines, before culminating in a last-minute deal that promises to be merely semi-ruinous, rather than a complete disaster. There is a chance that, now the political heat has been taken out of the issue, the country will be able to start quietly rebuilding relations with our continental neighbours, but that was what we hoped for after the election last year, so I expect that this story has a few more unhappy chapters still to come.

We actually wrote surprisingly little specifically about the pandemic, considering that it is probably the most globally significant event since WWII. I think that this is mainly because I am aware that my personal experience of the lockdown has been far from typical. My job has changed a bit, my social life has been slightly less active, and I haven’t had a proper holiday, but apart from that it’s been more or less business as usual. I’ve managed to avoid contracting Covid-19, at least as far as I know, and nobody of my acquaintance has died, or even been particularly unwell with it. If anything I’m better off than I was last year; with the pubs and cinemas closed I’ve been exercising more, and I’ve been getting paid extra while having less to spend the money on, so I’m in pretty good shape, physically and financially, a fortunate position when half the country is facing a bleak winter of enforced idleness and financial precarity. In any case, the true significance of events like these often takes a while to become fully apparent, so it feels like it’s a bit soon to comment. We may have more reflections on all this, particularly the social and psychological effects, in the months ahead.

In between all that excitement we also found time for a bit of cultural commentary, and a couple of obituaries. We even gave a rare mention to Second Life, though only in the context of comparing it unfavourably to Animal Crossing. Despite otherwise completely ignoring virtual worlds in a year when, arguably, they have been more relevant than at any time in the last decade, I did keep my connection to SL alive by renewing my premium membership. This now costs a not-inconsiderable $99, so I’m hoping that 2021 will be the year that Linden Labs finally produce a mobile app that will let me get back on to the grid.

Anyway, on to the statistics; here are our top ten posts of 2020 by traffic:

  1. The Linden Principle
  2. There is no land beyond the Volga
  3. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  4. Watching the Okhrana
  5. Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19
  6. Six hundred
  7. Furry traversing
  8. One further message to my friends in the US of A
  9. Lost Christmas
  10. Get well Boris

The good news is that, after years of coasting on our past glories, over half of the top posts were published in the last 12 months, perhaps indicating that we are engaging more with a new audience. Less encouraging is that the most popular piece, by some distance, is one from 2010, which owes its hits to people searching for something else entirely, specifically the Linden Method, a rather costly repackaging of standard anxiety-management techniques. I could probably monetise this confusion by directing visitors to my own website, and overcharging them for some proprietary self-help therapy, but that seems a little unethical.

Other posts I was quite pleased with this year:

Of all of this year’s output, I think our Camus review was probably my favourite.

The US and the UK still provide the bulk of our traffic, but we did see a big jump in visitors from China this year. Our posts were read in a total of 49 countries, from American Samoa to Zimbabwe; the top ten were:

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

So, 2020, with all its challenges, has come and gone, and we’re still here, which feels like some sort of triumph. 2021? Bring it on, we say…

2020: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

2020 has, for obvious reasons, been the sort of year when I might have expected to have had plenty of time to watch all the movies and read all the books that I had been meaning to catch up on for ages. Sadly, that has not been the case, partly due my work schedule actually being busier than it has been for a long while, but mostly because any downtime I did have was spent trying to keep up with the latest news, then attempting to distract myself from the latest news with undemanding entertainment.

That said, the year wasn’t a complete wash-out, culture-wise; the complete list is on our Tumblr, and here are the highlights:

Film – Towards the end of 2019 I got back into the habit of going to see a movie on the big screen most weeks, and I kept this going into 2020, alternating between the multiplex and the arthouse, right up until the cinemas were shut down. Of the mainstream films I saw, my favourite was probably Parasite, though The Lighthouse and Little Women get honourable mentions. I did sign up for a Netflix subscription after lockdown kicked in, but I haven’t really made much use of it; my pick from that service would be Uncut Gems. My personal Oscar for 2020 goes to an independent movie screened during our local film festival; Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, a delightfully surreal Spanish-Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian co-production, concerning secret agents trapped in a VR dystopia, featuring Batman, ninjas, Joe Stalin, the titular Saviour, 8-bit computer graphics, and much more. If if wasn’t for the evidence of its existence on the internet, I might suspect that I had just dreamt it.

Books – I got through shockingly few full-length books this year; my reading time was consumed by keeping up with political developments, and trying to stay on top of the professional updates I needed to do my job effectively. I didn’t manage much recent fiction, but I did finally complete Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, roughly 30 years after my first reading of Swann’s Way, and started on another classic series, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, by revisiting Justine, which I had first read when I was 15 (though I didn’t really appreciate the work’s psychosexual depth at that tender age). In the current circumstances I could hardly avoid returning to the plague-haunted Oran, vividly described by Camus in La Peste, and my literary travels also took me to pre-revolutionary China, in the collected works of Lu Xun. In non-fiction, I explored cosmology and quantum theory with Dan Hooper and Sean Carroll, and the origins of consciousness with Daniel Dennett. My favourite book of the year was another old one; Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice, an unsettlingly phantasmagoric evocation of impermanence, loss, and gendered violence, set amid a world succumbing to a creeping environmental catastrophe – just the kind of cheery tale we need in times like these.

Music – I may not have had the cognitive bandwidth to fully engage with serious literature and cinema in the last 12 months, but I did listen to a lot of new music; here’s a fairly arbitrary top ten:

  • If You’re Dreaming – Anna Burch
  • Devotion – Margaret Glaspy
  • Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
  • Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony
  • The Black Hole Understands – Cloud Nothings
  • The Making Of You – Snowgoose
  • Ballet Of Apes – Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network
  • Consummation – Katie Von Schleicher
  • It Will Come Easier – Emma Kupa
  • Honeymoon – Beach Bunny

I didn’t see much live music this year; I did have tickets for a few shows, but most of them ended up being cancelled. Of those that did go ahead, I enjoyed a recital of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and a very rare trip to the opera house, to see a revival of John Adams‘ Nixon in China.

Television – For the first time in more years than I care to remember I followed a TV series in its entirety; Mrs. America, an examination of the political struggles in the 70s around gender and race, which gave a human face to the history underlying today’s culture wars. I have a few other shows bookmarked on Netflix; we’ll see if I ever get round to watching them.

Last December I resolved to spend more time on cultural pursuits, and less time obsessing over the news. I guess, with the year we’ve had, I can be forgiven for falling a little short of that goal. We’ll cover some of what distracted me in our next post.

Festive half-cheer

At last, something to be vaguely happy about, at the tail-end of a year that hasn’t given much cause for optimism; Boris Johnson has finally managed to get a trade agreement with the EU over the line, with over a week to spare.

The fact that announcement of the deal was delayed until late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve may suggest that closer scrutiny will reveal it to be something less that the unimpeachable triumph that Johnson is presenting it as, but, such were the low expectations generated by the government’s shambolic approach to the negotiations, anything short of an actual outbreak of war seems like a positive development.

Relief at avoiding disaster is tinged with the sadness of knowing that we now stand unequivocally outside of Europe, with all the narrowing of our cultural outlook that that implies. If one were trying to be positive, one might observe that European integration has, since the war, been an essentially organic process, driven by economics more than ideology, which suggests that all the links which are currently being torn asunder will eventually regenerate. We may have to spend some dark years in the wilderness before then though.

Lost Christmas

Just when it seemed like humanity was finally getting on top of the whole Covid thing, and we could to go back to worrying full-time about Brexit, the virus has apparently mutated into a new super-infectious strain, precipitating a fresh surge in cases, and prompting Boris Johnson to reintroduce a lockdown, effectively cancelling Christmas for much of the population.

This isn’t actually going to have much practical effect for me, since I had no plans to do anything over the festive season other than sit in the house watching TV in a state of semi-intoxication, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of gloom that has swept the nation since the news broke. Restrictions that were just about bearable during the summer seem especially grim in the darkness of midwinter. We have little to look forward to, and a lot to be apprehensive about, not least the aforementioned Brexit, which promises to plunge the country into a fresh crisis in less than a fortnight. The government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, with the U-turn over Yuletide only the latest blunder, does little to inspire confidence.

One can just about cut Johnson a little slack on his response to Covid; it is after all the sort of once-in-a-century challenge that might have tested any leader, though it’s not hard to see how his administration could have done better. The Brexit debacle is unforgivable however; an entirely self-inflicted wound that even a semi-competent premier should have avoided. Both issues highlight Johnson’s essential weakness; having attained his position by deploying populist rhetoric, he now finds himself unable to make decisions that might prove unpopular, particularly anything that reminds his supporters that a course of action he commended to them will inevitably involve unpleasant consequences.

The irony is that, had he shown more decisiveness, Johnson could have exploited these extraordinary circumstances to entrench the Tories in power for a generation, in the way that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher used the economic turmoil of the 1980s to unravel the post-war social compact, and tip the class struggle decisively in favour of capital. As it stands though, barely a year after his triumphal entry into Downing Street, Johnson’s authority has all but completely ebbed away, and his downfall in the next 12 months is not unimaginable.

Johnson’s departure might be a welcome outcome, but it’s not clear whether, given the opportunity to choose a new course, the country will go for the Biden option of comforting centrism, or double down on the nationalist extremism. Sadly, there isn’t much indication that the population is ready to take a turn towards progressive radicalism, though perhaps collective solutions will become more popular as people observe the inability of the free market to respond to the Covid emergency.

Any sort of happy ending may seem a long way off, but it’s the winter solstice tomorrow, and after that the days will be getting longer, reminding us that, however cold and dark it is now, spring and summer will always come around.

[We haven’t had a musical link for ages, so here’s a suitably seasonal one, if you’ll excuse the pun.]