Anti-Social

There’s a passage early in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting where protagonist Renton decides to kick his heroin habit, which he manages, though not without some difficulty (and a trip to the Worst Toilet in Scotland). Afterwards he finds that his friend Sick Boy has come off the smack too, just to piss off Renton by showing how easily he could do it.

In a similar spirit, I resolved last month to quit Facebook, just to prove to myself that I could. Rather to my surprise it’s been pretty painless; after a couple of days the urge to click the familiar blue icon on my phone more or less completely faded. I was a bit worried that, divorced from my carefully curated timeline, I might fall out of touch with world events and popular culture, but it turns out that looking at the BBC news a couple of times a day and listening to the radio are just as effective in this regard as compulsively checking the latest minor updates every few minutes, so I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything terribly valuable.

What have I actually gained though? A gratifying glow of smugness when I sit on the train and look at all the sheeple hypnotised by their corporate overlords of course, and probably something intangible, like a deeper connection with the natural world around me or the like. I can’t say that I’ve done anything particularly constructive with the hour or two a day freed up by this change in habit, but I guess regaining the ability to just do nothing for periods of time is actually quite valuable.

In the story Renton eventually relapses, and his subsequent detox is exponentially more horrifying than the first, so I suppose that I shouldn’t get too complacent after just a few weeks of abstinence. I need to find some other diversional activity – perhaps I’ll take up blogging again…

Information overload

Today is apparently the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web (again), which seems like a good excuse to reflect on the future of our own little contribution to the medium, namely this blog.

One of the many statistics that I’ve seen bandied about today is that, of the billion or so web pages in existence, around 75% are inactive. I’m not sure exactly what the definition of “inactive” is in this context, but I’d have to admit that SLS, with our relaxed update schedule, must be at least flirting with it.

Why is this? It’s not as if I’ve become any less opinionated in the last couple of years, and there’s certainly no shortage of subjects to comment upon. If anything that’s the problem; the sheer deluge of information, handily delivered at all hours of the day, means I never have time to stop and write about anything before I’m distracted by the next item on the timeline. Even when I do pause long enough to start to formulate some thoughts on a subject, I tend to be discouraged by the feeling that someone else will undoubtedly have already expressed them, and probably more eloquently, a suspicion that I can usually confirm with a couple of clicks.

Would it really matter if this blog slipped into a permanent limbo? To the world, I guess not, but I would feel more than a twinge of regret. I enjoy reading our old posts, and it would seem like a shame to give up just when we are closing in on our tenth birthday.

So what’s to be done? I have to drop back to a slower pace of news acquisition; perhaps I should start reading actual papers again, instead of addictively clicking on a Facebook feed. I could get rid of my smartphone and attempt to wean myself off of the need to be constantly connected. I might even try just hanging out with my friends and talking about stuff, like we used to do back in the old days.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve tasted the sweet drug that is the modern internet, and I’m not about to give it up. I’ll just have to try harder not to be so passive…

Obscure future

Well, for about 109 minutes there it looked like I might have finally produced an accurate football tournament prediction, but no luck, for me nor France.

My political forecasting skills are not much better; despite my confident assertion that Boris Johnson would be the next Prime Minister he didn’t even make it on to the ballot. Instead we are to have a female premier, which sounds like it should be progressive, but neither Theresa May nor Andrea Leadsom are exactly hard-core feminists, so perhaps not.

There had been talk of an early election, but that possibility seems to be receding, and with it hopes that Brexit could be averted by some sort of democratic means. There are a couple of legal cases pending that seek to overturn the referendum result, but, aghast as I was at the leave vote, I would hesitate to change the outcome by such a method, since it would only drive already alienated sections of the population into the arms of the far-right.

I guess we just have to play the long game; as the Chilcot Report has shown, progressive positions are usually vindicated with the passage of time, even if it is years too late to make any difference.

Euro 2016 forecast

On a lighter note, the other big question in Europe yet to be resolved is that of which team will emerge victorious in Euro 2016. Since my record of predicting the winners of big tournaments is little short of woeful, I’ve waited until the quarter-final lineup has been finalised before hazarding a guess – France to beat Belgium in the final. So put your money on Iceland

Exit Flagger

In a development that seems at once unbelievable and inevitable, Donald Trump has emerged triumphant from the Republican nomination process. While this means that we will be denied the amusing spectacle of a contested convention (to the relief, no doubt, of the citizens of Cleveland), it does promise lots of entertainment over the next six months as Trump leads the GOP to a humiliating and perhaps fatal defeat.

In contrast, the election we are having here tomorrow has generated a campaign of insufferable dullness, as our politicians have largely avoided controversy in a rush to paint themselves as competent technocrats. Not for us anything like the exciting, if somewhat limited, campaign of Bernie Sanders; the left in these parts is so thoroughly marginalised that even centre-right social democrats can paint themselves as radicals. On the other hand, we haven’t given time to any fascist demagogues, so I guess our political culture has that going for it.

But any temptation we UK leftists may have to feel smug about the stupidity of the US electorate, or at least the Republican segment of it, for entertaining the notion of a President Trump, is likely to be squashed over the next few weeks, as we approach polling day in the Euro referendum. While the issue hasn’t quite caught fire with the public yet, all sorts of reactionaries have been crawling out of the woodwork, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the vote could go in favour of Brexit, a result that would negate most of the social progress of the last half-century. While our transatlantic cousins will probably step back from the abyss by electing Hillary, we might end up jumping right in.

Lovesexy

I guess it’s an indication of my limited musical horizons, or perhaps just that I’m a terrible and shallow human being, but, for me, the entirety of Prince’s 37-album, endlessly-innovative, genre-melding, racially-integrating, PMRC-baiting revolution of a career boils down to a nostalgic fondness for his 1988 track Alphabet Street, because it reminds me of a girl I knew in college. I think the late Artist would have approved of what we did while listening to that record though…

High times

Another 4/20 has rolled around, and I’m glad to say that it’s looking like the tide of marijuana legalisation is unstoppable, in the US at least. The dope business is booming in Colorado and Washington, and, more importantly, pot is becoming an uncontroversial part of everyday culture. It’s not hard to imagine that weed will be legal in most if not all of the country before President Clinton finishes her first term.

It’s not clear how much impact this will have on drug policy in Europe, but hopefully the successful US experience, not to mention the tax dollar bonanza, will nudge things in the right direction before too long. At the very least it’s given me another incentive to plan a long-overdue trip Stateside sometime soon…

Wild gravity

I like to think of myself as scientifically literate, so I’d always been a bit embarrassed that my knowledge of General Relativity was rather superficial. High school physics classes and popular science books had taught me that e=mc2, that gravity is caused by matter warping spacetime, and that clocks slow down when you travel at the speed of light, but until recently I’d have been pushed to explain exactly why these things were so.

Then, towards the end of last year, I watched the movie Interstellar, the plot of which turns on the time-stretching effects of extreme gravitation, which inspired me to fill in this gap in my education. So I’ve read various textbooks, and Einstein’s own pamphlet on the subject, and while, if I’m honest, the mathematics are still a bit opaque to me, I think I’ve got a fairly good grasp of the basic principles.

Just in time too; the day after I finished the Einstein book, the gravitational waves he predicted were finally discovered (or the discovery was announced, the actual event having taken place last year). It’s nice to feel that one understands the importance of scientific advances like this, but even in a state of relative ignorance it would be hard not to be awed by a story that involves black holes spiralling at near the speed of light before crashing to release the energy of a billion trillion stars in the blink of an eye. The fact that we can hear the echo of this cataclysm a billion years later is nothing short of amazing. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, humans are pretty smart.

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky

I wouldn’t say I was ever a big fan of David Bowie – he was a genius, obviously, but in my opinion (though I know millions would disagree) nothing he did post-Ziggy Stardust was terribly interesting, apart from producing Lust for Life and appearing in The Hunger. (I would like to say that I loved the Berlin Trilogy, but to be honest it has never really grabbed me.)

The era where single artists could have the sort of global recognition and influence that Bowie had in the 70s seems a long time ago now. Our culture has become ever more stratified, even though (or perhaps because) we have the opportunity to access a much wider range of creative output than ever before. Which is a shame.

So I did feel sad upon hearing that Bowie had died, though I know that at least part of that is just general regret at the passing of the years. The sadness appears to be universal; all the tributes that have flowed today seem genuinely heartfelt, which isn’t always the case in our age of instant shallow reaction. I’ll join in by linking to this iconic performance of my own favourite Bowie track.

2015: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Here we are at the end of another year; time for a quick run through what passed for cultural engagement in my life over the last twelve months. (As ever, the full list can be found on our Tumblr.)

Music first. I’m old-fashioned enough to still think of the album as the basic unit of music, and I’ve averaged about one new one a week, mainly stuff I’ve heard on Radio 6. Female, alt-rock, and singer-songwriter seem to be the predominant themes. Here’s my favourite ten, in the order that I bought them:

No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney
Play Along – The Sorry Kisses
Sometimes I Sit and Think… – Courtney Barnett
Foil Deer – Speedy Ortiz
Hinterland – LoneLady
Welcome Back To Milk – Du Blonde
My Love Is Cool – Wolf Alice
After – Lady Lamb
Divers – Joanna Newsom
Short Movie – Laura Marling

If I had to choose one as the best it would probably be Short Movie, though I think that Welcome Back To Milk is the one that I’ve listened to most.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about how we’re living through some kind of Golden Age of Television, but I must admit that I practically never watch the box these days. The closest I’ve come to seeing a drama series this year is to buy the box set of the first season of Fargo, but I’ve not got round to putting it on yet. Which is a shame, because I’m sure I’d love it, like I love the rest of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, and it’s likely that I would be entertained by all the other shows that the critics rave about too, but the fact is that I just can’t face committing myself to a lengthy series. My attention span is obviously shot; I blame the internet.

That said, I can at least concentrate for the length of a film, and I have managed to catch a few movies this year, the best of which was the Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, exactly the sort of rambling stoner mystery that I like watching over and over. I did think about seeing the new Star Wars over the holidays, but in the end I didn’t bother. I guess I will go sometime in the new year, but I’m pretty sure it will be a disappointment.

I’ve been reading a bit more too; if there has been a common thread to my choice of books this year it’s been the subjective experience of time and memory. I finished another volume of Proust, The Guermantes Way, which I felt was the most entertaining of the series so far, though that might just be because I’m familiar now with the characters and the pace of the novel. Other highlights were The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolaƱo, and this year’s literary sensation City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. The latter was almost as good as the hype, particularly in its depiction of New York City in the mid-70s (an era in which I like to imagine I would have felt right at home), though the plot petered out towards the end.

Looking to the year ahead, I’m sure it will be more of the same; Proustian reverie and drug-imbued diversion set to a suitably stimulating soundtrack. That’s OK though; I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m reasonably comfortable with my taste in entertainment, which, all in all, I don’t think is too shabby…