Friday, May 12, 2017

Bad Hombres

This morning I overhead - there really was no alternative - your textbook American loudmouth sermonising on the situation south of the border. 

The 'whole narcos thing' is, he inisisted, just a story made up by the Federal government in order to disuade the baby boomers from taking their lifetime's hoard of loot and retiring in fun places like Mexico. 'You can't take their passports away, so they had to do SOMETHING, it was gonna cost them trillions of dollars in lost tax revenues...'

Now, I have to admit I gurgled into my espresso a bit when I heard that, but there is a grano of verdad in this particular conspiracy theory. 

Western governments and loose associations of corporations do have PR budgets set aside for making other parts of the world appear uncongenial for doing business or just generally very scary. I know this because one such brief once crossed my desk.  When was the last time you saw a story in the developed world's media about Guatemala that didn't involve some nasty shit? 

I think one reason that Trump caused such consternation in certain circles last year with his whole 'Bad Hombres' shtick was that its no-holds-barred crassness ran the risk of giving the whole game away. 

But the 'whole narcos thing' is real enough too. I have been exposed to over three decades of life in Central America and have witnessed in the more recent period how the cartels have insinuated themselves into many aspects of life in La Antigua, especially amongst what I shall call the motivated youth. They've done this with sleeper cells which reproduce and extend their influence through a vigorous process of recruitment and cultural indoctrination. (Banda music!)  No decapitated heads have turned up in the Tanque de La Union as yet, but the hold this little mafia will grow up to have over the city is indeed rather worrying. 

Meanwhile, I have been catching up with Narcos, season two, having forgotten how much I liked this series. I love the way how the criminals, the officials and the DEA team are presented in their own terms - the somewhat meatheaded voiceover gives you the ultimately false impression that this is going to be one of those America, Fuck Yeah stories with cardboard cut-out third world low-lifes getting the full law enforcement treatment, but instead anyone like myself, fluent in both languages, can see that it has at least two main registers and that it largely keeps them separate.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

On Marche?

As cures for populism go, the French one is already looking a bit, well, homeopathique

Is anyone really that convinced by the whole insider-outsider ploy? Only in France perhaps, where acting all superior is actually a valid variant of the common touch. 

Frenchness and middle of la rue, centrist, fence-sitting politics are such an absurdly unlikely match-up, that Macron's novel movement En Marche! has almost inevitably achieved the sort of rebel cachet that most establishment rearguard actions could only dream of. 

The trouble is I think that most jubilant market commentators, especially in the US, have failed to brush up on the French constitutional system, which differs from the American model in at least one important respect: the executive and legislature cannot function properly unless driven by the same basic political tendency. 

So Macron, a candidate whose would-be party currently has a grand total of zero MPs, will have some work to do prior to the June parliamentary elections and most probably throughout any term as Le President

Just because people are prepared to vote for him to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace does not mean that constituency voters will behave quite so tactically. 

As James Fenby observed in this week’s Spectator: ‘A movement that came from nowhere could all too easily dissolve like snowflakes in the sun’. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Media Bias

The snap election campaign is but a day or two old and already the Corbynites are pre-emptively calling out media bias. I can see this getting as tedious as listening to the Special One whingeing about alleged unfair treatment from referees; often before the match has even been played. .

Readers from outside the UK might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Even before we were all formally walled off inside our social media silos, bias was pretty much what the media was supposed to be about. But in over in Blighty we have a national broadcaster tasked with a state-sponsored mission to at least appear impartial: Aunty, aka the BBC.

This provides both sides with a perennial opportunity to act out their inner Mourinho. Naturally, they never accuse the Beeb of being absurdly partisan AGAINST their political opponents.

In the good old days when the polarities of British politics primarily involved progressive vs conservative sensibilities, the BBC could make a decent enough show of balance. But cripes, nowadays it’s all urban vs rural, educated vs unlettered, cosmopolitan vs nationalist, expert vs fuckwit etc. So an organisation such as the BBC  at its core urban, educated, cosmopolitan and (usually) expert  is basically up a gum tree. Even if we were only talking about inclusive vs narrow, it would surely be hard to be balanced and narrow at the same time.

Anyway, bias as used by the Left is in some ways the equivalent of division as employed by the Right — revealing how they would all prefer it if their messages could, if at all possible, arrive unfiltered at the trough where the cattle are to imbibe them.


Feeling kind of envious of the Froggies for (possibly) having found a way to stick one to the existing political order without simultaneously appearing half-witted...

Friday, April 14, 2017

Forked Paths

Self-consciously classless America is possibly the worst place imaginable to be leading the global cascading revolt against elites.

Classes are the headline acts in complex social ecosystems, but instead the US chooses to engage a set of stereotypical tableaux which it constantly plays back to itself through the sovereign medium of its cultural specula.

On my very first visit to America at 13 years of age I found myself within days of my arrival at that elite gathering - brunch at the Boca Ratón Club - which authentically featured a tuxedo'd string quartet playing The Hunt (K458) by Mozart. (Granted, in the Hollywood version of this scene, it is invariably Vivaldi providing the gilt-edged muzak.)

In that self-mythologising land, the person entering such a dining space with no clue about which sort of fork to use with which dish is a de facto social hero or heroine.

You can bang on until the vets with PTSD come home about the underlying radicalism of the American Revolution, but it was essentially a non-comformity of individuals who didn’t know which fork to use.

And this rebellion has never been far below the surface of American small-d democracy and freedumb. Hence the current incumbent of the White House - who looks like a member of the elite to any bien-pensant euro-chattereur, but on the other side of the pond has just the requisite number of chips on his shoulder to stand out as an insurgent.

Buscando una pinche procesión...

Cucuruchos Enojados?  Seen a few of them around.

How cool would it be to shoot a spoof of this making use of some of the purple people? 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On the Spectrum

So the Dortmund pipe-bomber was 'on the Islamist spectrum'. What other contemporary spectra are out there? 

The Ayn Rand spectrum? La Glow is on that one for sure. 

Then there's the Wenger Out spectrum, the Corbynite (or ista) spectrum and of course the Hitler Wasn't So Bad spectrum. 

Plus the From Russia With Love spectrum...

Monday, April 10, 2017


At what point in the life of a so-called civilised society does it become permissable for a company to treat its paying customers the way that United treated that doctor? If airport security is supposed to be the early warning indicator of how our governments would really like to treat us most of the time, then the treatment we get once we make it through to the departure lounge and then on to the plane may be an indicator of how corporations would like us to submit to them. And anglophone administrations and airline corporations have only just recently combined to dream up some nonsense about exploding laptops and tablets that will help the latter compete unfairly against Middle Eastern and Asian airlines hailing from nations where an entrenched tradition of hospitality and basic civility appear to persist.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

White Elephants

Anyone who has spent any time living in and around this city must have speculated why there are so many essentially empty gated communities in the area. 

A visit to Google Earth can be instructive.

You might have already supposed that these would-be condominios are part of the wider phenomenon of over-exploitation of an actually limited economic opportunity that characterises so much of the 'entrepreneurial' exertions of La Antigua. 

We've seen it with cyber cafés, then spas and now taco joints. 

Or you could speculate that the relative returns from exploiting land for domestic real estate compared to say coffee cultivation are now so evident that speculators have been sucked into this marginal space somewhat feverishly. 

But the truth is that a significant number of these walled compounds have been tellingly situated beside roads which line the edges of the big estates. 

It's not that the big coffee fincas of DOC La Antigua are no longer able to make money from the bean. The sheer number of helicopters in the air around here at the weekends suggests otherwise. It's that advances in modern infrastructure over the past few decades have conspired to complicate their security issues. 

And so the finqueros either sell off the land on the edge of their estates or elect to 'develop' these outlying terrenos themselves. The idea being that weekending capitalinos or gullible gringos can be unwittingly co-opted into the role of wachimen

Even if nobody bites, they get a wall and a 24-hour guarida, which they have deemed sufficient deterrent to the incursive sort. 

The Absence

God knows that if he were to show himself he would cease to exist. He himself has never claimed to exist. He allows himself to be sensed only so that the problem of his existence may be posed > Jean Baudrillard

Indeed, God functions primarily as an absence for believer and non-believer alike. 

If humanity were to stumble across credible evidence for His existence, both would find themselves immediately out of business, and so too, to a large extent would God. 

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Burning the candle at both ends

Thanks to David Goodhart we have a new way of bifurcating entire complex societies into separate polarised tendencies: the somewheres and the anywheres.

Over-simplified of course, but let’s run with it...

Right now the revolt of the somewheres against free trade, free movement, free bathroom choice and so on is in full flow.

And it appears to be posing a significant threat to democratic life in the developed world — precisely because it is taking place through the medium of democratic institutions.

But before we had the revolt of the somewheres, we had the underhand, barely visible machinations of the anywheres, which had (and continue to have) as much potential for disrupting democracy — precisely because they deliberately bypass the medium of democratic institutions.

How you respond to Theresa May's notorious remark that  “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, depends to a large extent on which of these two anti-democratic tendencies is currently causing you the most anxiety. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Plain Sight

When I first got involved with proactive Internet communications in the early to mid-90s (largely in the context of Usenet groups), it occurred to me that the age of the cover-up was almost over: if the security services wanted to do anything outrageous they could hide it in plain sight amidst other manufactured narratives. Online audiences would lose the ability (or just the will...) to probe below the surface in order to distinguish between fact and fabrication. 

It seemed to be then that the CIA might already be doing this, but nowadays the Russians and the Chinese appear to be leading the way. 

The crest of a slump...

Iain Sinclair explores 'endgame London' in the current edition of the London Review of Books...

"That impulse towards wiping the slate clean and starting over. ‘London was, but is no more.’ John Evelyn writing, after the Great Fire, with such relish in his plain statement of fact. ‘London was, but is no more.’ It reminds me of hearing Ian Holloway, the manager of Queen’s Park Rangers, on the radio. He’s got a nice West Country burr, very soothing for his employers. He was talking about his club’s horrible run of form when he said, with disarming optimism, ‘I think we’re right on the crest of a slump.’ And that’s where the current last London seems to be: riding the crest of a slump. That madness of quitting Europe, burning our bridges, starving hospitals of funds, is part of a suicide-note delirium. When the worst is coming straight at you at a thousand miles a minute, embrace it."

Triggeration Day

Today the nation of my birth began a process which can be characterised as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

This is beyond contention I believe. What is certainly worth disputing is just how much baby and how much bathwater might be involved. 

And I have friends and family whose perspicacity is largely beyond reproach who are convinced that the baby is dead or at least dying anyway. 

I have to acknowledge that my own perspective on this has educational and generational bias. 

In the 80s I took advantage on several occasions of the Inter-Rail programme and travelled freely around what we Brits call 'the continent', including those parts still under the sway of communist autocracies, plus two visits to the pre-Glasnost USSR. 

Then in the early 90s I helped build a new business situated at the intersection of the then wild west frontiers of fabulous opportunity - digial communications and the economies of the newly-liberated states of Central and Eastern Europe. 

There seemed to be plenty of baby to cherish there, but more recent contemplation sees me admitting that in the end there was also a good deal more bathwater than at first anticipated. 

This appears to be true of all the babies one might choose to cherish, but those above and below me in age seem strangely unwilling to acknowledge the need for compromise these days. 

I bought into both the soi-disant 'European Dream' and the 'Digital Revolution' because both not only promised great things, in their early phases the delivery was also indubitable.  (And because in the case of the dream, there was just enough of the nightmare still visible to spur one on.)

How much of my remaining commitment to these ideals is nostalgia? 

I ask myself the same thing when I return to some of the haunts of my early travels in Central America. Some of them have been transformed from unspoiled, almost dreamlike loci of youthful potentiality into solid modern urban environments with all the sell-outs and trade-offs such an expansion requires. 

And yet anyone who had ever followed my observations about destinations such as Playa del Carmen over the years will know that I have come to accept its corruption over time, just as I accept my own. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Boom to Bust

The post-Brexit boom in overseas tourism (driven largely by a deflating Pound) 
was all going to plan...until last week. 

The day after the Westminster attack Avianca sent out a promotional email to all its subscribers here in Guatemala peddling a return flight to London at the discounted rate of $569. 

Now, twice in 2016 I took advantage of sub-$500 fares between Central America and Paris. 

Let's just say these prices did not reflect a sudden surge of interest in the French capital on the part of North American would-be tourists...

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Primitive Dialogue?

This could be something along the lines of what Daniel Dennet means when he refers to proto-verbal memes. I somehow think I'd rather be seated beside a bedouin with a Macbook than someone grunting incoherently! 

Quality of life improvement klaxon...

The Bodegona has started stocking Marie Sharp's (and not just the bog standard strength). 

Also, in case anyone has failed to notice, it's the cantaloupe melon season. 

In the Flesh

I cannot say that I have had the privilege to rub shoulders with many notable individuals   those with some sort of valid claim to historical transcendence. 

At what was an impressionable age I did come into contact with a plethora of really quite minor celebrities through my father’s business, then familiar faces from the broadcasting milieu and the middle orders of the small screen acting profession. 

If I were to be put into cryogenic stasis for a century or so and then, on emerging, attempt to impress my new contemporaries with these acquaintances, nobody would have any idea who I was talking about. 

However, there is a tiny trio of names which might still be worth dropping. Individuals with whom I am very pleased to exchanged a few words: Douglas Adams, Stephen Hawking and Carlos Fuentes. 

And I suppose - minus the few words part - I might add Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (alias Lenin). 

For such was our encounter in his Red Square mausoleum in 1984 (appropriately enough) that it felt unmistakeably ‘in the flesh’. 

In Lenin the Dictator, An Intimate Portrait Victor Sebestyen describes Vlad as...

‘The kind of demagogue familiar to us in western democracies, as well as in dictatorships. In his quest for power, he promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could later label ‘enemies of the people’. He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…. Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call ‘post-truth politics’. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Contemporary Amokism

The Malay culture has a name for an enduring phenomenon: amok, as in running...

It encapsulates how a certain kind of disaffected male, invariably the sort who considers himself superior in some way — yet frustratingly unrecognised as such by wider society — elects to go on a marauding rampage to set the record straight.

His victims can be members of another race or another gender, but even more commonly a despised peer group or other reasonably well-defined demographic that he feels is impinging upon him.

Amok-style mass casualty events have become increasingly common in our modern world, especially in the United States, where the free availability of assault weapons clearly facilitates the phenomenon, yet cannot really be said to lie at the root of it.

Take away the guns and the attacks still happen, as we saw this week in Westminster. In this there is more than a grain of truth in the ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ mantra disseminated by the NRA.

In the case of extreme Islamism we see a ready-made ideology which can be said to nurture and expand the potential of the underlying syndrome, whilst globalisation means that one’s hated fellow ‘citizens’ can actually reside several thousand miles away.

But if we are looking for a real underlying source for contemporary amokism, it is not religion or any other justification per se, but developments in digital technology which have permitted highly-amplified sociability and resentment-exchange between dangerous, sociopathic loners.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Escape to reality...

A good deal of fairly afflictive insight in this article by Lydia Smears.

But I suppose social media no more make one stupid than travel broadens one's horizons. (I do believe I have come across more narrow-minded globetrotters on my travels than their opposite. Trump's Tripadvisor map must have pins all over the place.)

I have removed FB from my iPad, but not Instagram. I persist in operating my smartphone as if it were a dumbphone, although the wifi at home undermines this intention somewhat.

I have always made sure there are set times of the day reserved for reading actual books. Interestingly, during the increasingly limited periods where I allow myself a drink, I tend to read less, but use social media more.

Yet it could also be said of me that I am already engaged in an escape from reality or at least living in an alternative one of my own fabrication, so to some extent social media apps have the reverse utility for me.


Was Trump an idiot before he started watching Fox News?

I listened to an interview with Daniel Dennett yesterday in which he quipped that the answer to all chicken and egg questions is 'Yes'. 

Ho ho. It's an explanatory dodge of enormous utility that I recall from my years as a history undergraduate.

In Dennett's case it allows him to slip Darwinian selection into almost any process he cares to. Just don't let the man anywhere near the French Revolution.

Grain Intolerant

The troubling tendency to phoneticise native words has reached La Antigua. This is one step from the heinous awfulness that is Wahaca back in the UK.

Meanwhile however, this would be an appropriate place to make it absolutely clear, once and for all, that Quinoa is a Spanish word, pronounced kin-owe-ah. It derives from a Quechua original that, who knows, might be pronounced kinwah or even kinoowah, but if you pronounce it this way you will sound as big a twat as someone who habitually pronounces the English word Florence as Firenze.

There were two interesting articles in the Economist this week on global grain trends. The Africans are eating more rice, while the Asians are eating less of it, increasingly turning to wheat. 

Meanwhile in America it is ever more fashionable to consume supposedly virtuous and ‘ancient' grains such as the one the twatterati refer to as kinwa. (Of this the anonymous author of the article wryly observed: "To its fans, it is a superfood. To its detractors, it is like the erotic sci-fi murals found in Saddam Hussein’s palaces—pretentious and tasteless.")

The magazine that calls itself a newspaper believes "all this is to be celebrated, for it is a symptom of rising prosperity and expanding choice. The spread of better farming techniques has raised yields, helping humanity feed itself despite a rising population. Rapid urbanisation means that fewer people grow their own grain, and more have the cash to try new varieties. Globalisation has allowed food and farming techniques to cross borders, meaning that people on every continent can experience new flavours and textures. Migration and tourism have broadened people’s culinary horizons: Chinese visitors to France return home craving baguettes; Americans who live near Ethiopian immigrants learn to love injera (a soft teff flatbread that doubles as an edible plate)."

The sense one gets here is that it is the consumers' choice that needs to be celebrated and upheld and all the other, often more difficult choices, taken further down the chain are not really for us to get all concerned about.

Now, whilst I am generally intolerant, I am not, as far as I am aware, gluten-intolerant. It is a great shame however that Columbus, amongst all the other goofy ideas he had swimming around in this head, was not one of those self-diagnosed sufferers of said intolerance to wheat.

For the imposition of this Eurasian grain on the New World — globalisation without the concomitant expansion of choice — resulted in an environmental disaster that left most of central Mexico parched dry along with a set of social and cultural divisions that persist to this day.

Corn was not just the staple of Mesoamerican cultures, it lay at the heart of their religious worldview, so the arrival of an alternative was seen as part of the new hegemony of Haysoos.

The Spanish first tried to sow their imported seeds in the Spring, but that way there was too much rain when the wet season started in May, so they switched to Autumn; not enough rain...

Then as now, the indigenes planted two or three varieties of seed corn in a little hole so that the one best adapted to the unpredictable conditions of temperature and moisture in the months ahead might prosper. Beans and squashes were planted alongside the corn in the milpa, an ancient and complex cultivation system that generally worked in local conditions.

After the conquest the land was already being churned up and dried up by the cows, pigs, goats, sheep and burros that the Spanish had introduced. Ploughing to plant corn was the next stage in the making of the Mexican desert. Then, from the start of the seventeenth century came two hundred dry years.

The Spanish could have continued with the system of chinampas, artifcial raised fields of mud and straw in the wetlands, but instead chose to drain the lakes. And that when the cash crops they planted, sugar and wheat, actually require more water than corn.

For much of Mexican history the 'choice' between tortillas and pan, between corn and wheat, has been as one with other, at least partially self-elected identities, such as class and race.

One has to wonder if something sociologically similar is happening today in our wonderful new world of cereal inclusivity.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hidden Assumptions

When someone makes the case for the scientific method as the best intellectual tool available to man for the acquisition of knowledge, it is hard to tell whether they are making some of the unnecessary metaphysical assumptions that sometimes creep in along with this. 

Even if they are simply asserting that they will only trust knowledge that is acquired empirically, this is sort of disingenuous, because the best empirical theory of consciousness that we currently have suggests that we are constantly acquiring knowledge we can act on at levels beneath our conscious awareness. Some of this is all that ‘uncanny’ stuff. We have knowledge coded into our DNA and knowledge that we pick up without any sort of reflection i.e. conscious empirical method. 

Anyway, my wider point is that the scientific method starts with a common-sensical assumption about the nature of subjects and objects, which any philosopher would usually want to interrogate a bit more. 

Richard Dawkins is as ever one of the worst offenders. Sometimes he seems to be making a limited case for the optimal method for acquiring reliable information and then next minute he breaks cover and reveals that not only does he think a complete objective description of reality is possible, it is basically inevitable if we just keep up the process of scientific investigation long enough. 


Each of us creates the illusion of the passage of time inside our own heads, or so most modern cosmologists would have it.  

Einstein called the idea of a moving present moment a ‘persistent illusion’. How this works has been succinctly explained by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. I will paraphrase a bit...

I’m skyping with a friend back in the UK. During the conversation we both use the word ‘here’, in his case to mean his room in a flat in London and in mine to refer to my own room here in La Antigua. We understand that our use of ‘here’ is contextual, subjective. But then we use the word ‘now’ and in this instance there is an unacknowledged assumption that we are referring to something out there in reality, a fixed present moment that we both have access to despite the spatial distance. Yet what is really happening is that our mutual, subjective sense of nowness is similar enough to give us the illusion that it is something objective. 

Part of the shock of bereavement is the break-down of this illusion in the specific case of one very meaningful relationship. After my father died in January someone asked me ‘Where do you think he is now?´ and my answer was that he is where he has always been. It’s just from a temporal perspective at least, no longer the place where I am. 

There’s nothing like mortality when it comes to revealing just how alone we really are inside our heads. Our subjective experience has a beginning and an end, but it is also, in a sense, infinite — for the very reason that the passage of time itself is subjective. 

I’ve mentioned to someone trying to comfort me that the death of my parents has left me feeling ‘cut adrift’, but some deeper reflection has led me to the understanding that this is really every person's natural state. 

Thinkers through the centuries — men like Heraclitus and Hobbes — have insisted that the fundamental quality of this world is motion and flux. Einstein seemed to want to shore things up a bit, commending to us an image of the cosmos that was essentially fixed in four dimensions for all eternity. 

‘God doesn’t play dice’ was his original discomfited response to developments in particle physics. Motion in time he could account for, but flux in the space part of space-time suggested an underlying game of chance, and this he could not at first abide. 

Nevertheless, in one of his oft-quoted soundbites, he did also refer to the whole of reality as a ‘peristent illusion’, so might he perhaps also have intuited that one needs to fathom the material part of reality in terms of its interactions with mind? 

Back to my skype conversation analogy. I fly to London and have dinner with my friend. In the conversation we then have ‘here’ seems to refer to something more inter-subjective. We both appear to mean the same thing as long as we don’t get too granular about it. 

But let’s do just that - let’s get granular. At the very wee-est level, my reality consists of particles making what appear to be choices. Dead cats. Live cats. 

Adherents of the so-called many world interpretation of quantum phenomena would advocate that each of these choices results in a new and separate version of reality.  

But it would be wrong to use the language of causation here. One could only call this the ‘spawning’ of a new universe subjectively, because from an objective perspective it has always been there, hasn’t it? 

Yet in the manner of what is now known in cinematic parlance as a Sliding Doors moment, our conscious awareness passes from one universe to another without any actual awareness of this significant shift. 

Now my question is, when I am chatting to my friend at his dinner table, is the nano state of his reality the same as mine, objectively-speaking, or like the state of his timeline, does it only appear to be so due to our proximity? 

Are we taking a stroll through the same garden of forked paths? (Or to further the Borgesian analogy, are we both seeking the same book in the Library of Babel?!) 

Could I have actually been keeping company with a multitude (...In an effect not unlike that experiment when a subject fails to notice a change of interlocutor when two men carrying a wooden screen pass between the pair.) 

I think I know which answer  Heraclitus would feel more comfortable with. Einstein was nothing if not rather un-comfortable in this thought space. I imagine this is because he felt that the implication tended to be that randomness was somehow the more fundamental aspect of reality. In other words, the only way you get from cats that are both alive and dead at the same time to definitively living or deceased felines was when God — or the universe itself — rolled some dice. 

Yet as I conjectured in my last lengthy post of philosophical musings, there is no reason to suppose that the fully-determined and indeterminate natures of reality are not of essentially equal importance — and maybe also somehow intervolved, to borrow one of those self-coined words that John Milton (OP) tried and failed to introduce into common usage. 

Perhaps Einstein created a conceptual-impediment for himself here with this uncharacteristic reversion to deistic language. But even if he’d dropped the ‘God’ part, it would have remained pretty clear that he was inferring that the dice are being rolled somewhere well beyond human consciousness. 

He would not be the first scientist to presume for no good reason that reality is something which can be described objectively, and that we are just accidental observers within the cosmos we inhabit. 

Yet what if it is us rolling the dice? 

For decades neuroscientists have been telling us that human consciousness appears to be an after-the-event narrative that our minds concoct to give us a sense of agency. This does not mean we lack ‘free will’, just that the freedom is more complex and that it is working out at least partially beneath the threshold of awareness. Choices are being made at every level, all the way down to the most miniscule. 

At each moment we are in a state of flux, not so much a cat in a box, but an individual in transition different realities and when one steps back and contemplates this as motion, the moving present moment is revealed to have a spatial as well as a temporal component.  'Here', just like 'Now', is always subjective. 

And I have been left pondering if these transitions — the particulate equivalents of the wave of personal movement through spacetime —  are happening out there wholly independently of us, or whether they are all part of some as yet unfathomable co-dependent interaction between minds and universe(s).

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Arrivals and Departures

"The semagrams seemed to be something more than language; they were almost like mandalas. I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no "train of thought" moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence."

One of the better movies of 2016 was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a sort of thinking person’s Independence Day or, rather the kind of close encounter that Arthur C. Clarke would have penned in the 70s had he been just a little bit more clued up. 

Spoiler alerts...

The premise at least is familiar and simple. A bunch of round, eight-legged ETs show up at multiple locations across planet earth and proceed to hover a bit menacingly in their enormous intergalactic craft. On this occasion however they appear to have nothing more sinister in mind than a bit of a chinwag with the world’s A-list linguists and physicists. 

America’s chosen linguistics expert is Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a woman who has seemingly only recently overcome the grief from losing her teenage daughter. Against a background of American military and government figures performing standard repertoire, Banks gradually gets to grips with the aliens’ non-sequential writing system and along the way discovers that her mind is being subtly rewired. 

All of a sudden prone to chronesthesia Banks realises that her consciousness is no longer constrained within the moving present and can anticipate the future  and viewers soon twig that the ongoing flashbacks to her period of loss are actually flash-forwards. The movie’s elegiac conclusion reflects on Banks’s ‘decision’ to proceed with the relationship that will eventually lead to bereavement. 

Meanwhile the heptapods have scooted, having somehow implanted in us a form of awareness which will later on help save their own civilisation. 

On first viewing I was left with the impression that I wasn’t quite sure what the take-out from all this was supposed to be, other than that Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner sequel ought to be nothing to lose sleep over. 

The film was adapted from a science fiction novella called Story Of Your Life by the Chinese author Ted Chiang. The original is much more full-on with the physics and the linguistics behind the narrative and ultimately much more likely to stimulate profound reflection. 

Chiang's story is a very careful examination of the seemingly incongruent notion of simultaneous awareness and its implications for what we call free will

Early on in the tale Banks frames the problem thus...

The existence of free will meant that we couldn't know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.

At first the human academics can find no entry point of common understanding of fundamental physics, but then suddenly the heptapods appear to recognise Fermat's variation principle of least time. In short this is a mathematical expression of the refracted passage of light which seems teleological i.e. the photons behave as if they have detailed information about their destination and about the path towards it. Fermat suggested that all the laws of physics can be expressed in this way, as well as in the more common-sensical sequential form. 

Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available...Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the heptapods saw it.

In the heptapods' writing system, in effect a parallel language system to their spoken tongue  dubbed Heptapod B by our lot  every stroke participates in multiple clauses, so the writer has to know the whole sentence before applying the first one. Just like light seemingly needs to 'know' where it is going. 

In studying Heptapod B Banks finds that her thoughts have started to become at least partially graphically-encoded and begins to wonder about the fuller implications of knowing the future. If the heptapods are already aware of everything they are ever going to say or indeed hear, what then is the point of language? 

Language wasn't only for communication: it was also a form of action. According to speech act theory, statements like "You're under arrest," "I christen this vessel," or "I promise" were all performative: a speaker could perform the action only by uttering the words...With performative language, saying equaled doing. For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place...I suddenly remembered that a morphological relative of "performative" was "performance," which could describe the sensation of conversing when you knew what would be said: it was like performing in a play.

In her own case Banks finds that the experience of foreknowledge evokes in her a 'sense of urgency', akin to an obligation to act precisely as she knew she would. 

Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present. After I learned Heptapod B, new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn't arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades...My consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive — during those glimpses— that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It's a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.

Chiang's story endorses the premise, common to most theoretical physicists today, if not philosophers, that the sense of the passage of time  that we inhabit a moving present moment in which everything that took place before is ceasing to exist 'in real time' and that everything to come is yet to exist at all  is an artifact of human consciousness, a consequence of the limited awareness we have evolved with. 

As Einstein put it, albeit in a letter of consolation...

“For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”

Having only a subset of all the variables in this determined universe, we experience time sequentially and the events that occur within it in terms of probability rather than certainty. And thus we have free will. 

Einstein's use of the term 'persistent illusion', which he applied to reality in general, is perhaps misleading, for it seems to me that there is no way to be certain that the indeterminacy we perceive from within the cosmos is somehow less primal that the apparently determined and fundamental structure he called Space-Time — especially given that the latter itself appears to cohere spontaneously out of a soup of indeterminacy. 

Theoretical physicists sometimes ask us to visualise spacetime as an expanding four dimensional balloon. From this point of view everything inside the balloon is forever fixed, making life seem, if not impossible, at least not especially useful. I've always thought a better analogy would be a 4D expanding Guatemalan house! 

For this way, every location on the inside would have its own direct connection to the outside, delivering something like equality and mutuality between the superficially inconsonant states — between determinacy and indeterminacy, between causality and teleology and perhaps also between the present moment and eternity. 

'I have a dream...just like my ancestors'

Ben Carson's perturbing notion of 'involuntary immigrants', in chains yet somehow still dreaming of a new life, flags up what was possibly the key debate on human liberty in the seventeenth century. 

In the Republican model of libertas, largely inherited from the Romans, the mere presence of arbitrary power implies a loss of individual freedom.

Others such as Thomas Hobbes however, were to effectively question whether a slave whose own choices never happened to be in conflict with the will of his or her master, was really a slave.

Of course this was all part of a wider debate about executive authority, which is not without contemporary relevance. 

The English Parliament or legislature had rebelled against the sovereign because in both words and deed he had indicated that he was laying claim to a form of discretionary and thus arbitrary power.

Friday, March 03, 2017


Thanks to Louis Theroux's scientology movie I have learned that I am what the true believers would tend to refer to as a 'suppressive person'. I may even add this to my Twitter bio. 

During the period immediately after university when I was working at Foyles bookshop, I made the mistake of passing some 'suppressive' remarks about dianetics within earshot of a cult member, who had a bit of a hissy fit as a consequence.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Las hijas de PETA

I'm beginning to think Americans have collectively lost all sense of what is appropriate / in good taste.

First there was the parade of tourists at the Academy Awards, then last night Trump and the joint houses shamelessly milked the death of a US Navy Seal in the presence of his wife (which one commentator on CNN thought you'd have to be 'dead' not to be moved by). It certainly was pathetic, but not in the way Euripides would have understood.

And now this...

It clearly matters not to PETA that until recently many Cubans were veggies by default, growing what they could on their window-sills and roof terraces just to avoid starvation. That still the only people on the island who can eat beef legally are government officials and that all the best food is now being diverted to tourists. 

Or indeed that, thanks to the embargo, there has been a severe dearth of spices in Cuba such that almost all meals (and one would think this might be a particular issue for would-be vegans) are unspeakably bland.

But not, some PR bell end thought Cuba would be the perfect place to pull a stunt like this, 'because it is more accessible'. 

And so they are to get a little taste of Freedumb. 

Banal Braggadocio

Trump thinks the best thing for refugees is to be sent home as quickly as possible to 'start the rebuilding process'. This would have worked a treat for European jewry in the 1940s.

Even his critics on the CNN panel thought he was 'Presidential' last night. Perhaps they were referring to the way he almost sent us both to sleep.
The entrance had been pure pay-per-view, ready-to-rumble; only the dry ice was missing, but then we were treated to an endless stream of inane asseverations, the banalest form of braggadocio ever to emerge from the mouth of the Donald. 

And this apparently was reassuringly statesmanlike to the channel he just barred from his press conferences.

Monday, February 27, 2017

La Antigua of yesteryear

Back in the 80s, La Antigua was a rather different place...everything on a much smaller scale. For the visitor there was only a handful of restaurants to frequent and bars to prop up. 

The ‘in’ place was Mistral with its jovial French Canadian host André, situated opposite the recently restored mansion that housed Doña Luisa Xicotencatl

There was an elemental family eatery called El Cappuccino (where you couldn’t get a cuppuccino) and Welten, where you had to knock on the door and let them have a good look at you before admittance would be granted, and if you did then get in, you’d find the place full of ageing Nazis. (It’s still there, but the goose-steppers have all have died off and you can walk in wearing sandals.)

There wasn’t anywhere to eat or drink on the Parque Central. Visiting gringos went around the corner to Mio Cid for their Gallos or the slightly seedier Moscas y Miel, run by an old geezer from Catalunya. 

Ethnic cuisine was definitely thin on the ground. There was Zen behind the cathedral and Cactus, a much missed Mexican café. 

El Sereno hogged what counted as the high end pretty much all on its own. 

For a slice of cake, some agua de calcetín and some undisturbed hours one could head to Las Americas or La Cenicienta, then in its original location on the Calle del Arco.  

La Fonda de la Cale Real was already in situ on that famous thoroughfare, but the most interesting little hideaway was further along, close by the arch: Quesos y Vino. 

Few would probably realise now that this is one of those surviving appellations like Carphone Warehouse, which speaks to the demands of an earlier category of customer, for this little place, barely more than a hole in the wall with a pizza oven and a few stools, was seemingly the only outlet in town for those two staples of the European night out - cheese and wine. Though most of the locals came for panitos and rosa jamaica. 

You’d also have had a hard time finding a single café serving espresso-style coffee in that era, so perhaps old Viglianesi missed a trick there. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Unmentionable Inequalities

From a political perspective the most serious problem developed societies face today is that they are increasingly taking on the social contours of developing societies. As such the really worrying developments are not the disparities of affluence, but those of culture, education and maybe also of intellect. 

The USA has an internal myth than can cope with inequalities of wealth, but it handles these associated alternatives rather less well. Other developed nations struggle to name them candidly in political discourse. 

They make the middle classes feel especially vulnerable because they start to perceive themselves more as a side effect of the economy around them than as its fundamental engine. 

A chasm opens up between the more and the less advantaged within the middle orders as fewer and fewer well-rewarded positions are available to those that are unable to fit the profile of ambitious white collar ‘information workers’. 

The liberal middle class elite hasn’t suddenly become more stuck up as a consequence of globalisation, it has just become more discomfitingly ‘elite’ relative to the social strata immediately around it. 

The discomfited middle classes have a tendency to scapegoat both the rich and the poor for this situation. They revert to an old-fashioned model of how things ought to be in order to explain their predicament, rather like science teachers doggedly representing the universe as a big empty space some of which has some stuff in it. 

Their social universe has similar binary attributes - every individual is a maker or a taker, a contributor or a parasite and pretty soon everyone outside their own millieu, the poor, immigrants, financiers, the global super-rich, even disembodied ‘corporations’ are earmarked to the latter categories and thus become ‘enemies of the people’. 

Ordinary, hard-working people. You’ve heard the rhetoric. It’s called populism. It’s the worm within the politics of the developing world and now it is back with a vengeance in the developed world as well. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Failed futurist?

It has been amusing to read this week how sceptical H.G. Wells was of the BBC and broadcasting in general. “Broadcasting shouts out its information once and cannot be recalled.” Anything broadcast immediately disperses like smoke in the wind, he opined. Why would you pay attention to this when you could read a book by a great mind, and why would you ever listen to music on the radio when gramophone records were available?

If there was any audience at all for the airwaves, it would inevitably consist of “the blind, lonely and suffering people” — or “probably very sedentary persons living in badly lighted houses or otherwise unable to read, who have never realized the possibilities of the gramophone and the pianola and who have no capacity for thought or conversation.”

So wrong, and yet somehow so right. 

One of Wells’s more prescient critics pointed out however that “he evidently hankers to listen constantly to the great, when a simple mathematical calculation would show that this would not be possible. There are not enough great people in the world.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Words spoken on February 6th

Many of us perhaps knew Daddy as he was over the past couple of decades, a man enjoying possibly the best retirement it is possible to have, maybe not the individual leading the more action-packed life of adventure which preceded it....adventures across several continents, across two marriages - more specifically between those marriages - and across a long and successful career as entrepreneur turned company Chairman. 

When I was little I remember people asking him what he did for a living and he'd reply Industrial Theatre or even Commercial Showbusiness. It was an industry that he and his partner Malcolm built from the ground up in the late 60s - and MMA Presentations Ltd, as it then began, evolved into the dominant outfit within it across the whole of Europe. 

Industrial Theatre: it's a term that points to some of the other playful oppositions at the heart of Daddy.

He could strike one as the most risk averse adventurer (or perhaps an adventurous risk avoider)

...a non-believer with the most complete, well-grounded and admirable value system you could ever hope to encounter, apparently unreflective nature with a profound intuitive connection with what others might offhandedly call creation, 

....a keeper of traditions with an aversion to rituals, gregarious and generous to a fault, yet always deeply shy, and ever a man who could spot a rip off when he saw one. 

His first great adventure took him, aged 13, across the pond when the Nazis controlled a large part of Europe, their U-Boats sinking two of the ships in his convoy. 

On arrival at the docks in New York, he received what we might today call a topical greeting from the first native he encountered, a New York Cab driver: Well Limey, he inquired, how's it feel to be a refugee? 

From the Big Apple he went west to Kansas City Missouri and an all-American adolescence: high school, flag saluting, the boy scouts, a prom date and his first significant change of identity: from Henry to Hank.

Back in London as the war drew to its conclusion and his parents Mark and Rose had opened their home, specifically their living room floor, to American GIs on leave and needing somewhere in the city to kip for the night, Daddy enlisted and was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers.

He was soon despatched to Egypt to take charge of a motorised courier platoon in the Sinai Dessert, an adventure which commenced when he famously paid off his army driving instructor, so that right up to the end of last year we were never quite sure if he really ought to be bombing around that little car of his. 

In 1948 he crossed the ocean once again to seek his fortune in the Argentina of Juan Perón. 

It would be an adventure of the amorous variety that brought this chapter to a close when officials connected with a woman scorned had his leave to remain there duly cancelled. 

But from Buenos Aires he extracted an extraordinary lifelong friendship with a French woman called Michelle,  girlfriend to his best friend Nick. Though they only met up again person a handful of times, they kept in touch for almost 70 years by letter, by telephone and then by email - and she always called him Hanky. (This morning she sent me a lovely message)

Then began the years of marriage and family, and between them a more mysterious interregnum, involving underground jazz clubs, playing the bongos and some well-situated bachelor pads. The showbiz kicked off first, but the industry was not far behind. 

Daddy always wanted to write this story himself. Today I have only been able to provide a taster of the tales he might have told. He was justly proud of everything he had done and the things he had achieved, in life and in business. 

But he was never a showy man. Some even said they could find him a little intimidating. Only last week Leonard, his accountant of half a century told me how he first met Daddy in his Hertford street office sitting behind a desk on a raised level looking down on him, and how at the time, he was a just little bit scared. 

In latter years Daddy’s been known for an occasional grumpy turn or, as Neale's story before attested, a degree of consternation at small changes in his everyday environment, a quality he shared with his capricious cat Meow. 

Yet he had this admirable knack for treating everyone he had dealings with as if they were equally important to him, was quietly sentimental and just occasionally, a bit of a pushover. 

Back in the 50s he was winning prizes for his fantastic dahlias and throughout his life retained an extraordinary flair for transforming any unlikely space into a garden. On the little balcony outside my bedroom, just months after I left home for good, tomatoes and cucumbers soon flourished where, he would soon quip to me, only been beer cans had been growing before. 

So it was hardly surprising that he was surely never more contented than in these last few years - a town mouse turned country mouse - free to indulge in his lifelong love of nature, doting on his soul mate, his garden, his canine and feline companions and his ever-devoted horse Twoflower. 

It was - at every stage - a life well lived....and no matter how hard he worked at leading a good life for himself he always strove to create the best possible existence for those he cared about and in this I can count myself most fortunate and forever grateful. 

Thank you all for coming today.