Monday, November 30, 2009

First Words (14)

"This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless closely in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared; the relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel."

Michel Houellebecq, Atomised (Les Particules Élémentaires.)

See also: my review of the book....and the film.

Twilight (2008)

Vampires with Volvos, what's not to like?

Actually, I have to say I was a lot more entertained by the first installment of what Kermayo refer to as the 'Twiglet' franchise than I had ever expected to be. (Rather like Edward's petulant threat to Bella — "I hope you enjoy disappointment" — there's insufficient follow-through on the promise of let down.)

I suppose I'm usually impressed by successful mainstream cultural products which deliberately place their hand in the flames of tack before withdrawing it somehow un-burned.

Twilight also has a nice way of suggesting difficult themes (mothers with new husbands, teenage sexual awakening etc.) without appearing to follow the well-trodden route.

It's all very silly of course. Having established that vampires need to live somewhere where the pasty Human League look is closer to the norm — the permanently overcast and drizzly Washington state — they then head down to Phoenix with apparently few ill effects.

Most Guatemalan ladies of a certain age grew following the romantic near-misses of Candy Candy, heroine of the Japanese anime which taught adolescent fangirls to pine after fey, unreachable blokes. Japan has generally had a better idea of how to package 'innocent' fantasy to the female flipside of the otaku, so I guess we can take Stephanie Meyer's gothic romance as a sign of the West playing catch-up.

Grade: B+

TV Viewing Diary: What is Beauty?

Rather dryly presented by Matthew Collings, this documentary was the centrepiece of BBC2's recent series on the human quest for beauty. Collings distilled it down to ten principles and duly illustrated each of them:

1) Nature — example deployed: Norman Foster's Millau Bridge.

2) Simplicity — example: the Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca.

3) Light — example: the equisite Sicilian cathedral church at Monreale. Here the "flowing visual energy" of the mosaic that covers the walls was taken to relfect a society where everyone has and knows their allotted place. (Methinks he wanted to include Unity as a principle too, but that would have made 11!)

4) Transformation — example: prehistoric cave art where "the parts suggest a whole that's never quite there."

5) The Surroundings — example: the typically very spare settings in which modern art is presented in contemporary museum design.

6) Animation — example: the Cistine Chapel...of course.

7) Surprise — example: the paintings of René Magritte.

8) Pattern — example: classical Roman mosaics in Tunis.

9) Selection — example: works from the 50s by Robert Rauschenberg where the artsist's often idiosyncratic choice of what to include underlies the aesthetic impact. "Stuff that's just lying around doesn't have energy."

10) Spontaneity — example: a smiling face in a crowd...and this painting by Gauguin.

Pics from the archive (12)

Something topical today: a bit of insane Dubai bling
Taken August 2005

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pics from the archive (11)

'The leaning tower of Erwin Rommel'
German WWII coastal defences, Pas de Calais
Taken July 2005

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pics from the archive (10)

That's probably Google Earth's best shot of the here's one of mine:

Taken April 10, 2007

Pics from the archive (9)

Lapdog — perro de llavero — on a marble tomb effigy in Burgos cathedral
Taken December 28, 2003

Friday, November 27, 2009


Anyone who has taken the time to observe the local economy here in Antigua will have noted the almost ineluctable way that supply expands to exceed demand. From the moment the first boutique hotel opened its doors to guests a few years ago, you just knew that there would be a dozen or more of the damn things in no time at all.

And not only has the current global crisis failed to cull their number significantly, but a similar phenomenon now appears to occurring in the restaurant sector — for it cannot have been so long ago that 'Panzón Verde' was the only upmarket noshery in town to preface its name with that pukka little moniker Mesón. Not so anymore.

(COMO is a relative newcomer that somewhat intrigues me, as it appears quite trendy and yet offers homemade Franco-Belgian cuisine. Could this really mean that the kitchen will be full of toiling Franco-Belgians in homely chequered aprons, rather than cheap Guatemalan labour?)

It's revealing how many small businesses here advertise themselves as one of Antigua's 'best kept secrets', because the very dynamics of the market here conspire to hide almost every enterprise in a crowd of replications.

A couple of years ago I suggested to my brother-in-law that he might like to manufacture and market a certain artesanal product I had seen doing rather well in Mexico, and he responded sourly that he's need to achieve a bulk sale of 5000+ of the things in his first six months before the opportunity was siphoned away by all the copycat entrants.

Success isn't something that Guatemalans admire in quite the same way that gringos do. For example just the other day Jaime was telling me how a bloke who has been making a matanza in the market selling street snacks was widely rumoured to have sold his soul to San Simon! And another local entrepreneur once commented bitterly to me that chapin business bods would usually rather try to pull you back to their level, than compete in order to outperform all-comers.

Having spotted the fate of countless cyber-cafes and shuttle services, one friend of ours spent a good deal of time thinking very carefully about how he might structure a retail business here in Antigua so that no chapin would ever be able to duplicate the proposition. Arson-attacks aside, it's been very sucessful and is still, remarkably, one of a kind in the city.

Sometimes the only way to generate scarcity is by flogging an otherwise familiar product to which an exceptional value-add of creativity has been applied. Such is the case I believe of Santa Chivita, a shop on 4a Calle Oriente joint-owned by a colleague of my sister-in-law at USAID.

There are several other examples of negocios where quality and originality in design or concept have created some sort of barrier to entry, but not even the recently-deceased founder of Jades SA was able to monolpolise the market for the green stuff for long, and Rudy woke up one morning to the insistent knocking of his would-be doppelgänger,

Competition is usually a good thing, right? It's just that the way it seems to work here is to guarantee that nobody ever makes a decent living and innovation is comparatively difficult to either achieve or demonstrate.

Everyday wines in La Antigua

The price of imported wine at La Bodegona is only indirectly related to quality. I reached this conclusion after watching the fluctuations in the price of several stalwarts on the shelves there, such as Lazo and Peñasol. The latter started out as a definite bargain and before moving steadily north into rip-off territory. Wines just don't do this in UK supermarkets regardless of their fundamental value proposition when they first show up.

Every varietal within the Gato Negro range comes in at 13.5%. That can't be right....?

Which is your favourite? The Sauvignon Blanc is paint stripper and I wouldn't go near the Chardonnay, but the reds represent good value at around Q28 or roughly $3.5 (for now at least...).

I think I've settlled on the Shiraz, because the Merlot starts to suck the juice out of me after less than two glasses. The Cabernet is a bit ordinary and although I'm usually a big fan of Carménère, this one lacks distinction. But then, who am I to quibble when the bottle costs under $4?

Elsewhere in Antigua you won't usually get a decent bottle for less than Q50. Tabacos y Vino under the arch stock the excellent Santa Rita '120' range for not much more than that.

V has been inside the Arco de Catalina. I haven't.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pics from the archive (8)

Seen here beneath the bóveda, Jaime was the genial Salvadoreño who painted our house inside and out back in the summer of 2000. I dug this picture out of the archives today because we ran into him yesterday on the Avenida del Comendador.

He's been working locally in the posse of an architect called Mendoza, and was keen to update us on his career and describe his hair-raising encounters with ishting spirits on that very road just a few days earlier.

Nine years ago he gamely offered V a 'lifetime guarantee' and so far we've had no need to call him back for retouches. Still, he tried his best to enthuse us for the modish new technique of paiting with barro (clay/mud) — the materials are cheaper but the mano de obra is rather more pricey — he had to explain rather sheepishly.

Jaime was one of the great characters who incorporated themselves into our house-building project. His ability to cover himself from head to toe in approved colonial colour-schemes during the course of each working day was I'm assuming the pic above was a morning shot.

(On a separate note, El Salvador isn't just a surfer's paradise. They also have a national cricket team!)

'What's the worst that could happen?'

"We only get to play this game once..."

Decision science applied to the climate change dilemma via Joel.

First Words (13)

I was woken this morning by the bell of the church in Panorama tolling dolefully. So today's first words are the famous lines by Donne, which were later turned into a poem...and supplied both Hemingway and Thomas Merton with the titles of twentieth century works:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee..."

John Donne, Meditation 17 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Social media phenomenon

"No me digas que no tienes que ir al baño, cuando te miro te la pasas facebookeando"

Yet another surprise hit in the Spanish-speaking world which owes its success almost entirely to promotion across multiple online platforms and word of mouth recommendation..and Esteman's exitazo is actually about the social media. His (Facebook?) friends provided the background dancing in this video that he financed himself, and which was viewed many more times in Spain that his native Colombia:

'The euphoria of weather'

Looks like an accident waiting to happen, but this extraordinary structure will soon be giving Londoners something to talk about other than the prevalence of cumulonimbus (and bursting bubbles!).

Pics from the archive (7)

Another view of the Isla San Nicolas (Garraitz Uhartea) at a time when the tide is out and the harbour wall has done its job, and the isla is no longer an island at all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Year One (2009)

Oh dear, what were the odds of sitting down to watch a worse comedy than Night at the Museum 2 in the same week?!

And I threw in the loincloth even sooner.

Why ever did Harold Ramis put his name on this utterly witless spectacle?

Grade: C--

Monday, November 23, 2009

First Words (12)

"Reginald sat in a corner of the Princess's salon and tried to forgive the furniture, which started out with an obvious intention of being Louis Quinze, but relapsed at frequent intervals into Wilhelm II.

"He classified the Princess with that distinct type of woman that looks as if it habitually went out to feed hens in the rain.

"Her name was Olga; she kept what she hoped and believed to be a fox-terrier and professed what she thought were Socialist opinions. It is not necessary to be called Olga if you are a Russian Princess; in fact, Reginald knew quite a number who were called Vera; but the fox-terrier and Socialism are essential."

Saki, Reginald in Russia (1910)

Another slow start to the week

A recent view of Agua from our studio terrace. (You can tell that it's recent because of the little gold flores de muerto poking up if front of the nazarenos.)

My typing today is being hampered by the sprained fingers on my left hand which I picked up kicking a ball around yesterday with (and against) a mixed-generational selection of V's family. I've also got bruises on my right thumb and knee and assorted cuts scratches received when I went headlong into a bourgainvillea.

And that's just the surface damage. For the match was followed by fried fish (pargo), ceviche, sopa de camerón, revolcado and cake, all washed down with rum...and we were soon sacando al diablo from the bottle.

Pics from the archive (6)

A Belizean dinner (fish with rice 'n beans)
Taken in Cayo / San Ignacio, 20th December 2005

The Plaza Central that was

As you can see from this nineteenth century pic, the Ayuntamiento used to have a clock tower (I wonder what happened to it? It must have been a casualty of either an earthquake or an over-dogmatic restoration job)...and the Parque Central looked like a refugee camp. (It was in fact the original location of the market.)

A couple of centuries earlier a lithograph artist gave us this view below from the same building's first floor colonnade. The cathedral was still intact, and Fuego has been caught in the act of sneaking in surreptitiously from the west to give the Volcán de Agua orejas de conejo.

The plaza itself was still unlandscaped in the seventeenth century; in fact many of the trees, plant-beds and iron lamps one sees today have been installed within the past couple of decades. It used to be in a bit of a state like the Parque San Sebastián.

The big stone benches which used to be there in the early 90s s were removed, because the vagos were using them as beds. However, you can still see indentical ones around El Calvario, seemingly sinking into the ground.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pics from the archive (5)

An unfortunate citizen of Pompeii, taken 2nd October 2005

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Night at the Museum 2

...The Battle of the Smithsonian.

I think we must have made it about half way before we realised we couldn't continue. There are some interesting visual ideas, but the script is a big pile of poo.

Grade: C-

A bit Moorish

Moorish architectural motifs are fairly common here in La Antigua. Everyone will have their favourite examples; this one on the left crops up just inside the front door of a friend's house.

A full 25% of Spanish words derive from Arabic rather than Latin and the rest, starting with "Hola!"

You might think that Los Reyes Catolicos were trying to put a lid on this when they expelled the Moors and the Jews from Spain starting in 1492 and made pork the mainstay of the Spanish menu for centuries to come, but in a sense the damage had already been done, and they were soon adapting to the heavily-cushioned life in the newly acquired Alhambra and Alcázar of Seville.

As a consequence one can while away whole afternoons picking out the legacy of the Caliphate in Hispanic culture. It's not just secular customs and styles that have been affected, because there's more than a hint of Islam in the Catholicism that Spain came to share with the Maya.

Pics from the archive (4)

Isla de San Nicolas (Garraitz Uhartea) in Lekeitio, Biscaia
Taken July 27, 2004

Friday, November 20, 2009

First Words (11)

"He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular."

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1899)

Conrad's buddy Ford Maddox Ford wrote that the author of the above paragraph was "never really satisfied that he had got his characters in, he was never convinced that he had convinced the reader; this accounting for the great lengths of some of his books."

Both men apparently fancied a sentence from, La Reine Hortense, a Maupassant short story:

"He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway."

I detect an echo of it in this first paragraph of Lord Jim — one of his shorter novels — which unusually goes about getting the lead character in from the get-go, artfully combining a concise physical description with a certain dynamism plus a therapist's eye for human disposition. For the worst thing a writer can do really is describe each new character entering a story as if trying to verbalise a photographic image. As Harvard Professor James Woods puts it:

"The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile."

I have a particular soft spot for Lord Jim as I first read it here in Antigua when I came across a reasonably well-preserved 1964 New American Library paperback edition on the book-swap shelves of a now-defunct Spanish school back in 1989. I stll treasure it.

TV Viewing Diary: Horizon

This season's Horizon has been top draw — indeed, a full recovery has been made after the tie-up with Discovery had led initially to a downmarket drift.

Perhaps the best programme so far was the one presented by Marcus du Sautoy, who has replaced Richard Dawkins as the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. (And are far more down-to-earth incumbent of that chair he certainly makes.)

— Who, where, what am 'I'? the intrepid Oxford mathmo asked.

And so he takes himself off to Berlin in order to submit himself to an experiment which demonstrates the disconcerting fact that our brain activity indicates which way we are going to go on specific decisions some time before we are consciously aware of 'making a choice'. In the case of Du Sautoy the experimenter knew what he was going to do a full SIX SECONDS before he did. (He'd earlier sat beside the conveyor-belt at a sushi bar just so we knew what he meant by choice.)

As one would expect, he had some sensible things to say about the implications of this finding for our moral being. Although science has discovered that consciousness is in some senses a retroactive story that our minds tell themselves in order to justify a more 'parallel' process of interaction with the world, this kind of 'determination' should not in any way excuse the individual from any blame for the consequences of his or her actions — our consciousness is encoded in the deeper mind and in a sense our ethical biases become encoded in there too.

Therefore, in some ways our "I" is our brain's report on itself. Earlier however, Du Sautoy met up with Professor Henrik Ehrsson who has a trick for demonstrating that one's "I" might be said to be little more than an interpretative illusion.

Du Sautoy was made to put on a VR headset which treated his eyes to the images transmitted from a pair of cameras fixed on a chair directly behind him. "I am three feet behind myself," he observed, feeling somewhat transplanted.

Things got really fun when Ehrsson brought a hammer into the lab and started attacking Du Sautoy's displaced consciousness...and the out of body experience was complete when he wore the cameras himself, tricking Du Sautoy into thinking he'd become the Swede.

Professor Christof Koch also related the bizarre story of 'concept neurons'. One of his patients possesses a single neuron which will only fire whenever he sees either a pic of Jennifer Anniston or her name in print. (It remains obstinately unmoved by Brad Pitt however.)

Connecting communications to business strategy

The refreshed Commetric website was launched at the end of last week, featuring a slick new 'Quick Tour' video:

My role now includes editorial oversight of the 'Connecting Insights' blog, which is already starting to fill up with insights gleaned from Commetric's suite of analytical services.

I can recommend this post by Petya Sabinova on the local media response to Coalition statements and actions in Afghanistan over the past few months. This announcement outlines the service offer in greater detail.

Pics from the archive (3)

Guiseppe Momo's spiral staircase in the Vatican, taken January 2002.

This and ten other amazing staircases can also be seen here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brüno (2009)

A comedy that felt more like a horror movie, was V's conclusion, where every laugh is practically a scream. "I'm impressed..." she then added with a croak in her voice.

Certainly one to watch in the comfort of one's own home, because there are times when it will force you to lose control of those laugh/scream mechanisms in an unseemly fashion. The pause button comes in very you have time to breathe, to pinch yourself.

We were agreed that it was a big improvement on 2006's Borat, which was, in the words of this flick's eponymous hero, a bit vossever.

TV Borat had been funnier than movie Borat because he'd found a good cross-section of puffed-up people to pick on, and had improvised some of those moments of satirical genius we'd come to expect from Ali G.

And they're back again big time with Brüno, at times very much an über-gay version of that earlier character (viz the hummus/hamas gag). Who, other than Sacha Baron Cohen could get Paula Abdul to talk about her humanitarian work whilst sitting on a Mexican? Or inform a Palistinian terrorist leader that his hair was sun-damaged? (The hand gesture this scary individual made after Brüno's subsequent comments on Osama's beard, was for me the biggest laugh/scream moment of the movie!)

Yet, as more and more people have been put in a position to see him coming, Baron Cohen's rise into Hollywood has been paradoxically accompanied by the lowering of his aim. It's become a bit too easy for him to prey upon America's legions of the excessively polite and the excessively dumb.

Still, when Brüno takes on a largely African-American TV talk show audience in Dallas, he's careful to make sure that the joke is on him (and indirectly on Madonna and Angelina Jolie when he tells them he swapped his iPod — one of the special edition U2 red ones — for an African baby). And it's hard to find much sympathy for the parents of toddlers willing to have them put up on a cross or subjected to liposuction in the name of fame. The editing is generally smarter here too.

Have we seen these Alabaman turners of the bent before? Was it on Religulous?* I loved it when the 'second stage homosexual converter' revealed his own inner demons by attempting to get Brüno interested in vimmin with a string of sexist stereotypes such as "women don't stick to the point".

One of the panel watching the pilot for his Brüno's Hollywood show scribbled "worse than cancer" on the form afterwards, and I guess that is how many people will still respond to the extremes of this movie, even when in on the joke. Incidentally, I don't have the same problem that Dr K has with the likes of Bono, Slash, Sting, Chris Martin, and Sir Elton turning up at the end to celebrate their own in-ness on the joke. Celebrity is a self-satirising medium of fame after all.

Grade: B++

* No, it was Louis Theroux, V reminds me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pics from the archive (2)

28th August 2005

Oddly enough, we had greater success cultivating chiles (serranos and scotch bonnet) on our balcony in London than we've thus far had here in Antigua.

TV Viewing Diary: The History of Christianity (2)

Diarmaid MacCulloch turned his back on the rising sun for part two, following the history of the 'Imperial' Christianity through the great schism of 1054 with Constantinople and then on up to the Reformation, his pet subject.

"I don't believe Peter was ever Bishop in Rome," he deliberated, quite early on.

Scholars are apparently still uncertain why Paul, who seemed to make the bigger effort to extend the Word to gentiles, was downgraded relative to Simon Peter once Christianity became the state religion in Rome. Perhaps it was simply that Greek pun — "upon this rock" — put into Jesus' mouth that earned Peter a basilica downtown, while Paul's church and final resting place was stuck outside the city walls.

The Abbot of said church was admirably frank in expressing a hope that the legacy of 'his' saint should achieve greater influence in modern Catholicism, and observing that if Paul not Peter had become the gatekeeper, the church would have had a much less centralised look about it today.

MacCulloch himself betrays a slight Anglican bias on these matters. For he categorically blames St Augustine of Hippo for all of western Christianity's sexual complexes (and specifically of course the doctrine of original sin) whilst failing to note that it was Paul who was the monster misogynist.

In the Dark Ages old controversies still complicated the religious scene — such as the Arianism espoused by the Goths. So the papacy made the decision to outflank this encroaching heresy by converting the Anglo-Saxons in the late sixth century and establishing a particularly loyal bond between these gauche northerners and the Bishop of Rome.

For his services Augustine , the leading Benedictine missionary in England and special papal envoy, was presented with the See of Canterbury and a pallium, which still features in the Anglican Archbishop's coat of arms a half a millennium after the English Reformation.

With no Emperor in Rome at this time, the Italian aristocracy entered the priesthood in droves (The Catholic Bishop's get-up today reflects the secular garb of Rome's fufurufos at this time.) and local secular power was increasingly concentrated in the person of the Pope.

The Papacy was helped first by the eradication of three out of four rival patriarchs (Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem) by Jihad and by the forged Imperial decree known as The Donation of Constantine (not in fact mentioned on the programme) which supposedly transfered control of the western half of the empire to the Pope in the absence of any other capo in the region.

On Christmas Day 800 Pope Leo III felt secure enough to share some of this ascendency by crowning the biggest barbarian then knocking around — Charlemagne — as the first 'Holy Roman Emperor.'

But a Papacy controlled by wealthy Roman toffs was hardly a model Christian institution. A zeal for change soon arrived in the person of the brutish reformer Gregory VII, whose main achievements might be said to have been:

1) Getting himself embroiled in a war with the very institution that Leo III had created, which destablised Europe (and Germany in particular) for centuries and perhaps could be said to have ultimately resulted in two World Wars thanks to Rome's continued efforts to stifle German nationalism and centralised leadership from this point onwards. (MacCulloch didn't actually say this though!)

2) Getting rid of married priests, largely in order to counteract the laws of inheritance that prevailed amongst the aristocracy and thereby establish the Pope's unchallenged authority in the selection process for the key ecclesiastical posts. (Up until this point only 'regular clergy' i.e. monks and nuns were expected to be celibate.)

3) Getting the ideological wheels moving which would lead to exciting new doctrines on the remission of sin, which would pave the way for the Crusades and the sale of indulgences which would in turn eventually culminate in the Reformation and part four (?) of this very interesting programme.

Part 3 meanwhile will cover the 'Orthodox' church. Gregory had been helped by the actions of his predecessor Leo IX who had got shot of Constantinople and both its Emperor and its Patriarch, the last serious rivals to the Pope's claim to head up "all Christendom". This was achieved by sending Rome's least tactful legate Humbert for a crucial meeting with Patriarch Michael in 1054 which concluded with a frenzy of mutual excommunications.

Syntax Era

I took this pic at the Science Museum in London back in 2002.

Many (...many) years before I had had my first encounter with a computer in there. I typed in my name at the prompt and the black & white screen then diplayed "Hello Guy!". I was totally thrilled; as far as I was concerned it might just as well have been Hal 9000.

The BBC's one-off TV drama Micro Men (working title 'Syntax Era') tracks the rivalry from 1978-1985 between (Sir) Clive Sinclair and his former employee Chris Curry who went on to form Acorn Computers.

These were the bubble years of the micro-computer. It seems that Curry had the idea first but couldn't distract Sinclair from his fantasies about personal transportation. Sinclair was still, as was his wont, first to market with the ZX80 (see above, the little white door wedge beside the Apple II), but then Curry and his colleagues won the contract to make the BBC Micro under license.

Sinclair responded by trying to outflank Acorn with a move upmarket (The hideous QL or Quantum Leap) while Curry did the opposite, trying to steal some of the ZX Spectrum's gaming thunder with his Electron. Neither machine sold well and the champagne days came to an end.

For years Britain (and Cambridge geeks in particular) had led the way with 'personal' computing but surrendered the advantage to large-scale American and Asian enterprises. "We could have been the British IBM!" Curry snarls at Sinclair at one point, and the narrative here does suggest strongly that both men became distracted by their feud and might have done better to collaborate from the start.

One of the great Cambridge pubs, the Baron of Beef on Bridge Street, is the scene for some of the central encounters between the warring entrepreneurs. The last time I was in there it was just after collecting my 'free upgrade' MA in 1993, so I wasn't entirely sure if they'd shot in the real interior. In my day the floor was still covered in sawdust.

Sinclair had made the first slimline calculator and the first digital watch, but it seems he never really believed in the tranformational powers of computing and even today recoils from the Internet. He appears to have simply spotted an opportunity to significantly undercut the Apple II (the largest machine above) and the Commodore Pet on price, calculating that he could make hundreds of thousands of people desire a home computer even if they had no idea what they were going to do with it.

The drama concludes with bittersweet footage of Sir Clive (whose company Sinclair Research recently comprised himself and er...nobody else) in his C5 being passed by big lorries emblazoned with the logos of Microsoft and Compaq. Anyone for an A-Bike?

Tony Saint's script is gently funny and full of nostalgic touches, playing with the counterintuitive notion of Sir Clive's sexual magnetism. The Office's Martin Freeman is an always likeable presence and comedian Alexander Armstrong has a good turn as the irascible inventor. (Though his slaphead/ginger scalp prosthetic looks like it could be more firmly attached with Blu Tack like the RAM unit on the ZX80.)

{Full disclosure: I have a ZX81 and a BBC 'B' in a box in my storeroom here in Guatemala!}

Death Match III

The most controversial FIFA fixture in world football reaches round three today.

As some of you will know, Egypt were down 1-3 from the first leg, but with the score still at 1-0 in Cairo in the fifth minute of time added-on, the locals managed to get the second goal that they so desperately needed to draw the tie overall, and force this afternoon's decider in Khartoum. It was probably offside but seriously, what referee in the world was ever going to disallow it?

It is said that the ill-feeling that lead to the original 'hate match' in 1982 was a result of Egypt's indifference to Algeria's struggle for independence from the French.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pics from the archive (1)

July 2006.

"Cómo le habla una chinche a otra chinche? Con chincheridad."


When my father was evacuated across the pond in 1940 the first native of the New World that he encountered — a New York cab driver — greeted him thus:

"So Limey, how does it feel to be a refugee?"

While he was away becoming a product of the American High School system, my grandmother opened up her home to those late arrivals into WWII, the GIs. Many other London householders were similarly welcoming. My father has often told me how Grosvenor Square, site of the American Embassy, then took on the appearance of a car park for countless dark green US-Army vehicles.

A novel kind of refugee has just moved in next door to us. For not only are Mexicans and Guatemalans 'resident' in the United States having to plead with their relatives back home to reverse the customary flow of monies, Guatemala is starting to fill up with gringos fleeing financial ruin (and debts) in the land of the free.

Our local economic migrant is a middle-aged Texan. We've already nicknamed him 'White Van Man' after the vehicle which eventually followed him down here. We already know quite a lot about him thanks to his all-American loudness. Indeed, it is something of a routine for him to come out into the street every evening and speak into his mobile phone in such a way that any English-speakers within a two block radius will acquire a pretty good idea about the kind of obstacles he's already facing in his quest for a successful reboot down here...

TV Viewing Diary: The History of Christianity (1)

Presented by Oxford University's muy simpatico Professor of the History of the Church, Diarmaid MacCulloch, this new BBC series has set about tracking each of the key moments which have given the Christian faith the structures we see today.

This is not a history of theology, he informed us at the start, but a history of the church — a rather convenient excuse for not addressing controversies with contemporary resonance such as the historical origins of the Gospels — and yet he was quickly tackling the doctrinal scrap surrounding the teachings of Arius which led to the Council of Nicea in 325 and the imperially-imposed compromise we now know as the Holy Trinity.

Further dissention within the early church was largely condensed by MacCulloch. In a Constantinople restaurant he mixed water with oil and water with wine in order to explain the respective positions of Archbishop Nestorius and Pope Cyril of Alexandria on the manner in which the human and divine were combined in Jesus. Nestorius was exiled and then partially rehabilitated at the Council of Chalcedon. (He was also condemned for insisting that the Virgin should be described as the Mother of Christ not the Mother of God.)

Yet the first really significant bifurcation occurred when some early missionaries took the eastern road out of Jersualem, whilst others headed west into the empire which in 70AD had sacked the Temple and generally trashed the city, thereby uprooting Christianity from its origins as a Jewish sect.

Eastern Christianity was never to have a Constantine moment, was never to acquire the friends in high places enjoyed by its western equivalent. Still, MacCulloch makes his way to China, finding there an east-facing Buddhist pagoda (pictured), once a seventh century Christian mission, and learns that under the Tang Dynasty Christianity was known as 'the religion of light'. Its adherents were predominantly merchants, and so lacked the characteristic arms-bearing attitude of the Latin church.

Many eastern Christians remained pre-Chalcedon in outlook, rejecting the fudge imposed by the Byzantine emperor. The Church of the East, based for 1500 years (up to 2003!) in Baghdad, was one of these, and its members played a significant role in the translation of ancient Greek texts by the Abbasids.

The Syriac Orthodox church based in Damascus has a liturgy which is rich in symbolic gesture. A priest explained to the intrepid historian that unlike western theology, which has always been 'rational' and philosophical, the Syriac faith (encapsulated and transmitted in a near-relative of Aramaic) could have been knocked up by a poet.

Today Christianity is perceived as an integral part of the 'western' cultural offering, but these ancient eastern offshoots suggest that things could easily have been different, MacCulloch concluded. He even located a friendly Islamic scholar in Damascus willing to admit that the Muslim practice of praying from a prostrated five-times a day was borrowed from the ways of early christians in the east.

Monday, November 16, 2009

First Words (10)

"The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow."

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Equality for all, or just a share of the average?

The argument of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better is that amongst the richer nations, the biggest driver of performance against all the key metrics of 'wellbeing' is the gap between the richest and poorest 20% of the population.

Unequal societies like Britain and the USA perform worse on almost all measures of quality of life such as life expectancy, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy, even the quantity of recycled trash. (The model also works within the US: with rich and unequal states such as California underperforming compared to the less productive Mormon paradise that is Utah.)

As David Runciman notes in his LRB review of this book, the evidence presented doesn't always wholeheartedly support the argument. The data on infant mortality presents us with the best fit — so we see that children from the highest social class in the UK are slightly more likely to die than children from the lowest in Sweden — but elsewhere it's harder to insist that everyone is made worse off by inequality.

In the US the reigning perspective is that it hardly matters if the bottom 20% are completely screwed just as long as the other 80% are able to delude themselves into thinking that they have it better than everyone else in the affluent world.

As Runciman notes, it thus seems politically reasonable to some to argue that the poorest group in unequal societies are in a sense cut adrift (and can be treated as such) and to ignore average statistics of wellbeing precisely because they have been brought down for the society as a whole by the underclasses.

"This is why the difference between ‘almost everyone’ and ‘everyone on average’ matters so much: politics. If it is almost everyone who would benefit from a more equal society, then this is an encouragement to solidarity across social boundaries, so that joint action to remedy the problem might be possible. But if it is everyone on average, then this can go along with an absence of solidarity and the hardening of divisions, because the disadvantages may be so unequally distributed."


"The practical political difficulties of bridging the gap between these two positions are clear from Obama’s recent speech on healthcare reform. He wants to be able to say to the American public that everyone will be better off under a reformed system – indeed, in an earlier, far wonkier speech he made to the American Medical Association in June he sounded pretty much like the authors of The Spirit Level: ‘Today, we are spending over $2 trillion a year on healthcare – almost 50 per cent more per person than the next most costly nation. And yet . . . for all this spending, more of our citizens are uninsured; the quality of our care is often lower; and we aren’t any healthier. In fact, citizens in some countries that spend substantially less than we do are actually living longer than we do.’ But he knows that most Americans think that the problems of their system are heavily concentrated at the bottom end, among the uninsured. So, as the politics got more fractious over the summer, this is where he directed his argument: not at the idea that the present system leaves almost everyone worse off, but at the thought that almost anyone could suddenly fall through the hole at the bottom. ‘Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured,’ he said to Congress in September. ‘We are the only wealthy nation that allows such hardship for millions of its people. There are now more than thirty million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without healthcare coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.’"

Another problem for the authors of The Spirit Level is the question of policy. Many of the more equal societies in the developed world (such as Japan and Sweden) became that way as a result of peculiar historical circumstances and not (just) because a progressively-minded government decided to implement piecemeal policy changes aimed at stealthily reducing inequality.

Yet where inequality can be shown to be bad for 'almost everyone' and not just certain socio-economic groups, the data should be able to inform a set of policies geared to take note of the common underlying factors behind a whole range of different social ills that beset otherwise wealthy societies.

It would also be very interesting to see how the data plays out in the developing world and to consider for example, whether 'almost everyone' in Latin America would have access to better education if the inequalities of wealth here could be reduced. A straightforward one-on-one comparison with Asia would seem to indicate that this is indeed the case.

Confucius say confusing things

Miss Panama sows further confucianism:

and Señorita Antioquia clarifies the transmission of the porcina:

Coming soon... Sarah Palin on Oprah.

Casa del Rio

A while ago we watched amiable design historian David Heathcote making the most of a night at this highly unusual property in Devon. It was the fantasy home of a baker-entrepreneur — the man who brought sliced bread to Britain no less — and he'd chosen as his model the 'Hollywood Hispanic' mansion of actor Douglas Fairbanks.

It's the kind of house that periodically crops up on the listings of my mate Maddie in Miami, but which is altogether less likely to appear amongst the real estate ads at the back of Country Life.

When first constructed, it sat alone atop a hillside overlooking a cove-like valley. Today, the river below is chocker with modest west country pleasure cruisers and the Casa del Rio has acquired some less glamourous neighbours.

In the garden one can glimpse the ghost of a turfed-over swimming pool surrounded by stately isotales (con todo y su flor). The not-quite central feature of the main house is a magnificent marble spiral staircase balustraded with meandering ironwork.

The glossy floor at the base quotes the alternating black and white Art Deco motif seen also within the lobby at Claridges. (V hated it there and she hates it here too!)

I'd say that Casa del Rio is eye-catching rather than beautiful and its exterior and tejado roof must look like even more of a folly during the dark winter months. It's available to hire for parties at a cost of just under £2000 for three nights.

The BBC4 series covering the inter-war years has been fascinating, if occasionally repetitive. There's only so many times one can learn that cocktails were invented to disguise the taste of bootleg booze, for example. But what with re-reading Tender is the Night, I suppose I am going through a bit of a 'Deco' phase myself now.


A bedtime conversation last night...

— what was that crap I ate today?
— buche

I was perhaps feeling a little bitter about our earlier off-site degustation, having just finished watching Francia y sus Quesos on el exquisite form of torture for foodies finding themselves an ocean's width away from fine frommage.

The squid-like texture of the buche, accompanied by a powdery cheese the colour of Cornish dairy ice-cream, seemed like a very poor substitute for Reblochon, Sainte Nectaire, Brin D'Amour and Comté.

Indeed, it had been vraiment painful to watch the intonationally-challenged Bruno and Olivier nibbling at these distant delights whilst swilling superior Burgundies.

The programme hasn't been uploaded to YouTube, but there are some better clips around these days of the pair's Boulangerie show. It can take you a while to realise that Bruno is actually speaking Spanish:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Birthday Boy

Today Bali celebrates making it through his first twelve months. Here's a collection of his best pics across this debut year.

Guatemalan homes tend to have roughly equal quantities of indoors and outdoors, and Bali is our most indoor cat, and also the most polite and gentle. Feeding him a piece of ham is like putting your credit card into an ATM.

He'll wait for as long as necessary outside any door he knows we're behind, but once inside will jealously maintain his personal space. His response to over-petting has earned him the apodo 'The Ginger Whinger'.

— Favourite toys: Straws, dental floss, TV remotes, iPod cables and headphones, brooms in motion.

— Favourite TV: David Attenborough, Disney-Pixar animations...basically anything where some of the participants have tails.

— Favourite foods: Papaya, tomato, mandarins, grapes, frijoles and the usual meats and treats. (Doesn't like tortilla, pasta, rice, bananas or fried plantains.)

— Favourite sleeping places: My foot and the doghouse.

First Words (9)

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice — they won't hear you otherwise — "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone."

Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

Thanks to Pedro for the suggestion.

Meanwhile, Sting salutes Calvino's seminal postmodern novel with the name of his new albumload of rearranged British folk tunes:

And in the original....

"Stai per cominciare a leggere il nuovo romanzo Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore di Italo Calvino. Rilassati. Raccogliti, Allontana da te ogni altro pensiero. Lascia che il mondo che ti circonda sfumi nell'indistinto. La porta è meglio chiuderla; di là c'è sempre la televisione accesa. Dillo subito, agli altri: «No, non voglio vedere la televisione!» Alza la voce, se no non ti sentono: «Sto leggendo! Non voglio essere disturbato!» Forse non ti hanno sentito, con tutto quel chiasso; dillo più forte, grida: «Sto cominciando a leggere il nuovo romanzo di Italo Calvino! » O se non vuoi non dirlo; speriamo che ti lascino in pace. "

Saturday, November 14, 2009

First Words (8)

"Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you're told you deserve whatever you get."

Iain Banks, Transition

Jennifer's Body (2009)

Diablo Cody's first script since the Oscar-winning Juno turns out to be a bit of a stinker.

Roger Ebert mischievously described it as 'Twlight for boys', and this is really where its problems lie. It wants to retain much of the indie cleverness of Juno whilst ceding to the genre conventions of high school horror...rather like a jock that wants to dress like the EMO set off the football field. (Or Cody herself doing a cheerleader routine!)

Presumably this need was driven by the requirement of extending the financial power of the Diablo Cody 'brand', but the results are hardly encouraging.

Cody throws everything at the screen — sex, repartee, gore, incipient frights, genre references — but nothing really sticks.

There's one short passage of very clever and funny dialogue (tellingly the one I'd heard as a clip before watching the film) but it can't save the rest of the screenplay from patchiness: sometimes the characters are in character and sometines they are mere mouthpieces for Cody.

Having thus far avoided the Transformers movies I haven't had an earlier opportunity to form prejudices about Megan Fox, so I can't really say — as did Mark Kermode — that this is her finest work to date and most probably the finest work she is ever likely to deliver as an actress. But in a movie which is ultimately a failed attempt at crossover, her own crossover (and upgrade to a lead role) is possibly the least unsuccessful.

Update: Fox explains the film's poor showing at the box office thus: "Jennifer’s Body’ wasn’t rated PG-13 like Twilight...It was a hard R, and kids couldn’t get in. So they bought a ticket to another movie and snuck in." haha..yeah right.

Grade: B-

Shifting tides of homicidal violence

The chart above shows the number of homicides per 100 inhabitants across Central America. (Gracias a The Black Box). Costa Rica has seen the largest increase relatively, more than doubling over the past 16 years, with 40% of victims in their twenties.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Up (2009)

After the sentimental opening and the whimsical, Gilliamesque 'take-off' which followed, I was steeling myself for disappointment, but I needn't have worried, Up is truly wonderful.

It has much of the pace and excitement of The Incredibles with some of those flashes of wordless comic genius which permeated Toy Story 2, and while in neither respect does it surpass those earlier Disney-Pixar classics, the beauty of its rendered visuals places it in a class of its own. And as a dog owner I won't quickly relinquish the sherrible jest of talking chuchos: "point!" and "squirrel!!!".

Grade: A (-)

The Savage Detectives: Impressions (3)

November 22 in the diary of Juan García Madero is one of the novel's first great set-pieces...where the young poet is treated to an idiosyncratic discourse on the essential gayness of his chosen art form:

"Ernesto San Epifanio dijo que existía literatura heterosexual, homosexual y bisexual. Las novelas, generalmente, eran heterosexuales, la poesía, en cambio, era absolutamente homosexual, los cuentos, deduzco, eran bisexuales, aunque esto no lo dijo.

"Dentro del inmenso océano de la poesía distinguía varias corrientes: maricones, maricas, mariquitas, locas, bujarrones, mariposas, ninfos y filenos. Las dos corrientes mayores, sin embargo, eran la de los maricones y la de los maricas. Walt Whitman, por ejemplo, era un poeta maricón. Pablo Neruda, un poeta marica. William Blake era maricón, sin asomo de duda, y Octavio Paz marica. Borges era fileno, es decir de improviso podía ser maricón y de improviso simplemente asexual. Rubén Darío era una loca, de hecho la reina y el paradigma de las locas..una loca, según San Epifanio, estaba más cerca del manicomio florido y de las alucinaciones en carne viva mientras que los maricones y los maricas vagaban sincopadamente de la Ética a la Estética y viceversa."

The English translation gives us...

"All literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn't say so.

"Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers. Walt Whitman, for example, was a faggot poet. Pablo Neruda, a queer. William Blake was definitely a faggot. Octavio Paz was a queer. Borges was a philene, or in other words he might be a faggot one minute and simply asexual the next. Ruben Dario was a freak, in fact, the queen freak, the prototypical freak...Freaks were closer to madhouse flamboyance and naked hallucination, while faggots and queers wandered in stagger-steps from ethics to aesthetics and back again."

Still pretty drole, but the polarity between marica and maricón has been lost and 'freak' isn't quite what Mexicans mean when they stigmatise a loca.

First Words (7)

"The shallow sea that foams and murmurs on the shores of the thousand islands, big and little, which make up the Malay Archipelago has been for centuries the scene of adventurous undertakings. The vices and the virtues of four nations have been displayed in the conquest of that region that even to this day has not been robbed of all the mystery and romance of its past — and the race of men who had fought against the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch and the English, has not been changed by the unavoidable defeat. They have kept to this day their love of liberty, their fanatical devotion to their chiefs, their blind fidelity in friendship and hate — all their lawful and unlawful instincts. Their country of land and water — for the sea was as much their country as the earth of their islands — has fallen a prey to the western race — the reward of superior strength if not of superior virtue. To-morrow the advancing civilization will obliterate the marks of a long struggle in the accomplishment of its inevitable victory."

Joseph Conrad, The Rescue

Perhaps not his greatest novel, but also perhaps the one I enjoyed the most.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


"For the free-marketers, the idea of endless bail-outs was just so obscene that the temptation to walk the walk of market discipline would somewhere, sometime, have proved too great to resist. Lehman did not create the reality of Too Big to Fail, it merely exposed it to general view. There was a brief moment when the general horror at the new state of affairs seemed likely to lead to change; but as stock markets and liquidity have recovered, that moment is receding, and we seem to be settling back into the status quo ante, with a few cosmetic changes about bonuses. It has been a masterful fight-back by the big banks. We the paying public can’t do anything much except admit defeat and settle back for the next set of bills. In the meantime, perhaps we should try and think of a name for the new economic system, which certainly isn’t capitalism: that, remember, is all about ‘creative destruction’, and the freedom to fail. That’s exactly what we don’t have. The most accurate term would probably be ‘bankocracy’."

Fascinating LRB review by John Lanchester of two insider accounts of Lehman Bro's failure last year, of which this is the conclusion. Once TBTF had manifested itself in public in September 2008, it became clear that our economic system had mutated into something beyond the current theoretical underpinnings. Perhaps it needs a new name, Lanchester asks.

La Cumparsita of the Day #34 (Last one for now...)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

La Cumparsita of the Day #33

Preferisco ragionare...

"I prefer to reason rather than believe, that's why I'm an atheist."

That's the motto on the billboard created for by the UAAR (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalistici) in Pisa and subsequently set up behind a tree by a 'charitable' local firm, even though the organisation had specifically paid for it to be on the other side of the highway where there are no trees.

I'm reasonably content to describe myself as an atheist, largely because the term, — though it can feel like having a monkey on your back— presents fewer problems for me than agnostic. Having said that, the 'rational agnosticism' absorbed by the UAAR is not something I could seriously object to.

In the recent Intelligence Squared Debate Stephen Fry joked that the Roman Catholic Church talks much about 'moral relativism', something he himself has always equated with 'thinking'. The trouble is that there really is an insidious form of relativism out there, which I have always equated with not thinking, and I find many agnostics guilty of this abjuration from thought. ("So open-minded your brain falls out..." sayeth Richard Dawkins. More on him shortly.)

In cultures such as this, where the majority still inherit their beliefs from their parents, atheists are typically branded as individuals who have turned their back on morality, purpose and a concern for justice. Nihilists do exist, but I'm not one of them, and I tend to think that people who have thought through their moral positions make better judgments than people who have picked them up from sermons.

Yet any educated person privy to my views might still be inclined to describe me as an agnostic, just as they would probably label the (very undogmatic) intuitions of my wife pantheistic. The idea that the ultimate meaning of the cosmos is somehow immanent within it, is one I am also sympathetic to, as I am to the 'atheistic' tradition within Hinduism and Buddhism.

For a long time atheists were given a very bad name by the likes of Joseph Stalin. Just when that nasty spectre had started to fade, along comes Richard Dawkins. The philosophy of both men should properly be described as materialist — where legitimate enquiry/struggle is supposedly confined to the material world and all other viewpoints are dismissed as spiritual...which to them means hokum.

The 'dialectical materialism' which underlay the communist ideology of the Soviet Union was shown to owe is deeper origins to Plotinus, the Christian Neo-Platonists and John 'the Scot' Eriugena by the late, great Leszek Kolakowski. These early streams of Western thought led to a bias within our culture towards a process-driven view of history, with a beginning and end, and in between a teleology that gives the whole thing meaning (though Marxist thinkers and Christian theologians map this onto an external system of justice rather differently). And as far as I am concerned materialism is faith in another guise.

Listen to Richard Dawkins and you might think that Charles Darwin had come up with the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Darwin's achievement was to record numerable observations which demonstrated how life-forms — once they had acquired the ability to self-replicate— could make use of the external selection services of Sex and Death to adapt themselves to specific environmental niches, and thereby improve their survival opportunities in what has always been a highly competitive natural world.

This 'theory' has significant explanatory power outside biology — specifically in computer science — but it is not a complete philosophical system. Yet Dawkins's public preaching on the merits of science over all things religious, occasionally gives the impression that that's exactly what he thinks it is.

His position reflects the prejudices of a biologist whose discipline has necessarily remained rooted in the material world and the classical science of Newton, while his colleagues in the department next door have strayed into the altogether more exciting space where Physics and Metaphysics overlap.

Dawkins actually considers himself an agnostic because he claims to be only 99% sure that there isn't a god — and one has to be 100% sure if one wants to call oneself an atheist, he argues. This is of course nonsense. If there is one thing atheism is not about, it is certainty.

He has fallaciously equated the case for God with that of a giant spaghetti monster, which is nothing but a generically-unlikely supernatural thingamajig, as opposed to what my learned colleague refers to as a 'first cause'.

It is of course absurd to speak of probability outside of the behavioural context of matter in the observable universe....and then only matter in macro form, because down at the more fundamental, quantum dimensions, the very notion becomes problematic. So when in The God Delusion Dawkins describes God as "improbable", he's betraying much the same philosophical naivety manifested by many of his chosen adversaries. So in that respect at least, he might have to consider himself "trounced"!

Yet for much the same reasons, the idea of causality at the cosmological level is equally problematic. Hence, I would suggest that a belief in first causes necessarily requires a leap outside the bounds of logic and into assumption...if not indeed faith.

In the course of the past half century cosmology has had to relinquish its commitment to the 'steady state universe' in favour of the Big Bang model, which might initially have seemed more amenable to first cause enthusiasts, except that physicists went on to posit a number of possible explanations for the Big Bang which don't in fact require an intelligent detonator.

I mentioned one of these the other day: the notion that many big bangs have occurred as the more mysterious structure of the outer cosmos inflates, each one embodying the moment of decay when the process of rapid expansion ceases locally, causing energy to transmute into the firey creation of matter.

Which takes me back again to Richard Dawkins. Most people are atheistic when it comes to Thor and Zeus, he quips, "I've just added Yahweh to the list of deities that I'm atheistic about".

Now Zeus was the alpha-godhead of a society which generally thought the universe eternal: it's always been here, and always will be, so not much point in discussing who was responsible for creating it. Thor meanwhile, was the metaphorical embodiment of something scary which the Vikings didn't understand in a scientific sense, but which had the power to make their transatlantic voyages extremely uncomfortable.

Neither of these mythological personages can be a straight swap for the God of the Abrahamic tradition, said to be the Creator of everything.

Yet for a long time after they invented him, the Israelites conceived of Yahweh as a member of the Divine Assembly of 'holy ones' presided over by El, the high god of Canaan with his consort Asherah. Yahweh was essentially the supernatural being one wanted on one's side in battle, but when it came to agriculture, the people of Israel and Judah turned to Baal and his sister-spouse Anat. But being atheistic about Yahweh when he was part of a well-demarcated pagan pantheon, is not the same thing as being atheistic about Him once He has emerged in the eighth century BC as the peerless primal cause. (However, being atheistic about the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Gabriel, Lucifer and St Peter is perhaps more logically consistent with a rejection of other pre-monotheist deities.)

So, another potential trouncing for Dawkins? To a point, but I've yet to be exposed to a convincing logical/factual explanation for why the universe had to have had a beginning and why that beginning had to have been caused by something omnipotent and omniscient. In fact, our current cosmological model suggests that the very idea that our situation here involved the creation of something out of nothing is a category error, one of those sticky misapprehensions which 'common-sense' thinking occasionally serves up.

Digression: Though of course, 'folk' interpretations of phenomena are often found to be accurate by subsequent scientific investigation — I recall Guatemalan presecriptions for harvesting avocados at full moon and the local technique for containing the effervescence of a shaken fizzy drink bottle by placing one's palm along the base.

Anyway, I've asked myself a number of times whether either Darwin or Einstein really succeded in making the world less mysterious. When you are dealing with a mystery that is in a sense infinite, incremental steps in human knowledge are never really going to do philosophers out of a job.

Yet Darwin provided a concrete explanation for something which had no business being ineffable in the first place — the dynamics of the natural world that were going on literally beneath our noses, not outside the scope of the visible universe.

On the other hand, from the time he first came across a compass, Einstein was far more concerned with the world beyond appearances — and so his own contributions to science have that strange dual quality of clarification and re-mystification. (The idea that spacetime is grainy and that the chronological aspect of it doesn't flow as it appears to subjectively, wraps the essentially linear process of evolution in a blanket of inscrutability that Dawkins seems reluctant to touch upon.)

Like many of his contemporaries during the first half of the last century Einstein showed us that the barrier between the effable and the ineffable is a real and unyielding one, and that however many new ways we find to think about it, we are unlikely to be able to think our way around it.

Preferisco ragionare. I prefer to reason about these matters, to find my own path towards ultimate purposes rather than accept a culturally-mediated solution that has inevitably been distorted by historical contexts and human psychology.

I claim no special access to the ineffable, but then nor do I blind myself to the philosophical challenge that it presents, and seeing matter as a side-effect of a more fundamental reality, I find it hard to share Richard Dawkins's apparent faith that Science — at least as he conceives it — is making small but significant steps towards de-fogging everything that religion has traditionally sought to explain.

That's why I'm an atheist.