Recession gloom

So, I’m back from the US, after a pleasantly extended sojourn spent catching up with old friends, revisiting past haunts, and exploring some new ones. Naturally enough a lot had changed since my last visit back in the 90s, but there was enough reassuring familiarity that I was able to properly relax. Apart from some anticipatory anxiety as I stood in line at immigration, I can’t recall a single tense moment. I guess it helps that I’ve slowed down a bit over the last 30 years, and am content to spend a whole morning taking a gentle stroll through a gallery, or sitting outside a cafe watching the world go by, rather than rushing around trying to see every attraction on offer in whatever locale I happen to be passing through. If I did have a minor complaint, it was that the cost of living was much higher than I remembered – $30 for a beer and a burrito! – though I suspect this is mainly because I stayed in nice hotels and ate at classy restaurants, unlike my younger self, who was happy with grubby hostels and cheap burgers. I tip more these days too.

Anyway, back to reality. I had planned to have a bit more downtime before returning to work, but the latest news on the economy has spooked me a bit, and I’m thinking that I should probably get some money coming in sooner rather than later. I might be more relaxed if I had any confidence in the government, but since our nominal Prime Minister has chosen to spend his final days in office sulking rather than running the country, as his would-be successors vie for the hearts and votes of Tory party members by promising ever more outlandish fantasies of low taxes and reactionary social policy, it seems likely that things will get very much worse before they get any better.

Of course any worries I might have are insignificant compared with those facing the 50%+ of the population who are forecast to find themselves in fuel poverty going into the winter. It seems inconceivable that the political pressure generated by such widespread hardship will fail to push whoever ends up in Number 10 into some sort of action to inject some more spending power into the economy, whatever fears they may have about the effect that might have on inflation. Some combination of price controls and a boost to Universal Credit would probably cover it, but that may be too much to hope for, and a limited expansion of the already-announced fuel credits is a more likely outcome.

It remains to be seen whether the Tories, following their instinct for self-preservation, will unite behind their new leader, or if continuing internecine conflict will tempt Truss/Sunak to seek a personal mandate from a General Election. From a democratic viewpoint that would be a welcome development, but I suspect that dealing with a fractious party for a couple of years while hoping the economy picks up will look like the lesser evil when compared to inviting the judgement of the electorate in the midst of a cost of living crisis, so there will be no semi-competent technocratic administration riding over the hill to save us any time soon.

And these are just our local problems – I haven’t even touched on the war in Ukraine, US-China tensions, Middle East instability, climate change… I may need another trip to the calming oceanside sooner than I think.

Los Angeles, July 4th 2022

With my characteristic good timing, I’ve chosen a moment when the US seems to be entering one of its periodic spells of paranoid reaction to pay my first visit to the country in nearly 30 years.

Fortunately I’m in California, visiting some old radical buddies, so I doubt I’ll experience anything too illiberal. If anything, the recent developments seem to have energised the left, around here at least, though I suspect that what I am observing is just one side of the country’s deepening polarisation, rather than a more general progressive shift.

Whatever; my trip is a social one, so I’m going to leave the politics for another day, and focus on catching up on a personal level with some people I haven’t seen for far too long. As you might imagine, my friends are not the most patriotic of citizens, but we’re going to settle back tonight with some beers, and a joint or two, to watch the fireworks, and dream of a better future.

Fifteen Years Ago

Second Life Shrink made its debut on May 26th 2007, an exciting time when technology promised a future of unlimited opportunity. The must-have communication gadget was a BlackBerry, all the cool kids were on MySpace, and it was still possible to dream of making a living by blogging.

A decade and a half later, after nearly 700 posts, we’re still going strong, or still going at least. This would seem like a good opportunity to reflect on how the dream of internet liberation degenerated into the post-truth social-media dystopia that we live in today, but that sounds like hard work, so in true SLS slacker style I’ll just do what I did on our fifth and tenth birthdays, and list my favourite posts from the past 5 years:

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

2022

Perhaps this review will inspire me to post a bit more frequently again; we’ll see. In the meantime I’ll revive a favourite feature that has lain dormant since 2017, the post-title-related music link.

Wild west

It’s been far too long since I was last in the US; my last trip was all the way back in the 20th century. I had made a vague arrangement to visit a couple of old friends in California in the summer of 2020, but events obviously overtook those plans, so we tentatively rescheduled for next year.

I’ve had all my vaccinations, so I should be clear to travel, but I have to say I’m having some second thoughts, now that it seems to be legal for for heavily-armed white supremacists to roam the country, shooting leftists at will.

Of course any of my non-white comrades reading this will be rolling their eyes at the thought of an old, white, middle-class male like me being concerned about falling victim to the sort of state-sponsored violence that is just everyday reality for oppressed communities in the US, so I guess I will get over myself and brave the journey to the Pacific coast. I mean, what else would I have to be worried about?

@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.

Drone on

As if the current state of the country wasn’t depressing enough, we learned today that the aeronautical infrastructure of the nation can be paralysed by anyone with a couple of thousand pounds to spend on a medium-sized drone, and the nerve to hide near an airport buzzing the runways.

It is rather alarming that the mystery controller, or controllers, behind this stunt are still at large, despite intensive searches by the police, and the deployment of the army. Reports say that Gatwick will remain closed tomorrow, and presumably every other airport in the country will be on a state of high alert, ready to shut down at the first sign of anything unusual.

I remember reading somewhere about military radar that can track the source of incoming shells, to direct counter-battery fire, and I would have thought that might be useful in this sort of situation, though I guess that dropping high-explosive rounds onto what will probably turn out to be a couple of bored teenagers might be felt to be overkill. Still, if I’d been stuck in a departure lounge for 36 hours I might have fewer qualms about it…

The future is now

The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was when I visited San Diego in the early 90s. The morning I arrived, after a long overnight trip on the Greyhound, I dropped my bag at the youth hostel, just a short walk from the beach, and headed down to the shore to wash days of accumulated grime off in the warm sea.

I had travelled all the way from the cold east coast in a couple of gruelling bus journeys, and basking in the warm Californian sun felt like heaven. I ended up staying in San Diego for about a week, mostly just loafing on the beach, recharging my batteries while planning my onward course up the west coast. Wanting to travel a bit lighter, I packed most of my thick clothes in to a parcel which I sent back to the UK, figuring that I wouldn’t need them now that I had reached warmer climes. This was a decision I came to regret when I reached Oregon, and even more so when I got to Seattle, though the heavy plaid shirts I was obliged to purchase there to avoid freezing to death did make nice mementos of the trip.

The hostel in San Diego had a bookshelf with a good selection of pulpy sci-fi, which was perfect for undemanding beach reading. One story in particular caught my mood during those long, laidback days; a trippy tale of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy trying to invade the Milky Way through some kind of telepathic mind-control thing. I didn’t really comprehend all the subtleties of the narrative – the starships were all modelled on playing cards for some reason, meaning the stylised space battles took the form of cosmic games of trumps, and it was never clear which characters had and hadn’t been taken over by the aliens – partly because the volume I had was something like the third in a series of seven, so I had missed all the set-up, mostly because I was pretty baked at the time. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment though. In the years since I’ve occasionally thought about tracking down that book – I’ve forgotten the title of course – and the rest of the set, so I could finally work out what it was all about, but, wisely I think, I’ve always resisted that impulse, as it would probably spoil what is a very fond, if hazy, memory.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because the one thing that I do remember about that book is its author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, sadly, passed away last week. I’d read, and loved, her Wizard of Earthsea cycle when I was at school, though I’m not sure that that really prepared me for her more out-there sci-fi. I subsequently got to know more about her political outlook, which was not dissimilar to my own, and appreciate that her stories of the future, like all the best science fiction, were really about how we live now, what we need to change, and, most importantly, that change is not only possible, but inevitable. That’s a message that it’s good to hold on to in these dispiriting times.

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.

How ’bout them Cubs?

I spent a week or so in Chicago back in the early 90s, 92 I think it was. I have a lot of fond memories of that trip; early morning walks along the shore of Lake Michigan, late night music shows, great steaks, and a visit to the charming, ivy-clad arena of Wrigley Field.

I’m not a big baseball fan, but I did enjoy the game that night, or at least I enjoyed chatting to the fans sitting around me in the cheap seats, all of whom were keen to school an ignorant foreigner on the finer points of the sport, though none of them seemed to be paying a huge amount of attention to what was actually going on on the field. I think the Cubs lost, but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, and I ended up going out for a few beers with the locals. I have a vague recollection of a bar with a goat-related name – possibly “The Goat” – which years later I realised was probably a reference to the infamous curse. The night ended with me sleeping on the sidewalk because I had missed the curfew at the youth hostel, which wasn’t a joke in Chicago in April, but it felt like it was worth it.

Anyway, it’s good to see the Cubs finally back in the World Series, though it’s not looking too promising for them so far. I hope they turn it around, and give those fans who welcomed me 25 years ago something to cheer about.

High times

Another 4/20 has rolled around, and I’m glad to say that it’s looking like the tide of marijuana legalisation is unstoppable, in the US at least. The dope business is booming in Colorado and Washington, and, more importantly, pot is becoming an uncontroversial part of everyday culture. It’s not hard to imagine that weed will be legal in most if not all of the country before President Clinton finishes her first term.

It’s not clear how much impact this will have on drug policy in Europe, but hopefully the successful US experience, not to mention the tax dollar bonanza, will nudge things in the right direction before too long. At the very least it’s given me another incentive to plan a long-overdue trip Stateside sometime soon…

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