Everybody’s got a bomb

I’ve had a bad cough for the last week or so, what with all the cold weather, and it’s been keeping me awake at night. Consequently I’ve been watching more late-night TV, mostly junk like CSI reruns or televised poker, but also a couple of semi-good movies, including Cold War drama-doc Thirteen Days.

Actually “semi-good” is being generous; the heavily-fictionalised account of the Cuban missile crisis is rather melodramatic, as it portrays the heroic Kennedy brothers (aided by a brooding Kevin Costner) facing down the evil communists, while simultaneously restraining their own gung-ho generals, who are itching to launch a full-scale war. The story is inherently gripping though, and, even though obviously I knew there was going to be a happy ending, I enjoyed the building tension as it looked like the two sides had boxed themselves into an inevitable conflict. (My favourite film about the crisis, which deals with the themes much less earnestly, but rather more effectively, is Joe Dante’s Matinee.)

Watching Thirteen Days reminded me a little of the 1980s, when, after years of relative détente, it looked like Ronald Reagan was determined to start World War Three. I was never one of those kids who got all neurotic about the prospect of nuclear armageddon, but I was a bit freaked out by watching things like The War Game (made and suppressed back in the 60s, but still a favourite at leftist meetings 20 years later) and The Day After, though I wasn’t ever concerned enough to do much beyond going on a couple of CND marches. (Central American solidarity was my main political interest at that time, as I recall).

Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and we all enjoyed the 90s, free, we thought, from the shadow of complete destruction. There was still plenty of war to go around, of course, and not a little millennial angst, but it was probably the safest decade since the end of the Second World War (for those of us in the West anyhow).

Fast-forward to today, and we’re all supposed to be worried about The Bomb again, though this time round it’s not the Reds we’re told we should be scared of, but North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, or al-Qaeda, or just “terrorists” in general. I can’t say that I lose too much sleep over those last three, but North Korea and Pakistan (and to a lesser degree Israel and India) are more concerning. While these countries don’t have the capacity to nuke the whole world (or, hopefully, provoke anyone else into nuking the whole world), that just means they are less restrained by the logic of mutually assured destruction, and might use their weapons for local strategic reasons. At least with the old East/West standoff one had the idea that Washington and Moscow knew that once they started fighting it was going to end badly for everyone, but one can’t be so confident that the smaller nuclear states will never convince themselves that a first-strike strategy might be successful.

There’s not much to be done about it I guess, except to keep on working away at building the sort of progressive international movement that will eventually bring the people of the world together and abolish war altogether.

That, and partying of course.

That’s Not My Name

My avatar’s third rezday fell last month, which I rather overlooked, since I was focussed more on Premium Account renewal day, which was last week, and whether it was worth $80 or so to keep my patch of virtual land for another year. I eventually decided it was, or rather I didn’t decide that it wasn’t, since I would have had to actively cancel my subscription, so I’m on board for the next 12 months at least, assuming Second Life lasts that long. I effectively got this year for free, since I had a big enough pile of accumulated L$ from my stipend to cover it, though I suppose I could have just cashed them out.

It does make me wonder what the average age of an active SL avatar is. I imagine that the distribution would be bimodal, with a huge peak of very young residents, and another spike of oldies. (I feel that I should know this for sure, since, according to Google, SLS is the top authority on current Second Life demographics.)

Anyway, in light of this anniversary I was moved to do something that I’ve thought about a few times, but never got round to, that is create an alt. I’ve been feeling that it’s about time that I linked this blog with an actual Second Life identity, rather than continuing to lurk behind a double layer of pseudonymity, but I didn’t want to expose my primary account, because it has a history of its own, which I felt should stay undisturbed.

So here’s my new virtual face; pretty much the same as my old one:

apart from the different-coloured hair and a couple of other tweaks.

Thanks to the new “Display Name” feature (which people seem to be down on, but I think is a great idea), I’m able to go by the name of “Johnny Staccato“. I’ll obviously need to get a sharper suit.

Not that that’s the real me of course…

That gum you like is going to come back in style

I don’t look at the TV much these days, and I very rarely find myself following an episodic drama series. The last time I even partially got into a show was when I caught most of the first season of The Wire, which I quite liked, but the effort of committing myself to regular appointments with the box was too much, and I never made it past the first episode of season two.

I was thinking about this the other day when I read an article at the AV Club which considered the cultural impact of David Lynch’s cult 90’s series Twin Peaks. It reminded me not just of how slavishly I had followed that programme, but of the way that even left-field shows like Lynch‘s unsettling masterpiece could attract mass audiences at that time.

Compared with today it was both easier and harder for a show to be a big hit back then; easier because there was less competition for the audience’s attention – the UK had only four terrestrial channels to choose from, satellite and cable were niche products, and there was no internet – and harder because there was no way to see things other than by sitting down in front of the TV at a set time – no DVD box-sets, no Tivo, and no internet TV. We did have VHS recorders I guess, though the elderly model I had at the time was much too unreliable to trust with an unmissable event like that week’s Twin Peaks.

I had been a big David Lynch fan since I saw Eraserhead late one night on TV, and I’ve liked everything he’s done since (even Dune), especially Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive (the latter is in the running for my favourite film of all time), so it was always likely I was going to be a Twin Peaks devotee, but what confirmed my addiction was the community that grew up around the show on campus. I was already hanging out with most of what became the Twin Peaks crowd, but we certainly bonded that little bit more over long evenings of coffee and cherry pie (actually, “coffee” and “cherry pie”) discussing our various theories of what the story was about. I’d like to say that we still get together every year to reminisce, but, with a couple of exceptions, I haven’t talked to any of those people in the best part of twenty years. Probably best to leave the memories undisturbed.

Anyway, the point that I’m meandering towards is that often what sticks with you about a cultural experience is not so much the event itself, but more the social connections that surrounded it. What’s changed since my Twin Peaks days is that, thanks to the wonder of the interwebs, it’s no longer necessary to be geographically co-located with your fellow fanatics to feel part of a community.

Certainly my experience over the last three years has been that, while it was the virtual eye-candy that initially pulled me into Second Life, what’s kept me around is the narrative that unfolds in the relationships between residents, played out partly in-world, but mostly in the SL blogosphere.

I don’t want to overstate the profundity of the SL storyline – it’s more potboiler than classic literature – but it’s diverting, harmless, and, best of all, it creates a pleasing illusion of interactivity. I can tell myself that I am involved in writing this tale, in my own small way, and that makes me just committed enough to stick with it through the many, many dull patches.

There’s an interesting paper by Wanenchak in the latest edition of Game Studies entitled Tags, Threads, and Frames: Toward a Synthesis of Interaction Ritual and Livejournal Roleplaying. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but the part pertinent to this discussion is the brief review of Goffman‘s frame analysis as it applies to a collaborative online narrative:

… frames allow players to engage with the gameworld in such a way that their narrative construction and interactions become sensible to themselves and to each other.

What I find most fascinating about the Second Life narrative (and what I think gives it a claim to being a unique cultural phenomenon) is the fact that the frames that people are using are often unclear, shifting and overlapping. To put it in different terms, although they are operating in the same “gameworld”, which includes not just the SL grid but also the associated blogs, tweets and what have you, people are engaged with often wildly differing levels of immersion.

The effect of this is, more often than not, to render the meta-story unintelligible, but occasionally it all comes together to produce an instant of dream-like clarity that makes the whole project seem worthwhile. I would give some examples of this, but I suspect that, like real dreams, the beauty of these moments is highly subjective, and that any description I attempted would sound hopelessly prosaic.

Which brings us back to David Lynch. What I think he does better than any other director is capture the fractured reality of dreams and nightmares, in a way that is at once unsettling and beguiling. Sometimes – just sometimes – being part of the world of Second Life is like living in Twin Peaks.

Liberal Renaissance

It has been a beautifully clear day today; no sign in the blue skies of any of this volcanic ash that is blanketing the country. It’s slightly unnerving to think that a big chunk of our transport infrastructure can be paralysed by invisible dust high above our heads. Maybe this will give a boost to the idea that we should give up going out of the house, and do all out travelling in virtual worlds instead.

Back on the ground, the media is digesting the performances of the main party leaders in last night’s televised election debate; there seems to be a consensus that, while nobody landed a knockout blow, Gordon Brown did as well as was expected (that is, not very), David Cameron’s vague promises of change were unconvincing, and Nick Clegg stole the show with his honest straight talking.

The positive reaction to Clegg is interesting; he and the Liberal Democrats have made much of the fact that they are willing to spell out in detail exactly how much pain we are going to have to endure to get the economy back on track, while the other parties promise to cut the deficit but don’t want to scare us by revealing what that might entail. The Lib Dems are banking on the hope that the respect they win from the electorate by treating voters as responsible adults who can face reality, and not children who have to be shielded from the truth, will outweigh the aversion caused by the cuts they are proposing. The initial poll results might seem to back this up, but I wonder if people really are ready to be that stoic, and if over the course of the campaign there might be a swing back towards the “Trust us, we’ll sort things out, you don’t have to worry” message coming from Labour and the Tories.

I found the event more illuminating than I was expecting. There is a tendency on the left to characterise the main parties as differing only in the degree of their support for capital, and it is true that on one level the debate was three rich white men arguing over how hard they have to hit the workers to make sure there is enough money left in the state coffers to keep the bankers happy. However the bulk of the electorate don’t look at things this way, and for them it would have been clear that their day-to-day lives over the next few years are going to be significantly different if the vote goes one way rather than another.

My personal assessment is that Brown did enough to plant seeds of doubt about how grim things could get under the Tories to start people thinking that perhaps five more years of Labour, or a Lib-Lab coalition, might not be so bad after all. There are still three weeks of campaigning, and two more TV debates, to go of course, so everything is still to play for, but the election isn’t going to be the Tory landslide that looked inevitable even a few months ago.

Monetising SL 2.0

I feel that I should download the SL 2.0 viewer, just so that I can have an opinion about it, and join in the general excitement, but I’m finding it hard to get enthusiastic about what is, after all, just a gateway to the really interesting part of Second Life, that is the content and the community. When I first signed up to SL a couple of years ago I downloaded the alpha build of the Linux client, and I was happy with that until fairly recently, when the Lab started restricting which viewers you could log in with and it stopped working. I switched to the then-current version of Snowglobe, which I have had no major complaints about.

I’ve never been entirely convinced that making the viewer more user-friendly was the key to broadening SL‘s appeal. I guess the Lab did some consumer research that told them that the viewer’s rather steep learning-curve was contributing to SL‘s woeful retention rate, and I’m sure that the new version makes it a bit easier to get through the first hour, but I would have thought that keeping people on board for months and years would depend more on the nature of the virtual world and its residents than the bells and whistles of the client software.

Though maybe I’m overstating the importance of content. The BBC are currently running a series The Virtual Revolution (which you can watch online if you live in the UK), which is taking a look at the impact on society of the growth of the internet in the last 20 years. It’s necessarily broad, and there’s been nothing terribly surprising, but it’s still interesting, particularly the discussion of how Web 2.0 has been monetised. Services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter may get their user-generated content for free, but most of it is worthless junk. That doesn’t matter though, the theory goes, because as users post, search, rate and comment on all those videos, updates and tweets, they reveal a mass of valuable data about themselves and their social networks, information that can be profitably mined for targeted advertising.

One can’t help but wonder if the Lindens have some similar plan in mind. They have certainly been talking up the social-networking aspects of SL, with their purchase of Avatars United, and Wallace Linden’s suggestion that we should all link our real identities to our avatars. If they could find out all about us and our interests, they could turn that into a revenue stream, provided they could figure out how to serve up the ads in a way that wasn’t too annoying. Perhaps the much-touted URL-on-a-prim functionality of the 2.0 viewer is part of the Lab’s plan to sneak pop-up advertising into the virtual landscape.

Fly me to the moon

40 years ago today Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot upon the moon. I was alive at the time, but too young to have any memories of the actual event. I do remember that when I was growing up in the ’70’s, watching TV shows like UFO and Space:1999, reading comics like 2000AD and lots of pulpy sci-fi novels (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein is one that especially sticks in my mind), and of course seeing Star Wars at the cinema, I just took it for granted that by the time I was an adult there would be widely-available space travel, permanent bases on the moon and regular trips to Mars and beyond.

Whole books have been written about my generation’s disappointment when these visions of the 21st Century failed to materialise. What we got was the internet, with virtual worlds to explore instead of alien planets. It is possible to visit a the SL version of Tranquility Base:


and numerous other lunar-themed sims, like this somewhat gloomy moonbase:


or this rather cooler one:


but I can’t help feeling a bit cheated.

The disillusionment isn’t just a generational thing though. It reflects my internal dissatisfaction with the course that my life has taken, as I age and am forced to acknowledge that there are some opportunities that will never come my way. It’s not that I’m unhappy with the decisions that I have taken over the years, just that every path that one chooses means leaving many more untrodden.

And anyway, I’m still hopeful that NASA will get their act together and make space travel available to the masses before I die. I just want to see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars

Space Oddity

I was thinking that I had gone a bit far with my praise of Second Life the other day (“occasionally everything will come together to produce a brief moment of beauty” – what was I on?), so I thought that we should probably go out and try to find something vaguely intellectual to make my enthusiasm seem slightly less ridiculous.

We looked at the “Arts and Culture” section of the “Events” search, but our ideas about taking in a classical concert or a gallery opening were swiftly forgotten when we saw an ad for the “Star Trek Museum Starship Tour”, guided by “Klingon Warrior Klang” no less.

It turned out we had missed the tour, but the Star Trek Museum itself was interesting enough to keep us around for half an hour or so. They give out free Starfleet uniforms (“Voyager” and “Next Generation” versions, disappointingly, not the much cooler Kirk-era threads):


and you can wander about a mock-up Enterprise, learning all sorts of facts about how the warp-drive works and the like, or hanging out on the bridge:


firing the phasers, or launching photon torpedoes (though the visual effects that accompany this are somewhat underwhelming).

The sense of realism is undermined a bit by the curators’ decision to represent much-loved crew members with cabbage-patch dolls (this is Admiral Kirk):


Our interest was waning a bit by this point, so we skipped the other attractions, which include shuttle flights, an alien buffet and a trip to the Vulcan sim at Eridani, guaranteed to fascinate more ardent Trekkies.


I’m not sure that the museum will convince doubters that Second Life is anything more than a geeky waste of time, but it is a good illustration of how SL allows fans to create, for a relatively modest outlay, a tribute to their obsessions.

Here’s a track from way back in 1969, when Kirk and Spock were just coming to the end of their original adventures. Are the lyrics a metaphor for the Second Life experience?


Looking at my Blog Stats page I’ve discovered that if you Google “Laura Palmer”, then look at the image results, the second photo along links to the tag/tv section of this site, even though there are no actual images of Laura Palmer anywhere in this blog, only a link to the picture in question, in this post.

I wish I could work out how this has happened, so that I could do the same thing with some more-frequently searched-for images, and thus boost my traffic a bit. Though luring people to a site under false pretences is perhaps not the best way to build a sustainable audience.

Anyway, it gives me an excuse to link to this video.

[Update: It’s stopped working now. So much for my career as a search engine optimisation consultant.]

Hot Chicks with lawyers

In my high-minded discussion of the ethics of blogging I overlooked one obvious hazard of casually appropriating the private details of other people’s lives; getting sued.

That truth has found Jay Louis though, now that he’s on the receiving end of a lawsuit in connection with the book of his blog “Hot Chicks with Douchebags“. It’s interesting that he wasn’t sued over the website itself, presumably because potential plaintiffs need a defendant with some serious money, like publisher Simon & Schuster, before they can persuade a lawyer to take on the case.

I can’t see the suit succeeding, since even someone like me, whose knowledge of the US legal system is entirely based on watching “LA Law” and “Ally McBeal“, knows that the First Amendment protects the right to shower ridicule on your fellow citizens. I guess the claimants – who allege that their appearance in the book has left them needing medical treatment and psychological therapy – are hoping that S&S will settle out of court to avoid the bad publicity. (Or perhaps not; I had it in my mind that Simon and Schuster were a classy operation, but they do publish literary gems like the “Douchebag” book and “Hooking up with Tila Tequila“, so I may be mistaken).

I don’t think anyone could seriously claim that their real-life reputation was damaged by their Second Life activities appearing online, and, even if they did, I believe that Linden Labs have been doing their best to establish that Second Life disputes fall under the jurisdiction of the US courts, so I’ll be able to assert my Constitutional rights. I’m sure that James Madison would approve.

The Bedlam factor

I wrote ages ago about the freak-show nature of the auditions for reality shows like X-Factor. I’ve since discovered that those who appear on what purports to be the first round of filtering have actually already been through a selection process, so there is no doubt that the hopeless losers have been deliberately included by the producers for some comic relief.

I was thinking about this after reading the tragic story of Paula Goodspeed, who was found dead in a car parked near American Idol judge Paula Abdul’s home in Los Angeles, apparently a victim of suicide. Ms Goodspeed had reportedly auditioned for the US talent contest in 2006, and had not gone down well with the panel, to put it mildly. (No doubt the clip is a favourite on YouTube right now, but I don’t feel like searching for it).

It is of course folly to speculate on someone’s state of mind when all one has to go on are reports in the popular media which vary greatly in detail and luridness, and I suspect that there were other, more personal, reasons for Ms Goodspeed’s actions that were more significant than what happened on a TV show years ago, but even so it does raise questions about the exploitative nature of some of what passes for entertainment these days, and the potential human cost for those who submit themselves to the reality TV industry.