Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Death Toll

Rather glad now that we decided at the last minute against spending the Christmas break in Thailand. The death toll in Guatemala over the weekend was a comparatively paltry 27, largely the result of fireworks, firearms and other such festivities.

Over in San Pedro Sula in Honduras however, 28 passengers (predominantly women and children) perished last Thursday when a gang opened fire on their bus with machine guns. The perpretators then left a message for the authorities: "Donde está la seguridad?" (Where is the security?)

Nobody is yet sure who to blame for this act of terrorism, whose magnitude would have caused profound shock in this part of the world even in the days of the insurgency back in the 80s. The Honduran government has recently been taking some rather extreme measures against the local branches of LA gangs known as the maras (most notably La Mara Salvatrucha), and this attack may well have been a show of defiance by the mareros.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Tropical Reading

Over three quarters of the contents of our luggage will be stuff that V has collected over twelve months to give to people she knows (and people she doesn't know) in Guatemala. This will all have to be lugged across fairly diverse terrain, from limestone slab we land on next Monday, across scrub, marshland and savannah into the Petén rainforest and up into the Sierra Madre.

Our own clothes and other personal effects will mostly have to squeeze into the hand baggage. Part of the problem with travelling sartorially light in Central America is the above mentioned diversity - searing heat in lowland Yucatán, jungle humidity in Western Belize, chilly mountain evenings in Southern Guatemala. So having a place of our own at the end of the journey, with cupboards full of (previously abandonned) garments appropriate to December in Antigua is something of a bonus.

Anyway, in the interests of saving space I have decided to take just one (albeit fat) book along to read this time - Natasha's Dance, A cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. And to avoid the distress of discovering all too late that I'd rather talk to the chicken sitting next to me on the bus than have to pick it up again, I read the introduction this morning, and am reasonably confident that it will do the trick. Perhaps it's rather an odd choice for the tropics, but its self-consciously un-trendy approach to themes like identity are probably quite relevant to the region. (Ditto much idealised and occasionally revolting peasants.)

Figes insists that this little tome is an interpretation rather than a deconstruction of how, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Russian artists and writers embarked on a quest for the inner national self expressed through the medium of refracted mythology. In his efforts to avoid any vulgar debunking, I expect Figes to emphasise just how slippery and self-consuming the concepts of authenticity and selfhood are, both from an individual and from a cultural perspective.

It was only on page three that I came across the first mention of the fact that Russian intellectuals of this period were "alienated", but I anticipate that there will be a few surprises before the last page is turned (or falls out - the usual fate of paperbacks that I expose to these climates.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bandit Country

We're off again next week to what my cousin amusingly calls Bandit Country. This is a usefully non-specific term, both geographically and politically, yet we were reminded earlier this week that Bandit Country has its own global network of embassies and consulates. (And vocab, as you will see.)

Although it clearly states on their website that Guatemalan nationals will not have to pay any consular fees when obtaining their red tourist cards at the Mexican Consulate in London, the fact that V had neglected to bring along her marriage certificate made her eligible to make a small contribution to the diplomatic corps of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos . (Mordida: bite, petty bribe usually paid to equally petty officials and policemen.)

The instructions didn't say anything about needing to be married and she was carrying proof of independent financial means - maybe that was what provoked these transactional urges.

In fairness the officials at the Guatemalan Embassy have never clamped their jaws around us in quite this manner, but over the years we've noticed how most of them appear to have had their diplomatic positions tossed at them by their owners. (Hueso: bone, position acquired through political clientism.) When you discover that these individuals are usually all card carrying members of the parties that did not win the general election, you learn something new and interesting about Bandit Country politics. (Talking of parties, they throw pretty good ones.)

(Requisitos: requirements.) "Requisitos son Requisitos" - requirements are requirements, the mantra of the boneyard which contains an ironic reference to absent symmetry: however hard you try you always have one less requisito than the person you are dealing with ultimately requires. This is the principle perk of the hueso, leading inevitably to mordidas.

The Bandit Country social contract states that everyone has to fleece everyone else , even when it is patently not in their rational best interests to do so. The Peace Corps should be sending over game theorists not anthropologists.

No nation has a fixed moral character (because remarkably few individuals do) but likemindedness emerges at a family, tribal or national level - which is why for example we can compare the queue-forming customs of the French and the British. Sure there must be the odd Frenchman that knows how to participate in the formation of an orderly queue, but these are bell-curved phenomenona.

Monday, December 06, 2004

About Schmidt

If this film finds you in the right sort of mood (wryly misanthropic) you will discover that Warren Schmidt, Jack Nicholson's embittered widower, is the perfect human vehicle for vicariously despising life and everyone else in it. He's easy to climb into because he's so empty.

This is a good film in part because the director had a hand in writing it - and he doesn't insult us with an unlikely group hug at the end. Nevertheless there's some clever, compassionate counterpoint going on which makes even the most dross-like of individuals appear warmly sympathetic, particularly in comparison with the lucid nullity that is Schmidt.

This could so easily have been depressing, but the pathos is protectively-coated with bathos - Schmidt's candidly adult letters to his 'foster son' Ndugu in Africa form a chain of chuckles from the beginning to the end, where the Director deftly achieves a sudden handbreak turn of mood.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Communications Bandwidth

It's a while since I've read it, but Tor Nørretranders' The User Illusion has greatly influenced my thinking about communications.

If you're on of those people that fret about the amount of deception involved in human communications (and the number of deceivers involved in the practice of communications), Nørretranders will probably compound your anxieties with his tale of how nothing can really get in or out of our heads without some sort of basic level of deceit.

The problem begins as one of bandwidth limitation: "a million times more bits enter our heads than consciousness perceives." Indeed, our conscious experience hardly contains any information at all, which means that we can't actually tell each other about most of what we experience. (Not even if we never stopped talking.)

"The eye send at least ten million bits to the brain every second. The skin sends a million bits a second, the ear one hundred thousand, our smell sensors a further one hundred thousand bits a second, our taste buds perhaps a thousand bits a second. All in all, over eleven million bits a second from the world to our sensory mechanisms. "

Nørretranders calls the information that never makes it into the spotlight of awareness Exformation and concludes that "the least interesting aspect of conversation is what is actually said."

As far as I recall he also suggests that dumb people are responsible for a kind of information entropy - because they are not able to process microstates into macrostates - in other words, they don't unconsciously construct chunks of useful order out of their total experience.

Meanwhile bright people may not be at their smartest when they are most awake and aware:

"Many scientists and creative thinkers have noted that the mind's best work is sometimes done without conscious direction, during receptive states of reverie, idle meditation, dreaming, or transition between sleep and wakefulness."

Symbols are an excellent way to extract more information from exformation: "Symbols are smart. They help us remember masses of information, even though we can keep only seven things in our minds at once. Symbols are Trojan horses by which we sumggle bits into our consciousness."

Nørretranders suggests that there is a physiological side to our indirect experiences of exformation - more blood circulates in the brain when we converse for instance, than when we merely report. (It might be interesting to compare brain activity in on and offline readers of leading publications.)

The importance of the full range of perception to the way we think and behave is echoed by Dylan Evans in Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, a great little introduction to the topic for the general reader.

Evans describes how there's more to subliminal communication than sneaky advertisements that creep into our perceptual gaps. In general we tend to prefer things we have seen, even if we can't remember having seen them. The spotlight might never have fallen on many aspects of our experience, but we nevertheless perceived them below the threshold of consciousness and that creates a bias that we can't later explain. Evans refers to this as the "mere exposure effect".

Our preferences are also determined by both our background moods and foreground emotions. Regretably happy people are suckers for bad arguments. But then happiness is apparently the one mood with the power to expand the focus of our attention, to broaden our bandwidth.

Nørretranders described this shifting focus thus: "Consciousness is like a spothlight that emphasizes the face of one actor dramatically, while all the other persons, props, and sets on the vast stage are lost in the deepest darkness. The spotlight can move, certainly, but it takes a long time for all the faces in the chorus to be revealed, one after the other, in the darkness."

Happiness not only widens that beam, it and other emotional states also help determine what is available for recall at any particular moment.

It follows that Culture (including our political intractions) will always be warped by the full sensory bitstream, and not just the dial-up experience of human awareness, and that Emotion and Reason are looped together at both conscious and unconscious levels.

Those that insist on separating rationality and sentiment are prone to misunderstand the psychological dynamics of argument and preference. Every communication has an intellectual, emotional and exformational context. The medium itself has a role to play in each of these. In particular it will help determine the contribution of symbols in squeezing more useful information through the narrow band of consciousness.

We have to relinquish the idea that exclusively rational beings (like Vulcans) would actually be cleverer, more effective agents than us. For starters a lack of fear is hardly an adaptive trait. To further illustrate this point, Dylan Evans references Antonio Damasio's story of the brain-damaged patient that couldn't make "quick and dirty" emotional decisions. Faced with the task of deciding which day to make an appointment with his psychologist he drew up a matrix of pros and cons for each possible date. (Actually, I know a few care in the community types with quite similar habits!)

Emotions are like bluffs we make to ourselves, Consciousness a post-rationalisation of something that happened half a second earlier. Dissimulation and disinformation start at home.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Unbearable Parrotness of Being

V's sister Silvia has (or had) a small collection of parrots living in her garden. (She split with her husband earlier this year and we're not sure who got custody of the feathered family members.) The least domesticated but somehow most human of these goes by the name of Gringo (a red-headed Amazon). Gringo is a no-prisoners sort of parrot. Only V's 18-year-old niece Clara Lucia is trusted implicitly, as they have grown up together. Everyone else keeps their fingers out of his cage. That he alone of all the household parrots spends most of his day behind bars is partly a consequence of this unpredictable sociability, but also apparently a matter of his own preference.

Gringo isn't afraid of people, whatever their size or gestural state, but if there is one thing that makes him take a few steps backward on his perch...it's a shoe.

Somewhere in his birdy amygdala there's something footwear-shaped that triggers this response, an amalgam of fright, flight and fight. Gringo greets a backpacker's sandal the way an Inca might have greeted a total eclipse of the sun (or a certain acquaintance of mine might greet his daughter's new boyfriend, if the latter turned out to be the bearer of some non-European ancestry).

There's clearly something involuntary in the way he assumes the posture - which begs the question: is it just an empty reflex? How much of this behaviour is a signal to the outside world and how much is it an expression of an inner state? Perhaps the crucial question about animal emotion is not so much "do they have them?", because they clearly do from a behavioural point of view, but "how do they feel their emotions, subjectively?" How, for example, does it feel to be a parrot contemplating a shoe? How does my father's Jack Russell feel when it watches me eating a mince pie?

The question is also relevant to people that believe that everyone else is a zombie.

We can already make machines that can display and even recognise human emotions, yet we haven't the foggiest idea how to make one that feels them, and even if we did, we wouldn't be able to tell if it had anything like the sort of subjective consciousness we have. (Us non-zombies that is.)

In his book The Feeling Of What Happens cognitive pyschologist Antonio Damasio proposed that consciousness originates in our sentimental apparatus as "a state of feeling". As opposed to states of knowing, states of feeling emerge from the more antiquated parts of the vertebrate brain, suggesting perhaps that sentience is a spectrum of different sensations - not something that absolutely distinguishes every human from every other being in Nature.

Meanwhile, I'm not ashamed to anthropomorphise my green friend Gringo. When the skies open above Antigua in the late summer afternoons he sits and soaks up the downpour in his rusty old cage, and sings. He warbles together phrases from tunes he must have overheard, interspersed with his own notes, plaintively improvised. It's a performance that's touching like nothing else I've ever heard; and I can't believe that only one of us is feeling it.

Wooly Sweaters

I find fierce ontological discussions about the essence of things rather trying these days. Down through the ages philosophers have been aggressively polarised - but I would have thought that our present understanding of information systems is such that thinkers in both camps should now be able to own up that this is probably an unwinnable debate.

Once you accept that there is no fundamental difference between reality and virtual reality (it comes down to the issue of energy and processing power) you can reach the following conclusion. Our cosmos could be some sort of projection emanating from a higher, empyrean reality, or it could actually be "turtles all the way down" as the lady said - the virtuality of existence is endlessly repeated, and uncompromised by any ultimate essence. But how could you ever prove which of these assumptions is true? (There may be a third way, in which both these statements are partially or simultaneously true, but I'm not ready to write that one up yet!)

There's another obvious problem. Our minds are synchronised with this world, which means that unless underlying reality is as it is depicted in The Matrix (basically the same but with scruffy jumpers) we are not going to be able to get our heads around it. Human perception, thought and language are all geared up for the specific material arrangements of this particular existence. Something akin to hardware and software incompatibility would prevent us connecting up to anything else.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Meet the Half-Empties and and the Half-Fulls

Nietzsche sired two distinct dynasties of anti-metaphysical thought. The European clan hopped on the Marxism Express only to end up stuck in the inescapable departure lounge of Postmodernism. Long delays are anticipated; Duty Free anyone?

Their American cousins on the other hand had no need to go anywhere as they were convinced that they had already arrived. The future was a part of their present, the past somebody else's problem. These pragmatists argue that certainty should be replaced with imagination and knowledge with hope. Obviously, it's much easier to do this when you already think you live in the future. "The vista, not the endpoint, matters", asserts Richard Rorty, American Pragmatism's tribal elder, but it helps the endpoint is actually part of the vista.

Rorty and his relatives aspire to manage reality rather than represent it. In serving transitory purposes with a "hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind" they hope to fashion a society that is rather like Denmark. But the really scary part is that they seem to think that the United States of America is Denmark!

Rorty's Darwinian spin on the world historical significance of the USA is quite explicit: America is the "next evolutionary stage" after Europe. You'll have gathered I'm not all that convinced. Jean Baudrillard's description of America (from the dirtiest, smokiest corner of the departure lounge) as "the last primitive society of the future" seems rather more apt.

I'm not even sure about the validity of the project from a neutral perspective. Hope and imagination are more dissimilar than certainty and knowledge. Hopes can be satisfied, imaginations can't.

Even if we aim to build a world where the majority of humans are content there's going to have to be more on the table than just comfort. Experience of a whole range of emotional states, subjectively, vicariously and imaginatively is part of being human.

Capitalism probably continues to thrive, not because it fosters an egalitarian, participatory political system, but because it continues to develop the technologies of sensation. It long ceased to be a mode of production and is rapidly transforming itself from a mode of consumption into a mode of stimulation.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Making a Distinction

My father used to describe my mother's characteristically circular argumentation as "illogical". It is however a debating technique with a pedigree that dates back to the finest logicians of the middle ages. Thomas Aquinas for example, counselled his students that "when you meet a contradiction make a distinction".

In common parlance this is known as moving the goalposts. The more sophisticated practitioners don't just move them they simultaneously re-construct them, or more subtly, re-describe them. My mother on the other hand limits herself to turning up the dial on the emotional content of the discussion at hand - this has the effect of sharpening the background mood for all participants, making the exchange of neutral rationalisations an increasingly unlikely outcome.

I might have come to regret having a parent like this but for the fact that I increasingly have to deal with similarly-disposed logicians in my professional life. Instead I find that my childhood experiences have left me remarkably well-equipped to anticipate the direction that life's goal-mouths intend to shuffle off in, a skill that nevertheless leaves me prone to bouts of frustration and more occasionally, a debilitating sense of futility.


Following some links on my blogroll yesterday I came across a deliciously un-reconstructed critique of branding by Professor Terry Eagleton. It's worth reading for this comment alone:

"Branding used to involve stamping your symbol on the flank of some dumb creature, and nowadays involves stamping it across their T-shirts."

Eagelton, a believer in an absolute (albeit historicist) good, regards all instances of branding as a fair approximation of absolute bad. You might say that any sort of trivialisation is a mortal sin to those that regard knowledge and virtue as conjoined twins. For commentators like Eagleton, perhaps the greatest offence that marketers make is meddling with dynamics that they only partially comprehend and control.

Personally I don't habitually wear those binary goggles which make cultural artefacts appear either as predominantly a force for the good or as the vile tools of Moloch.

Nevertheless in an earlier blog entry Brands and Evil I rejected the notion favoured by American pragmatist tradition that evils are lesser or rejected goods. Evils, I argued, are a more or less inevitable by-product of most empowering goods. So when Eagelton characterises brand marketers as muggers that pose as vicars, it's rather like suggesting that every priest in the Catholic Church signed up the first instance in order to get a piece of the cassock-lifting action.

The truth is that neither the consumer or the brand owner has all the power. Brands are often just the marketplace in which the negotiations between them take place. The advantage that the brand has is that of being in situe when the consumer shows up.

Another piece by James Suroweicki which appeared in Wired recently attempted to quantify the decline of brands by pointing out that the premium enjoyed by SONY-branded DVD players has fallen from 44% to 16% in the last five years. Suroweicki suggests that brands are no longer much use as "insurance against missteps" in an economy where performance counts more than anything else.

Now you might say that the relations between the sexes are going down the route - performace first, loyalty second. But hold on, whatever the realities of our behaviours we still have reputations to manage in the court of public morality. Likewise corporations. In our inter-subjective society we care first and foremost about what everyone else thinks. Private morality is the dog that this particular tail wags.

A hearty welcome to my blogroll for my colleague Joël Céré . I suspect he might appreciate another little gem of a paragraph from Eagelton's review of Wally Olin's book On Brand:

"When Olins tells us that under Napoleon, ‘the whole of France was rebranded’, he is clearly unaware that this kind of boneheaded comment is usually to be found not in a sleek Thames and Hudson volume, but among a coachload of American tourists who miss seeing the Acropolis flash by their window because they are too busy fiddling with the air-conditioning."

Monday, November 29, 2004

Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)

Audiences have seen enough movies about conmen plotting a big sting to know that there are usually two cons going down - the one that the writer describes in the story and the one he or she is trying to perpetrate against the audience. Nueve Reinas (9 Queens) attempts to short-circuit our familiarity with the genre by introducing a third, dummy con into the mix. The snag is that that there are only two shysters in the foreground and once we become aware that the story is attempting to surreptitiously incriminate one of them, the other becomes the prime suspect by default.

Generally the problem with this sort of plot is that the best bit is inevitably the middle, where the possible resolutions you can speculate on have reached a peak. It's downhill from there on and the final revelation is necessarily an anti-climax, like being shown how a particularly impressive magical trick was done. Last year I reviewed Matchstick Men with the observation that "the twist comes along like a sledgehammer" which somehow shatters the emotional meaning of all that has passed before. Nueve Reinas avoids that particular banana skin. It is the first Argentine film that I have seen that is unobtrusively scored and lacks strong currents of both melancholy and nostalgia. Indeed there's a good deal of bad natured fun throughout and the elaborate plot is structured to ensure that the tension levels are evenly spread. (Fabian Bielinski's script was picked as the winner of a competition.)

There's one pivotal moment in the film when Marcos appears to open Juan's eyes to all the chicanery going on around him on the streets of Buenos Aires. It is this revelation of all-pervasive mendacity and theft that forms the message of Nueve Reinas over and above the mounting narrative complexities. Bielinski wrote his script before Argentina defaulted on its debt and the local credit system ossified - as such it is highly predictive of the final agonies of an economy poisoned by pilferage and plunder.

This sort of film always tempts you to immediately rewind to the beginning for a second, in-the-know viewing. Movie scripts like that of Swimming Pool and Sixth Sense that are effectively designed to hoodwink us (without actually being about confidence tricksters) usually have one or two key moments when the conterfeit truth is spliced into the action. Nueve Reinas doesn't really have one or several of these blindingly obvious moments which make us wish we had been more attentive and sceptical. In fact the opening scene needs an explanation if the rest is to be ultimately credible and the story doesn't do us the service of providing one. I was also left pondering how many incidents were included primarily to distract and inveigle me as a member of the audience - and so were not absolutely essential to the successful conclusion of the swindle carried out on screen.

There's one other small issue of plot logic that leaves an aftertaste of dissastisfaction at the end. What have the schemers actually gained?

Cosmic Reproduction

Scientific theories make an infinite set of predictions of which only a finite set can ever be tested. (a.k.a. "The problem of induction".) Humean scepticism led us to accept that we can't definitively prove any theory correct, but Karl Popper qualified this by insisting that a single observation can demonstrate that it is incorrect. He therefore insisted that the test of a good theory was whether it could be falsified.

More recently, Alan Sokal's reponse to the anything goes relativism of Feyerabend has been to point out that hardly anybody is systematically sceptical and relativistic in everyday life - so why should we treat scientific knowledge any differently to ordinary knowledge?

A quick summary of theoretical physics' biggest contemporary dustup can help us see how these ideas are being applied in the field. It will also allow me to reiterate my point about how relativism is itself rather relative.

The key protagonists are Leonard Susskind originator of String Theory, and Lee Smolin whose alternative approach goes by the name of Loop Quantum Gravity. They are not so much fighting out of different corners as sliding around different parts of a Möbius strip, occasionally embracing, occasionally catching the other with a glancing blow.

The things they agree on are actually very significant. For example, both men are convinced that universes reproduce giving rise to mutated offspring that differ in the values of the fundamental constants of nature. (Universe clearly isn't a word that was ever supposed to have a plural. Multiverse, coined in 1960 by Andy Nimmo is the term typically employed to overcome this semantic hurdle but Susskind suggests we use Megaverse as the collective noun, given that multiverse has been variously used to refer to both the set and the members of the set.)

If you thought dark matter (the stuff that hypothetically makes up most of the mass of our local universe and yet is as yet un-observable) might pose problems for a discipline that self-consciously progresses by observation, then just imagine the extent of the theoretical conundra posed by the idea that most of reality is behind a cosmic horizon we are unlikely ever to be able to transcend.

The stakes are suddenly very high: "If a large body of our colleagues feels comfortable believing a theory that cannot be proved wrong then the progress of science could get stuck", Smolin warns.

His tetchy exchange with Susskind began over the question of how significant it is that we ourselves are here in this particular neck of the megaverse. Susskind supports the Anthropic Principle, which states that the shape of the particular universe we inhabit is the way it is precisely because we are in it. Smolin says this is unfalsifiable and therefore "outside science". (Though it's clear that as cosmology reaches beyond the visible universe the boundaries of science are being inevitably tested, and rigorous investigation now cohabits uneasily with equally rigorous speculation.)

Smolin is convinced that the primary mechanism for reality reproduction is bouncing singularities. The abundant presence of carbon in any universe is the ideal condition for the formation of stars massive enough to collapse into black holes that go boing. Carbon-based lifeforms such as ourselves are a side-effect.

"Pah!", snorts Susskind - even Stephen Hawking now admits that black holes don't lose information so if they are where new universes are conceived, they would be born in a pristine quantum condition with no memory of the initial state, like offspring with no determined genetic resemblance to their parents. Susskind theorises that the megaverse is instead in a state of eternal inflation, which constantly spawns new pocket universes as it grows. Most are inhospitable to life.

The two would appear to agree that our own universe is untypical, but crucially Smolin asserts that the untypical is probably typical overall. This counterintuitive idea is justified because in any fitness landscape the distribution of variants peaks around small regions of parameter space. A typical universe would therefore appear untypical amidst any randomly selected group. (It's intriguing that both men also seem to assume that maximum reproduction is the only measure of fitness. Could there not be some other selection pressure?)

This argument is occuring at the point where classical determinism is being distorted almost beyond recognition by the infinite potential represented by multiple worlds. Intuitively I side with Smolin in the debate, not because I feel I know that black holes rather than eternal inflation account for the proliferation of multiple realities (although it is a vaguely cooler idea!), but because his theory is the more background independent of the two: "The view of time evolution that Susskind wants to preserve is tied to the existence of a fixed background...Eternal inflation is also a background dependent theory, indeed, some of its proponents have seen it as a return to an eternal, static universe."

In my view there is also a kind of fitness landscape of knowledge in relation to available information - this might perhaps be the fundamental nature of reality. All knowledge is therefore relative, because the fixed background scale is entirely implicit - potential not actual. Knowledge and value are also relative to the environment in which it is constructed. In another world with different constants "something else goes" (to paraphrase Feyerabend), and it remains to be seen whether the scientific methodology can stretch to bring coherence to all possible alternative realities.

Meanwhile, in our world we simply have to judge things by how reasonable they are. There's no fixed background rulebook just for us. Nothing else I believe in makes sense if this is not in fact the case.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I have just reacquainted myself with Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir's archly ambivalent hall of mirrors from 1975. An interval of over twenty years has passed since I last watched it on Betamax. As an early teen this movie and the story behind it completely captivated me. It's a film that flirts with you, and to an adolescent boy any kind of flirtation, however unskillful and Anglo-Saxon, is utterly mesmerising!

It's undoubtedly a very beautiful and canny piece of film-making, but the symbolism now comes across as more heavy-handed than coquetish to me - e.g. those wretched enigmatic swans drifting elegantly to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.

I also found that the wheels of supposition and speculation appear not to spin quite so giddily now that I know that Joan Lindsay probably made it all up. It seems that she wrote a concluding eighteenth chapter which was removed from the book and not published until 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock, though this is one mystery that actually works precisely because it doesn't depict UFOs or people walking towards the light. (Or worse still, gang rape.)

Weir's film version is a study of sexual sublimation that is itself a presentation of apparent historical fact through the medium of dreamy sublimation. In much the same way that Pop Art both reflects and propagates the signs of America, Picnic at Hanging Rock reflects and propagates the mystery of refined and tamed femininity, juxtaposed with that of un-refined and un-tamed nature.

Anne-Louise Lambert played Miranda as an ethereal exemplar of cloistered girlhood - the epitome of everything I then wanted to put on my pedestal. She even rolls her head and screws up her lips like Diana Spencer did when standing next to Charles the day they publicly announced their engagement.

There's no denying that this film haunted me for a long while. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age or disposition in order to be deeply touched by this sort of arrant nebulousness. It is ultimately an ecstatic rather than an ironic piece, spinning until all sense disappears, shining as pure and empty.

The DVD encodes a director's cut which, unusually, has been tightened up through the removal of seven minutes from the original release.

Business Ethics - soft targets

If it wasn't for the backbone of prescriptive law, our society would probably have gone ethically floppy a long time ago.

In addition to the threat of punishment and censure, game theory and higher cognitive emotions (such as guilt) also ensure that civic behaviours tend in the aggregate towards the collaborative and trustworthy. (except in vibrant places like Guatemala of course!)

Beyond these skeletal structures most of what passes for ethics in our society is actually more akin to manners - attitudes that are aware that others are watching. As individuals we are conscious that one way or another we have a reputation that derives from other people's previous encounters with our conduct, and we deploy our manners to make favourable first impressions.

At a theoretical level ethics has been mottled by determinism and relativism. Thanks largely to Nietzsche, it's now comparatively difficult to make a case for ethics as a branch of epistemology or indeed of metaphysics. In practice we're back with Aristotle, who regarded ethics as a branch of politics. And of course the whole point of politics is contention. (Or problem solving, according to pragmatists.)

Meanwhile, out there in civic society the moral community rendered by mass participation in the media is one of village idiots. We judge our compatriots as if they were our neighbours in a small town. And so the hype is put into hypocrisy.

So, in this context it's a bit of a mystery to me why anyone would assume that corporations should lead the way in terms of moral agency. After all, although companies are aggregations of individuals and so to some extent can be expected to behave like them, the law has things to say about the ultimate goals of companies that act to increase the gap between the good manners on the surface and the selfish beast within. Individuals are theoretically far freer to choose their own ends.

Modern westerners live in a society where people are encouraged to make up their own minds about morality within the framework of existing law along with some basic private rules bastardised from the old foundations of ethical behaviour (say the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Buddha). Most are thrown together into commercial organisations that exist in a far more explicitly competitive environment than most individuals are adapted to, and which have to tailor their manners primarily towards the simulated morality of the global media village.

Ethics are something that civic society needs to get a firmer grip of - at present we collectively suffer from the nagging suspicion that morality is either a superstition or a contrivance and the widespread notion that ethics commence where self-interest ends is actually neither correct nor particularly helpful.

We can't really expect commercial enterprises and organisations to continue to shoulder most of the blame for the wider moral confusion and apathy within society as a whole. It's just too easy (and trendy) to feel morally superior by making scapegoats out of big companies.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Grasshopper

I am in the midst of reading all of Anton Chekhov's short stories in chronological order. So far I have completed 17, written during a three year period, 1884-1887. The sixteenth was the first to contain anything like a sharp note in the last paragraph. The rest have been evocative vignettes featuring characters living not so much at the margin but within the cracks of nineteenth century Russia, individuals caught in the act of confronting the cruelties of personal, social and metaphysical indifference.

The last story I read, The Grasshopper, was also the longest so far and focusses on people whose predicament is, on the surface at least, more modern and opportunity-laden.

The lead character is Olga Ivanovna, a worshipper of false idols, who is eventually exposed as something of a false idol herself. I don't know anything about the origins of this story, but I find it hard to believe that Chekhov never made the acquaintance of a lady like Olga.

She belongs to that class of people in which men and women can aspire to become distinguished. Olga is a multi-talented social groupie in an arty, chattering crowd. "Whatever she did...turned out to be artistic, graceful, charming...even if it was simply tying someone's tie". She paints, she plays the cello and she accumulates talented men around her. Indeed in Olga's circle "there were no ladies present because Olga Ivanovna considered all women, except actresses and her dressmaker, trivial and boring".

However, somewhat out of character, she has decided to marry a comparatively dull doctor called Dymov. "Amidst these favourites of fortune, who, while perfectly urbane and well-bred, remembered the existence of doctors only when they were ill...Dymov seemed like a stranger, superfluous, small."

Olga adores her quirky medical practitioner but lacks any sturdy connection to his world and his goals and the relationship is weakened by neglect. She is mystified by his geeky colleagues, observing of one - "Surely it must be a bore to be such an insignificant person with such a puckered up face and such bad manners?"

Dymov is the noble savage of this tale. Chekhov deftly deploys him to undermine the prevailing view amongst Olga's family and friends about what it means to be a person of significance. It's hard to tell exactly how much bitterness there is behind this satire. Olga pursues an affair with a painter friend that barely gets beyond consummation - they seem to recoil from each other's mediocrity. Olga and Dymov's domestic life unravels and Dymov dies after a suicidal act of sacrifice that highlights the true meaning of distinction. Olga is left rueing a missed chance and a lost celebrity.

(I have since discovered that Chekhov's close friend the landscape painter Isaac Levitan was the model for Olga's lover Ryabovsky. Olga herself was based on Levitan's groupie, a young unmarried teacher called Lika Mizinova. In real life it was Levitan who was married not his pupil. Chekhov was of course himself a doctor. 11/1/05)

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Limbic Gringos

One of the supposed differences between 'primitive' peoples and modern westerners is that while the former see the world in terms of their own society and 'outsiders', the latter have (for the last half century at least) aspired to a universalised view of humanity.

The trouble with the gringos is that they have a primitive collective unconscious - a culturally overpronounced limbic system. Even when they use the language of universality they do so in a rather blinkered and self-serving fashion. Most of the time though, the US-and-them, frontier mentality pokes through, unnervingly.

Broadly the Western world knows that injustice is the fate of anyone or anything that finds itself outside the moral community. Whereas liberal-minded westerners have allowed in all kinds of human former deviants and are now even considering the case of the great apes, non liberal-minded westerners (many of whom are located on the other side of the pond) are retreating into their homestead and planning a whole host of new evictions and exclusions.

Monday, November 22, 2004


I was up until 5:30am on Saturday glued to an entertainingly nasty Danish film from 1998 which exhibits a canny complicity of dramatic and representational styles.

Festen (The Celebration) is the evil twin of Babette's Feast. The moral of Thomas Vinterburg's tale seems to be that if a Danish friend kindly invites you along to a family reunion at a nice big house in the countryside, whatever you do, don't go.

And I thought Boxing Day at Heron's Farm was painful. Actually, in terms of sheer simmering resentment and overall combustive possibility I was much reminded of the plenary gatherings of los de León Martinez that it has been my unenviable privilege to attend.

This is sinister funny rather than black comedy. The camerawork is detached, in the style of The Office, (it was shot on video then blown up to 35mm film) a highly mobile method that flits between characters and scenes. Vinterburg has carefully ensured that most of the personalities in the ensemble are revealed to us as richly complex and real people, even though we only perceive them through a swirl of glimpses.

For me the most fascinating character in the mix was unzipped younger sibling Michael (played by Thomas Bo Larsen - definitely some berserker blood in there.) Arriving as a more or less unwelcome guest, by the end he has effectively inherited the throne.

Roger Ebert sniffed contrasting notes of farce and tragedy in the bouquet. The director's achievement here is in using the raw techniques of the intimate on-the-fly documentary to hold onto our credence in the realism of what is a fundamentally absurd, messed-up situation.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Emperor and the Assassin

Like Hero, The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing Ke Ci Qin Wang) shows us how the King of Qin became the first Emperor of a unified China after confronting a would-be assassin in his inner sanctuary. Rather than a balletic, wirefutastic lunge we get what looks like a drunken midnight assault on the Central Line - the assassin lurching and slashing as the King runs and ducks, all the nearby bystanders pretending that nothing much is actually going on.

Both of these films appear to follow Western genre expectations only to turn orientally inscrutable. The Emperor and the Assassin is a three hour marathon that one critic has preemptively described as "a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions", but in fact it's clear that the Chinese don't have a well bedded down equivalent of the tragic form. I was reminded more of Ben Hur and The Godfather. Indeed, the King of Qin is something of a Michael Corleone figure in this old fashioned epic - a man led on to ever greater atrocity (and loneliness) by the goading whispers of his ancestors. Except that they turn out not to be his ancestors after all, so he could have saved himself the trouble.

My enthusiasm for the experience of watching this film waxed and waned as it progressed. In the midst of one of its well-contrived subplots you briefly feel the thrill of exposure to a true classic. As such the narrative structure is more novelistic than cinematic. There are isolated pockets of dramatic tension and structure but the sum is somehow less than the parts. It might actually have made a better mini-series.

The passing of time is especially mishandled. The King's mother and lover both look too young for him. The former suddenly turns grey before expiring, but prior to that there have been few other obvious temporal markers to clock onto.

Characters like the Marquis and the Assassin seemed worthy of more development and exposure, and yet overall the cutting room floor was underused. When you stand back and take stock it's all build-up and little resolution, but perhaps this is the cost of treating myth as history. Hero at least had an obvious nationalist agenda to push; Chen Kaige's film is far more ambivalent about the "unification of all under Heaven."

The costumes, sets and combat sequences are all realist in texture, but a number of the key scenes involving the main characters are actually quite stylised and theatrical. Once again it's clear that subtitles aren't an unlimited key to understanding Mandarin dialogue, especially when you can't easily detect the articles or the stresses. In one part the sort of noise I would make if someone slapped me on the back unexpectedly is translated as "it is beautiful".

Li Gong is luminously beautiful like her compatriot Zhang Ziyi. She will play Hatsumono opposite the younger actress in the forthcoming Memoirs of a Geisha.


You get a strong feel for the imaginative intentions behind Rashômon when you read some of the online reviews. (Four to be precise.) At least two that I have come across clearly state that the movie presents the viewer with a set of different testimonies, and that in each one the witness admits to being the killer. Hey, that's not the same movie that I saw!

It's said that this was the first film to represent different subjective viewpoints with the look and feel of objective representation, thereby driving home the point that all human perspectives necessarily include all sorts of embellishments and distortions. For some this may come as disconcerting news.

Each alternative account of how a Samurai died in the forest after his wife had been raped by a bandit has been related at a trial and is then reported (mostly probably unfaithfully) by a woodcutter, who later himself reluctantly admits to having witnessed the crimes as they transpired.

"If we don't trust one another the world becomes a hell", moans the priest to the shifty-looking woodcutter. There's clearly some truth in each version Kurosawa presents us with; no doubt it was his intention from the outset to dump us into a maze that we can't escape by simply picking a winner.

The most treasurable part of this film is its highly evocative scenery. Here the backgrounds stealthily curl around and envelop the interplay of human psyches in the foreground. This was also the first Japanese film to point the camera directly at the sun, an effect used in conjunction with music to heighten the forboding demeanor of the setting.

The differing versions of how the Samurai ended up patas arriba are all being gloomily discussed at the ruined Rashômon gate of Kyoto in the midst of a torrential downpour - a scene with Shakespearean overtones - whilst the forest in which the alleged crime occurs is depicted as a locus of primeval irrationality, practically a fourth player in the key events, refashioning the dramatic triangle into a rectangle.

Tajômaru the bandit reports to the police that it was in fact an unexpected breeze that suddenly altered his state of mind unleashing carnal intentions.

The Samurai's wife, played by Machiko Kyô, is a chameleon-like being, acting out the best and worst (male) projections of womanhood. Her performance reminded me of Brigitte Helm as Maria (and the Robot)in Metropolis.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Meme Gas

"The Web is obsessed with anything that spreads, whether it's a virus, a blog or a rumor. And so the Internet loves memes." enthused Sarah Boxer this week in the New York Times.

Clearly we are in urgent need an impressive-sounding neologism to account for the phenomenon of words that pass between the minds of marketing executives without ever being properly understood.

Memes (in the way they are characterised by this article) can be any silly idea, or disconnected symbol, that is reproduced across culture, especially via the Internet, described in Wikipedia as "the ultimate meme vector."

Richard Dawkins is of course cited as the instigator of memetics to add a certain scientific gravitas to the topic. The thing is though that Dawkins had a very specific silly idea in mind when he first coined the term - the idea that Jesus was the son of God. There is a qualitative difference between this and a story in a discussion group about the pizza ambush at Old Trafford last Sunday.

What interested Dawkins about a concept that he barely started to flesh out, was that certain bodies of ideas exhibited tendencies like selfish genes. Beliefs take on apparently bizarre features that seem contrary to both reason and the best interests of the believers, but do in fact increase the likelihood that future generations will attest to them. You might quip that Dawkins was ambiguous as to whether a meme was supposed to be a mind gene or a mind virus but the distinction is an important one regardless.

Viruses are rogue DNA that has learned how to do without the technique most genes have employed to march on through the generations - building a body to survive and reproduce in.

An equivalent mind virus might be an exponentially propagating sign that bypasses the border checks of rationality in order to spread far and wide across the globe. We can probably assume with some safety though that our grandchildren won't feel compelled to stick space invaders to the side of traffic lights. Like the biological virus, the spread of the mind virus is limited by the dynamics of the epidemic.

There is nothing especially interesting about the myth that Wacko Jacko's phone number is encrypted in the barcode to Thriller, other than the implication that there are people out there dumb enough to believe it. Ditto the famous Web rumours about Beelzebub on the board of P&G and Kentucky-Fried not really Chicken. The creators of these sort of stories know there are plenty of brains out there with low immunity to such mental infections.

The notion of the Holy Trinity on the other hand has survived nearly two millennia; the phenomenon of meme persistance over time thus has to be more complex than "it might just be true".

Anyway, on the vaguely related topic of whether film critics really have a clue what they are talking about when they refer to a plot as elliptical, I have decided to casually refer to the next obscure flick that I see as Gödelian. Usefully this could mean a number of different things such as 1) you remain uncertain about the outcome throughout or 2) wherever you are in the story everything seems to be going round in circles!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Hero is collectivist, nationalistic eye candy.

If I had seen it before Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (or perhaps even just one small 15 minute section of it) this review would have been much more of an acclamation. Instead there were times last night when I thought I was watching some sort of over-the-top, politically-suspect spoof of Ang Lee's captivating film!

Compare for instance Zatoichi. Even at its most serious it was dead-pan drôle, and importantly, you knew that you were allowed to laugh, especially during the post-climactic jamborie. Takeshi's version of po-faced is implictly more animated than Jet Li's.

Hero in comparison has much of the style and sensibility of Italian opera, minus the jolly tunes. Revealingly, Zhang Yimou once directed Tosca with a cast of thousands in the Forbidden City. Here The army of Qin functions as a kind of chorus. Anyway, the result is that you're just not sure how seriously it wants to be taken. (Yet when Broken Sword gets skewered for the umpteenth time, I just couldn't stifle a snigger.)

It reminded me also of the floor shows I used to see in my youth in the Monte Carlo Sporting Club. No matter how many lithe, topless bodies paraded in front of you, the production designer never let you forget whose talent you were really paying to gawp at.

Part of the problem is that Zhang Yimou is less adept than Ang Lee at hiding the trickery of wires and computer animation. The balletic action sequences effectively peak in the chess house and thereafter become a bit of a chore. The first of the coloured love-triangle sequences (the red one) is also the most powerful. There really needed to be more of a build up.

The landscapes are relentlessly eye-catching, but as with much of the movie, someone has forgotten to apply the principle of less is more. (Again, Lee was comparatively sparing in his use of the poetry of location.) Less leaves, less arrows, less soldiers etc.

An ultimately rather disquieting feature of the film is that there are no real people; none of the bustling street scenes you nearly always witness in the historical martial arts genre. If you're not a name here, you're barely even a number -there's more than a hint of safety-in-vast-numbers Chinese nationalism in the sub-text.

Of course, with films like this subtitles give only the illusion of translation. The silent arias of this opera are sung to us in a mythological and symbolic lingo that most Westerners will at best only get the general gyst of. Yet for all the reservations expressed above, this makes for an experience that is predominantly fresh and invigorating. (Just imagine an all-American hero doing all the stuff Jet Li gets up to!)

The nested and colour-coded alternative plot strands could almost be a little art-house homage to Kieslowski and Kurosawa. (Luckily though this technique wasn't used much in Romantic Opera! Imagine sitting through four different versions of the Liebestod! The impact of tragedy is significantly blunted by the mere suggestion of alternative universes.)

Beautiful but somewhat inconsequential has been the critical consensus and although in the early sequences I was thinking to myself that they must have all been rather jaded at the time, by the end of the film I couldn't find that many reasons to disagree.