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.

Reach for the stars

Regular readers will recall that we’ve posted on the topic of space travel several times in the past, marking, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into orbit, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

The tone of our previous pieces has been mostly elegiac, noting with regret that the promise of manned cosmic exploration, which seemed just around the corner in my youth, had largely stalled in the years that followed. There have of course been great strides in robotic exploration, from Mars all the way out to Pluto, and ever more sophisticated telescopes have peered into the furthest depths of the Universe, but I still find it deeply disappointing that Moon bases and space tourism aren’t a thing in the 21st century.

It’s interesting then to see that the latest anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which, 50 years ago today, put the Eagle lander on the lunar surface, has been greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I haven’t heard anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing to do, and there seems to be a general feeling that it’s the kind of endeavour that humanity could do with undertaking again some time soon.

I’m sure that, at least in part, this wish to travel out into the final frontier is fuelled by a desire to forget about how dispiriting the immediate future is looking here on Earth, but, whatever the motivation, it’s good to see a resurgence of belief in the idea of progress. I may reluctantly admit that I’m probably too old now to make it to Mars in person, but I’m still hoping to see some other human get there before I die.

Intergalactic perspective

I always feel that, in uncertain times like these, it’s helpful to step back and take a cosmic view, so I was interested to see the image from the Event Horizon telescope of the black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years away. When one can actually see an object six billion times as massive as the sun, warping time and space with its unimaginable gravity, and spitting out particles heated to billions of degrees at nearly light speed, it’s hard to get too bothered about the petty squabbles of this insignificant planet.

2018 Forecast results

Our review of the year is on the way, but first let’s see how accurate the predictions we made back in January turned out to be:

Donald Trump will still be President of the United States at the end of 2018. There’s still a day to go, but it looks like I got this one right. Trump’s problems seem likely to multiply in the near future, but even if Mueller and the Democrats uncover enough evidence of malfeasance to impeach him ten times over, the Republican Senate will remain reluctant to convict. If his incompetence starts to hurt the economy too much there may be some face-saving deal whereby Mike Pence assumes actual power behind the scenes, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that Trump will end up seeing out his full term.

There will be another Brexit referendum. The jury is still out on this question, even though less than one hundred days remain before the UK is due to crash out of the EU. At the start of the year I thought that the matter would be settled by the summer, but I underestimated the degree to which our political class would prove unequal to the challenge of managing this self-induced crisis. A parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s proposed exit agreement is due in the new year, but this seems likely to deepen the divisions in the country rather than resolve them, so all outcomes, from no-deal to no-exit, remain on the table. I’ll hold off making any more forecasts on this topic for now; things may become a little clearer by the end of next month.

Germany will win the 2018 World Cup. There’s no way to spin this; I was spectacularly wrong, as Jogi Löw‘s much-fancied team had their worst result in a major tournament since 1938. I’ll need to do some more homework before Euro 2020.

Definitive proof of extraterrestrial life will be found by the end of 2018. Organics on Mars, an interstellar visitation, and alien lights over New York – I’ll give myself this one.

Teutonic reliability

Mid-summer is almost upon us, so it seems like a good time to revisit my new year predictions, to see if they bear any likeness to how events are actually panning out.

My first forecast concerned Donald Trump’s likely tenure in the White House, and nothing has happened in the last few months to change my view that he’s going to be around for the foreseeable future. Sure, his venality, stupidity and cruelty are becoming ever more evident, but it’s equally clear that a big enough proportion of the US population, and their (Republican) elected representatives, just don’t care. Progressive fantasies of impeachment – delivered by unlikely liberal heroes the FBI – seem destined to remain just that, sadly.

What then of Brexit? The first part of my prediction – Theresa May’s government collapsing under the pressure of irreconcilable internal splits – looks like it may well come true, perhaps as early as this week, as the relatively sane sections of the Tory party try to head off a disastrously hard departure. There is no guarantee of fresh elections though, and even less certainty of a Labour victory, due to Jeremy Corbyn’s inexplicable inability to appreciate that opposition to Brexit is massively popular in his own party, and only slightly less so in the country at large. It’s equally possible that May will be replaced by some zealous leaver who will gleefully drive the country over the cliff-edge. I’m still just about able to convince myself that there might be a happy ending to this story, but it’s getting harder every day.

Oh well, on to lighter things. Germany for the World Cup? Despite the fact that they lost their opening game, with what most pundits agree was a shambolic display, I’m still backing Joachim Löw’s team to win the tournament, on the grounds that their bad spells are rarely prolonged.

Alien life? They have found organics on Mars, which is good enough for me…

Futurama

Here at SLS we’ve tried our hands at prognostication more than a few times in the past, with generally disappointing results; we’ve erroneously assured readers that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the Presidency (twice), confidently identified as winners teams in major sporting events who go on to exit at an early stage, advised against investing in dead-end companies like Google and Facebook, and completely misread the political mood of our own home nation. The only thing I can find that we actually got right was forecasting Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, which didn’t exactly require Nostradamus-level predictive skills.

Still, it’s the start of a new year, so I thought it might be fun to put down a marker on the two big political questions of the day; at the very least, come December, we’ll be able to look back and laugh at our hopeless naivety.

First up: will Donald Trump still be President of the United States at the end of 2018? I think … yes. The reasoning behind this answer rests on a recognition that, while Trump’s behaviour may well provide a legal justification for his removal, by impeachment, or through application of the 25th Amendment, the decision to actually trigger these processes is a political one, and there’s no sign that a sufficiently large section of the Republican Party has the stomach for it. The arithmetic may change after the midterm elections of course, but given that Trump seems to have a solid electoral base who will stick with him no matter the outrage he provokes elsewhere, I just can’t see the numbers adding up. Naturally I hope that I’m wrong about this, and that the kickback seen in Alabama (fuelled by an energised left actually getting its supporters to the polls) becomes a nationwide phenomenon, giving the Democrats the majorities they need in the House and the Senate to carry an impeachment through, while also moving the whole centre of political gravity leftwards.

Next: is there going to be a second Brexit referendum? I think … yes. This is based less on political calculation, and more on gut feeling, particularly the general sentiment that the country is becoming ungovernable, and that the current administration cannot last. It’s possible to imagine a series of events involving a collapsed government, another election, Labour opting to campaign on the issue of giving the population a chance to vote on the final Brexit deal, and a relieved electorate seizing the opportunity to ditch the whole sorry business. There are, admittedly, large elements of wishful thinking in this, but it’s not completely impossible. The timescale is tight though – we won’t have to wait until December to see if I’m wrong about this; if there isn’t an election by the summer the exit process might well prove to be irreversible.

Finally: two bonus predictions – Germany to win the World Cup, and definitive proof of extraterrestrial life to be found before the year is out.

Guidance from above

I’ve always been quite proud of my navigational skills; while I’ve never exactly been through the wilderness, I have managed to use map and compass to plot a course around fairly remote places like Yosemite and the Cascades without getting more than temporarily lost, and I’ve traversed many a new city with only a glance at the guidebook.

That said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any need to utilise this talent, partly because I never go anywhere new these days, but mostly because, like just about everyone else, I carry around a handy gadget that always tells me exactly where I am, and where I should be going. I do like to think that I could manage without it, and orientate myself old-style using features like rivers and railway lines, but still, I’m in no hurry to test that out.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because today marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the event that kick-started the space race, its simple beep the forerunner of the GPS signals that guide us today. Yet another facet of modern life that we owe to the command economy.

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.

Total eclipse of the blog

I did manage to catch a glimpse of the partial solar eclipse last week, as the thick grey cloud that habitually blankets the sky at this time of year briefly parted. Though my view of it only lasted a few seconds it was quite impressive, a reminder of the eternal procession of the celestial host.

Except of course it’s not eternal. In about six billion years, the sun, the moon and the earth will all be gone, along with every trace of humanity and its works.

When you think about cosmic time scales like that, a month between blog posts doesn’t seem so bad…

Lunar Requiem

Back in 2009 we ran a piece marking the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, which noted wistfully that the vision of widespread space travel promised by the Apollo program had never been realised. We returned to this theme on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s maiden space flight, by which time our regret had expanded to cover the passing of the whole concept of progress through rational planning.

The news that Neil Armstrong has passed away is another reminder of how much the world has moved on since the days when flying to the moon was the peak of human aspiration. In a few more years an era in which there exist living men who have walked on another celestial body will have passed completely, with no sign that it will ever be repeated, a thought which I find almost unbearably sad.

Of course the Space Race of the 50s and 60s was driven by Cold War tensions, and it’s hard to argue that the threat of global thermonuclear destruction that hung over that period was a price worth paying for the dreams of space exploration. Nevertheless, I think our culture has lost something important since then; the sense that we could go ever onward and upward, replaced by the generally gloomy feeling that our best days as a species are already behind us.

All hope is not lost though; we’re still sending robots to other planets, and the information they send back may inspire another wave of space enthusiasm. I might yet make it to Mars after all…