End of Daze

I’ve not had much time, nor inclination, for blogging in the last month, for one reason or another, but I thought I had better get myself together to post a final word or two ahead of the end of the world on Friday.

Of course the rational side of my brain is aware of the cosmic narcissism implicit in believing that the Universe turns according to an arbitrary schedule pulled out of the air by a long-dead member of our insignificant species, but my more fanciful side can’t help hoping that the promised UFOs will show up, bearing benevolent aliens who will issue us with personal rocket-ships and immortality pills.

Failing that I guess I might be able to shake off my torpor long enough to compile our usual year-end review. We’ve been pretty quiet over the last twelve months (and we already did a five-year retrospective back in May), so it shouldn’t take too long…

Do You Believe in Rapture?

Readers may have noted that I’ve not been posting much recently. This is of course in line with my general slacker ethos, but it’s been even harder than usual to rouse myself to action of late; what with the Rapture forecast for this weekend, blogging seems rather pointless.

I’m not entirely familiar with the finer points of evangelical eschatology, but, as I understand it, Christ himself is going to visit Earth tomorrow, and bodily transport the faithful straight to heaven, while the rest of us are left behind to face the wrath of Satan and his minions.

If this miraculous event does come to pass (the pastor predicting it may not be completely reliable), I wonder if we will actually notice much difference, apart from the sudden disappearance of the most annoying 10% of the population. Humankind is well capable of creating mayhem without Beelzebub’s input, so if the Dark Lord is given untrammelled dominion over the mortal plane he may decide just to sit back and let us go on heading straight to hell in a handcart all by ourselves.

[I couldn’t decide which of two tunes was best to accompany this post; this Sonic Youth track is one of my favourites, but it would be criminal to cover this topic without linking to this classic by Blondie.]

Twilight of the Gods

A couple of posts ago I was pondering the question of why I completely lack any sort of religious sensibility; it turns out that it’s because I am perfectly in tune with the Universe.

It would be nice to think that, now reason has banished God from both biology and physics, the proponents of organised religion would accept that the game was up, and fade away without a fuss, but, as I touched on in that post, I expect that won’t be happening any time soon.

Upon the dismal shore of Acheron

While browsing at the AV Club the other day I came across a review of the film The Dungeon Masters, a documentary following the lives of three devoted D&D and LARP fans. It sounds fairly interesting, though the director’s main theme – “people in control of their fantasy lives aren’t in control of their real ones” – won’t win any prizes for originality.

More intriguing was a link I found in the comment section of the review, leading to this cautionary tale. Who knew that D&D could be so exciting? I played for years, and I never once got invited to join a coven of witches.

Looking around the Chick Publications site reminded me of when I was about 6 or 7. There was an old lady who stood outside the gate of our primary school at break time, handing out similar illustrated tracts. One story sticks in my mind to this day; a young boy has the temerity to question his pastor about the truth of the Bible, and the very next day he is hit by a speeding truck, sent to Hell and tortured by demons, all depicted in graphic detail. I guess she was sincere in her belief that it was necessary to put the fear of eternal damnation into the minds of young children in order to save them from evil doctrines like communism or evolution (not to mention Catholicism, Islam and, of course, homosexuality), but even at that tender age my reaction was to think that her religion was pretty messed up.

I sometimes wonder if this early experience was what put me off religion for life, but if memory serves (which it probably doesn’t) I was a confirmed unbeliever even before that. In fact I can’t remember a time when I ever had any sort of faith, which I’m not sure how to explain. I did grow up in a basically secular household, but my parents weren’t militant atheists or anything, and Christianity was part of the fabric of our community. I repeated the prayers at school assembly, went to church at Easter and Christmas and was generally exposed to the idea that being a Christian was the normal thing to do, but none of it ever clicked with me. In the years that have followed I have learned about many other religions and belief-systems, ancient and modern, but my interest has always been cultural rather than spiritual. I’ve never felt that there was any sort of void in me that yearned to be filled by religion, or that my lack of faith meant I was missing something. Perhaps I just don’t have the religious gene.

(I have been politically active most of my adult life, and pious types have often told me that I am sublimating my religious impulses in radicalism, that The Communist Manifesto is my bible, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t see politics as a moral issue, but more a technical question of how to efficiently organise society. I certainly don’t think that being a communist makes me a better person than anyone else, and I’m not expecting any eternal reward for my labours).

I don’t really have a point here; I’m just musing nostalgically. I’m definitely not suggesting that all Christians are hate-filled bigots; I’ve known plenty over the years and hardly any have been like Fred Phelps. Indeed one of the saving graces of the Christian faith is the fact that its adherents are mostly content to be fuzzy about the details of doctrine. Even the Pope thinks that non-believers can go to heaven, which, to my mind, seems hard to reconcile with John 14:6, but I guess that resolving such contradictions is what keeps theologians busy. (Personally, I’d probably pass on Paradise; I’ve always thought that the first circle of the Inferno sounded much more interesting). I imagine that the followers of other religions behave in a similar way; none of the Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists that I know are particularly devout, though I’d have to admit that my deadbeat friends may not be entirely representative examples of their respective faiths.

I used to be more actively anti-religious in my younger days, and I would argue with people about how clearly nonsensical their beliefs were, but with age I have mellowed into a position of liberal secularism; I don’t care what people think or do in their homes and places of worship (or where they build those places of worship), as long as they keep their dogma out of the schoolroom, and don’t try to tell me who I can or cannot marry.

I still think that, on balance, religion is a pernicious influence on society, but no amount of reasoned discourse is going to make it disappear as long as the material conditions that underpin it persist. Everyone knows Marx’s comment about religion being “the opium of the people”, but the full quote is more illuminating:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

If we ever make it to a society that is free of inequality and injustice, the illusion of religion will no longer be necessary, and it will fade into history. We will look upon Christianity and other modern faiths in the same way we regard the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans; interesting cultural phenomena that have no direct significance in our everyday lives. Whether I’ll be around to see that day is another question, but I can always live in hope.

Virtual alchemy

When Second Life Shrink was in its planning stages a few years ago I checked out several different blog-hosting services before settling on WordPress. I liked that it was open-source, and a couple of people I knew had recommended it, but what sealed my decision was the amount of statistical information that the platform provides. As well seeing the raw visitor numbers I can analyse where they came from, which pages they have looked at, and which links they have followed, providing me with hours of pointless distraction.

Until fairly recently just about all our traffic came straight from search engines. We’re top on Google for “second life shrink” of course, and lately we’ve been doing well with “second life demographics” too. “Second life addiction” and “second life psychology” seem to come and go; we’ve been on the front page with both of those at various times, though currently we’re languishing down on page three, where only dedicated searchers will find us. We tend to do much better on Bing for some reason; I’m not sure whether that should be a source of pride or shame.

We used to get very few hits from direct links; unsurprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, no one has ever felt that any of our posts were worth drawing to the attention of a wider audience. Recently though we have been getting a steady stream of visitors from a whole host of unlikely sites. I won’t link to them for reasons that will become obvious; suffice to say that they are not the sort of places we would like to be associated with.

I figured that this was likely to be the result of some sort of traffic-generating scam; and a little research has proved that this is the case. The program in question promises to deliver hits by automatically visiting millions of blogs and spoofing an incoming link from the site that is being promoted; the theory is that bloggers, their curiosity piqued, will follow the link back, and then purchase diet pills, or click on Google ads, or otherwise participate in whatever shady e-commerce scheme the site owner is counting on to make back the $70 the package costs.

At least this sting only leaves the would-be web-entrepreneur out by the cost of the program; most of the get-rich-quick-with-Google/Twitter/Facebook offers that litter the web these days are potentially much more expensive. Victims are lured in by the promise of secret marketing tricks for a payment of only a couple of dollars, but after handing over their credit card details they find that they have subscribed to a “newsletter”, for which they are billed $50 or more a month. Of course they can cancel any time, by simply calling a premium-rate number in the Virgin Isles, staffed by operators who will put you on hold for 20 minutes before asking for your bank account number so that they can process the transaction. These sharp practices are not always confined to the murkier recesses of the internet; last year Facebook was awash with similar scams that tricked people into signing up for overpriced cellphone services, though these have been mostly purged now.

What’s interesting about these confidence tricks is not that they are new, but that they are ancient. Persuading people to suspend their disbelief by invoking some magical new paradigm must go back to the days when enterprising cavemen extracted shiny pebbles from their gullible fellows by promising to share the secrets of how to generate revenue using that new “fire” thing that everyone was talking about. From medieval alchemists tuning lead into gold, through Gregor MacGregor’s tales of colonial riches, to Charles Ponzi‘s arbitrage of the International Reply Coupon, today’s blog fraudsters stand in a proud line of grifters and shakedown-artists.

While I like to think that I can see through crude scams such as these, I have to admit that I am not immune to the subtler form of self-deception that keeps me handing money over to disreputable virtual-world-pedlars, not in the belief that it will enrich me materially (nothing so base), but in the hope that I might be able to reinvent myself as a better person (despite all the evidence to the contrary). The alchemists of old sought the Philosophers’ Stone, the mystical substance said to grant enlightenment and immortality; perhaps Second Life, which promises to allow one to transcend the limitations of corporeality, is its modern equivalent.

Preternatural Greenies

This article, written by our occasional arts correspondent Olivia, was posted well over a year ago, but it still gets a steady flow of hits, mainly from people searching Google for some combination of “Second”, “Life” and “Greenies”.

Most of the Rezzable sims reviewed in Olivia’s piece disappeared from the main SL grid last year, and have since taken up residence on Open Sim, but the Greenies Home hung in there, still drawing in the crowds with its whimsical charm.

But now an era is drawing to a close as the loveable little aliens prepare to blast off for pastures new. Is this an omen? There are many stories of animals mysteriously sensing impending natural disasters, such as these reports from Sri Lanka of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Perhaps our diminutive green friends have forseen the coming apocalypse, and are getting out while their Linden dollars are still worth something.

I too shall be disappearing, but only temporarily, as I venture out of the range of 3G and WiFi for a summer break. I’ll be back in a few weeks, to find out if Second Life is still around for me to write about.

Second reverence

Coming across the Church of the Animated Bunny the other day made me think of the Church of the SubGenius, and I figured that there was bound to be some manifestation of the Word of “Bob” somewhere in Second Life. I couldn’t find anything though, apart from the Fool O’Beans Coffee Shop, which promises “Coffee … cake … praise [of] “Bob””, and when I visited the location there was nothing there apart from a snowy field.

It’s hard to believe that there is nowhere on the grid dedicated to the SubGenius, because it’s exactly the sort of thing I’d expect SL-loving types to be into. The in-world search engine is notoriously poor, so maybe the locations are just not showing up.

Anyway, thus inspired, I set off on a pilgrimage around some of the other spiritually-themed places in Second Life.

Most of the mainstream religions are covered; there are Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic churches, a whole island dedicated to Islam, a centre of Sufi thought, a Synagogue, a Mormon Tabernacle, a Hindu Temple, a Buddhist Retreat, a Shinto Shrine, and a Confucian Oracle. I was surprised not to find a Sikh Temple, and there was nothing specifically for Taoists or Zoroastrianists either. Apologies to anyone else I’ve missed out.

I was expecting to find a few venues for devil-worship, but all the places that came up on a search for “Satan” turned out to be shops aimed at Goths. The Church of Frog and the Black Church cater to those with Vampiric tendencies, while the Church of the Seven Deadly Sins ministers to the BDSM community. If you follow the Cthulhu Mythos, you might run into one of the Great Old Ones in Innsmouth.

Finally, there’s the Church of Enturbulation, an anti-scientology outfit. They have a website too, but it seems to be down at the moment, which may or may not be due to the nefarious actions of Tom Cruise. (For more anti-scientology stuff, check out Anonymous).

The Scientologists themselves deny that they have any designs on Second Life, but then they would say that wouldn’t they? I’m not a great fan of the followers of L. Ron, but then I’m both a psychiatrist and a communist, so I’m sure that the feeling is mutual.

[Postscript: The title of this post reminded me of this.]

Bunny worship

Not before time, I’ve worked out how to embed slurl’s in this page, so you can click on places I mention, which will take you to a map of the area at slurl.com, and from there you can teleport into SL, assuming you have your browser set up correctly. (There’s a guide to enabling this in Firefox here).

Continuing my peregrination around the Zygaena Crater, I came across the Church of the Animated Bunny:

animated_bunny02

I can completely understand why someone would go to the bother of creating something like this; it’s not something you would ever see in real life, it’s quite amusing, you can ask your SL friends over to hang out, and people like me might feature it in their blogs.

What puzzles me more is why anyone would take the trouble to recreate a nondescript business plaza like this:

metro_plaza

This is apparently the headquarters of the Metro Corporation, who seem to have some sort of advertising business, though not a terribly successful one, judging by the complete absence of anyone other than me. I did wander around for a while, and I came across a poster that let me teleport to a couple of clothes stores, but there were also a lot of posters that had yet to be rented. Whoever owns this place must be paying quite a bit in land fees (it’s 35008 square metres, which would be $195 a month), and, unless I just happened to be there at an unusually quiet time, making no return at all. (Or maybe a little; I did end up spending L$100 at one of the clothes shops, so I guess Metro will get a cut of that).

Metro do have a plan to drum up some more business; they were advertising for “Personal Assistants to the C-Executives” (plural), to liaise with customers. If it was anything like a real-life sales post that would be a pretty intensive job. I doubt they’ll get many applicants with the salary they are offering of $100 a month (US$, but still).

Superstition aint the way

I started attaching tags to my posts a couple of weeks ago in the hope that my pitifully low traffic would pick up a bit. I’m not sure how successful this has been; the graph of my visitor numbers has been as erratic as the Dow:

I did get a comment yesterday, for the first time in a while, from Ann’s New Friend. It was a bit snarky, but any attention is good I guess. I felt it was unfair of him/her to imply that I wasn’t interested in reading opinions that conflicted with my own; I look at right-wing journals and blogs all the time. I was just worried that readers might interpret the fact that I had linked to Real Clear Politics without any comment as meaning that I had some sympathy with the views expressed therein.

Hats off to ANF’s work rate though; I had been feeling pleased that I had managed six posts in a week, but he/she is a true stakanovite who produces fifteen in a day. It’s interesting that the biggest item in his/her tag cloud is “Obama” (as indeed mine is “Palin”); it’s always easier to talk about your opponen’s failings rather than your candidate’s qualities.

It did make me think about why I bother commenting on the US election; hardly anyone reads these posts, and those few who do are unlikely to be swayed by a few links to stuff they’ve probably seen before anyway. I have previously expressed the opinion that blogs are vastly overrated as a medium of political discourse, but I am finding myself more and more drawn into the cross-linked world of the political blogosphere.

I made a light-hearted reference to voodoo the other week, but the more I think about it, the more it seems that blogging has a lot in common with primitive religious rituals. (No offence to adherents of voodoo; I’m using “primitive” in the sense of “uncontaminated by civilisation”).

Faced with a process that is likely to affect my life in many fundamental ways, yet which is completely outwith my control – like a volcano, or winter, or the US Presidential race – I am reverting to simple superstition, offering tribute to the secular gods of liberal elitism, and bowing before the mighty deity that is Tina Fey.