Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.

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…

That TV show you like is going to come back in style

One of our most-read posts over the years is this one from 2010, reflecting on the cultural and personal impact of David Lynch’s seminal 90s TV series Twin Peaks. Readers familiar with the themes we keep returning to in this blog will be unsurprised to learn that I was a big fan of the show, which originally aired when I was a student, and which provided the fuel for hours of late-night, drug-enhanced discussion in my social circle. I even travelled to the Pacific Northwest to visit Snoqualmie, where much of it was filmed. (In true Lynchian spirit I went hiking in the snowy woods outside of town, and nearly froze to death, though I never did find the Black Lodge, or run into Laura Palmer.)

You may think then that I would be excited by the news this week that Lynch is revisiting Twin Peaks, with the long-awaited third series due to appear in 2016. I suppose that I am, but there is some trepidation too – I know that, however good the new episodes might be, I’m likely to be disappointed, because it’s not 1990, and I’m no longer a 20-something student with nothing better to do than sit up all night smoking dope and obsessing over an ephemeral cultural artefact. My enjoyment of the show will inevitably be clouded by the feelings of loss I harbour for the potential of my youth.

Then again, loss and dislocation were central to the original Twin Peaks, and the renewed narrative may well pick up on these themes in a way that will beguile me like it did all those years ago. I guess I’ll just have to stock up on coffee and cherry pie, and sit down to see how it plays out…

Not far to reach

On one of my first trips to New York, back in the early 90s, I stayed in a backpackers’ hostel in a brownstone on the upper West Side, 86th street I think. It was pretty basic, about 20 to a room, mostly young Europeans, but a good place to meet people. It had a nice big kitchen, which was down in the basement, but the building was on a hill, so the room still caught the sun through large windows which looked out on an overgrown garden.

One of my most vivid memories of that trip is standing at the stove late on a Sunday morning, frying hamburgers and eggs for breakfast, looking at the mural which occupied the whole of the wall behind the worn couches that made up the dining area. It was a seaside scene, with girls in bikinis and guys in bermuda shorts, lying on bright towels, drinking and smoking while the waves crashed on the shore, all done in a charmingly naive style, Outsider Art almost. Around the edge, forming a frame, were the lyrics to Rockaway Beach, by the Ramones, no strangers to the outsider tag themselves.

I never actually made it out to Rockaway, but ever since that day that image, and that song, have represented a platonic ideal of summer for me, a moment of uncomplicated pleasure frozen in time, out of focus, just out of reach, like a girl glimpsed through the haze of a hot day by the ocean.

This came to mind today when I heard the sad news that Tommy Ramone, last survivor of the original lineup, had passed away, another sign, if I needed it, that time keeps moving on.

That hostel is probably an upscale apartment building now, the mural long gone, my fellow travellers scattered around the world, to whatever fate life held for them. Places, people, experiences, all slip away, leaving only my memories, which will die with me. The Atlantic still washes the sand at Rockaway though, and I guess boys still listen to music and dream of days with their girl at the beach, so it’s hard to believe that those moments will be lost forever. It may be true that no one will ever stand in that kitchen again, seeing that picture just the way I saw it all those years ago, but I like to think that we are but temporary vessels for the common emotions of humanity, and that the kind of joy which rises in my heart when I remember that day will be around as long as there are people alive to feel it.

Social emotions

I’ve been feeling kinda bummed out over the last week or so; I had been putting it down to having to go to work in the nice weather, but now I’m wondering if it’s because Mark Zuckerberg’s minions have been editing all the fluffy kittens out of my Facebook feed in a deliberate attempt to make me miserable.

Ethical concerns aside (yes, they should have sought informed consent, but it’s hardly the Tuskegee Experiment), the study’s results are actually quite interesting; contrary to cynical expectations, seeing friends being happy increases contentment, rather than delivering a demoralising blow to self-esteem (as long as you accept the proposition that a person’s emotional state can be gauged by what they post on social networks).

On one level that’s good news; despite all the things one reads perhaps the average online citizen is not a completely terrible person after all. On the other hand it is rather depressing to think that our emotions can be so easily manipulated, and a bit scary to imagine what might be done with that power, especially when one considers how secretive and unaccountable the likes of Google and Facebook are.

Now that thought’s got me down again. Perhaps this whole story is just part of some meta-study into how social media can really mess our heads up…

My God Is The Sun

Normally around now is when we start posting gloomy pieces about the falling leaves, the lengthening nights, and the looming onset of yet another brutal North European winter (usually shoehorning the change of season into some clumsy metaphor for the dread of mortality), but this year my characteristic summer contentment has persisted well past August for the first time in while, and I’m actually feeling fairly upbeat about the coming months.

This may be because I had a relatively straight-edge summer – I didn’t sign the pledge or anything, but I did largely eschew intoxication in favour of healthy outdoor pursuits. Back in high school they told us that a natural high was sweeter than any drug, and while I probably wouldn’t go that far, I will say that it was different, and it’s certainly left me in a better physical shape than I’ve been for ages. Perhaps it’s this echo of youthful vitality that’s allowing me to face the winter without the gnawing subconscious fear that I won’t see the spring, or it could just be that I spent enough time in the open air to be healed by the fire from above.

Either way, I can feel my natural slothfulness reasserting itself, so I expect I’ll soon be slipping into my default winter mode of minimal exertion and comforting overconsumption, and undoing all the good work I did over the summer. On the positive side this should mean that I have time to devote to more cerebral pursuits, like reading and watching movies, or even blogging, so there might be a little more activity in this space than there has been of late.

Green Typewriters

And we’re back… Slightly longer summer break than usual this year, for various reasons, not all connected to idleness. Mostly connected to idleness though.

But who can blame us for staying away from the internet? What with twitterised death threats, cyber-bullying, extreme porn everywhere, topped off by the NSA snooping on us all, browsing the web these days feels less like strolling around a virtual utopia, and more like dodging the cops in the town’s sleaziest neighbourhood.

It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago everyone was saying that social media was going to save the world, and even nominating the internet for the Nobel Peace Prize. One might almost suspect that these scare stories (mostly concerning phenomena which, while obviously serious, have been around for years) were being hyped up by the authorities, and their allies in the old media, to convince us that we should steer clear of any online content that isn’t government-approved.

Anyway, I’m thinking that we should take a tip from the Russians, and start producing SLS on paper, with typewriters. We could hand out hard copies in the street, to anyone who looked vaguely interested. Our productivity and readership couldn’t be any worse than they are now…

Roboshrink

Slightly alarming news from Los Angeles, where researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies have developed a virtual therapist. The system interacts with the client through an avatar named Ellie, analysing verbal and non-verbal responses using a webcam and a gaming sensor. The current version uses a real psychologist in the next room to guide Ellie’s questioning, but future iterations promise increasing autonomy.

Ellie’s creators say that she is not meant to replace human therapists, but rather to assist them by taking care of routine information gathering and screening, leaving us old-fashioned flesh and blood shrinks with more time to do the actual healing stuff. That sounds fairly benign, but I can’t help worrying that if our managers hear about a worker who doesn’t need paid, never goes off sick, and always sticks to the treatment protocols, then it won’t be long before we’re all out on the street.

But, you may say, won’t patients resent being fobbed off with an ersatz therapist and demand to see a real live doctor? Well, according to the research, most people find computer-delivered treatment perfectly acceptable, so, yeah, basically we’re doomed…

The Griefing Games

Internet addicts in China have a mixed time; while government-run centres provide some of the most up-to-date treatment in the world, patients who check into the wrong clinic might find themselves getting electroshock therapy, or being beaten to death.

In a new twist, it was reported this week that a Mr Feng, exasperated by his son spending hours online in preference to getting a job, had hired assassins to kill his slacker offspring. OK, these were virtual hitmen, who repeatedly offed the boy as he tried to play World of Warcraft, but still, that’s tough love. (If you believe the story; there is some scepticism.)

I doubt that this approach would work with Second Life addiction (if one accepts that such a thing exists), since anyone who puts up with the frustration of SL long enough to develop a problem is unlikely to be deterred by a bit of low-level griefing. In fact I’m not sure that having a couple of hired killers tracking me, like I was in some sort of exciting spy story or something, wouldn’t make me more likely to log on, though I guess it might get a little irritating after a while.

There might be a business opportunity here – for a fee operatives could stalk a resident around the grid, befriending them and winning their trust, before unexpectedly delivering a virtual whacking, a bit like the CRS Corporation did to Michael Douglas in The Game.

I think there could be quite a bit of demand for such a service, playing as it does on the paranoia and narcissism that are such prominent features of the Second Life experience. On the other hand, the revenue model might be undercut somewhat by the fact that there are plenty people in SL who are willing to provide unsolicited harassment free of charge.

Weeded out

Interesting news from New Zealand, where a long-term study of the inhabitants of Dunedin has revealed that people who smoke a lot of dope in high school may fail to achieve their full potential as adults, thus finally providing a scientific rationale for the otherwise inexplicable observation that stoners do not rule the world.