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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Imminent Danger

The idea that the very poor, the very rich or indeed the newly-arrived might somehow be stealing from me - or more worryingly still, represent an imminent threat to my way of life - has never really bothered me.

Yet if one or all of these notions are a fundamental part of the way you think about politics, then you are in fact in imminent danger of voting for a populist.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Acatenango (2017)

2015’s Everest could have been subtitled ‘How a bunch of self-indulgent morons got themselves killed and in the process put many others’ lives at risk’. 

Yesterday Guatemala staged its own smaller-scale regional version of this tragi-farce, when a group of ‘excursionists’ - whose most expensive piece of trek-relevant kit was probably either a GO-PRO camera or worse, a selfie stick - got lost in driving rain and plunging temperatures on the slopes of Acatenango and duly died from hypothermia. 

I do get the appeal of ascending volcanoes, dormant ones at least, for the view, the personal challenge etc. Here in La Antigua Agua should be sufficient to meet this demand, though the dangers ought still be obvious. 

Acatenango meanwhile really ought to be surrounded by a high fence with signs warning all morons to keep out. 

Anyone else should need to apply, and pay, for permission to enter - rather like the controls that exist at archaeological sites like Machu Picchu - which would control numbers, manage preparedness and give the Bomberos a heads-up on who is on the mountain at any given time.

Part of the problem as I see it is that more and more dimwits are being drawn unprepared to these sort of activities by social media. It’s not so much that they want the experience, the challenge for themselves, they want to SHARE it. 

And like most millennials they want instant gratification, no preparation or dedication required. 

And they come to a land where many locals are willing to facilitate the risks transients take, knowingly or otherwise, in order to expand their income. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Doppelgänger

(A cheeful little sci-fi caper I wrote when I was 13...)

Who is this person I look at? I have but a few moments left to me and then I will be rid of him. I am bored with him, this lowly stranger, for his company only increases my loneliness. A shadowy, perpetual reminder of a person who nobody will ever see again, staring at me from my visor, and with a vivid sneer saying ‘I have no life to lose’. 

From the moment the lifeline had snapped and I had begun my endless trek into nowhere, I knew I was there, waiting. 

My identical twin, my doppelgänger hanging over me like a hungry vulture who knows I will soon be finished. 

I don’t know whether I have suffered from agoraphobia or claustrophobia; both maybe. I’m a wanderer in a terrible dark nothingness unable to die like a human being. I grimace at him. He grimaces. I smile. He smiles. Oh, what a hollow front. I talk to him but his words fail to reach me. He is like a little child from without my suit beckoning me to come out and play, to die. 

Perhaps he is my pathetic ghost warning me of my doom. ‘Go back’, he seems to say, but I’m on a runaway train with no hop of stopping. 

A while back I thought I would plunge into the great blue-green orb and die a fiery death, my family would look up and glance briefly at a small shooting star, nothing special. At least in that I could return once more to the home which I so foolishly left, but now I am spared a little longer and must die quietly, un-noticed until someone or something finds me.

Only the Earth can contain the desires of a man; once beyond, there is no end to his thirst for knowledge and not even the confined space of a pressure-suit can stop him from wandering far. 

My breathing is heavy now the air only just squeezes in. Perhaps when I asphyxiate he will die too, but what if he doesn’t and will have that ghastly ‘I told you do’ face to the end of time?And what if he is that which I shall become - a spirit capable of life only while the body lives too? Perhaps I will soon journey in vain to warn myself...

At last he is blurring, fading; my itinerary comes to and end. I have rid myself of, myself. Now I can journey on towards those little lights, alone. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Wine Plug

We haven't tried it yet, but I'd wager that the gold medal winning 2013 Don Ramón, Pérez Juan (Campo de Borja) that has appeared at the Bodegona just before Xmas for under Q50 will glide down the gaznate rather well...

Sunday, December 11, 2016


The loss of AA Gill's irreplaceable voice feels so abrupt and absolute because he was very much at the top of his game. 
When great writers die it is most often after a period of relative silence or obvious attenuation. A series of minor works, lesser in size and ambition. 
Shakespeare's The Tempest is an exception. My favourite author, Joseph Conrad, knocked off a handful of shockers before passing on. Gárcia Márquez shuffled off slowly and somewhat disappointingly into the long night. Updike wrote Terrorist
Meanwhile, Vargas Llosa marries Enrique Iglesias's mum and then turns his attention to griping about celebrity culture and the death of modern civilisation in general. Perhaps we should be grateful that AA was spared the old git phase. 

Friday, November 11, 2016


Remember all those women that were abused on the streets of Cologne on new Year’s Eve in 2015 by men of supposedly ‘North African’ appearance? 

The way it was reported in some quarters suggested it was really just some sort of unfortunate cultural misunderstanding: the sort that might occur if the newcomers hadn’t picked up the right handbooks. 

Nobody really wanted to face up to the fact that this was actually something more systematic and deliberate - these men had set about offending progressive western values in the most outrageously public manner possible. 

Now, the xenophobes among us might conclude that this is essentially a problem of dark people on the outside determined to push their way into our bubble and burst it, out of some sort of twisted envy. But right now this is the least of our problems, because there's a far more numerous demographic of white people on the inside who are also out to aggravate all the sensitive liberals. 

You don’t even need a nihilistic medieval outlook, you just have to be uneducated, self-consciously downtrodden and pissed off. Tolerance has enemies on all sides now, because tolerance has become associated with smugness and privilege. The discontents of globalisation are legion. 

Trump voters might not be about to commit atrocities in public places, but in an America that anyway finds it hard to distinguish between an act of terror and a common-all-garden gun massacre, voting for the Donald is perhaps the greatest act of terror one can inflict on the affluent and open-minded. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Four Fewer Years

Four years of this, minimum. 

One part of me is sort of excited, another part has a finger on the OFF switch. 

I'm not sure I can really face all the moaning and griping from latte-quaffing liberal America that a Trump presidency will inevitably induce. 

I do sometimes wish that the USA could learn to be more of its own problem, like Britain has had to. 

I wish that I could be about as interested in the fact that they have elected an authoritarian buffoon to their highest office as I would be if Canada or Australia had done it. 

But one just cannot help getting rather literally yanked back into it. 

The tentacles are everywhere. Facebook doesn't help, that's for sure. Many of my friends live there, or used to. I largely make my living in the US, in their currency, paying their taxes, so I too am, in a sense, a stakeholder. 

And the USA has a proven track record, since WWII at least, of interfering in the region where I now live in a thoroughly deleterious manner, going back to the Eisenhower government's sponsorship of the coup of 1954 in Guatemala, which lead to 60+ years of internal conflict instability. 

Many of the Donald's 'blue sky' policy suggestions represent a clear and present danger to the economies of Mexico and the Central American nations. 1m Guatemalans live and work in the US, many of them not so legally. If Trump keeps his promise to undertake mass deportations the impact down here could genuinely traumatic. And whilst many were indeed economic migrants in the first place, some were also consciously seeking to put some distance between themselves and the effects of US policy.  

If their country was located on the other side of the Atlantic, Mexicans would undoubtedly benefit from freedom of movement. They are wealthier than Bulgarians, so the Republican party's approach to them makes UKIP rhetoric seem quite tame. Would Europeans ever take seriously the idea of a wall across their continent? 

Anyway, there I go again. Make it stop. 

Lost maturity

Last year Guatemala - widely considered an ‘immature’ democracy -  presented its citizens with a two candidate choice remarkably similar to that which citizens of the USA were confronted with this week: between an inexperienced television clown and the ex-wife of a previous incumbent 

The clown presented himself as the walking embodiment of some sort of solution to the country’s political malaise. Other than the fact that she would have been the nation’s first female President, his opponent represented continuity, though for some she was also the corrupt walking embodiment of the malaise. 

The clown was duly victorious and wasted no time in demonstrating an almost complete inaptitude for government. Many citizens, including those who had voted for him, were soon joining street protests repudiating their choice, largely on the basis that it had not really been any kind a real democratic choice at all. The malaise had become a vacuum. 

In effect one man had exploited a breakdown of enthusiasm for politicians and public institutions, using a populist platform to take advantage of the fact that many could not bring themselves to repeat the tried and (formerly-)trusted formulas. 

This week Donald Trump was ‘swept’ to power by 25.6% of eligible American voters. Many of these will have had reservations about their candidate as a statesman, as a human being even, but will have wanted to deliver a big kick in the goolies to the system. 

Yet arguably, the even more substantial protest was articulated by the almost 50% of eligible voters who just decided not to. 

So yes, this is a failure of democracy, and not because it delivered a result that people who watch The Daily Show are profoundly anguished about, but because it demonstrates clearly that the process of democratic maturation in the developed world is not as inevitably one-directional as the arrow of time. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


Obama promised hope, but delivered whatever he could in the circumstances. We might be sad to see him go, but this is partly his failure too. And Bill’s.

This is not just a ‘whitelash’ (though clearly this was a substantial dog-whistled part of the rhetorical / geographical strategy that took Trump to the Oval Office), it is also a hearty rejection of the politics of compromise.

One can blame those who voted for the Greens or Libertarians, but the damage may have been done earlier on by Sanders. The threat of the Left's own brand of populist protest probably conned Hillary into preaching to the converted and neglecting her so-called blue wall around the rust belt. In the end not only did she not build on Obama's performance with women and hispanics, she also lost the white working classes in crucial swing states.

I suppose Trump can now use Congress as a ready-made excuse for stepping back from some of his more outrageous policy suggestions - the ones that delivered the base. The party now has to work out how and when to betray the men in baseball caps. Part of the oddness of this moment is just not knowing how wedded Trump has become to the populist import of his own words. 

Anyway, the last couple of times I felt such a disgusto at the conclusion of an election campaign - Bush and Pérez Molina - I also speculated that things might not work out so bad after all. But they did.