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There is perhaps no better moment than right now to be reading Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, a trilogy of medium-future novels mostly about — wait for it — electoral politics. Oh meh, I hear you mutter, what more boring subject could a novelist choose as the armature on which to hang her tale?

But surely the last few months have reminded us all that electoral politics is only boring when it works. When it becomes dysfunctional, it’s far from boring — downright scary, in fact. Many people are thinking, these days, that familiar political systems seem to be breaking — seem so obsolete, are disenfranchising millions, are so easily gamed. Older asks: how could democracy and politics work differently in a postmodern, networked world?


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Legless Avatars: image by CNBC, story “Within a decade you may be working with a digital twin” — Dec 2020

Whether you’re an old VR hand or one of the legions of newbies discovering the technology during this time of lockdown and tele-whatevering, you’ve probably discovered a couple of things about VR.

One is: VR is just plain awesome. There is nothing in our previous computing experience like being able to look around freely and naturally, have full depth perception, and “touch” and manipulate game objects with our hands (either directly or via controllers). It’s a whole new world, and it puts a big dumb grin on most of our faces.


The permanent precariat, then and now

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Men lining up for a chance to work, Victorian England

Sometimes the path to a realisation, to the moment when a pattern emerges, is obscure. At other times it’s crisply defined, like a set of GPS waypoints defining a route. Something came into focus for me recently about the state of affairs in the US, and for once the waypoints were clear in memory.

The first waypoint was a couple of articles I read (well-intentioned, serious articles) advising readers how they could supplement their income by “thrift store flipping.” This was never a thing when I was young, but now it is: buying stuff cheaply at thrift stores and then marking it up to sell on Ebay or Etsy. …


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The King’s Chessboard (source unknown)

[A version of this article was first published as a comment at European Tribune in 2006, which explains why some of the references are a bit stale now. But the point being made is not, I think, invalidated by subsequent changes in the price of gold and other indices.]

Perhaps what we call ‘capitalism’ today might better be called ‘interest-ism’ or more simply ‘usury’. Our financial system relies heavily on the magic of compound interest, a dangerously aphysical concept. Why aphysical? Because it cannot be reconciled with the realities of biotic systems or the energy or mineral budget of a planet. Why dangerous? …


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Demolition of Beirut Hilton 2002, photo by Jamal Saidi (Reuters)

When tall buildings have to be taken down in a built-up area, some highly and specifically skilled people are called in. Demolition experts place carefully weighed and shaped charges in very carefully calculated locations throughout the building structure; a lot of complicated wiring harness gets installed… and then one day, those lucky enough to get a front-row seat can enjoy a remarkable spectacle and a tribute to modern engineering.

The charges go off in a precisely choreographed order, so that the building collapses within its own footprint — pancaking downward floor by floor like a reverse rocket launch, folding up (or down) in a great cloud of dust. Some rubble flies outwards, but the safety limit is quite well understood and wire netting contains most of the shrapnel. …


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I don’t know why I seem to be so out of step with the prevailing opinion. Feels like I’m marching to not only a different drummer, but a whole different rhythm section and possibly on another continent. I bought this movie because of the rave reviews; yet my husband and I both found it frankly awful, a major disappointment. When it was over, we looked at each other and said, basically, Yuck.

Why did we dislike it? Where to begin! For a start, the script barely qualified as humorous. This is 2020, and foul language is neither inherently funny nor ground-breaking any more — it’s just tedious (saves the screenwriter from having to be clever, I suppose). …


…Witchfinders General, or Other Viruses to Fear

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In Part 1 I explored the perennial human desire to believe that disease and all other forms of contamination are external or foreign, and how that plays out even at the smallest scale (the village or island). I asked whether the official “shelter in place” or “stay home” directives may not be reinforcing that ancient human gut-level instinct.

Us and Them

Why do I consider this even worth writing about, since it’s all so predictable and so very human? Mostly because of the potential for unkindness and nasty behaviour that too often goes along with the Us-and-Them, wall-building or drawbridge-raising mindset. We are civilised people here, for the most part; but we’re scared and tense. …


… Plague is Always Foreign

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Wherever you were from, syphilis came from somewhere else, which you can tell from the various names of the disease. The French liked to call it either the “Neapolitan disease,” given the locale of apparent origin, or the “Spanish disease,” blaming it on their own foreign mercenaries.

Italians preferred “morbus Gallicus,” or the “French disease,” since it appeared to have arrived with the French military host (despite it being constituted of a number of peoples, including Italians). The Germans followed suit, naming it the “French evil.” The Scots went with “grandgore,” derived from French terminology. …


— “I’m mad, I’m mad, I’m angry” — Bobby McFerrin

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“56 million people died in 2017. What did they die of?” — Our World In Data

Ah, March/April 2020. Seems like it’s All Covid-19 All the Time. It’s relentless; not just the virus, but the coverage. The daily clamour of fear, uncertainty, bloviation, urban mythopoeia, political posturing, mind-numbing statistics, and even, dear reader, opportunistic advertising (!) is inescapable except by unplugging. Yet most of us are feeling too derailed and isolated to unplug: the internet is our lifeline for human contact. …


(or “Shocked, Shocked”)

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Passenger air-miles, 1936–2016

The influenza epidemic of 1918 — as most of us are remembering or discovering right about now — killed about 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920. At that time, the world population was perhaps about 1.8 billion people (as opposed to today’s approximately 7.8 billion people). So to achieve the same statistical impact, a pandemic today would have to kill about 200 million people (or approximately 2/3 the population of the US). Spread of the disease was greatly aided by military deployment at the end of WWI, and by the poor physical condition and abysmal living conditions of troops in the trenches. So far, Covid-19 is not even remotely in the league and hardly merits comparison. However, that could change. …

About

De Clarke

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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