L’Italia è vittoriosa

So, I finally got a sporting prediction correct, though it was a close-run thing. Most neutral observers agreed the Italians were worth their victory over the piece, but England did well to take it to penalties, and with a little more luck could have won.

What’s perhaps more interesting than the on-field action are the competing narratives around the effect that England’s good run has had on the national psyche. The optimistic liberal version – that the success of the racially and socially diverse squad has fostered an atmosphere of tolerance – is rather undercut by the racist abuse directed towards black members of the team from a section of their own fan base. The government’s clumsy attempts to appropriate the feel-good factor surrounding the tournament to bolster its fading domestic popularity look similarly out of place amongst ministers’ unsubtle dog-whistles to that same white-nationalist constituency.

The country may move on from this particular disappointment fairly quickly, as our attention shifts to getting through what promises to be some bumpy months ahead, but resolving these opposing conceptions of identity and belonging will take much longer, and require rather more in the way of political leadership than our current government seems able to provide.

Euro 2020 prediction

After my tips for Euro 2012, and Euro 2016, turned out to be, well, less than 100% accurate, I thought I would give myself the best possible chance of picking the winner of this year’s pandemic-delayed tournament by waiting until I had only two teams to choose from.

So, Italy or England? It’s a tough call. To be honest I wasn’t really expecting either side to get past the last eight; if you’d twisted my arm before the first game kicked off I’d have put my money on France and Spain to make the final. Italy are certainly the better team technically, but England are no slouches, and they have home advantage, plus a confidence-boosting narrative of national redemption to drive them on.

The statistics would seem to favour the Italians, who are ahead 11-8 on past wins, with 8 draws; for games this century it’s 4-1 to Italy, with 2 draws, which were the last 2 games played, though both were friendlies. The last competitive game was at the 2014 World Cup, which finished 2-1 to the Italians.

However football at this level is difficult to predict; in a one-off game even a heavy underdog always has a chance. As we’ve noted before (in a post explaining away a woefully inaccurate World Cup forecast), that’s what makes the game so enchanting.

But predict I shall – Italy will prevail.

Viral déjà vu

I guess that one of the advantages of an infrequent posting schedule is that it gives one the opportunity to consider events a little more carefully before venturing an opinion, reducing the risk of later looking back on a hot take that proved laughably inaccurate. The downside is that one is always tempted to wait for the conclusive data point that will confirm or refute an analysis, until one finds that the moment has passed, and no one is interested anymore. The challenge is to find the sweet spot between being an activist, engaged in events as they develop, and a historian, drawing lessons from matters that are settled.

Back in May, in the wake of the local elections, I was thinking that Boris Johnson might have hit upon just the right blend of social conservatism and and economic liberalism to convince a large enough section of the electorate to overlook the venality and incompetence of his administration to keep him in power. Of course this arrangement would be inherently unstable; a Conservative administration would be unable and/or unwilling to deliver the material benefits promised to working-class voters in the north, necessitating ever more reactionary rhetoric aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and whoever else Johnson chose to blame for his government’s failures. Still, I thought he might be able to keep the show on the road for a year or two at least, given Labour’s inability to provide any coherent opposition.

However recent by-election results suggest that Johnson’s scheme may be unraveling at a slightly faster rate. The supposedly safe seat of Chesham was lost to the Liberals, as affluent Tory voters balked at the prospect of subsiding spending in poorer constituencies, while Labour were able to hang on to Batley, amid signs that the electorate was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Johnson administration’s relentless grifting.

That said, Johnson is still in a strong position, though these events seem to have shaken him, and prompted a characteristically populist response; his determination to go ahead with the relaxation of practically all pandemic-related restrictions, despite warnings that, as was the case last year, this is somewhat premature.

So perhaps it’s not necessary to wait to see how history plays out in the fullness of time; rather, one can confidently predict that what unfolds will be a depressingly familiar rehash of old mistakes.

Midsummer daze

As I have grown older my perception of time has become ever more fluid; thus it is that one day I can be enjoying the first warmth of spring, and looking forward to a period of heightened intellectual productivity, only to wake up the next to find that weeks have passed with nothing to show for them, and the turn of the year is already upon us.

Of course this phenomenon is not entirely a product of my increasingly fractured psyche; the unsettling period we are living through, with its repetitive cycle of promised normality undermined by demoralising setbacks, has made it difficult to work towards any but the most immediate goal. The seemingly endless pandemic is the most obvious physical manifestation of this melancholia, but not far behind is the relentless tide of aggressively ignorant reaction that is sweeping through politics into the general culture, turning every news report into a litany of despair.

All in all, hardly a propitious climate for the author of a whimsical blog such as this; hence my silence of late. I do have some vacation time coming up though, and, unlike last year, I may actually get away somewhere, so perhaps the summer light will belatedly awaken my muse.

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.