Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

"The good news is, this disease is curable."
Mexican Presidente Felipe Calderón in his public address last night.

Meanwhile two Mexican doctors writing a diary for the BBC News website commented on Monday that their "government says that it has antiviral drugs available to treat a million cases but we do not have easy access to these, even though we are part of the health sector." 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

This is somehow familiar...

Quote of the Day

“I am crossing my fingers ... It could be a positive impact for Telmex.”
Adolfo Cerezo, CFO Telmex

...hoping that concerned relatives phoning home will drive up profits. Rather depends on the people at the other end of the line not being dead!

[I might have to start a couple of new series this week - Flumourmonger of the Day or indeed Ambulance Chaser of the Day.]

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Monday, April 27, 2009


Pontiac is dead. And so will we all be quite shortly if the flumours are to be believed.

I had a girlfriend with a Pontiac (Firebird) when I was 17. The windows couldn't be rolled down so getting in and out was all very Dukes of Hazard.

In Guatemala City, a hospital director has just told local radio that a 29-year old who had recently been to Mexico has symptoms similar to those reported in swine flu cases up there. Up until now the Guatemalan media weren't particularly interested in the gathering doom up north in the land of their unloved neighbour.

V and I are a few years the wrong side of the fatal age-range; for once it may be advantageous to be a bit over the colina. (And to be living the troglodyte lifestyle.)

But will the UK welcome me back next month...and perhaps more pertinently, will I want to share a Jumbo with a bunch of spluttering sickies?

Anyway, dumbass panics such as these provide a feast of opportuities for buitre-like, bad news investors such as myself. Take Continental Airlines. Down 16% at the start of today's trading, but recovering nicely already. Did the stock take its Tamiflu as soon as symptoms developed?

Has anyone considered the altitude and air quality of Mexico DF as complicating factors?

Golf won't save you...

Get a shot...or shoot that chihuahua.

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Noble Savages?

The notion that peoples on the margins of what we take to be advanced civilisation are somewhow leading lives that are more authentic and 'natural' first took hold properly in the West with the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It was tosh then and it's tosh now. But judging by that Revue article I commented on last week, it remains rather tempting tosh.

Guatemala has always been my rabbit hole: "an improbable world inhabited by many strange characters," according to Wikipedia. There's no question that anyone who has grown up in one of the world's leading metropolises is going to find that things are done very differently here.

In the picture above for instance, our neighbour Doña T is providing refreshments (soft drinks and filled rolls) to the Muni workers laying down the new road surface outside. It's a gesture of community spirit of the purest kind, one that will surely leave a dent in her weekly budget, and one that I can hardly imagine seeing the like of in London. But hold on, a Guatemalan archetype she might be, but just how arche-typical is this behaviour?

Fresh in my mind is the nightly road-watering activity of another local denizen who makes sure that not a single drop of water from his hose strays across the half-way line of the street in front of his home...or indeed passes laterally into the zone of his own vecinos' territorial responsibility.

On balance — sad to say — the extreme of self-centeredness is more commoplace in this little Guatemalan neighbourhood than its heart-lifting counterpart. For every noble savage there are after all usually several who want to eat your eyeballs for dinner after shrinking your skull. That said, nowhere in Panorama do you encounter the quite frightful attitude problems that prevail just a block or two away in Jardines de Antigua!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Empedrado (2)

Day three and the first signs of a possible setback. Plenty of stones have now been laid on the upper third of our street and now someone has popped up to say that they need to find a buried drain. Of course nobody around here remembers where this was and the Muni guys have already opened eight big holes this morning in what is proving to be a rather fruitless search. You'd think they'd have worked this one out before they started...

Empedrado (1)

This is all very exciting. After 30 years the Muni has finally decided to cobble the last few uncobbled streets in Panorama, including our own, where work started this Monday. I'll be uploading further images of their progress over the next few weeks.

Semana Santa: (Moving) Pic of the Day

At this time in the morning I head for the Calle Ancha where some of the best carpets are made. This long one was on the road leading up there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Beggars sitting on a gold bench?

Obama's new bedside book, Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina (1971), was a revealing gift last week from Hugo Chávez.

With its malign view of external investment in the region, Eduardo Galeano's book is a standard text for students of 'dependency theory', which views Latin American nations as essentially wealthy societies perennially dispoiled by serial muggers from outside.

The Uruguayan Marxist's exposition also epitomises what economists call the 'natural resource myth'. This determination to believe that the true potential for prosperity is somehow hidden in the ground beneath one's feet so afflicted the Spanish in their demented drive for native gold and other minerals that they completely failed to perceive that the real wealth generation emanating from their colonial escapades was taking place in Northern (and Protestant) Europe's financial centres.

For aside from blips like the one we are currently experiencing, it has generally been better to be in credit than in commodities, and Venezuela's black gold is surely just a modern substrate for the same old Latin American delusion. Resource wealth is so often a curse not a blessing. (Though Iceland is probably pleased to be able to fall back on fish right now...)

If you add to that a belief that trade is always a zero sum game and that all foreign involvement in local economies is exploitative, then you have a recipe for getting trapped within a dogmatic outlook which explains Latin American underdevelopment as purely and simply the cost of industrial progress in the rich world, and thus provides a reliable framework for further underachievement.

I'm not saying that this continent's commercial relationships with the outside world have never been exploitative, I just don't agree with the proposition that the majority of foreign investors here are imperialistic in intention and effect. It's frankly no more helpful than the statement that all the local cops are fascist pigs.

Even the most blatantly one-sided relationships in the post-colonial era (say the activities of the United Fruit Company) are not entirely black and white when observed in detail. This early multinational brought an albeit fleeting prosperity to particularly underdeveloped tracts of tropical lowland, whilst funding schools and hospitals along with philanthropic projects such as the excavation of Quiriguá in Guatemala.

Che Guevara originally came to this country to apply for a job in one of 'el pulpo's' hospitals. Gabriel García Márquez meanwhile grew up in Colombia surrounded by United Fruit plantations (Macondo is in fact named after one) and reports in his autobiography on the boom years, the period of struggle and repression, and then the enormous sense of loss when the people of his home town faced up to the fact that the company was gone and would never return.

Poverty of Imagination?

An article in Revue this month caught my eye, largely because its author Ana Flinder had reached precisely the opposite conclusion to my own regarding the relative "imaginative poverty" of Guatemalan and 'Western' children. Neither one of us is necessarily right or wrong, because it's clear we have different samples in mind. (And a rather different set of non-native prejudices.)

Flinder for example has had to resort to a number of generalisations in order to make her point, generalisations that seem to come a bit too naturally to many 'western' visitors here. For instance, from 'Guatemalan' she generally infers poor people and from 'North American' she generally infers people of affluence (and from other remarks made in the piece, urbanites or suburbanites in the main as well.)

This association comes almost reflexively to a certain kind of observer who back home tends to feel somewhat uncomfortable in his or her middlingly well-off, middle-class skin.

Now it's certainly true that relative to population size, a greater proportion of US parents have both the income and the inclination to buy games consoles for their children. And comparing the two societies there is a marked variation in the pervasiveness of consumer culture, but I have found over the years that the consequences of this in terms of imagination and overall whiney-ness are not as clearcut as Flinder suggests.

The flip-side of this tendency to idealise a lack in others (in largely material terms) is the unwillingness to even notice those parts of Guatemalan society where capitalism's hold is stronger. It's Macondo they came here for after all, not McOndo. Guatemalan individuals whose material — and even more tellingly, cultural — level are superior to the would-be commentator's are practically a taboo subject...unless their activities can in some sense be classified as 'social'.

Flinder also notes that the "dissatisfied, whining insistence" of North American children — and she presumes, Canadian and European ones — "certainly isn't a Guatemalan thing. Not in the least. Gracias a Dios!" (She's obviously not come across the local phenomenon known as the berrinche! )

I'm sure that many Guatemalan kids across the socio-demographics of the land are outdoors making up their own games in extended groups of friends and relatives in the country's famously 'safe' streets and markets. But I also know that a fair number spend their evenings glued to Mexican telenovelas targeted at adults.

Hardly any will have fed their growing minds with Dickens let alone Harry Potter, Asterix or Doctor Who, and frankly it does bother me that kids down here appear to lack easy access to an extensive selection of 'imaginative' products of their own, such as ones one finds on TV or on the children's bookshelves back in the UK.

One consequence it seems to me is that many children here manifest themselves as ill-formed adults, often driven by fairly primal instincts that they have yet to bring under mature control. Even comparatively disadvantaged kids in the UK seem generally better able to exploit the culture around them to define themselves as young individuals and to develop their own unique set of tastes and attitudes.

Children's literature, TV etc. is of course marketed at minors and therefore provides opportuities for more of the kind of inverted snobbery that I've been addressing here. Yet however inventive one is in isolation, there's usually no substitute for exposure to other worlds, both real and imagined. And, as I noted above, this is a problem that whilst exacerbated by material circumstances, isn't entirely coincident with them: so even where middle-class affluence exists here, the cultural level of Guatemalan children tends to fall well below that of their European peers.

This problem must surely feed into the challenge of educational under-performance that Guatemala and other Latin American countries face compared to their 'competitors' in the rest of the developing world; Asia in particular. The average Latin American adult has just 5.8 years of schooling compared to 10.5 for South Koreans and 7.9 for Malaysians. Even the richest 10% of Latin American society average around 11 years only, still below that of major developed nations in their entirety. And specifically here in Guatemala there are fewer girls than boys in the education system.

I'd want to fix stuff like that before we start preemptively thanking God for the positive imaginative condition of Guatemala's juniors.

There Will Be Blood

It's taken us quite a while to get round to seeing this film. Perhaps I had been unnecessarily concerned that V wouldn't engage with its darkness, but in the end she really loved it...though the end itself was perhaps the one thing that disappointed her.

Critics have referred to the film's "daring originality". I suspect that many have become unused to movie narratives where character rather than plot is in the driving seat. The structure is certainly highly unusual; "a labyrinth," V suggested, unconsciously matching Mark Kermode's observation that you never really know what to expect next or where the story is heading overall. The film itself seems to seethe with the menacingly unpredictable quality of its central character.

She also described the experience of watching the first hour or so as a "tension tease", an effect that the score accentuates by insisting when it appears not to need to, and then dissipating during moments of dramatic crux.

Comparisons with Citizen Cane are perhaps deserved as much for the variety of little cinematic tricks deployed as for the subject matter itself. Given that the two mismatched antagonists at the heart of the film are unhinged representatives of capitalism and religion, one might care to look beneath the character study for themes of contemporary relevance, but other than the notion that these two callings have a benevolent self-identification tending towards malevolence, I suspect that Paul Thomas Anderson intended no schematic interpretation beyond our engagement with the phenomenon that is Daniel Plainview.

Grade: A-

Semana Santa: (Moving) Pic of the Day

Listening to funereal music from speakers in doorways and salvos of familial bickering are just two of the local traditions associated with the preparation of ceremonial carpets in the small hours of Good Friday.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Circling the drain?

Over 1000 people had their lives ended violently here in Guatemala during Q1.

Studiosus, a leading package tour operator in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, has cancelled all its packages to Guatemala for 2009 and 2010; in a statement on its website the firm said that the decision follows a warning from the German government in March, about repeated killings of bus travelers "in the Caribbean nation".

I think they might have misheard: it's bus drivers who have the low life expectancy in Guatemala. 44 transport workers perished last quarter, 18 of them in March.

Studiosus also expressed concern about rumors of a possible coup.

Meanwhile the apparently 'failed state' run by President Colom has taken a number of extraordinary measures to curb the killings, such as reducing the number of guns each citizen can own to three, and reducing the number of people who can travel on any given motorbike to one. A leading crim known locally as Smiley was also apprehended last week.

Last year's homicide tally was 5400 so the Q1 numbers came in a bit below expectations.

TV Viewing Diary: Epitafios

Last night we watched part 1 of this slick Argie mini-series from 2004.

Only in Latin America would a plot-point revolve around a protagonist's inability to make a crucial call because he'd run out of saldo on his mobile!

Returning to the theme of recent posts it will be interesting to discover whether this was a thriller premised on its ending or on its beginning. Though the strapline el final está escrito could be a bit of give-away.

12 more episodes to go; but I'm hooked already. "It's just a telenovela," V noted derisively. Ok, it does have moments when we see close ups of the characters immobile heads set to a few seconds of melodramatic music, but sometimes those heads aren't actually attached to bodies.

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Quote of the Day

"What is important, it seems to me, is not so much to defend a culture whose existence has never kept a man from going hungry, as to extract, from what is called culture, ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger."
Antonin Artaud

Suicide Circle (Jisatsu Saakuru)

See my last post. The fundamental conceit here is the opening scene when a group of 50+ Japanese school children hold hands on the platform at Shinjuku railway station before leaping in front of a passing train. Everything else after that is essentially padding.

Perhaps cleverly (and even more so than M. Night Shyamalan in The Happening) Sion Sono has decided that this disturbing scenario can be explored without the need for settling on a definitive explanation.

The idea that the urge to end it all can be triggered by everyday consumer technology products would seem to have been borrowed from an early episode of The X Files, yet is highly appropriate within a movie which is attempting to rub salt on several raw and exposed parts of the Japanese psyche.

I'm sure the natives found this a bit less of a muddle than I did.

Grade: B


It took us a while to come to terms with what a dog's dinner of a movie this was. The first half hour had been quite intriguing and we're both well disposed to its two main leads.

Apparently the director wanted to remind viewers of classic psychological thrillers like Don't Look Now. Instead I detected a bit of a mish-mash with elements of Bug, Memento and several seminal Asian horrors.

The experience led me to reflect on how these genre films tend to be constructed. Some screenwriters begin with a striking scenario, one that is usually pregnant with possibilities. How they choose to manage those possibilities and ultimately boil them down into just one, will determine the overall levels of tension felt during the film and the satisfaction felt at the end.

At times when the resolution itself is not implicit in the starting point (and when the writers haven't fully worked out the ending before they started scribbling) there is the potential for viewers to experience a funnel-effect in terms of emotional engagement with the narrative.

This, on the other hand, has to have been one of those stories which began as an idea for an ending (like say Sixth Sense). Everything else behind that conclusion then becomes padding. We the viewer might still experience this as a compression of possibilities, but when the conceit is the pay-off itself, the writers are generally indulging in precisely the opposite activity.

Trauma would have been a much better movie if Richard Smith had been a little bit more focused in his padding activity. He inserted too many tricky little misdirections and borrowed chiller tropes and ended up being sloppy vis-à-vis the main challenge presupposed by his plotline — maintaining credibility (and intelligibility) when anything and anyone seen on screen could either be real or a figment of the lead character's glitchy imagination.

Grade: B (-)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

There appears to be an urban legend that these members of the sacred processions are real jailbirds. While this might have happened on occasion in the past, it is not the norm.

Anyway, here in Antigua prisoners released on a day pass tend to be out murdering bishops rather than participating in religious festivities!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Enforced blogging hiatus

Due to PC meltdown. Back as soon as this can be resolved...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tony Manero

Raúl Peralta is an undusted-looking individual who will let nothing get in his way of being recognised as Chile's version of Tony Manero, the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

In as much as his route to the televised dance-off involves a series of brutal murders, one might be tempted to describe this protagonist as a serial-killer, but each of these incidents is really a means to an end and we never see Raul killing from compulsion alone. His ruthlessness also plays out against the backdrop of Pinochet's Chile, where Raul is but a small fish in a bigger pond of violent psychosis.

Although the concept here is essentially mainstream and approachable (and one can easily imagine how Hollywood would go about a remake) Pablo Larrain's treatment of it is really neither of these things. Indeed, almost everything about his film is extraordinary, not least the performance of Alfredo Castro in the lead. (He also co-wrote the screenplay.)

Grade: A(-)

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Los Cucurazzi.

The economics of Antigua's Holy Week processions have become a bit of a talking point on this blog. One opportunistic vendor I spotted trailing behind the cortejo for most of the morning was a bloke selling DVDs. So if you got blistered and bored early on, you always had the option of buying one of these and going home to watch last year's procession on the box instead.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

This effort from the panadería on 5a Calle Poniente, more or less opposite Rafael Landívar's old house and monument. Bread is big during Semana Santa. The bakeries churn out pirujos in 'Venti' size knowing that family groups will be larger and that they along with other food shops will close for a couple of days as the Holy Week celebrations reach their culmination.

Monday, April 13, 2009

All over for another year...

So, Semana Santa is over and Antigua is back to its habitually tranquil self...perhaps even quieter than usual because many of the inhabitants left behind by the hordes will be that much poorer having spent the whole of last week chucking their money away on a range of crap they can ill afford. If oil painting was my thing, there's an image I witnessed on Friday which I consider worthy of commitment to canvas: Campesino with Capuccino.

Easter here really is a classic system for making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The big winners are the hotels and restaurants, the Muni and of course the Catholic Church.

But for the households who participate by carpeting the cobbles with unique, multicoloured alfombras made from coloured aserrín (sawdust), Easter will surely have portended the very opposite of a seasonal windfall.

There's also a great deal of hard work involved as the dyes are purchased separately and appplied over a period of several days in advance of the passing of the processions.

My brother-in-law recently explained to me how sawdust has become almost prohibitively expensive over the last few years with the result that there are now fewer ceremonial carpets and more of those that you do see are made with pine, coroso and flowers. I rather facetiously remarked that in that case all the carpet-makers of Antigua should go on strike and refuse to come out on Thursday night unless the Muni and the Church agree to subsidise them!

Devotion aside, they would appear to have considerable leverage in this respect, and it strikes me as a tad unfair that they're not raking it in like the aforementioned institutions. It's hard to see how Antigua would have been voted best foreign destination this year without the spectacle of Semana Santa. The city is lovely all year round, but the processions are a core part of its international reputation.

Indeed, if I were the Mayor I'd investigate the possibility of offering all households below a certain income level a voucher entitling them to a discount on the purchase of sawdust and other key materials. The current incumbent of the Ayuntamiento obviously thought it was a smart move to keep his pre-election promise to cobble all the streets of our colonia in order to shore up support round here, so the alfombra-subsidy idea might also appeal to his strategic sensibilities. And Antigua itself can only benefit (and that means all those salesmen of opportunity too) from measures which slow up any degeneration in these age-old traditions.

The Visitor

I liked this film a bit more than V did. She never quite got over not finding out who the Russian conman Ivan was!

Richard Jenkins plays a widowed academic on autopilot who has long since shut down all those superfluous niceness faculties.

Reluctantly agreeing to attend a conference in Manhattan, he discovers that his NYC pied-a-terre has been rented out by the aforementioned Ivan.

Circumstances thus conspire to pitch Walter into the far less curdled lives of a trio of illegal immigrants who wear their transparent niceness on their sleeves.

It's one of those movies where the public messaging intentions of the script occasionally get in the way of its private meanings, but there were enough very touching moments in there to pull me through.

Grade: B++

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

This little chap seems to have borrowed Russell Crowe's Maximus Decimus outfit.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

A detail from the ceremonial carpet designed by V's mate Jorge Mario, who was recently chosen to paint the official portrait of Guatemalan Vice President Rafael Espada.

Slow Man

Paul Rayment has a piece missing.

Most relevantly for the plot he has lost a leg as a result of being run down by a reckless teenage driver.

He suffers also from a range of personality lacunae, the piercing absence of offspring in his subsiding existence, and a near total blockage when it comes to technological modernity.

Born French yet brought up down under, Rayment bemoans his lack of a true home: "I am not the we of anyone."

I might add here that Rayment isn't quite all there too when it comes to the substance required to support a novel in the role of principal protagonist.

As if sensing this, the author changes the tack of the story around half-way through when he introduces a meta-fictional character called Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous lead from an earlier Coetzee novel.

Costello informs Rayment (as if we hadn't already figured this out for ourselves) that "your missing leg is just a sign or a symbol or symptom...of growing old, old and uninteresting."

Unfortunately by this stage it is the novel itself which is growing uninteresting. I don't have a problem with these kinds of characters per se, but the effect of 'the Costello woman' is to make very palpable the "haze of irritation" that Rayment feels regarding this shute. The device is by its very nature self-indulgent because Costello's behaviour strips the realism from everything and everybody around her, leaving the reader with the impression that plot and character are here little more than artifacts to give some life to the author's own introspective musings on the underlying subject matter.

Other than that we have a short, well-written account of a man adapting to newly constrained circumstances and a family full of stereotypical former Yugoslavs, to which belongs Rayment's Croatian nurse and potential love interest, Marijana. No masterpiece, but not a dud either.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

It can be a bit like living next door to South Africans...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Seismic Semana Santa

The last few days have been fairly wobbly. On Saturday the Jalpatagua fault to the south east of the capital started slipping and there were 31 seismic events throughout the course of the day. The most powerful of these registered 4.9 on the Richter scale; three others were felt quite strongly too.

The fault took a couple of days off but has been back in action again today. We've felt two strong tremors, the last one at 2:50pm was a 4.6. There was a ban on tours to Pacaya last weekend as that and several other volcanoes are currently on yellow alert as well. (There are 11 active volcanoes in the country out of a total of 33.)

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Quote of the Day

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."
GK Chesterton

[The fun of this one is that it still makes perfect sense even if you mix up your progressives and your conservatives.]

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

This is less ceremonial carpet than obstacle course. I'm surprised none of the cargadores slipped on a loose cabbage.

Once the procession has passed it's fun to watch the mad scramble for free raddishes.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Chekhov's Stories (3): Neighbours

On first reading I was sure that Neighbours (1892) might not make it into my personal short count of favourite Chekhov tales, so transparently did it appear to be little more that a platform for the intriguing character study that is Vlassitch.

It kicks off on the cusp of a moment of domestic instability in an upper-class household. Pyotr Mihalitch Ivashin, a country bachelor, is perhaps the least overtly distraught member of this household in the immediate aftermath of his sister Zina's departure to live with Vlassitch, a married man residing in the neighbourhood.

This man is, to use a literary term, a formal oddity, and one whose peculiarities were probably more relevant to Chekhov's society than our own. Vlassitch is presented to us as an impulsive rebel, and in modern parlance, a bit of a loser.

Pyotr Mihalitch has a keen sense of the Darwin-reading Vlassitch's failings and cannot see how his passionate, free-thinking sister could have fallen for such a simple and ultimately ineffectual man. And yet he is fond of Vlassitch and is "conscious of a sort of power in him".

Driven by a confused sense of duty and by the pervading grief of his mother, Pyotr Mihalitch rides out to confront the pair in Vlassitch's home, a "petrified and dreary" house with a dispiriting history that effectively becomes the fourth key cast member.

That this strained get-together should have such a barren outcome is forseeable because Pyotr Mihalitch has admitted up front that "for some reason he has never had the heart to contradict" his neighbour.

The deeper lessons of the tale only dawned on me a little later. That when we make bold changes in our lives designed to fill the core of our being with an intense form of happiness, it is only then that we become more conscious of the melancholy and heartache encrusting itself around that core.

And for those who remain at the one spot where they have always enjoyed a thorough sense of tranquility that might even be a passable substitute for real happiness, it is only a matter of time before changes in the lives of those they love bring about a discomfiting awareness of emotional entropy.

And I have to admire the way Chekhov has been able to artfully nest two more mini-tales into the structure of this one: that of Vlassitch's brave but follish gesture in marrying an 18-year old strumpet seduced and abandoned by one of his fellow officers, and that of the cruel Frenchman Olivier, a former tenant of Vlassitch's gloomy property who made the local priest walk hatless for half a mile around it, and who tortured his daughter's student-agitator b/f to death.

Is PR all porkies?

Some people associate the PR and marketing professions with lying. Those who work in them generally tend not to, of course. I would like to make use of an unusual analogy to explain how this popular misconception might have come about.

Take the Sydney Opera House. One would be tempted to compare the architectural competition that Eugene Goosens organised in 1955 to Satan asking his host of fallen angels to come up with the best design for Hell's landmark igloo.

Sydney - and by implication Australia - needed a literally concrete piece of communication that would convince the whole world what a cultured place it had become. It wasn't even originally intended as an opera house, more as a new permanent home for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but the name eventually settled on was of course to become a critical part of the payload of implied poshness.

It's a technique that has been used time and time again, the Guggenheim in Bilbao being one of the more successful (and perhaps least affected) examples. You might argue that Dubai has made a right mess of it though by sticking up too many would-be icons with the result that they have effectively canceled each other out.

But in this pioneering antipodean instance it has worked a treat. Just when one feels like dismissing the whole lot of them as a bunch of beer-swilling, ball-batting vulgarians, into one's mind pops this iconic piece of architecture...this beacon of higher cultural aspiration.

It's been so successful in fact that the Aussies haven't felt the need to indulge in any further architectural innovations in the fifty years that have since elapsed. The Opera House was duly deployed as the official symbol of the 2000 Olympic Games; a sporting event.

That's what branding is for - to support our ability to make our own minds up about stuff. Would you call that lying?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

TV Viewing Diary: Did Darwin Kill God?

As a sop to those viewers who apparently thought that Sir David Attenborough's documentary about Charles Darwin was "one-sided", the BBC has permitted handsome and trendy Nottingham University theologian Conor Cunningham to make a programme which answers this particular question in the negative.

Cunningham began by stating his deep admiration for Darwin and his contribution to science. He then stated his apparently non-contradictory belief in God and in the nature of Jesus Christ as the living incarnation of that God. "Mainstream Christianity" — by which he seemed to mean Catholicism but didn't say so— has never had a problem with Darwin's ideas: for instance, St Augustine would have positively dug them, he wished us to believe. The problem however has been the aberration within Christian thought we now know as Creationism and the even less helpful response to it, Ultra-Darwinism. ("The conflict was contrived by an unorthodox strand within my faith..." That would be the Reformation then!)

In as much that ancient and medieval Christians were comfortable with a non-literal reading of the Book of Genesis and so should modern ones be, Cunningham insisted. Meanwhile, the 'idea of God' is fundamentally un-threatened by On The Origins of Species and indeed, the very question "Is there a God?" is not a scientific one.

I've heard all these arguments before and they are all dodges. The 'idea of God' is simply a way of anthropomorphising that part of the mystery of existence which remains inaccessible to the rational mind. The same idea underpins most of the world's great religions, but once you get down to the specifics of scripture and dogma, there is in fact plenty for science to get its teeth into. For while Genesis may simply be an allegorical rather than a factual account of the origins of the universe, this allegory has a meaning which is open to scientific scrutiny: that a supernatural being created something — everything in fact — out of nothing.

A contemporary cosmologist might respond thus: the one thing that appears not to exist, to not even be possible within the cosmos as we currently understand it, is nothing. Nowhere does a perfect void manifest itself, for even within the coldest, darkest, emptiest environment quantum particles can spontaneously flicker into existence. The probabilistic plane out of which they pop is certainly one of the deeper scientific mysteries available for us to contemplate, but it's not one that is much clarified by the insertion of a supreme being.

I'd agree with Cunningham that the Ultra-Darwinists have probably exaggerated the philosophical explanatory power of Darwin's theory. Richard Dawkins in particular acts as if the material universe is all there is to explain. (Compared to Dawkins the timbre of Cunningham's voice is beguilingly calm and convincing.)

Of the two believing scientists that Cunningham interviewed, the one with the most fascinating ideas is Cambridge University's Simon Conway Morris. For his beliefs have led him to explore the almost platonistic notion that the 'mindless' algorithm of natural selection, operating within the contingent cosmos of time and space, may perhaps be subject to the influence of non-contingent 'universals'. Do similarities between bird music and human music portend to a universal tune that evolution is somehow listening to as it goes about its daily job? Why do dolphins and an extict non-mammalian fossil fish have such a similar body form? Can aesthetics be entirely explained away by the wiring within our heads, etc.

The "eerie predictability" uncovered by Conway Morris is hard to dismiss out of hand. That there is "more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophies" is I think a given, even for the most ardent rationalist.

However, there's no doubt that Darwin's theory will pose specific challenges to any 'universal theory of mind', because - as noted here recently - he made it possible for the first time to sensibly assert that matter comes before mind. And once you allow that sentience can be an after-effect of matter in motion, Divine sentience becomes more of a scientific curiosity.

While I conisder myelf an unbeliever — an infidel — I do sometimes find a remote place for this 'idea of God' in the fact that the mystery of existence isn't just any old mystery, it appears to me at least to be very nearly a perfect one. Cunningham himself concluded that "indeed, the theory of evolution even helps to stop my understanding of God becoming too domestic...too cosy...too small". Funny that — declining to accept unquestioningly an explanatory system grounded in Bronze Age literature has a similar effect for me.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Under control?

I thought this one was an April Fool's gag, but it seems not...

"After several months of debate, the Guatemalan Congress approved the Weapon and Ammunition Control Law, considered essential to reduce violence. The regulation reduces to one the four licenses previously granted to each citizen to buy armaments, and they are able now to buy three weapons instead of 12, as previously established."

So 3 guns each instead of 12. That should sort things out.

This, on the other hand, HAS to be an April Fool.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Cryptic signs used by burglars

There other day V and I completed a survey on Cognitive Daily which was introduced thus:

"Most of us believe that the things we do to stay safe make a lot of sense. But some other people clearly are being unreasonably careful. One might even call them "paranoid." But is there a general consensus about how to stay safe in the modern world? Or does it depend -- on your age, where you live, or just your own personality quirks?"

There are plenty of reasons to be paranoid about security here in Guatemala, but even still, judging by the emails I get from friends, it strikes me that there's something rather pathological about the pervasive fascination with the innovative techniques reportedly being developed by Guatemala's crims.

For instance I find this graphic depicting the various glyphs supposedly employed by passing burglars rather amusing (especially 'Muy Interesante'), but then if I were a bored teenager I'd be looking for my piece of chalk already...

Update: The new guy from Salvavidas recently went round scribbling an "S" on the doors and gates of all regular Monday morning customers. That must have freaked a few people out...