Four-twenty

If there’s one glimmer of light in the increasingly gloomy vista that is our contemporary political landscape, it’s the gradual normalisation of marijuana use. In the US, even with a drug-hostile regime now occupying the Justice Department, the roll-out of legalisation at state level seems unstoppable, and, while we might be a bit behind the curve here in Europe (especially in the UK), medicinal cannabis is making inroads into public acceptance, and it seems only a matter of time before the prospect of relaxing the prohibition on recreational use becomes uncontroversial enough to persuade some ambitious politician that it might be a vote-winner with the youth, not to mention the ageing ex-stoner demographic.

I guess I’m broadly in favour of these developments (not that I ever have the time to get high these days), but there’s a sense of loss too, as my once radical lifestyle choice is commodified by big business into a pastime so unhip that even Canada has no problem with it.

When I was younger I looked forward to the day when my generation would grow up and take over the world, and, while legalising pot was certainly one of the things I imagined that we’d do, it is disappointing that we seem to have given up on all the other good stuff, like eradicating poverty and ending war, and are content to live like our parents did, only with better weed. Still, if, as seems increasingly likely, we’re all headed to hell in a handcart, at least we’ll be mellow…

The March of time

There were a couple of topics I thought about writing about this month (the sad demise of the NME, and the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal), but hey, here we are on the 31st, and, unsurprisingly, I’m cobbling together a lame piece of filler, just so I can kid myself that I’m still an active blogger, though why I should want to cling on to that identity is a complete mystery, as “blogger” hasn’t been an aspirational career choice since 2005 at the latest, if it ever was, and anyway I don’t have any particular talent in that direction, unless you count the ability to produce long meandering sentences that a decent editor would cut without hesitation, though perhaps the point is moot, since I’m sure any reader unfortunate enough to randomly encounter this composition will have lost the will to continue long before they reach the end.

Five Hundred

Today is Groundhog Day, which seems like a good excuse to revisit a topic we’ve covered four times previously; the centenary marker.

Post #100 appeared in December 2008, about 20 months after SLS started. I was still quite enchanted by Second Life back then, and must have spent a lot of time on the grid, judging by the long pieces I wrote about the things I came across during my wanderings.

Post #200 came at the end of 2009, and was our first “Year in Review” piece, which has gone on to become an annual tradition. I was still writing a lot about SL, though my focus had moved on from simple travelogues to consideration of the politics of the metaverse, and in-depth psychology. The year also saw some fine commentary on SL culture from our erstwhile art correspondent Olivia, which were among the most popular pieces we ever published.

Post #300 came after another 12 months, and prompted me, rather hubristically, to offer my opinions on the art of blogging; I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to judge their lasting value. Second Life was still my most frequent topic, and during this period I penned our most-read post of all time, on SL demographics , but, over the course of 2010, our drift towards more general cultural subjects became increasingly evident.

Our ever-dwindling audience had to wait nearly three years to see post #400, during which time our virtual-world coverage waned almost to zero, replaced by my political and historical musings, along with a possibly excessive amount of personal nostalgia, no doubt reflecting my growing preoccupation with the relentless passage of time.

And now here we are at post #500, our slowest century yet, at over four years. I was never the most productive of bloggers, even during our heyday of 2009/10, but I have to admit that our slowdown over the past half-decade has periodically made me wonder whether it is worth continuing with this project, especially since we have undeniably strayed far from our original mission statement.

Yet I keep going. Partly this is due to my somewhat obsessive attachment to keeping the ten year run of at-least-one-a-month posts unbroken, but mostly it’s because, in my humble opinion, there is still an occasional gem to be found in amongst all the dross.

Onward to post #600 then, which, if current trends hold true, you can expect around 2023…

The future is now

The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was when I visited San Diego in the early 90s. The morning I arrived, after a long overnight trip on the Greyhound, I dropped my bag at the youth hostel, just a short walk from the beach, and headed down to the shore to wash days of accumulated grime off in the warm sea.

I had travelled all the way from the cold east coast in a couple of gruelling bus journeys, and basking in the warm Californian sun felt like heaven. I ended up staying in San Diego for about a week, mostly just loafing on the beach, recharging my batteries while planning my onward course up the west coast. Wanting to travel a bit lighter, I packed most of my thick clothes in to a parcel which I sent back to the UK, figuring that I wouldn’t need them now that I had reached warmer climes. This was a decision I came to regret when I reached Oregon, and even more so when I got to Seattle, though the heavy plaid shirts I was obliged to purchase there to avoid freezing to death did make nice mementos of the trip.

The hostel in San Diego had a bookshelf with a good selection of pulpy sci-fi, which was perfect for undemanding beach reading. One story in particular caught my mood during those long, laidback days; a trippy tale of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy trying to invade the Milky Way through some kind of telepathic mind-control thing. I didn’t really comprehend all the subtleties of the narrative – the starships were all modelled on playing cards for some reason, meaning the stylised space battles took the form of cosmic games of trumps, and it was never clear which characters had and hadn’t been taken over by the aliens – partly because the volume I had was something like the third in a series of seven, so I had missed all the set-up, mostly because I was pretty baked at the time. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment though. In the years since I’ve occasionally thought about tracking down that book – I’ve forgotten the title of course – and the rest of the set, so I could finally work out what it was all about, but, wisely I think, I’ve always resisted that impulse, as it would probably spoil what is a very fond, if hazy, memory.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because the one thing that I do remember about that book is its author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, sadly, passed away last week. I’d read, and loved, her Wizard of Earthsea cycle when I was at school, though I’m not sure that that really prepared me for her more out-there sci-fi. I subsequently got to know more about her political outlook, which was not dissimilar to my own, and appreciate that her stories of the future, like all the best science fiction, were really about how we live now, what we need to change, and, most importantly, that change is not only possible, but inevitable. That’s a message that it’s good to hold on to in these dispiriting times.

Futurama

Here at SLS we’ve tried our hands at prognostication more than a few times in the past, with generally disappointing results; we’ve erroneously assured readers that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the Presidency (twice), confidently identified as winners teams in major sporting events who go on to exit at an early stage, advised against investing in dead-end companies like Google and Facebook, and completely misread the political mood of our own home nation. The only thing I can find that we actually got right was forecasting Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, which didn’t exactly require Nostradamus-level predictive skills.

Still, it’s the start of a new year, so I thought it might be fun to put down a marker on the two big political questions of the day; at the very least, come December, we’ll be able to look back and laugh at our hopeless naivety.

First up: will Donald Trump still be President of the United States at the end of 2018? I think … yes. The reasoning behind this answer rests on a recognition that, while Trump’s behaviour may well provide a legal justification for his removal, by impeachment, or through application of the 25th Amendment, the decision to actually trigger these processes is a political one, and there’s no sign that a sufficiently large section of the Republican Party has the stomach for it. The arithmetic may change after the midterm elections of course, but given that Trump seems to have a solid electoral base who will stick with him no matter the outrage he provokes elsewhere, I just can’t see the numbers adding up. Naturally I hope that I’m wrong about this, and that the kickback seen in Alabama (fuelled by an energised left actually getting its supporters to the polls) becomes a nationwide phenomenon, giving the Democrats the majorities they need in the House and the Senate to carry an impeachment through, while also moving the whole centre of political gravity leftwards.

Next: is there going to be a second Brexit referendum? I think … yes. This is based less on political calculation, and more on gut feeling, particularly the general sentiment that the country is becoming ungovernable, and that the current administration cannot last. It’s possible to imagine a series of events involving a collapsed government, another election, Labour opting to campaign on the issue of giving the population a chance to vote on the final Brexit deal, and a relieved electorate seizing the opportunity to ditch the whole sorry business. There are, admittedly, large elements of wishful thinking in this, but it’s not completely impossible. The timescale is tight though – we won’t have to wait until December to see if I’m wrong about this; if there isn’t an election by the summer the exit process might well prove to be irreversible.

Finally: two bonus predictions – Germany to win the World Cup, and definitive proof of extraterrestrial life to be found before the year is out.

2017: The Year in Review – Part 2: Culture

While posts on this blog have been a little sparse this year, I have managed to keep our Tumblr up to date, providing a handy list of all my cultural experiences over the last 12 months; here are my personal highlights:

Music – I’ve been steadily buying more records every year since I gave up my fixation with physical objects and started downloading albums back in 2014, so picking out my favourites has been getting harder; this is a fairly arbitrary top ten for 2017, in no particular order:

  • Antisocialites – Alvvays
  • Semper Femina – Laura Marling
  • Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
  • The Gold String – Devon Sproule
  • American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
  • Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
  • Pleasure – Feist
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent
  • MILANO – Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts
  • Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice

I managed to go to more concerts than usual this year too; my favourite was probably Cloud Nothings, though the Pixies gig was a fun blast of nostalgia.

Film – most of my cinematic experience this year was watching DVDs of stuff that came out last year; High Rise and The Neon Demon stand out. Of films I saw in an actual cinema easily the best was T2 Trainspotting, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I am exactly the demographic to appreciate it, having aged along with the protagonists, and shared their experience of change and maturity, though rather less dramatically.

Books – I completed another volume of Proust, The Captive, and filled a slightly embarrassing gap by finally reading some Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My intake of more recent literature wasn’t great, but I did manage last year’s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which seemed worthy of the prize, though it did run out of steam towards the end. My favourite fiction of year was another old one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hard-headed yet inspiring treatment of the challenges facing individuals in a communal society. I read rather less history, science and biography than in years past, Patti Smith’s M Train my pick of the latter category.

So that was 2017, insofar as it is possible to sum any year up in a few hundred words. I do regret not posting more this year, especially about politics; right now I feel resolved to do better in the months ahead, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I’ll round off by wishing a Happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this, and hoping it finds you healthy and prosperous.

2017: The Year in Review – Part 1: Blogging

So here we are at the end of December, time for our now-traditional annual retrospective.

Any hopes that I may have harboured that our 10th anniversary back in May would inspire a period of reinvigorated creativity were fairly quickly dashed, but we have managed to stagger on after a fashion. It’s a while now since we more or less abandoned our original virtual-world theme, but my plan to reinvent SLS as a home for political and cultural commentary has never really taken off. I could spend the rest of this post listing the many, many topics I could, and should, have covered this year, notably the Brexit shambles and the ongoing nightmare of the Trump administration, but it seems more useful to try to identify what stopped me converting the opinions which I very definitely had about all these developments into written form.

I think the central problem is the tension between my feeling that I need to take some time to consider an issue, and the equally pressing sensation that events are moving at a pace that requires an instant response. I’m not sure to what extent this is the consequence of an actual increase in the volume of information that we are subjected to these days, and how much is due to the inability of my ageing brain to keep up as well as it used to, but the end result has been a state of intellectual paralysis, where I get part-way through formulating a position, before being overwhelmed by a dispiriting realisation that the moment has passed, and I need to start thinking about the next thing.

I have tried to overcome this by limiting my exposure to new, distracting stimuli – I gave up looking at Facebook altogether for a while, though I have subsequently allowed myself strictly rationed access – but, as can be seen from my very poor output this year, it hasn’t really worked. I guess I’ll just have to try to be a bit more selective about what is worth posting about, and not worry so much about being topical.

Anyway, for the record, here are our top ten posts by traffic for the year:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. Free Pussy Riot!
  3. Watching the Okhrana
  4. There is no land beyond the Volga
  5. No man is an island
  6. Bastille Day 1989
  7. On Second Life and addiction
  8. Trouble in paradise
  9. All Stars
  10. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

And here are my favourites from the last twelve months:

Finally, our top ten (out of 47) countries for visitors:

  1. United States
  2. Canada
  3. United Kingdom
  4. New Zealand
  5. France
  6. Germany
  7. Spain
  8. India
  9. Norway
  10. Hong Kong

Next up, 2017 in culture.

Thoughts on Catalonia

Of the many developments in world politics that I entirely failed to comment on this year, the Catalan Independence crisis is perhaps one of the more notable. I did think of writing something when it was all kicking off around the referendum a couple of months ago, but never got around to it, partly due to indolence, but mostly because I felt there was little new to say – the whole situation has played out in a way that would have been familiar to Marx back in the nineteenth century, and any commentary from me would have been nothing but a series of quotes from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

I think that this analysis has been largely borne out by subsequent events, as the bourgeois nationalists, after their first flush of reckless adventurism stalled, failed to harness the one force that had the potential to carry the project to success, the enthusiasm of the Catalan (and Spanish) working class for progressive social change. Fearful that the wave of proletarian expectation that they initially encouraged might end up sweeping them away too, the Catalan bourgeoisie have hastened to compromise with their counterparts in Madrid (and Brussels), a process that has led to today’s regional elections.

Of course once started these movements take on a momentum of their own, and as I write the early returns seem to indicate that the election will be inconclusive, and the crisis will enter a new phase. What happens next will depend in no small part on the leadership provided by left elements of the independence movement, and the solidarity shown by the left in the rest of Spain, and in Europe generally.

It would be hard to make any predictions about all of this in the best of circumstances, but it’s doubly difficult looking at it from the UK, though the distorting lens of our own current anxieties over Brexit. The Catalan crisis raises many important questions about the pro-capitalist nature of the EU, and support for the progressive cause in Catalonia would seem to fit into a wider anti-EU narrative, with echoes of previous events in Greece. However around here Euro-scepticism is a predominantly right-wing phenomenon, which makes it tricky to formulate a left perspective which can encompass criticism of the role of the EU in southern Europe without giving any ground to the toxic xenophobia of resurgent jingoism.

Our comrades in Catalonia, from what I’ve read, do seem to have a pretty good grasp of what needs to be done, so I’m as hopeful as one can ever be that things might work out well there. I’m somewhat less optimistic that the horror show that is British politics can be steered towards a happy ending, but that’s a topic for another post.

Red October

Today marks the centenary of the events in Petrograd which would culminate in the foundation of the world’s first workers’ state. Plenty has been written about this subject over the years, and it would be somewhat of an understatement to say that there are a multitude of opinions on the nature and legacy of the October Revolution, from right-wing hostility to the whole project, through the standard liberal view that a Bolshevik coup derailed the progress promised by the bourgeois overthrow of Tsarist feudalism, to the embrace by the left, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, of the vision of communism proclaimed by Lenin and his allies.

I’ve been consciously involved in political activity for more than three decades now, and the arguments about October 1917 haven’t changed much in that time, though perhaps the “Bolshevik coup” theory has become more solidified as accepted wisdom, even among elements of the left.

What is different these days is that the debate doesn’t seem as vital as it once did. While the centenary has exited activity in academic and left political circles, the mainstream media has more or less ignored it, and it would be hard to say that it has impacted on popular consciousness at all.

Of course the degeneration, and eventual demise, of the Soviet Union, along with the general decline of the left in the West, does seem to confirm the idea that the October Revolution is nothing but an episode of distant history, no more relevant to today’s politics than the intrigues of Ancient Rome. On the other hand, the class struggle, which so animated the workers and peasants of Russia at the start of the 20th century, is still with us, and in a form which is not so different from that which was so successfully waged by the Bolsheviks.

Perhaps I’m just an aging revolutionary, clinging to dreams of the past, but I still think that that October 1917 represents the most progressive period in human history, one from which we can learn a great deal. The problems facing the world today, stemming from levels of inequality in wealth and power not seen since the days of the Tsar, call out for an upheaval in social relations on a similar scale. One hundred years on, armed with a knowledge of how things went wrong last time, it’s time the workers took power again.

Guidance from above

I’ve always been quite proud of my navigational skills; while I’ve never exactly been through the wilderness, I have managed to use map and compass to plot a course around fairly remote places like Yosemite and the Cascades without getting more than temporarily lost, and I’ve traversed many a new city with only a glance at the guidebook.

That said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any need to utilise this talent, partly because I never go anywhere new these days, but mostly because, like just about everyone else, I carry around a handy gadget that always tells me exactly where I am, and where I should be going. I do like to think that I could manage without it, and orientate myself old-style using features like rivers and railway lines, but still, I’m in no hurry to test that out.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because today marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the event that kick-started the space race, its simple beep the forerunner of the GPS signals that guide us today. Yet another facet of modern life that we owe to the command economy.