Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Invalid Binaries

St Thomas Aquinas was one of the first Christian thinkers to tackle head on what is perhaps the central problem of his own belief system - that God cannot exist, at least not in the same way that anything else exists in time and space.

So the question ‘Does God exist?’ is surely one of those that should never be formulated in the familiar yes/no binary format, because to do so is to inevitably sacrifice almost all of the indispensable complexity of the problem.

See also: ‘Should the UK leave the EU?’


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Every man or Everyman

In Straw Dogs John Gray famously observed that "Humanity does not exist. There are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions, and subject to every kind of infirmity of will and judgement."

Yesterday an auditorium full of multilateralists laughed at a self-styled patriot. If it had been a room full of patriots listening to a multilateralist they had pre-disrespected, there would probably have also been a few guffaws picked up on the mikes. It's always fun to mock someone else's needs and illusions. 

It seems to me that the key question now is which of these illusions might be better equipped to handle the catastrophes to come: the every man (as long as he's a patriot) for himself worldview, or the wishful thinking approach to everyman worldview.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Guests and Fish


In as much as he is President of this country, Jimmy Morales is very much a big fish from CICIG's perspective. 

Yet in almost every other respect Jimmy remains a little fish. In a sense this is what got him elected and formed the undertone of 'Ni Corrupto, Ni Ladrón'. 

The contrast with his predecessor is surely obvious to almost everyone, but Iván Velásquez himself may have lost track of the distinction.

And thus we may have reached the moment when it might be appropriate for CICIG to sacrifice its illustrious, tenacious jefe in order to find a way to secure its own future and that of the wider fight against impunity in Guatemala. 

Even if Iván were to stay, the current international situation (Trump..) may already preclude the kind of high profile probing he apparently favours. Outside support could at best be described as wavering right now. 

Continued obstinance may lead to an escalation of attacks on the judiciary by a President who cannot stand again next June. And may damage the cause of any pro-CICIG, anti-graft candidate in the next election. 


Though, for this not to be notched up as a victory for the fish, Iván would have to be readmitted to the country first before stepping aside.


Hasta Duendes

There's an individual who passes in front of our house every morning at the same time wearing precisely the same malapropos get-up - a baggy grey sweater, loose yet heavy pants, oversize dark sunglasses and what also appears to be an XXL black wig. 

We've provided him/her with the nickname Groundhog, but V sometimes prefers Sinibaldi

When we had our security cameras installed one of the technicians opined that we were likely to see all sorts of things, 'hasta duendes'. 

It is certainly true that we have since seen a good deal of stuff that cannot be unseen, resulting in a small folder of miscellaneous clips that could never be shared on social media. A pair of siblings making out against our front wall and an orgy inside a police car have really been the least of it. 


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

DENIS NORDEN, 1922-2018

Back in the 80s and 90s Denis was a partner and the leading scriptwriter at my father's firm and I was in awe of him, always.

The obituary quotes him expressing somewhat regretful sentiments about the rise of the word processor, but it is as an unlikely champion and early adopter of such technology that I will remember him. Long before the company had a room full of Vydecs, Denis had his own little handheld WP, of which he seemed immensely proud.

Before proper fame came with It'll be Alright on the Night (V could never cope with the way he held his clipboard or notebook - awkwardly - at his waistline), he used to host a mid-afternoon slot with a panel of retired and forgotten celebs who competed to guess the origins of clips from black and white movies of the classic 1930s musical era. Whenever at home pulling a sickie from school I'd come across this unwelcome interruption in programming aimed at my own age-group, and wonder who on earth could possibly be interested in this sort of nostalgia for wrinklies!

He must surely have been the last of that great generation of British comedy writers and performers that came out of the forces at the end of WWII.


Skim-travellers

This article on the phenomenon of skim-reading had me musing along parallel lines about how contemporary travel too has become a process of skimming.

My second visit to La Antigua in early September 1989 had a duration of three months, including five weeks at a Spanish school.

Yet beyond those who come to settle, I come across far fewer medium term 'inhabitants' these days, and consequently, perhaps, there are fewer Spanish schools around town as well.

In the late 80s Antigua was a natural hub, pretty much the only location in the country and nearby region geared up for foreigners. There were no hotels close to the ruins at Tikal and Flores offered only the most basic options. Ditto Pana, which was a tiny, somewhat scuzzy destination.
You came here, settled for a while, and moved around when you could.

For millennials however, every day spent in one place comes with an opportunity cost, for travel in their world is essentially a stream of shareable micro-experiences. They use Tripadvisor (not Revue or Que Pasa anymore it seems) to maximise the efficiency of their stay.

A perhaps not unrelated phenomenon I have noticed in the past year or so, is the rise of the boutique hostel in La Antigua. Just like those cut-rate, booze-deluged sanctuaries for migrating tishudos...but so much more instagrammable!


Monday, September 10, 2018

Berrinche

In as much as Jaws is not really about a killer shark, a tennis match involving Serena Williams is hardly ever just about tennis. Yesterday we got to see more of the thematic underpinnings than usual.

Serena’s game is all about asserting her own power against the power of others, not just her opponents, but the whole rule-making and imposing system. I cannot be the only person to have noted that she often seems psychologically a bit more fragile when playing another woman of colour (...that isn’t her sister).

Yesterday it was as if she wanted to play the race card in her head, found that she couldn’t, played the gender card instead - with motherhood bonus - realised how absurd that made her look and then duly descended into a more generic spoiled American celeb strop, questioning the umpire’s integrity and threatening his career with the power she wields without a racket.

'Tennis was the loser', says Sue Barker. Only if you must have your sport without subtext. For me, this was a better than average spectacle for a women’s final at Flushing Meadow.

The toys don't have to come out of the pram every time, but just knowing that they might establishes an extra level of entertainment. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Chequers

There’s a strong possibility that historians of a generation hence will look favourably - and wistfully - at ‘Chequers’ and conclude that this was, after all, possibly the best bash at solving what will probably even in twenty years' time look like an almost intractable problem.

They will note though how this sensible attempt to cut the Gordian Knot fell almost midway between the various dogmatic positions, both in the UK parliament and the EU negotiating team, and was thus doomed to failure.

The fact that its key sponsor - the discrepantly-dancing Maybot - had proposed it from a position of self-induced weakness, will be bewailed in turn.




Friday, August 10, 2018

The dogs are whistling...

Zionist and Crusader - two descriptions that can be deployed in many contexts in polite anglophile conversation without the need for summoning a disciplinary committee immediately afterward. 

But when Osama Bin Laden spoke of ‘the Zionist-Crusader alliance', something else was going on. Both appellations had acquired a slightly kooky, reality-detached emphasis. 

Fanatics and other kinds of ideologues do this - they kidnap epithets and zap them with their wacky rays before releasing them back into the discourse, now bearing secret-handshakey added meanings. (Viz ‘Neoliberal’, as used by many on the Left today.) 

Now, while to almost all outside the Al Qaeda filter bubble it’s quite apparent that George W Bush was not literally a Frankish knight with a red cross emblazoned on his shield, many on the Corbynite Left seem unable or unwilling to comprehend that most Jews are not what the bloodthirsty bearded one actually meant by ‘Zionist’ either. 

And they habitually deflect criticism by hiding behind the fact that it surely remains possible to use the term 'Zionist' in an un-loaded fashion. 

Something similar is going on with Boris and his niqab letter boxes. It strikes me as  a more sophisticated version of the Trump Twitter idiom - a set of words designed to sit just on the edge of what liberal sentiment can currently tolerate, whilst bearing a hidden payload of meanings (complete with virtual high fives) for the co-religionists on the other side of that line. 

I am usually solidly in favour of free speech, but there can be little doubt that these are techniques that are being used to game our system of liberal democracy

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Hitchhiker's Guide to La Antigua


Radio listeners and readers of a certain generation will call how the inhabitants of a planet called Golgafrincham managed to rid themselves of a useless third of their population by creating three oversized intergalactic vessels to seek out a new world, but only one of them, Ark Ship 'B', the one with all the telephone sanitizers and hairdressers, was actually launched into deep space. 

Thanks to Youtubers like this, Antigua is becoming that spaceship...though Douglas Adams mysteriously omitted yoga teachers from his examples. 




Travel Mum appears somewhat deluded about the market in La Antigua as you will almost never come across an actual farmer in there, and a quick visit to our local tomatera just outside town would quickly disabuse her of any notions of cleanliness in the cultivation techniques used around here. 

$4 or $5 for a beer?! (Even if it does actually appear to be a margarita.) 

She's not wrong about the dearth of decent Asian food though. I recently had a dire shared experience of El Chinito Atroz featuring chunks of soggy teryaki 'chicken' which may well have been sourced from the canine community that amasses outside the matadero beside El Calvario. 


Friday, August 03, 2018

Are nutty parties necessary?

Ultra-ist parties are on the rise across the EU. France had to invent an ersatz populist movement to keep its own demons at bay. 

I'd been reflecting recently that the way the UK has apparently 'contained' its extremes within the traditional two-party system was perhaps admirable and certainly historically very familiar. 

But I am still not sure, and Matthew Parris disagrees... 


"A substantial minority of British voters, to both the right and the left of what we may call the centre, are frankly nuts. 
"They need and deserve nutty parties to vote for. Take the left. It’s a tragedy of our era that voters, activists and a few politicians too who are rank Marxists, not democratic socialists, should have lodged themselves within the Labour party so securely that they now control its leadership." 

He goes on to conclude that a re-surfacing of UKIP, would thus not be such a bad thing, as it would purge the Tory party of some of its own crazies.



Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Labour's Anti-Semitism

One of the first things I learned as an undergrad was that historians of the hard left tend to have a completely different approach to facts to almost anyone else practicing the discipline. 

For them, prior to recruitment, facts have to be interrogated for ideological soundness. Indeed facts are never viewed as primary material, more like the fuel for existing theoretical models and worldviews, which are always in charge of centrally-planning the argument and weeding out any interfering, 'free thinking' information. 

You can witness this approach in its peak form by reading any Marxist account of the French Revolution, where blame for the Terror - aka the bad bit that needs to be explained away or at least contained - is usually pinned on reactionary forces within France and beyond, especially somehow on us Brits. 

Hard-Leftists go through a phase of fact-resistant ‘ideological ‘enchantment’ where they lose track of the absurdity of some of the maneuvers they come up with to dispose of uncomfortable realities. Only later when ‘ideological disenchantment’ has started to take its toll, does honesty in historiography start to re-assert itself. 

Corbyn’s Labour party is now very much in the former phase when it comes to its anti-semitism problem. And so we hear of Blairite conspiracies and all kinds of ad hominem attacks on anyone who might dare to point the finger. 

In fact, just about anything except a conscientious, unfeigned confrontation with the facts.



Thursday, July 19, 2018

When getting somewhere can mean going nowhere...

Brexit is a very complicated matter, which is why many Britons find it altogether easier to adhere to an essentially uninformed position: either hard leave or hard remain. That is, after all, the choice that they were mistakenly offered in 2016. 

It seems that almost everyone in the general public outside the media or Parliament wants one or the other, but Parliament as a whole wants neither. So it has fallen to our compromised PM to try and hack together a compromised version of the process that will somehow acknowledge and address the complexities of Britain leaving the EU, while the country looks on, confused, many still hoping that this bothersome elite project will fail so that their own emotionally / ideologically-pure version of Brexit or No-Brexit will ultimately prevail. 

This was always more of an emotional matter than one in which facts could make any real headway, but Theresa May has been almost absurdly slow to communicate more widely the facts that informed her Chequers fudge. Consequently, the majority still seem to view her hard-worked set of compromises in the same way they view her compromised premiership - as doomed.




Wednesday, May 09, 2018

A Plea For Unrepresentative Democracy

David Runciman recently had this to say in the LRB about the way our democratic institutions are handling Brexit...


"Parliament has become a fundamentally unrepresentative body. The Brexit referendum revealed a country deeply divided on a number of measures that cut across party ties. One was age: the old, left as well as right, were far more likely to vote for Brexit than the young. But another division, just as pronounced, was education: whether or not someone had gone to university was one of strongest indicators of voting behaviour in the referendum (just under 70 per cent of university graduates voted Remain). Yet a degree has become something close to an entry requirement for a political career at Westminster. A large majority of MPs are now graduates (with only a few exceptions, the Brexit-sympathising Corbyn being one), along with a near monopoly of their advisers and civil servants. On many questions – health, housing, welfare, education itself, even fox-hunting – this might not matter because public opinion divides on grounds other than education. But on Brexit it means Parliament risks making a judgment it is not democratically qualified to make because it doesn’t represent the diversity of public opinion."

This troubles me somewhat. I think we'd all like Parliament to be more 'representative' in the sense that there should surely be more women and minority MPs, but this stream of good intentions may also be confusing us as to the true nature of parliamentary democracy. As far as I am concerned, it does not exist in order to give a fairly-weighted hearing to uninformed, scatterbrained policy ideas.

Suppose there was a viral outbreak which significantly reduced the IQ of up to a third of the population. Would elected bodies be obliged in some way to reflect this demographic dumbing down? 

Regrettably, this seems to be the way we are heading even without the assistance of microbes...


Saturday, April 28, 2018

Bandit Country

Bandits are people who behave in ways that are grounded in selfishness, brutality, materialism...even laziness, yet whose actions ultimately acquire social meaning. There are loads of would-be / wannabe bandits in Guatemala. 


Ceased to exist...

As well as being this country’s most powerful and barnacle-esque, well-established politician, he was also my neighbour. 

His sudden demise has thus shocked me on a personal level, because he occasionally stop to chat, usually about German Shepherds, his and mine. (He used to wistfully imagine that Jin was a breedable female...) 

Somewhat less favourably, he would sometimes show up at our house when I was absent, on his bike and in full padded gear and ask V to hop on behind him for a ride of seemingly unspecified duration and destination, an offer that was politely refused.

'Ceased to exist...' was how some of the local media repoted this instant in which an enormous national lacuna was opened.

I never did fully work out in my head what degree of blame he deserved for the deaths of Bishop Gerardí...and, again more personally, of Sas Rompich.



Sunday, April 15, 2018

It's No-Decision Day on Belize

And so referendum day is upon us. Even though it beggars belief that the ICJ would decide in Guatemala's favour, one presumes that a great many Chapines will be out celebrating democracy today. The outcome will be irrelevant unless Belizeans choose to waste their time and money in a similar manner at some point in the near future. The use of plebiscites by nationalist-populists for questionable ends is definitely a thing now in global democratic politics. Let's probe a little deeper into this problem than the article seems willing to do. 'Guatemala' used to refer to the Spanish captaincy general which stretched from the Mexican state of Chiapas down to the southern border of what is now Costa Rica. Santiago - today La Antigua - was the capital. Cosmopolitan opportunists operating out of the UK and other European states in the 18th century encroached at various points along the Caribbean coast of this section of the Spanish empire. 'Belize' said by some to be a corruption of the name Wallace, was under the de-fato control of pirates, buccaneers and loggers, the latter bringing in substantial numbers of Africans to extract wood like mahogany from the forests around the Maya Mountains. There appears to have been a preponderance of Scots involved, which is why the Guatemalan government's consistent use of 'ingleses' to refer to the ne'er-do-well's that 'stole' Belize from them rankles a bit! This group was collectively known as the 'Baymen' of Belize and in 1798 they fought off a Spanish fleet tasked with purging the area of protestant interlopers. This decisive victory is celebrated today in Belize as St George's Caye Day every tenth of September. Independence for Guatemala came in the form of joining the Mexican empire. Then that fell apart, and so did Guatemala, into the various modern nation states of Central America. Tellingly, Guatemala is currently making no official claim for Chiapas or indeed Honduras and El Salvador*. When the American diplomat-explorer John L. Stephens visited Belize in 1839 he was gobsmacked to find the territory effectively run by educated locals, many of whom were of African descent. There was a small garrison of red coats but did not formally belong to the UK, and this remained the case when Guatemala signed a treaty with the Brits in 1859. The Guatemalan legal case for 'recovering' a large part of the southern part of Belize rests on the fact that they claim the UK made a commitment in that treaty to construct a road linking the Caribbean zone to the more inhabited part of Guatemala, which they did not keep. Three years later, in 1862, Belize became a crown colony and would be known from then until 1981 as British Honduras. Like many other colonies in the mid-to-late 20th century, Belize experienced the development of an indigenous movement for national self-determination (under George Price) and once the basic goal was achieved, took the view - as did most other former members of the British empire (such as India, say) - that any prior commitments made by imperialists were now null and void. I can see how the modern nation state of Guatemala could put together a legal case that castigated the UK for defaulting on the 1859 treaty - asking the Brits to either build the road or pay compensation - but that one member of the UN could effectively invade another by means of an ICJ ruling is complete and utter nonsense. The southern part of Belize that acquisitive Guatemalan eyes are fixed on has had a colourful history. It is where the country's most substantial communities of Maya reside - Mopan and Kekchi - many of whom came as refugees from Guatemala's genocidal approach to diversity in the 1980s. It is also features one of the larger concentrations of Garifuna, a cultural group that claims descent from the Carib indians of St Vincent, who had mixed their blood with shipwrecked would-be African slaves and resisted British control for many years until forced to evacuate en-masse to the northern Caribbean coastlines of Central America. These 'Black Caribs' still speak an Amerindian tongue and retain synchretic religious beliefs blending West African notions and rituals those of the Caribbean indigenes. (Guatemala sports a 'Garifuna' community in Livingston and other parts of Izabal, but my suspicion is that most of the these folk are actually descended from the Jamaicans brought in to work there by the United Fruit company. When Stephens visited Livingston in 1839 he described it as a small township of pure-blooded Carib Indians.) Belize has played host over the past few centuries to an eclectic bunch of refugees, such as Mennonites seeking the promised back of beyond and a portion of the defeated Confederate army.

* Though Jimmy does seem a bit confused today about whether the consulta popular is about Belize or Mexico.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

El Feis...Hereafter

It seems that in Heaven - or perhaps it's Hell - they have better access to broadband than most Cubans do. 
When people die in Guatemala, their pages often live on in the social media afterlife. The dead get tagged more than the living. And, strangely enough, some of them even carry on posting..
I think Zuckerberg might have his own plaza fantasma problem.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Opera Cup

This being one of those 'international break' sort of gaps in the packed footballing schedule, there was a rare opportunity to catch some other sort of competitive activity on telly this morning. (Unless Armenia vs Estonia is one's thing.)

Such as the Varsity Boat Race (or University Boat Race-s as the BBC are determined to point out), coverage of which was almost as horrendous as Aunty's Winter Olympics broadcasts, with the ever-present Clare Balding.

In the meantime Glyndebourne have come up with the new-fangled Opera Cup (a sort of Confederations Cup of Bel Canto) which has been on Sky Arts all day today.

Amongst the 10 finalists is Guatemalan soprano Adriana González...


Saturday, March 24, 2018

Troy, Fall of a City


One of the fundamental assumptions of my education was that the Greeks were always the good guys - that anyone who stood up to Hellenic civilisation was, to use the modern parlance, some sort of 'dune coon' or terrorist. (If who didn't have this sort of education, well then, spoiler alerts!)
Long before I read The Iliad these stories were presented to me piecemeal, largely by one particularly inspirational Latin teacher, and then performed collectively at Prep school as a sort of dramatic adaptation.
I’d even read Julian Jaynes’s mind-bending The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind before tackling the original Homeric text in translation..only to then find myself scratching my head at the absence of a wooden horse in the third act.
The BBC’s new GOT-esque epic Troy, Fall of a City is a recognisable composite of mini-myths lifted from Homer, Virgil and other sources. The underlying premise however appears to be that the (albeit ill-fated) Trojans are the goodies after all, not the thuggish invasion force encamped outside their gates. 
Putting a love story with more than a hint of girl power at the centre of this narrative makes sense from a modern perspective, but the writers have left themselves a bit of hurdle to overcome in the denouement phase. 
Whilst the likes of Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector and even Odysseus (in prequel mode here) all possess character ‘arcs’ in the contemporary sense in the original story, Paris and Helen kind of don’t. (Homer had her married off to someone else before the city falls.)
Rather like Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, this is an amalgamation of individual, character-driven plots that taken together don’t quite add up to our familiar stand-alone story structure.
I have two episodes left to consume and look forward to seeing how the annihilation promised in the series’s title can be made dramatically satisfying.

A better class of wellies


Slightly less restrained than the F1 podium at Bahrain. 

83-80. 



Spring is in the air...

The University Boat Race marks the commencement of the traditional English summer season. 


Night vision goggles can come in handy.



The 'supermarket' formerly known as Antigua's premier night spot...

The other day, while checking out at the Bodegona, I had one of those (perchance) nostalgic moments when the tannoy system started playing Aventurero by Grupo Rana and I was thus transported to the evening in November 1989 when I had heard Pepe, Nacho and co perform the track live at that very spot...in its previous jataka as the MANHATTAN. 

They still refer to the front part of the store that way when calling each other up on their walkie-talkies. 

Meanwhile, former Rana frontman Nacho Caxaj has moved to California. His dance moves however, haven't really moved on at all...


Stripes vs Holes




These novelty zebra crossings are part of a (visible) initiative by the Muni. 

They are being painted on the roads outside schools and colleges so that students may cross, even when there might not be any particularly pressing need to do so in that location. 

In this instance we see how this project takes precedence over the possibly more handy and ever-delayed ‘Fix The Potholes’ programme. 

The interior surfaces of these shallow craters in the carretera are carefully included in the paint-job. 

PS: Belisha beacons would also be appreciated! 


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tradecraft for Dummies

A pair of halfwits keeping us under close surveillance last weekend.

They were sitting on the grass in front of our house sipping their drinks without actually drinking, rather like actors in a US sitcom. Amateursville. 





Sunday, March 11, 2018

Penis extensions

I used to shoot automatic pistols for Cambridge University, Before the Dunblane massacre you could actually get a Half-Blue for that sort of thing - and you didn’t even have to take aim AT those losers from Oxford. 
I was trained by the British Army’s leading marksman, a colonel in the Military Police who was the father of my best mate at Girton.
I hate guns. I see no need for them whatsoever. I don’t own a gun for the same reason that I don’t own a Ferrari. I am completely comfortable with the size of my phallus. And I am never afraid of the other.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Worst Enemy

Leaning against the jamb of the doorway to the offices of Cargo Express this morning, I felt a slight and somehow satisfying shift in the structure.

Small tremors are so regular here and I have come to welcome them, as might an inveterate sceptic longing for the briefest metaphysical wobble...a barely-perceptible sway in the foundations of reality. 

Major quakes are another thing entirely of course. Last year’s 8.2 was undoubtedly fearsome. But my worst experience of seismic displacement occurred more at the mid-level in 2015 when I found myself halfway up a high-rise tower in Tokyo dozing in my capsule hotel.

Not an experience I’d wish on my worst enemy. Actually, just now, maybe I would. 


Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Untermensch'd


It has been our unfortunate fate to live next door to this cave-crawling individual. On Monday night, having apparently acquired some Dutch courage in town, he rode up to up to us on his motita bearing exactly this sort of sinister demeanor. 

He had only lately been outed as a shameless freeloader and the context might be said to have favoured some sort of personal apology, but instead he delivered a nasty and pointedly cretinous insult to my wife and then called me a 'pussy'. 

Perfectly charming. Of course only a pathetic loser would conceive of this sort of repulsive public insolence as 'winning', vulgarly demeaning a woman in the street in front of several of her relatives and then fleeing as fast as he could on his wussy little scooter. 

In much the same way that only an abject specimen would set himself up to live in a comparatively poor nation viviendo de gorra off his neighbours and the local Municipality. 

This was this gribbly's fourth attempt that day to intimidate us. Having kerb-crawled us separately on two occasions, he passed our home around 8pm singing and cackling like a maniacal fool. 

We knew he'd be back and only had to hold our position with a small family group...beneath our security cameras. It felt like a long wait, but he didn't disappoint, and now the whacko boorishness of this patán has been recorded for posterity. 

All I ever wanted was for this ex-pat troglodyte to face up to paying 30 quetzales a month (just over $4) for his water, build the wall the law in this land obliges him to, and sort out his drains. And I gave him a grace period of roughly five years. 

He appears to blame my wife for his current predicament, because he comes across as the sort that will always look to pick on a woman in the first instance, but she actually told me to cut him some slack. Yet surely there are limits? 




Monday, February 05, 2018

Ten Year Top Ten

Lincoln in the Bardo is by far the best novel I have read in a long while.
So I set about compiling a list of the finest examples of long fiction I have consumed over the past decade here in Guatemala.

I wanted it to be a top ten, but the initial selection was unmanageably large, so I had to resort to the expedient of blackballing dead authors plus those books I had elected to re-read.

And this then is the final ten, in order completed...

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Breath by Tim Winton
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanassi by Geoff Dyer
Bring Up The Bodies by Hillary Mantel
Rustication by Charles Palliser
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Downsizing

I love Alexander Payne’s movies and his latest, Downsizing , is enormous fun.

It commences rather like an episode of Black Mirror that can afford Matt Damon, with a highish speculative sci-fi concept: that a proportion of the world’s population will choose to be reduced to five inches tall in order to save the planet.

A Norwegian lightbulb that one. Except that stateside the majority that elect to go small do so for reasons not entirely dissimilar to the rationale adopted by flyover Americans for re-settling down here in Central America. The satire in this early section, was for that reason, especially biting for me.

There follows another sequence involving a eurotrash house party straight out of Middle-American dreams/nightmares that was LOLsome. 

Beyond this Payne widens the range of his satirical targets and the screenplay does seem to lose some its tightness. Critics have made waggish remarks about the movie itself requiring some downsizing. But I've known enough Norwegians to have found the final act a bit of a hoot as well.


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Tabasco



It's where civilisation in this hemisphere originated. And chocolate. 

Yet, rather sadly perhaps, today the state is principally famous for a sauce produced in Louisiana using a variety of chile peppers not cultivated in that part of Mexico. 

In fact, this supposedly perkier version uses habaneros...which don't seem to be particularly prevalent in Havana either.



Drop 'em at your peril

Looks like the Ticos also subscribe to this minor aberration in la lengua castellana...the noisy H. 

Other examples of the not-so-silent treatment that one comes across around here are in silly names of foreign derivation - such as Heniferth - or in place names like El Hato. 

Drop any of these 'haitches' in LAG and you will tend to sound like a bit of a tit. 




Sunday, December 31, 2017

The New Anti-Semitism


As someone who has been accused of being anti-Semitic for wondering out loud why so many young and beautiful Israelis come to Central America, specifically to the Riviera Maya in order to throw such excellent rave parties, I suppose I can sympathise with some of the sentiments expressed in this article.

The "It is possible to be both a Zionist and an anti-Semite" claim is indeed an interesting one. 

Guatemala's recent decision to move its own embassy to Jerusalem has been seen by some commentators as straightforwardly indicative of the kind of shameless sucking up to the Donald that even Theresa May would baulk at. But there is a bit more to it than that.

Jimmy Morales is the front man for a party founded by retired military men of the nationalistic bent, many of whom benefitted from the United States' use of Israel as a proxy at a time when the gringos themselves were not allowed by their own congress to supply military equipment and know-how to the men gaily committing atrocities in this country.

The President is also a Pentacostalist Protestant of the fervent variety, and I have mentioned here before how many evangelical churches in Guatemala fly the flag of Israel either outside, or occasionally even inside behind the preacher's podium. So Zionism has deeper roots in this country than contemporary political expedience or indeed, Guatemala's oft-mentioned role in the formation of the state of Israel.

Yet one is indeed left wondering which particular reading of the New Testament precludes any sort of connection between this rather strange species of non-Jewish Zionism and anti-Semitic sentiment in the broader sense.

But the real essence of Neve Gordon's article here is the notion that one can be anti-Zionist without any concommitant animus towards Jews, one's only offence being a 'passion for justice'. She thus concludes firmly "The equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must first be rejected". 

Sorry, but no. The familiar symbol of Justice is the set of scales i.e. balance, and there is an imbalance here that still needs to be addressed. e.g. Why do certain people of the Left appear to care more about the injustice in that part of the world than in almost any other? 

And why do individuals with almost no natural tribal stake in the situation in the Middle East focus almost all their anti-colonialist angst on the government of Israel?

I cannot claim for sure that there is always a form of anti-semtism lurking behind this apparent geopolitical bias, but the possibility cannot simply be shut down just because we've pinpointed the existence of a bunch of aberrant zionists who might not have the best interests of the Jewish people at heart.



Friday, December 29, 2017

Kafka with Robots


Humanoid android stories belong in the same category as those about vampires and zombies - they examine alternative ways of being in such a way that to a greater or lesser extent throws some light on pressing human existential questions. 

All of these presences reside in what Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori called bukimi no tani, the uncanny valley. (Sean Young’s appearance in Blade Runner 2049 is textbook in this respect!) 

For Phillip K Dick existential questions were always asked with a wide-eyed paranoid gaze. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, described on the jacket of my 1981 copy as ‘Kafka with robots’ features ‘andys’ posing as Soviet agents, and parallel police stations in different parts of town (SF, not LA, perhaps more appropriately) each with its own captain, principal bounty hunter and methodology for tripping up embedded ‘carbons’...yet only one of these can be real

There are also quite a few electric sheep and other synthetic animals, as the biological kind have become scarce on planet Earth and keeping and caring for the needs of an animal is regarded as a sign of empathy, an apparently very human quality around which this society has built an entire religious outlook. 

This being a Phillip K. Dick story it almost goes without saying that profound epistemological unease is never far below the surface and the suggestion that everyone’s memories might be falsely-implanted hangs in the air, so to speak. 

I hope I’m giving a sense of just how much of the novel’s complexity was flushed away by Ridley Scott when he adapted it. Yet that movie is rightly considered a sci-fi classic, in the main because of the original manner in which a partially-apocalyptic future was imagined then realised on celluloid. And also because of a famous valedictory speech at the end ad-libbed by Rutger Hauer. 

And partial apocalypses are a sub-genre that I have a particular enthusiasm for - scenarios containing elements of both utopia and dystopia. In this instance the precise nature of the blend is one of the key questions being posed.

Although only credited as an executive producer, the script for the sequel has the hand of Sir Ridley all over it. As we’ve seen in his ‘development’ of the Alien franchise, the director has some signature concerns about synthetic consciousness that are perhaps not quite as fascinating or philosophically-profound as he surely must imagine they are. He has tended to use the intelligent androids’ own existential jitters to drive his narratives, rather than evoking human concerns about these technological imitations. 

The baton has nevertheless been formally picked this year up by Denis Villeneueve, and even though more than 35 years have elapsed since the original Blade Runner, the Canadian director has given himself permission not to have to re-state that much of the fundamental back-story.  I guess I’m fine with that, but along the way, he went soft on the basic ground-rules, and as with any zombie or vampire franchise, the ground rules are also very important for worlds with robots. 

The three elemental givens that Scott inherited from Dick are as follows:
  • Replicants are manufactured for use off-world (only) as servants for the colonists
  • They have a very limited lifespan compared to humans
  • They appear to be missing one very significant part of the standard human psychological make-up. 
None of these is consistently upheld in Blade Runner 2049 and, as a consequence, it doesn’t really hold up either as a faithful sequel or as a convincing stand-alone premise. 

Here the quest undertaken by the central protagonist is nuanced and ultimately engaging, perhaps less Noirish than Deckard's, but the various antagonists are comparatively under-developed in terms of their motivations. Robin Wright for instance stands in for an entire ‘human’ interest for roughly half the length of the movie and then is rather wastefully thrown away. 

Somewhat optimistically, Villeneuve left enough of these cardboard cut-outs still standing to support further iterations in the future. 




Yes, it's beautiful to look at, and Roger Deakins may finally get his Oscar. But it is cursed with being inconstant with not one, but two 'sacred' texts. These things are always a bit of a hospital pass. I remember how many critics deplored the 'ridiculous' ending of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, yet this is precisely how the Pierre Boule novel concluded. And we all know what happened when Stephen King tried to make his own authentic version of The Shining

Denis Villeneuve has some previous with sources. He quite successfully added his own symbolic whimsy to José Saramago's The Double in Enemy, but he also notably flattened out the heavyweight scientific and philosophical ideas in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, which arrived on screens as Arrival

One more thing. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I found myself wondering some of the time why the andys lacked a factory marker such as blue toe-nails that would make them easier to spot. But then I realised that the author was literally dicking with the suspicion that ultimately there can be no way to tell the difference and that the whole empathy-based worldview might be delusional. 

Nevertheless, Nexus-6 Pris tells the human ‘special’ Isidore that the Chablis he has provided is ‘wasted on her’. So, instead of all that cumbersome Voight-Kamff testing apparatus, a bottle of New World Chardonnay might actually have done the trick...


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Bubbly for Christmas

The Bitcoin phenomenon has reached an interestingly delicate phase. The price inflation over 2017 looks like a bubble, but it isn’t. At least not quite. 

Bubbles like the one that helped re-set expectations of the ‘new media’ age have a number of key characteristics this one probably still lacks. 

Firstly, there is a moment when everyone realises that valuations have parted company with any kind of underlying ‘real’ economic value. Then there is the period that loads of small investors pile in. And finally there is the matter of debt. 

The man who purchased our company in 1998 used in part the shares in his own NASDAQ-quoted enterprise to do so. At the time he was secure in the conviction that these would only ever go up in value, which is possibly why he made the error of electing to pay us out after a certain period with an unfixed quantity of shares up to a an agreed fixed monetary value. Time would unfailingly work in his favour he imagined. 

His optimism was further reflected in the fact that he had been borrowing funds in order to aggressively expose himself to the wider dot com dream. 

Shortly after the deal was done the Ruble defaulted causing the first major market correction of the digital era. With share prices plummeting, our over-enthusiastic acquirer faced margin calls and had to sell his own stock in the company that he had founded simply in order to cover them. 

When the broader investing public took note that the CEO was dumping stock, panic set in quickly and the price tanked. This is how bubbles tend to play out. 

With regards to the Bitcoin situation right now there is still a comparative dearth of smaller-scale, steroid-pumped, American-style speculators in the mix, as most of the cryptocurrency is currently held either by the existing super rich or those who have become so by mining it. As for the potential for disconnect with ‘real’ values, quien sabe?! 

And over-extended debt is yet to become a big issue, though some of the exchanges are now starting to allow leverage. One article I read recently suggested that the 15x leverage on offer at the Tokyo exchange could result in ‘contagion’ - and the full zombie apocalypse is perhaps presaged by the 100x leverage offer that pops up as a sponsored link on Google. 

So the situation right now is highly volatile, but not entirely bubbly. Professor Niall Ferguson suggested recently that potential punters should.. “Think about it this way. The maximum number of bitcoins that can be created is 21m. The number of millionaires in the world, according to Credit Suisse, is 36m. Their total wealth is $128.7 trillion. If millionaires collectively decided to hold just 1% of their wealth as bitcoin, the price would be not $15,000 but north of $60,000. If they raised that to 5%, the right price for bitcoin would be above $300,000."

Maybe, but think about it this way as well. There have to be plenty of state players out there right now considering how handy it would be to propagate the impression that the cryptocurrency has somehow seriously over-reached itself. 

By helping to engineer a significant price correction right now governments in the developed world could achieve a number of significant ends. 

1) Deliver a blow to those members of the global uber-elite who have demonstrated a fairly loose commitment to the ideal of the nation state 
2) Further erode the online influence of techno-libertarians 
3) Shut down the clandestine payments and laundry system that has appeared to be emerging for organised crime, terror groups and other dark-net beneficiaries and 
4) Discredit Bitcoin just enough to permit either the passage of hefty ‘regulation’ or indeed allow for its eventual replacement with more anodyne alternatives. 

They all want to get us hooked on digital money, just not this kind. 

There was a marked dip pre-Xmas, but this may have been a response to the opening of futures markets which have made it easier to bet short, as well as some insider manipulation. Not quite the full debacle that would suit states and big institutions. 

And they really need this to happen before Bitcoin has wheedled its way further into the mainstream and a bursting bubble would inevitably pop the global economy rather more alarmingly.