Coffee-break length Steven den Beste

Well, SSdB has been quite a success, by the admittedly low standards I set for it. I’ve lasted long enough to be able to give up at any point with a semblance of self-respect, and it apparently drew a few favourable notices, if my obsessive and constant vanity searches are anything to go by. This isn’t a valedictory, by the way; I aim to keep it going for the forseeable future, both as a source of updates and as an incentive to myself to keep coming up with new material to balance things out (I’d also invite any SdB fans who are frustrated by the lack of a comments board to use mine, and perhaps to request that my regular readers don’t gang up on them if they choose to do so). But I thought I’d post a few thoughts on what I’ve learned from the exercise.

1) To be honest, I thought it would be a chore, but I’ve grown to rather like the daily read of USS Clueless. The posts are still way, way too long, but they are always very well-informed from a factual point of view and in general well written, and I am hardly in a position to complain about sheer length. I’ve also substantially warmed toward the author over the last two weeks, and I don’t think that it’s purely a case of Stockholm Syndrome. My only previous experience of reading SdB was when the left wing blogosphere linked to something absolutely outrageous (like the infamous “kill the Palestinians” post), and that’s actually a pretty unfair way to judge a body of work. When you read it on a daily basis, you get a sense of the overall Weltanschaung and you can put things in context. I still think that the authorial tone of USS Clueless is extremely cold and lacking in fellow-feeling, but you don’t get the overpowering sense of selfishness that jumps out of most right-wing blogs. I now take SdB’s claim to be “neither left nor right” a bit more seriously; I think he’s someone with right-wing instincts (a little touch of Adorno’s f-type personality), but who is intelligent and open to most forms of reasoned argument. I was also pleasantly surprised at the calibre of posters to the comments board which the SdB link attracted, as I mentioned in comments. None of the above should be taken as any assumption on my part that SdB cares more about my opinion than does an elephant about the opinion of a flea, by the way.

2) I found myself ruminating about geek culture, science fiction and right wing politics a lot over the last couple of weeks. One thing I’d note is that the defining characteristic of science fiction is that it’s escapist; it invites the reader to imagine himself in the place of the characters in the novel. Compare that to, for example, Jane Austen, where the invitation is to empathise with the reactions and feelings of one of the characters as themselves, rather than imaging how you might react if you were Elizabeth Darcy. This is at the root of my dissatisfaction with even left wing techno-types; they don’t seem to have developed the capacity to imagine a scene or way of life without putting themselves in it; to consider what it would be like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, rather than being in someone else’s situation with their own set of values and judgements. And I think that this failure of imagination, or something like it, is at the root of the problem of what I find bothersome about USS Clueless.

3) Finally, there’s the elements of sheer lunacy which crop up with hilarious regularity. Mainly, the wild-eyed speculation about the French conspiracy (not too strong a word), or the painstaking, Zapruderesque reconstruction of what set of bizarre through-the-looking-glass circumstances might turn everything the US Government does into a series of strategic masterstrokes rather than a painful fiasco. I have my own theory about these … bear with me …

About five years ago, I happened to be, as I often was, visiting New York on business. Between meetings, a colleague and I popped into a branch of Starbucks (this was a novelty, because, believe it or not, Starbucks had no UK presence before 1999, when they took over the 40-odd outlets of the “Seattle Coffee Company” in what I still regard as the worst abuse of pooling-of-interests accounting ever). I noticed that the sizes of cups went something like “Short, Tall, Grande, Venti”. I happen to know that “Venti” isn’t another Italian word for “big”, so I inquired what size it was. It’s a 20-ounce cup (and is thus a pure Americanism; the Italians wouldn’t call it “Venti” because they don’t measure things in fluid ounces. God this is all getting like Pulp Fiction isn’t it?). It was at that time that I idly wondered the following thought:

I wonder whether it is particularly healthy to drink a pint and a quarter of coffeee in one go, particularly when that coffee is the foul-tasting, high-caffeine kind which Starbucks appears to be using? (I was nursing a particularly nasty espresso at the time) Has any real research been done on this subject? I wonder what the effect on American society will be of a few years of this sort of caffeine intake?

And my theory is, not to put to fine a point on it, that USS Clueless might be on the way to providing an answer to my question. Engineers on mobile phone projects drink a lot of coffee, full stop. And a lot of the longer and more barking SdB posts really do have the air of the kind of wild speculations that you find yourself engaging on when you’re up against a tight deadline, full of information and with your brain chemistry slightly altered. Even if SdB himself is a Mormon or doesn’t drink caffeine for some other reason (I have no information on this score), the point is still there; a lot of the fevered imaginings of the whole blogosphere seem to partake of a somewhat overstimulated hallucinatory-paranoid reverie.

This is quite serious stuff, by the way. Cultures have, as a matter of extermely arguable historical fact, been brought down by overindulgence in their drug of choice. Opium did a lot of damage to Persian and Chinese civilisation, for example. I really worry, on quiet nights with a glass of wine in my hand and looking out at the stars over London … am I going to be part of the generation that ends up having to deal with the geopolitical consequences of the world’s greatest superpower (a superpower which has always had a very problematic relationship with drugs) finally finding a chemical it truly wants to get fucked up on?


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