Iowa, finally

After two days of confusion, the Iowa caucus results have just about trickled in. If the disorganisation of the local Democrats is any reflection of the preparedness of the national party then we may be in for a very rough time once the general election comes around, but it’s not all gloomy news; Bernie Sanders seems to have maintained the momentum he built up four years ago, while Joe Biden’s campaign looks to be running into trouble already. This is encouraging, because, in a highly polarised political contest, maximising the turnout of your base is a better strategy than trying to chip away at the weaker elements of your opponent’s support, and Sanders’ promises of social reform are likely to generate more excitement among core Democrat constituencies than Biden’s lukewarm centrism. Of course there is the risk that even a moderate (by European standards) leftist like Sanders will have an equally strong rallying effect on the Republican right, but, as things stand, it’s difficult to see what other course of action could lead to a Democrat victory in November.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the Trump impeachment process ended in the entirely predictable anti-climax of aquittal. Trump has been crowing about his “victory”, but again, it remains to be seen whether, come polling day, the encouragement this gives to his followers will be outweighed by the motivation it provides to those who want to see the back of him.

02022020

Today, the 2nd of February 2020, or 02/02/2020, is a palindromic day. The previous one of these was 20/02/2002, but that didn’t work in the US, where they inexplicably put the month first when writing the date, nor in China, where, more logically, they use the yyyy/mm/dd format. The last global palindromic day was way back on 11/11/1111, though I guess no one in North America or the Far East would have been interested in the Julian calendar in those days. The next one is due in 2121, on the 12th of December.

I’m fond of things like this, that seem as if they must have some deep cosmic meaning, even though the scientific part of my mind knows that it’s all quite arbitrary. I’m self-aware enough to recognise that it’s an attempt to ward off existential despair by imposing narrative order on a chaotic universe, but even an absurd hero has to embrace irrationality sometimes, so I’ll allow myself this little foible.

Last exit to Blighty

So, today was my final day as a citizen of the European Union. On a practical level, this is a bit of a non-event for me; the UK’s departure will not have any huge consequences in the short term, since there is now a one-year transition period where everything stays much the same, and even in the longer term I’m not likely to personally suffer any significant detriment, because I’m an old, middle-class, white male, and we generally do OK, whatever the circumstances.

Still, I’m feeling rather bereft. The EU, for all its many faults, represents an optimistic vision of an internationalist future, born from the ashes of a terrible war. That we are now retreating behind a national frontier, trying to regain a mythical past, seems like an ominous development.

Then again, it probably won’t work out as badly as I fear. The social gains of the last seven decades are not just going to disappear, however much the right try to turn the clock back, and in years to come we might look back on this episode as a minor bump in the highway of human progress, the last stand of reaction against the tide of history.

Anyway, whatever it says on my passport, nothing can change how I define myself; I’m a proud member of the worldwide proletariat, and I will be until I die.

Trump and tribulation

As expected, after the excitement of the election, politics around here has pretty much gone into hibernation, and is unlikely to become interesting again until efforts to negotiate an EU trade deal get started next month, when we’ll find out whether Boris Johnson actually has some sort of plan, or if we’re going to be back into another period of no-deal brinkmanship.

In the meantime we must turn for amusement to the US, where the Senate trial of Donald Trump for a small sample of his many high crimes and misdemeanors is finally getting under way. While the short-term outcome may not be in much doubt, since most Republican Senators have already declared themselves ready to acquit without burdening their minds with consideration of the evidence, it will be interesting to see what effect the demonstration of Trump’s rampant criminality has on his public standing, and his chances of re-election.

I suspect that the answer to that question will be “not much”. People already know what they think about Trump, and confirmation that he is a crook seems unlikely to make much impression on his core support. If he can sit back and let it wash over him, the process might even work to his advantage, by fuelling the narrative that he is the victim of the liberal elite, persecuted for the “crime” of standing up for the little guy.

The main danger that Trump faces is from himself; it’s possible that he will allow the impeachment to goad him into some action so outrageous that it tests the loyalty of even his most ardent supporters. It’s hard to imagine what would be bad enough to do that though; perhaps cancelling the election and declaring himself dictator-for-life. Failing that, this trial may turn out to be just a minor inconvenience on his march to another term in office.

 

Neil Peart RIP

When people ask me what the first record I ever bought was, I usually tell them Heart of Glass by Blondie, which was the first single I purchased, but the first LP that I bought was Moving Pictures by Rush. I’ve been a little reluctant to admit that over the years, as Rush are not generally felt to be the coolest act on the planet, but I was definitely a big fan for a while, and they were one of the first bands that introduced me to the idea that music could be something beyond an ephemeral distraction.

After Moving Pictures I quickly acquired all their previous albums, and their next release Signals, but my initial enthusiasm didn’t last, partly for reasons I’ll mention below, and I hardly listened to them at all over the following three decades, until some nostalgic impulse prompted me to get 2012’s Clockwork Angels, which in turn led me to revisit my collection of their old material. I’m not sure that I would sit and listen to any of the albums all the way through, but there are certainly some highlights, especially on Fly by Night, Permanent Waves, and the aforementioned Moving Pictures.

So I was sad to read in the paper this morning that Neil Peart had passed away, at the early age of 67. Much of the appeal of Rush’s work lies in the storytelling of his lyrics, particularly on the earlier albums, where he crafts some intriguing Tolkienesque fantasy, while (mostly) avoiding any lapses into ridiculousness.

There are some problematic elements to Peart’s legacy though; 2112, dedicated to “the genius of Ayn Rand”, is difficult to forgive. It’s said that Peart later disavowed Rand and identified himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian”, but the official Rush website featured a sympathetic portrait of the alt-right icon as late as 2012, and in 2018 Peart was still describing 2112 as the story of “a hero who fights against collectivist mentality (depicted by the evil red star)“, so I probably won’t be putting that back on the turntable any time soon.

I much preferred Peart when he stuck to the elf-related whimsy, so I think that’s how I’ll remember him.

Six hundred

Before we unveil the new, reinvigorated, Second Life Shrink, we should note that this is our six-hundredth post. The latest century has taken us a little under two years, much faster than the last one, but not as quick as we were back in our heyday.

According to the ever-informative WordPress statistics page, the 599 pieces preceding this one have contained a total of 176,801 words. If one believes the advice given to would-be writers on the internet, that would equate to roughly two novels. I will leave it to you, dear readers, to decide if the contents of this blog are adequate compensation for those potential masterpieces that the world will now never see…

2020 vision

[I guess it bodes ill for my serious writing career that I have been unable to resist such a painfully obvious title for today’s post, but I was up late last night, so I think I can be excused.]

What lies ahead for SLS as we enter the new decade? I expect that we will feel compelled to continue commenting on the unfolding political situation, on both sides of the Atlantic. My prediction is that the Brexit question will actually calm down a bit now that Boris Johnson has a solid majority and, no longer beholden to the ultras in his own party, is able to negotiate a sensible trade deal with the EU. Things are likely to get more lively in the US though, since the long-awaited impeachment process has significantly raised the already-high stakes in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump will be going to jail if he loses, giving him the motivation to abandon the scant regard he has for constitutional niceties, assuming he allows the election to go ahead at all.

Away from politics, I would like to start posting longer, more considered, pieces on broader cultural topics, perhaps once a month or so, but that’s an ambition I’ve had for several years now and it’s never happened yet, so we’ll see.

And Second Life? I did renew my annual subscription back in October, which cost about $90, even though the only way I have of accessing the grid these days is via an old copy of the now-defunct Lumiya app on an elderly tablet, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t produce a particularly satisfactory graphical experience. Theoretically that shouldn’t matter too much if I just wanted to interact with people, but the perennial SL underpopulation means that one has to wander around for ages before bumping into anyone, and it’s difficult to stay interested without something pretty to look at. I should try to get back into virtual living again, because I’m sure SL will just disappear one day, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. It might be quite interesting to compare my thoughts about it now with my first impressions from back in 2007.

So, politics, culture, Second Life, that should keep me busy for the next twelve months. I may even find time to cover our other main neglected category, psychology. I could do something tomorrow on avoiding procrastination….

2019: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

In some ways 2019 was very successful for SLS; we posted a total of 66 pieces, making it our most productive year since 2010. On closer examination though, it can be seen that practically all these posts addressed UK politics, specifically the Brexit question, and that very few of them were particularly insightful, serving mainly as an outlet for my angst about the increasingly desperate situation rather than providing any useful analysis of it. As the year closes I’m still in a state of post-election paralysis; it may be some time before that passes.

Anyway, here are our ten most-read posts of the year:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. Questionable things
  3. Watching the Okhrana
  4. Irresolute
  5. There is no land beyond the Volga
  6. Two Galleries
  7. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
  8. Incassable
  9. Won’t you please be my friend?
  10. Maintaining perspective

The demographics post has been a reliable chart-topper since it was published back in 2010, but the rest of the list is a rather inexplicable mix of old and new.

Here are my personal favourites from this year, in chronological order:

And, for completeness, a note of our international appeal. We had visitors from 34 countries; here are the top ten:

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

That’s a little less Euro-centric than in previous years, somewhat ironic given that most of our content in the last twelve months has been about Europe, but perhaps it’s just a sign of the more detached future that the country faces.

Things may change, but we’re still here, looking forward to the next decade with some trepidation, but mostly optimistic that humanity will continue its progressive course, despite any temporary setbacks. A Happy New Year to all our readers, and we’ll see you in 2020.

2019: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

Here’s our look back on our most notable cultural experiences of the year; the full list is, as ever, on our Tumblr.

Film – I’ve started going to the cinema regularly again over the last few months, mainly matinee shows at the multiplex, but a few trips to the arthouse too. I liked Ad Astra, Knives Out, and Rolling Thunder Review, but my favourites were the monochrome Bait, an expressionist tale of class conflict in Cornwall, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s flawed but ultimately beguiling portrait of late-60s California.

Books – I’ve read less than I would have liked this year, mainly because I spent a lot of time obsessing over the news, which, for much of 2019, was not unlike a melodramatic potboiler, though surely one that any editor would have rejected as implausibly plotted. Of the actual fiction that I did get through I thought the best was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, though I felt it was a bit more predictable than many of the reviews suggested. I enjoyed the poetic memoir of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy, and caught up with some historical reportage; Vasily Grossman’s notes from the eastern front in WW2, collected in A Writer at War, and Svetlana Alexievich’s anthology of first-hand female accounts of the same conflict, The Unwomanly Face of War, easily one of the most moving works I have ever read.

Music – no big changes in my musical taste this year; here are my top ten albums, in the order I bought them:

  • Get Tragic – Blood Red Shoes
  • Remind Me Tomorrow – Sharon Van Etten
  • Lung Bread For Daddy – Du Blonde
  • Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
  • Stranger Things – Yuck
  • Joanthology – Joan As Police Woman
  • Any Human Friend – Marika Hackman
  • Dolphine – Mega Bog
  • Life’s An Illusion – The Sorry Kisses
  • No Home Record – Kim Gordon

I probably listened to Joanthology more than anything else, but it is a retrospective; my favourite of the original releases was Lung Bread For Daddy. I didn’t go to as many concerts as usual this year; but the two I did manage were great – Laura Gibson and Marika Hackman.

I’m planning to keep up my weekly cinema trips, at least until the winter is over, and I definitely want to start reading more fiction, though I guess I say that every year. It would do me good to step off the treadmill of trying to keep up with all the news, all the time, and just slow down a little – I did manage that for a while over the summer, but events drew me in again, as we’ll see in part 2 of our annual review, when we look back at the year in blogging.

Star Wars IX – instant review

I’m not long out of the cinema; here are my immediate thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

[Some spoilers ahead, so don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film yet.]

It was efficiently entertaining, and I’m sure it will please both SW fans and casual moviegoers, but, in contrast to  The Last Jedi, which subverted expectations, this was a definite return to the established lore of the franchise. The bad guy turned out to be exactly who we suspected, Ray’s parentage wasn’t as random as we had been led to believe, and the characters’ development mostly followed predictable arcs. The space battles and light-sabre duels were pleasingly spectacular, but some things, like the Knights of Ren, were built up and then never came to much. Setting key scenes on yet another desert planet seemed a bit repetitive, but there were some interesting new backdrops, particularly the giant waves crashing into the ruined Death Star, and the barren Sith home world. There were a few plot holes – where exactly was the other transporter that Chewbacca was supposedly on? – and unlikely coincidences, and “The Force” does a lot of heavy lifting in moving the story along, but this could be said about any of the previous episodes, and one can’t really complain about such minor points if one is prepared to accept the central implausibility of the whole saga; that all the important events in a galaxy-spanning conflict seem to involve the same half-dozen people.

Overall though, a fun way to spend a couple of hours. I may even go and see it again over the holidays, once I’ve read all the other reviews, and have more of an idea of whether I should like it or not…