Oscars 2021

Around this time last year I was congratulating myself on having been to the cinema frequently enough over the previous twelve months to have an opinion on who was going to win what at the Academy Awards. In the event my predictions were well off, but I felt at least a little more in touch with the zeitgeist than usual.

This year though, despite there being little else to do for entertainment, and my subscription to three separate streaming services notwithstanding, I’ve watched hardly any new films, and only one with any Oscar nominations; The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I thought was OK, but not brilliant. I have read enough reviews to guess that Nomadland might do well, but otherwise I’m pretty much clueless. Perhaps if I cram a year’s worth of cinephilia into the next ten days I’ll be able to watch the ceremony without feeling like a complete philistine.

Still looking at the stars

We already commemorated Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight on the half centennial back in 2011, so we’ll just mark the 60th anniversary by linking to that post, and noting sadly that, despite our hopes a decade ago, capitalism is still going strong, and inequality is worse than ever. Perhaps we’ll have better news to report in 2031…

A bit longer to reign over us

Sombre music has been playing on the radio today, as the nation, or at least that part of it that takes an interest in such things, mourns the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Unsurprisingly, given that he was 99, and had been in poor health recently, the BBC and the serious newspapers had detailed obituaries ready to roll out. Philip certainly had an eventful early life; fleeing with his family when the Greeks decided they had no further need of monarchs, wandering penniless around Europe in the 30s, smartly choosing the right side to fight on in the war, then striking lucky by marrying into the only royal family on the continent that still had some staying power. Much has been made of his sacrifice in accepting a supporting role to his spouse when she ascended to the throne, and it is true that his life after 1952 was weighed down by the call of desperately dull duty, though I imagine that the limitless wealth and privilege provided some compensation.

The Duke’s passing is of course merely a dress-rehearsal for the main event; the day when Elizabeth II herself exits this mortal realm. No doubt in the weeks to come we will hear a lot about how the institution of monarchy provides the country with a reassuring stability, and I expect that when a succession eventually occurs there will be little in the way of serious protest. Despite the regal facade the country is already a de facto bourgeois republic, so the ruling class have no motivation to upset the current order, while the proletariat have more pressing struggles to address. In any case the Queen’s longevity means that no one under the age of 90 has had to think much about the issue, and the easy option will be to just let the show roll on. I’m sure we’ll get around to abolishing the monarchy eventually, but it may be some time before all the Windsors are obliged to actually earn a living.

@R.Mutt

After posting our last piece about non-fungible tokens, it struck me that perhaps I was missing the point, and that such works should be read conceptually. Interpreted thusly, NFTs would be akin to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, mass-produced objects given significance by being chosen by the artist, and could even be seen as a critique of the commodification of art, rather than just a particularly crass example of it. It does seem like a lot of meaning to hang on a five-word tweet though, even one worth $2.9 million.

Thinking about Duchamp reminded me of seeing his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, during a visit to that city nearly thirty years ago. I don’t recall much else about that trip, though I was there for a few days, so I guess I must have seen the Liberty Bell, and all the other historical sights. I do remember the youth hostel, a rambling wooden structure in what didn’t seem to be the most salubrious part of town. The weather was good though, so it was nice to sit in the garden in the evening, chatting with the other travellers. I need to take another long vacation in the US sometime; hopefully it won’t be too long before that’s possible again.

Comfortably fungible

Exciting news from the world of non-fungible tokens, where a work by renowned digital artist Krista Kim sold this week for a cool 288 Ether, which is apparently equivalent to quite a lot of real money.

I’ll admit that I’ve only seen the piece in question, a futuristic virtual dwelling, on the tiny, cracked screen of my ageing phone, but to me it looks very like the sort of build one could pick up in Second Life for a few Linden dollars back in 2009. The big difference is that Ms Kim’s creation incorporates some kind of blockchain technology to make it non-replicable, though why that should imbue this otherwise unremarkable artefact with such value still escapes me. It’s not an isolated case though; NFTs are evidently the latest in fashionable investment.

The spectacle of huge sums being squandered on such fripperies is pretty depressing in itself, but what I find most unsatisfactory about the whole NFT phenomenon is the way it takes the democratic content of mass production – the idea that everyone can have their own copy of something, with no one instance having any more intrinsic worth than another – and twists it to suit the values of late-stage capitalism, with its insistence that some things must be more important than others.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how long NFT mania will last before it runs out of steam. Like all speculative bubbles, it is driven by the fact that, at this point in the boom-bust cycle, capital must seek out ever more exotic investment opportunities in order to secure a decent rate of return. The pandemic looks likely to cut some dead wood out of the economy though, creating the potential for a renewed round of accumulation, so venture capitalists might soon find that they have better things to do with their money than buy overpriced jpegs, leaving the people left holding the bitcoins in serious trouble.

That said, I’m sure there’s still a lot of money to be made in blockchain-related investment, for those with the brains and the nerve to try to predict when the market will peak. I am definitely not in that number though, so I’ll be watching from the sidelines, sipping espresso from my Alessi cup (mass-produced can still be classy), and waiting for the whole thing to come crashing down.

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.

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.

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.