Monday, December 17, 2012

Deep Time and the Far Future

In a recent essay entitled "Deep Time" and the Far Future Astronomer Royal Martin Rees suggests that 'we need to extend our time horizons'. For while many people have now come to terms with the 'stupendous' time spans behind us – he argues – as a species we still struggle to comprehend the immensity of what lies ahead. 

Rees does not allude to them, but surely the ancient Maya deserve a mention in this context. Their more expansive sense of 'futurity' is surely one of the great attainments of their civilisation, and how ironic (and sad) it now is to witness the Long Count being hijacked, not only by assorted millenarian nuts, but also by a wider culture that regards humankind as probably the best that space, time and evolution can come up with, and which is therefore willing to anticipate an end to 'everything' around almost every corner. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Great Belizean Rip-Off

In my final year At Cambridge I made the biggest mistake of my life: I elected to do the one special subject in Part II of the Tripos that did not require competency in a foreign language. And there is always a price to be paid for being a monoglottal nitwit, though at the time I was unaware of this. 

Here in the one Central American country where you can get away without having to brush up on the local lingo, the premium is also rather obvious. 

But what gives? I mean seriously, $699,000 for an ugly two bedroom property that will be half gone the next time a major hurricane passes this way? That's roughly twice the equivalent cost of a home in either South Beach, Miami or Playa Del Carmen, two cities that are cool and fashionable in ways that Placencia in Belize is simply never going to be. 

If this is a boom, it is long overdue a bust. The major development here occurred in the 90s and has more or less stagnated since. When I was last in Placencia for longer than a day back in 2008 there were signs that things might be about to really take off, but instead they have, if anything, gone backwards since then, and the timings are no coincidence. Belize is the only Central American country suffering a serious European style recession (and sovereign debt default) in part because it cannot thrive unless more affluent people come and spend their money here. And as fewer do  – because Belize goes after after the one segment of the tourist market that is notably more sensitive to global economic conditions than those that provide a regular sort of income to its neighbours – the locals jack up the prices to compensate resulting in a kind of downward spiral...or a race to the top that ends up being a race to the bottom. 

Maybe Belize and Guatemala could benefit by combining their efforts to service the needs of international visitors, but instead they chase entirely different sorts of people. At first glance you might conclude that while Guatemala pulls in the travellers, Belize gets the tourists, eco and otherwise – and a recent sociological study from the UK has concluded that the major difference between the two is that while travellers have more money than tourists, they tend to spend less of it when abroad. 

So this should work in Belize's favour, but the truth is that Belize is a mecca for an odd kind of traveller-tourist hybrid that is as gormless as your average tourist but has the price sensitivity of the traveller, f not the self-defeating obsession with the authentically exotic and pre-modern. (Indeed, Belize's Mayan heritage, surely just as 'authentic' as Guatemala's, has been consistently downplayed by this nation's tourism authorities.) 

"Bonkers" millionaire fugitive McAfree and the horde of moustachioed, bandana-wearing American retirees that reside here are case in point. They are perhaps more benign than their peers in the 'gringo gulch' of Costa Rica (what I tend to refer to as the three Ss: surfers, sports fishermen and sex tourists) but their presence has roughly the same inflationary effect on prices. 

Go out for a meal here in Placencia and you will be lucky to pay less than $15 for your main course. These are near developed world prices, but Belize is not the developed world. Unlike Guatemala or any other country in the region (with the possible exception of Nicaragua) where anybody with sufficient means can live as if they were living in the first world – personal security aside – I bet even Warren Buffet would find himself somewhat off the grid in this under-globalised land. Want to see the latest Bond movie at the Multiplex? Fancy some really fine French food? Want to buy a new iPad? No chance, no chance, no chance. 

It is frankly telling that there are so few Brits now amongst the permanent residents. And as Belize has shifted its longings away from Blighty towards not so kind old Uncle Sam, many of the things that made it such a fine little nation twenty or so years ago have gone to hell. The rate of intentional homicides has doubled since 2004 and is now relatively more pronounced than in Guatemala. 46% of the labour force is illiterate and only 12% have completed their education to secondary school level. This used to be a country where just about anybody one met in any semi-clerical role struck one as absurdly well educated and informed. Nowadays Belizeans are simply not as comfortably badly off as they used to be. 

Of course Belize fits a certain middle American image of paradise that Guatemala never could. There are actual honeymooners here. Who comes to Antigua Guatemala a few days after their nuptials aside from inbred Mexican A-listers? 

It takes just an hour to cross the Bay of Amatique from soggy and forsaken Puerto Barrios to Punta Gorda. Another couple of hours and one can reach Placencia, where last night I found myself in a tapas bar surrounded by loud, rich, gay, yacht-owning, pooch-carrying, English-speaking Americans. The culture shock was profound. Is it sustainable though? 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Savile probe update....

As part of the strand of Operation Gumtree termed 'others' British police have arrested several members of the Borgia family for alleged sexual offences dating back to the 1470s. 

Speaking outside Bow Street magistrates court, Rodrigo Borgia AKA Pope Alexander VI told reporters that "this has nothing to do with choirboys, all right? Or indeed dwarves, because that would be, like, evil" and added that his detention was entirely unconnected with 'that Savile bloke' whatever the much remarked similarities between the BBC and the Vatican. The former pontiff admitted that this was not the end of a witch hunt that he was used to being on...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pleased with themselves

The other day my neighbour told me about a group of ex-pats in Antigua, all of them ex-military and some of them formerly quite senior officers, who gather to chew the fat in the Parque Central. Other than the fact that entry is barred to him for not having once belonged to the Army, the Suck, the CIA etc, what really irks my neighbour about this little clique is their steadfast refusal to ever lower themselves to speak Spanish in Guatemala. 

This comes as no big surprise to me. I had only been living here for a few months when it occurred to me that the ex-pat community in Antigua was probably collectively the most self-satisfied group of individuals I had ever come across. I long ago gave up trying to have any regular contact with this group. 

Long-term browsers of this blog will remember Mark Francis of GuateLiving, now serving time back home in a Federal penitentiary. It used to surprise me how popular his brand of nonsense seemed to be with the wider ex-pat community, including those who appeared to regard themselves as secular or liberal. But then I realised that many could not help themselves but to identify with the gladsome arrogance of the man. 

Mark, like many foreigners residing down here, was on the run from something.    It's not always the long arm of the law. Many seem to be fleeing more stringent economies. Others might be said to be trying to distance themselves from their own mediocrity. How many terrible artists are there in Guatemala posing as great masters, how many small-time businessmen posing as great entrepreneurs?

Many possibly like to think of themselves as big fish in Antigua's small pond, even though they are probably never fully comfortable until they form part of a mutually-supporting school of likeminded fishies. 

Strangely enough perhaps, the one or two exceptions I can think of are also Americans. 

Most of the northern Europeans that one comes across are a reminder that the EU's present travails are as much a consequence of their stubbornness and lack of contextual awareness as any kind of lackadaisical culture on the shores of the Med.

The Germans often present the most absurd spectacle, with their dogmatic conviction that everyone has to do things their way. As you can well imagine, this is a land which will tends to test it to breaking point. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Maximum hassle

That building your own home in Guatemala can be an aggravating experience is something I can attest to. But in the long term the decision to go out and buy an off-the-shelf model is one that will often be regretted more intensely and for longer! 

I took these pics yesterday outside the now almost-completed set of condominios which has plonked itself down between the northern limits of Jardines de Antigua and the Sindal, and as such is a perfect spot for taking in all the different pungent aromas emitted 24-7 by the Nestlé plant's monstrous Maggi cauldrons. 

When one goes to the trouble of undertaking a construction project, one starts to learn how to prioritise practicalities over aesthetics. So, invisible pongs aside, there are three things that immediately set off alarm bells for me in this set up: 

1) Barrotes, the iron bars that are a constant trope of Antigua's colonial architecture are supposed to provide a measure of security, not a handy ladder for reaching the first floor balcony from street level. (Though these could also be used as a fire escape...)

2) Borrow a five-year-old (with permission of course) and see if your doorbell is within their reach. If it is, move it higher up the wall. These timbres have been positioned for maximum hassle. 

3) Take a walk around the area around this development and you will see how many of the properties that have not taken specific precautions against it are afflicted by damp rising up their outer walls – without even having made the bizarre decision to run a flower bed along the whole of the facade. 

The exteriors of these homes will inevitably need repainting every year or so, but don't expect to be allowed to change from the pastel colour picked by the developer, or even to be able to implement a more water-resistant coating at the base, let alone remove the strip of grass and soil. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Guatemala in 1934: addendum

Present-day residents of Antigua may well have been struck by several sections of the film in the previous post. 

For example, if you have ever wondered why the old fountain on the wide avenue in front of El Calvario is apparently set below street level, the answer is that it didn't use to be, but so severe was the inundation about thirty years ago that the city authorities had little choice but to restore the highway at a considerably elevated level, incorporating a set of steps down to the base of the fountain. 

V remembers well the configuration we can see in the pic below from her childhood, because one day her sister neglected to pick her up from Santa Familia and she decided to walk back to the finca. Her father refused to believe that she had covered all that ground by herself at such a young age and immediately took her out in his car, retracing the journey so that she could point out each significant landmark along the way! 

Another solo expedition occurred not long afterwards when her mother asked her to go into San Juan del Obispo to get some meat. On finding that the butchers in that town had packed up for the day, she embarked on an ambitious journey into Antigua itself. In those days, as in 1934, the mercado municipal in Antigua was located within the ruined church of the Compañía de Jesús (Beside the restored buildings of the Cooperación Española in contemporary Antigua.) 

Huge chunks of fallen masonry lay all around the densely-packed market and V recalls that the experience of shopping there alone that day was fairly daunting. Still, she got the meat and ended up fesssing up to her mother about her trek into town.  

Guatemala in 1934

The following clip is a condensed version of a series of films shot in 1934 by members of a field expedition to Guatemala from the Chicago Museum of Natural History. 

Two of the leaders were museum Curator Karl P. Schmidt, herpetologist and his tocayo, F.J.W. Schmidt, mammologist, job titles which had me worried for a moment or two, but in fact point to specialisms in amphibian and mammalian life respectively. 

In the silent, four-reel version, the full contingent gathers on deck before steaming out of an American port, and viewers can clearly see that one of them is brandishing what looks like a pair of skis. Unless these were ultra-thin depression-era surfboards, they are not the sort of items one would immediately think of packing for a trip to Guatemala, but then perhaps one of the adventurous academics thought it might be a lark to water ski up the Rio Dulce. I know I would...

The elegaic mood has been masterfully emphasised by the music of Estonia's greatest living composer, Arvo Pärt. Swap out this score for Wagner and you have a documentary which deploys sections of the Chicago museum footage to more ill-informed and ultimately xenophobic effect: Menace of Guatemala (1934).

Exorcista Indocumentado

Is a movie that I might even pay to see, but in the meantime we have this altogether less-intriguingly titled feature, apparently based on real depositions unearthed from the archives of the Arzobispado de Guatemala, a location that one has to presume must play host to some of the darkest, dirtiest secrets in the land. 

It certainly seems to tick all the Catholic-spooking cliché boxes. (Spot the chava with the incongruous, genre-bending J-Horror hairstyle in this trailer.) 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

We still have the death penalty for treason in GB

Marketing Guatemalan products to Mexicans can be like selling Zion-branded bacon to the citizens of Tehran at the best of times. So perhaps one can just about sympathise with the brand manager who recently took the daring decision to do this...

It probably won't assuage indignant Chapines to know that the Castillo family, makers of the 'national' heirloom brew are descended from Bernal Díaz de Castillo , who had an important chunk of Mexican history behind him before ending up as Antigua's alcalde

Nor will they take much comfort from the fact that Pollo Campero also tries to pass itself off as an indigenous Mexican fast food least the one in Tapachula, Chiapas does. 

Alternative re-renderings of the Gallo brand have been suggested on Facebook and other social media platforms in order to coax it back from the edge of suicide...

In a sense Mexicanising Gallo has been just a logical expansionist step after the more granular approach represented by the regionally-flattering varieties already introduced. (I mean, surely there's a Guatemalan Quiko...or two?) 

But of course this is the time of year in which the nationalistic sentiments of many Chapines are naturally emboldened. And it's just that an unfortunate historical coincidence means that there is a similar opportunity to target lager-swilling patriots across the northern border, which the makers of 'nuestra cerveza' clearly fancied a tilt at. 

And perhaps the real problem here is that the Castillo company has decided to sell their twelve packs for a lot less than they can typically be purchased for down here...69 pinche pesos!

This furore takes me back to the days when I was tasked with explaining the interwebs to a collection of wine-soaked old school marketeers and PR practioners in the mid-90s. 

I recall the look of horror one adopted when he finally grasped the fact that the days of geographically-compartmentalised communications were coming to an end. He was soon taking us a trip down memory lane recounting the syrupy tale of a small crisis he had helped contain – the Danes had discovered that Head & Shoulders shampoo made your hair fall out, but thanks to his sterling efforts nobody else outside Denmark was any the wiser! 

Meanwhile here in Guatemala calls for a Gallo boycott may yet gather momentum. One doubts whether it could be sustained in a market with only two major brands, but the Brahva social media marketing team should be fired if they don't take full advantage! 

Meanwhile here is a handy guide to 100% Chapin products which may still be purchased with a clean conscience...

16th September Update: This just in...

Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves

Yesterday turned out to be a day that the bad guys of Antigua will want to forget  – our alcalde and various business associates were arrested for setting up a mutually beneficial system of public works contracts. As for the nice folk over at the La Reunion resort, well, this happened to them.

Still, the chaos and panic created by the morning's eruption has been exaggerated by the outside world's media. Fox reported "mass evacuations" and the BBC originally went with 30,000 people displaced, before reluctantly reducing the number this morning to 11,000 (and blaming their source for the earlier inflation). 

In the Prensa Libre today the lead story was the downfall of Adolfo Vivar not the volcanic eruption, which was given as much space as the launch of the new iPhone, news which had frankly already been left out in the sun for a while. 

This moment, which occurred around 10:15am yesterday was indeed very photogenic, but lasted not more than about 30 minutes. There were further substantial eruptions later in the day, but nothing of quite the same magnitude and things have calmed down considerably today. The authorities expect Fuego to fully 'stabilise' in the next 24 hours.

Meanwhile it is not especially clear who is now in charge of Antigua, or at least will be for the foreseeable future, now that we are apparently likely to be mayor-less. (It is somewhat improbable that Guatemala follows the IOC in awarding the cheater's vacant position to the second placed competitor, and we won't be holding our breath for a GB-style bi-election.) 

Yesterday we tried to pay our water bill, but con permisito was not enough to get us past the new set of security guards outside the Muni. 

All round, a day of almost unprecedented excitement here in Antigua, the stand-out adrenalin rush coming in the late afternoon when I installed the new Seagate 750GB 7200rpm/SSD hybrid drive in my Macbook Pro! 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Bad Ads (2)

A timely reminder that rubbish advertising and design is not limited to these shores. Today my designer friend Tania was prompted to rant about the way has chosen to showcase the latest iteration of the Kindle Fire, the first available in Britain: 

"The Vogue cover featured on the Kindle Fire (right) not only is June's cover but the image is stretched!! How can you sell something that is old (in fashion's terms, June is laaaaast season!) and doesn't fit in your reader? Are they stupid?"

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Bad Ads (1)

I'm back from my extended blog holiday, during which I took in the summer Olympics in London and a whole lot more, but somehow never felt particularly inclined to write about it all. 

Nevertheless, a new month is underway and there's a fresh edition of Qué Pasa out in various grabbable locations around town, so I thought it might be time to marvel at the quality of some of the local magazine advertising. 

Being bigger and, until recently, glossier than its nearest rival, Qué Pasa affords Guatemala's creative talent some unique opportunities in terms of high quality messaging...or so you'd think. 

So, I rather thought the name of this joint was 2x1 at first, but it turns out to be JG, JC or...something. 

A URL, Facebook page or simply adding the name of the restaurant to the address at the base might have cleared up this little doubt, but no. Perhaps name recognition is unimportant for an establishment where the USP is that it serves up different category of banal international junk cuisine every night of the week. 

Since the Luna de Miel creperie stopped selling itself with that revolting image of kids with their hands and faces smothered in chocolate, there has been a dearth of the unattractive persons stuffing their cakehole-style of advertising in Antigua. This has now been firmly addressed by El Cazador Italiano, which is actually quite a sophisticated Mediterranean-themed eating spot behind the cathedral. Not that you'd know it from this full page spread however. 'Why Not?' asks the copywriter of the kind of diner who might otherwise be wandering around our cobbled streets rolling a die outside each restaurant they come to. 

Veteran British comic Ben Elton long ago warned his peers against taking the piss out of ads that are ostensibly making fun of themselves (Ferrero Rocher etc.), and the second chunk of copy on this one might indeed be indicating to us that this particular piece of left-field creativity is some sort of elaborate in joke...the but of which has been the unfortunate owner of El Cazador. 

The trouble in the Kolibrí spread above is that the art director is way too smitten with the logo. This and white space are clearly more important to the creative in question than the images suggestive of food and ambience. The overall feel of this ad is therefore somehow corporate and lacking in personality, which the three inset photos, used differently, might have kept in check. 

Nothing much wrong with the photo and the layout here, but I am just not sure about the chef-proprietor vanity shot as a way of promoting niche cuisine to transients.  

This ad tells me that there's a nice view up top, but not what sort of food I can expect to accompany it other than the eponymous Tartines

As for the patrón, his presence here seems to say something like 'Our chef maybe a bit past his sell-by date, but our food isn't'. Or maybe, a bit more controversially, 'Our kitchen isn't run by Chapines'

The half-page ad has to stand out against at least one of its peers. 39 Azul however, has decided to opt for the counterintuitive approach and do their damnedest not to stand out. The copy fades diffidently into a miasmic ooze, leaving anyone not immediately drawn to the Café Condesa ad below none the wiser really as to whether this is a restaurant, a bar, a gallery, or perhaps even yet another spa. 

Style over content is the dominant theme over at Wokco. Sure it's the kind of grub anyone with a frying pan and a few vegetables lying around could knock up for themselves, but they won't be able to put it in a trendy orange cardboard box, will they? 

Reminds me a bit of the lema of Nikkori Sushi in Playa del Carmen: 'More than sushi, a life experience'. Unfortunately this tends to signal 'Less than sushi' to me. 

As for Gaia, nice ad, but given the demi-mondey feel of the image and the "Hooka Bar" tagline, stupid people are inevitably going to be confused. 

And this one brings to mind another establishment in Playa: the gym on 5a Avenida with POLE DANCING emblazoned above its main entrance. 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Brand Holocaust

As a boy I remember being led around the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, outside Leningrad (now once more Saint Petersburg) where half a million civilian victims of the German siege of the city are buried. 

I didn't really get it. If anything the memorial of loss of life that etched itself more lastingly on my consciousness was the collection of relics of the million-strong German army surrounded and annihilated when the siege was lifted, that is kept on display at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Brought up on comics like Victory and Battle for Boys, I still had little sense of the Soviet contribution to Hitler's demise.

It does not surprise me that younger generations than my own have trouble getting their heads around what the Krouts got up to during WWII. It was a little depressing to see the England football team on their pre-tournament excursion to Auschwitz last month, and to read some of the platitudinal remarks which inevitably emerged from it. 

Rather unfortunately in my opinion, the Holocaust has become a branded atrocity;  and like all brands you are either swayed by it or you aren't. It's a brand that has a worrying degree of deny-ability built into it, and I don't just mean for the shameless 'Holocaust deniers' that crop up periodically in contemporary political dialogue, but for those who would prefer to think of it as something that went on behind closed doors at the end of the war, perpetrated against one human minority by a mad clique of committed Nazis who hadn't really bothered to consult the German people before pressing ahead with it.

This week, reading Anthony Beevor's account of the German Rassenkrieg the sheer nastiness that followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht, became more apparent to me than perhaps ever before. Perhaps mass murder on an industrial scale using gas should be the crime of the century — of any century — but one should also not forget that the Germans came up with this 'final solution' in order to be more themselves. So how they carried on before this became necessary is therefore all the more shocking. 

In 1941 they murdered 1.3m civilians behind Soviet lines, most of them Jews, and most of them meeting their end from bullet wounds. Meanwhile in the same year 2m captured Russian soldiers were left out to die. Separated out from brand Holocaust these are facts that are already harder to deny, aren't they?

Meanwhile the German army's own plan for Operation Barbarossa made very explicit the idea that it would attempt to live off the land in such a way that up to 30m Soviet citizens would duly perish from starvation. 

Although it fitted in with the expansionist Nazi notion of Lebensraum — "living space" — which saw the land to the west of the Urals as the promised land for the German folk (then still a little bit overpopulated by subhuman slavs), this genocidal project was cooked up by the senior officers of the Wehrmacht and was not imposed on them at the last minute by Hitler and his cronies.

And when Army Group North approached and surrounded Leningrad the encirclement was undertaken again with the stated intention of starving the city's 2m inhabitants (including 400,000 children) to death. Even if the former Russian capital had surrendered, the Germans had no intention of feeding its inhabitants. They wanted them dead. After that they planned to demolish the beautiful city entirely and hand over the land it once stood on to Finland. 

These are events that may have been long forgotten when future generations of listless footballers are being shown around museum-ised death camps.

As I can myself attest, even witnessing half a million well-organised graves can sometimes fail to communicate the message the cemetery was laid to communicate. Yet Beevor's account of the little Jewish girl who stood at the edge of a mass grave and pleaded for her life — "I'm only twelve, I deserve to live" — before being shot and tossed in with the others, really did the trick for me.

England's Rulers

Oliver Cromwell (and son) would appear to be the only proper Englishmen ever to have been in charge of the place.

Roman Emperors:  Various ethnic backgrounds. Hadrian was Spanish. Constantine was at least born in England.

Alfred the Great to Harold: Saxons, invaded in the 6th century after the Romans had vamoosed. 

Cnut etc: A Danish interlude. Invaded 10th century.

Normans: French-speaking Norwegians, invaded England (amongst other places) in the 11th century. 

Plantagenets: Anjevin French, from 12th century to end of Middle Ages.

Tudors: Welsh

Stuarts: Scots

(Oliver Cromwell...and son) 

William III and Anne: Dutch

And after George I it's Germans all the way.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sos Anglo-Sajón?

It always rankles me a bit whenever I hear some Hispanic TV broadcaster referring to what he or she perceives as the majority population of the United States as the Anglo-Sajón community. These folk clearly think of themselves as white, but Spanish-speaking, so it perhaps by dint of language that they lump together peoples whose near ancestors came from all over continental Europe and Scandinavia as well as the British Isles.

Of course our French friends are often even less circumspect in their use of the term, especially when economics are involved. For them not just the English, but in fact all Brits and North Americans are essentially 'Anglo'  their tendencies.

Now if truth be told, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who seeped into the gap left by the departing Romans from the fifth century AD onwards have left very little lasting genetic evidence of their presence in the 'native' English population. In the male line it is something like 5%. In the female, they might never have been there at all. So whatever English people and populations around the world descended from them are, they are clearly not Anglo-Saxon. 

Indeed, recent DNA studies suggest that if you are English and your ancestors didn't arrive in the past hundred years or so, chances are that they were ensconced on the island quite some time before Julius Caesar showed up. (But no longer than 15,000 years ago when the ice melted, allowing human beings to come and live in Blighty.) 

Which brings me to the news released this week that "after 10 years of archaeological investigations, researchers have concluded that Stonehenge was built as a monument to unify the peoples of Britain, after a long period of conflict and regional difference between eastern and western Britain."

Such a unification was required because Iron Age Britain had accommodated two very distinct populations. One lot, the Celt-Iberians had taken the Atlantic route up from Northern Spain via Brittany, while the other, located primarily in the east, had made it across from what are now Scandinavia and the low countries. 

It seems that building the stone circle in Wiltshire was ultimately a waste of time, because this ancient divide has been perpetuated in the modern myths of origin and ethnic separateness that underlie the cherished identities of the various nations that currently comprise the United Kingdom. 

If DNA studies now tell us that the 'Celts' were not from Central Europe and that they were possibly not the majority population in pre-Roman Britain, they also tell us that Englishness is a more ancient distinction, owing little to the people who ran the southern part of the island politically (with a few Danish interruptions) from the sixth to the eleventh centuries, yet still flaunting some tenaciously Germanic roots. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - El Che

So it was Guatemala that sorted out Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's social conscience once and for all. Before that he was penning stuff that would not be destined to be immortalised here at his lasting monument in Santa Clara:

"Easter Island! There to have a white boyfriend is an honour for the female...There - what a wish - the women do all the work. One eats, sleeps, and keeps them content...what would it matter to stay a year there, who cares about work, studies, family, etc.

"The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of America and drives him to get ahead, even independently of his own individual aspirations.

"The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have conserved their racial purity by a lack of affinity with washing..."

El Che wasn't the sort of historical personage one habitually associates with political incorrectness; yet as Christine Lagarde can surely attest, we are all prone to say things that we may later come to regret...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Awake: 'Turtles all the way down'

And so Awake has concluded...for good. Yet another attempt to blend science fiction with mainstream TV sensibilities has ended up in a first season cancellation. You might accuse the networks of lacking the courage of their convictions, but the real problem is that even the screenwriters appear to have pulled up short time and time again.

I liked this show, and will miss it. Yet its fatal flaws were altogether obvious.

The narrative consisted of four, ultimately poorly-integrated elements: police procedural, soap opera, conspiracy and high concept metaphysical mystery. It was clear from the start that the crime-writing component wasn't up to even CSI standards, and it soon became apparent that the soap opera was rather dreary and that the underlying inter-cop conspiracy was deadeningly ordinary.

So that left the metaphysical (or perhaps merely medical) mystery, discomfitingly detached from the other elements in terms of its rationale. If the duality within Britten's consciousness had no obvious relationship to his situation, it never developed into anything more than a script-writer's thought experiment. Yes, the switches between yellowy and bluey realities were used to better effect, tension-wise, in the latter episodes, but there should have been a constant flow of clues/teasers as to how and why this bifurcation might originally have occurred. 

One also wanted to have a more obvious and consistent relationship between these two worlds and the information that passed between them, especially as it related to the police procedural narrative, as this could thus have been a good deal more gripping. In the end we were treated to a kind of resolution, which was gratifying, but felt under the circumstances of summary cancellation, too obviously bolted on to be fully satisfying.

Jason Isaacs gave the show a very strong and appealing central character. But deep down he was as one-dimensional as the others: it was the performance, and the actor's own charisma, not the writing, that made him interesting. Traditionally in this genre the detective must have some obvious nagging flaws, such as an old drinking problem or an inability to keep their private life in good working order like Sarah Lund in Forbrydelsen (The Killing).
Other than the obvious psychological issues and family loss, Britten was squeaky clean with a near perfect home life.

Awake could have made better use of cliffhangers as well. Well-crafted episode conclusions were the main reason that I stuck it through all twenty episodes of the aforementioned Danish crime thriller.

Meanwhile, Season Two of Game of Thrones continues to be a right old despelote as far as its expanding cluster of storylines go. This dogged attempt to run all the different character-driven narratives concurrently is a major FAIL. They ought to have learned some lessons from series such as Lost, where a degree of rotation was successfully enforced.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Grub

In catering, as in boxing, the Cubans can count themselves amongst the world's talented amateurs. So the first thing I note as I head out for a meal in Cuba is that I am far less likely to have it ruined by the rising bile of my generalised distaste for the polished marketing culture of the strip mall.

Even here in Antigua the tail of image consistently wags the dog of content when it comes to the restaurant scene, where the few kitchens actually capable
of producing a meal that one might actually look forward to eating are submerged in a sluice of shouty brand propositions.

I suppose this is quite normal for a touristy destination where the majority of diners will visit each restaurant proposition but once, and where there is typically a marked over-supply of businesses chasing foreign-earned income. 

That the Cubans haven't quite been able to reproduce this little triumph of capitalism is nevertheless rather to their credit. 

Refreshing also is the comparative lack of that steak, spaghetti and crêpe nonsense, all too familiar round these parts. (Actually a steak is something you are unlikely to be able to indulge in in Cuba unless happen to be are a member of the political elite, given that the island suffers from a meagreness of bovine stock.) 

Back in the UK we used to have a TV game show called The Generation Game, in which some very talented individual demonstrated his or her particular professional skill and then two members of the same family from different generations had to have a go themselves. The end results varied of course. Well, when it comes to the provision of anything with even a hint of luxury or premium quality about it, the Cubans are like keen, above-averagely capable contestants on the aforementioned programme who have just watched someone else showing them how it can be done, should one happen to have many years of experience. 

The state-owned tourism and catering companies can get away with this for now because their customers are predominantly lower-middle class coach party herds from Europe...and Canadians, who, according to my father at least, will eat anything

One does indeed come across gaggles of Frenchies, but rather than the sniffy gastronomic sort, they appear to be embittered old socialists who have made it over to the free republic of the Americas with the singular intention of being allowed to smoke indoors. 

Things may eventually (have to) change if the Yanks ever decide to grow up a bit and cut the Cubans some slack.

How might the locals cope with a sudden influx of 'discerning' diners? It's not of course that Americans have higher standards when it comes to their nosh than other rich-worlders (one could indeed make quite a strong case against this presumption); it's just that they love what Marxists might call the superstructure or marketers the value-add: the shouty branding experience, the over-trained niceness, and everything else that comes packaged with products that want to be loved and remembered as a service (because the actual product experience is often pretty lousy!). 

There are signs that the Cubans are fumbling their way towards a strange simulcrum of self-referencing, late stage capitalism: in the pic above a lone diner at La Bahía restaurant in Cienfuegos has to watch a looping showreel in which the chef demonstrates the preparation of his greatest hits.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Museums

Cuban museums are packed full of historical detritus, largely pertaining to the various cults of personality out of which the island's notably afflicted historiography has been formed. If Che Guevara had made use of a set of false teeth during the Sierra Maestra campaign, you can bet your bottom convertible peso that they would be sitting in a glass display case somewhere in Cuba.

For foreign visitors the format quickly becomes familiar. The entrance fee is usually 2 CUCs. But if you want to to take photos, you will be asked for an additional 5 CUCs. One soon discovers that this exorbitant tithe is avoidable, provided one is prepared to recruit one of the staff — almost always significantly outnumbering visitors  as an unofficial guide. 

He or she (though it's usually a she) will for a small gratuity, not only permit photos, but will also — with a look signalling a certain degree of perilous intrigue —  tend to open up areas that otherwise appear off limits to public scrutiny. 

By far the most melancholic exhibit I came across on this trip were the last earthly remains of Comrade Alberto Granado, Che's companion during the Argentinian pair's famous trek around South America on Granado's Norton 500, La Poderosa. These are contained within a small blue urn in the somewhat ramshackle museum beneath the Che Guevara monument in Santa Clara, not in the sombre mausoleum itself, where the Comandante is enterred along with six other guerrillas who died in the ill-fated Bolivian insurgency...and not in fact apparently meriting their very own glass case free of other revolutionary bric-a-brac.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Havana-ness

I recently compiled a list of what I believe are the world's top 20 major urban destinations. Like all such things it is tinged with partiality, but the first fifteen or so entries more or less pick themselves. There are now just two names on my list which may leave me with a nagging sense of regret in my latter years, should they still remain unvisited: Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro. 

I've done well in fact when it comes to the great cities on this globe, fortunately perhaps, because I have the dark premonition that one or more of them will be properly destroyed, and thereby rendered unvisitable, before my traveling days are done.

Perhaps no-one should be surprised that La Habana makes it into my top twenty; indeed it might even scrape into the top ten. There are other cities on the island which do Cuba-ness just as well, if not better, but it is that city's overwhelming air of Havana-ness which sets it apart, and led to an almost inevitable sense of disappointment when I showed up in Santiago de Cuba, extrañando the sudden gust of sui generis qualities that sweeps up the visitor to the Cuban capital.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris No2

Anyone who comes out of reading Sam Harris's brain event-provoking book fully convinced that they did not freely choose to do so, obviously need not bother procrastinating for long about whether to follow it up with Kenneth Weisbrode's On Ambivalence.

As for Hamlet, what a complete bloody waste of time! For it may appear that we are having trouble making up our minds, but we aren' least according to Mr Harris.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris No1

Being atheistic with regards to the existence of a creator, but agnostic with regard to the possibility of transcendentals, my not-strictly materialist cosmogony is one that finds itself intermittently beleaguered by the strident philosophical naivety of certain men of science and other commentators who march under the banner of Neo-Atheism.

This does not mean however, that I wish to count myself amongst the present wave of more accommodating cuddly atheists, in whose ranks the former Mistress of my college, Baroness Mary Warnock was recently listed largely on the grounds that she has a partiality for a bit of religious sing-song though on that basis even Richard Dawkins is a bit of a soft toy.

Sam Harris, American author of The End of Faith and now this little volume, which could be subtitled The End of Human Agency, clearly has no intention of being either snuggly or caressible. The book is written in the tone of the man setting out the sort of hard facts most of us simply won't face up to. And he sets them out with just the sort of obstinate determination not to admit the possibility of a bigger picture that the Neo-Atheists have made themselves notorious for, even managing to present his colleague Dan Dennet as callow and limp wristed on the matter of our apparently non-existent free will. (More on that later...)

In essence Harris's argument is based on the following observation: thanks to modern neuroimaging techniques, we can see that the human mind operates in two separate streams, one objective, one subjective. In the first of these brain events occur, in the second the feeling that the owner of the brain has authorial control over these events. Given the detectable delay between the two streams, our sense of having free will is an illusion, Harris therefore concludes.

There's nothing wrong with the facts in Harris's polemic. Yet its a wonder that he believes them to be so compelling a proof against our ability to shape our own actions. Scanning a human brain from the outside can indeed tell us many new and interesting things about its function, but we are still a long way from a comprehensive scientific understanding of the mind.

But the real weakness of the case Harris is making lies in its assumption that the two streams of activity in the brain are stuck in real time mode (or at least one is in real time and the other thinks it is, but isn't) and entirely disconnected from each other. In other words, there is no kind of feedback loop in place between the personal and the impersonal mind. It doesn't take a great deal of subjective brain scanning to realise that this is unlikely to be the true state of affairs...


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Getting Online

While Guatemala is one of the most developed countries in the world when it comes to mobile phone networks — listing 20.7m user accounts in a country of 13.8m inhabitants* — in contrast, only around 1m (out of 11m) Cubans have cellphones and there are no prepaid plans on offer from the state telephone company. Landlines are also uncommon: 15.5 per 100 inhabitants.

At just 3%, Internet penetration is also at the lowest level in the western hemisphere, with home usage actually illegal. Cuba is thus a sobering destination for any self-respecting geek to get to grips with, though there can fewer better places to study WOM transmission. Anyway, one hardly expects the Castro brothers to be quaking in their faded green fatigues at the prospect of a 'Cuban Spring' any time soon.

The larger Habaguanex hotels do tend to offer at least one connected desktop PC for guests' usage. One gets online by purchasing a scratch card at reception, costing 5 CUC ($5) an hour**. The trouble is that the hotel employees are not fully trusted to manage the storage of these cards, which are kept in a special draw, locked and unlocked by a roaming official who drops in twice a day for this express purpose. At the time most people check into their hotel the cards are already off limits, and so one tends to have to wait until mid-morning the next day to get an e-fix. And then the card may only be used at the hotel which issued it.

One is able to open and close sessions to conserve the time on the scratch card, but the connections are generally so slow that it can often take 30 minutes or more just to read a couple of emails, and in most instances I found myself having to use the basic HTML version of gmail in order to get access to my messages. Everything comes through a proxy, so some of the sites I access for work here in Guatemala were obviously not on the approved list. After a while one tends to give up.

The slowness of Cuba's Internet connection is one of those things that are habitually blamed on the 50-year-old US embargo (as the island has historically depended on satellite links to reach out to the wider infrastructure), but the arrival of a fat new fiber-optic cable from Venezuela last year did not seem to have improved things much when I visited in November.

I did however stumble across one remarkably speedy fixed connection at the ETECSA office in Trinidad***, and on my last morning in Habana Vieja I discovered the sole location offering wi-fi (6 CUC an hour) — the business centre on the Hotel Parque Central's mezzanine level — which is additionally the only facility in this part of town where one is able to print out a document (such as a boarding pass...).

Any hope I might have had that things would be a little less stringent and expensive at the hotels managed by private firms soon evaporated. Not only do they sell the cards at a mark-up from the socialist price, their equipment is often older and their connections yet more sluggish. The Meliá-run Paradisus Rio de Oro five star resort in Holguín province boasts rooms with wi-fi on its website: just the sort of barefaced lie any totalitarian state would usually be really proud of.

* However 70,000 handsets were stolen here in the first quarter of 2011, a problem that the Cubans can consider themselves fortunate not to have to contend with!

** The average salary on the island is just 20-30 CUC a month.

*** These phone company offices require a passport number to associate with the scratch card number, or in the case of locals, an ID number. They know what you are looking at...