Sunday, December 31, 2017

The New Anti-Semitism

As someone who has been accused of being anti-Semitic for wondering out loud why so many young and beautiful Israelis come to Central America, specifically to the Riviera Maya in order to throw such excellent rave parties, I suppose I can sympathise with some of the sentiments expressed in this article.

The "It is possible to be both a Zionist and an anti-Semite" claim is indeed an interesting one. 

Guatemala's recent decision to move its own embassy to Jerusalem has been seen by some commentators as straightforwardly indicative of the kind of shameless sucking up to the Donald that even Theresa May would baulk at. But there is a bit more to it than that.

Jimmy Morales is the front man for a party founded by retired military men of the nationalistic bent, many of whom benefitted from the United States' use of Israel as a proxy at a time when the gringos themselves were not allowed by their own congress to supply military equipment and know-how to the men gaily committing atrocities in this country.

The President is also a Pentacostalist Protestant of the fervent variety, and I have mentioned here before how many evangelical churches in Guatemala fly the flag of Israel either outside, or occasionally even inside behind the preacher's podium. So Zionism has deeper roots in this country than contemporary political expedience or indeed, Guatemala's oft-mentioned role in the formation of the state of Israel.

Yet one is indeed left wondering which particular reading of the New Testament precludes any sort of connection between this rather strange species of non-Jewish Zionism and anti-Semitic sentiment in the broader sense.

But the real essence of Neve Gordon's article here is the notion that one can be anti-Zionist without any concommitant animus towards Jews, one's only offence being a 'passion for justice'. She thus concludes firmly "The equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must first be rejected". 

Sorry, but no. The familiar symbol of Justice is the set of scales i.e. balance, and there is an imbalance here that still needs to be addressed. e.g. Why do certain people of the Left appear to care more about the injustice in that part of the world than in almost any other? 

And why do individuals with almost no natural tribal stake in the situation in the Middle East focus almost all their anti-colonialist angst on the government of Israel?

I cannot claim for sure that there is always a form of anti-semtism lurking behind this apparent geopolitical bias, but the possibility cannot simply be shut down just because we've pinpointed the existence of a bunch of aberrant zionists who might not have the best interests of the Jewish people at heart.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Kafka with Robots

Humanoid android stories belong in the same category as those about vampires and zombies - they examine alternative ways of being in such a way that to a greater or lesser extent throws some light on pressing human existential questions. 

All of these presences reside in what Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori called bukimi no tani, the uncanny valley. (Sean Young’s appearance in Blade Runner 2049 is textbook in this respect!) 

For Phillip K Dick existential questions were always asked with a wide-eyed paranoid gaze. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, described on the jacket of my 1981 copy as ‘Kafka with robots’ features ‘andys’ posing as Soviet agents, and parallel police stations in different parts of town (SF, not LA, perhaps more appropriately) each with its own captain, principal bounty hunter and methodology for tripping up embedded ‘carbons’...yet only one of these can be real

There are also quite a few electric sheep and other synthetic animals, as the biological kind have become scarce on planet Earth and keeping and caring for the needs of an animal is regarded as a sign of empathy, an apparently very human quality around which this society has built an entire religious outlook. 

This being a Phillip K. Dick story it almost goes without saying that profound epistemological unease is never far below the surface and the suggestion that everyone’s memories might be falsely-implanted hangs in the air, so to speak. 

I hope I’m giving a sense of just how much of the novel’s complexity was flushed away by Ridley Scott when he adapted it. Yet that movie is rightly considered a sci-fi classic, in the main because of the original manner in which a partially-apocalyptic future was imagined then realised on celluloid. And also because of a famous valedictory speech at the end ad-libbed by Rutger Hauer. 

And partial apocalypses are a sub-genre that I have a particular enthusiasm for - scenarios containing elements of both utopia and dystopia. In this instance the precise nature of the blend is one of the key questions being posed.

Although only credited as an executive producer, the script for the sequel has the hand of Sir Ridley all over it. As we’ve seen in his ‘development’ of the Alien franchise, the director has some signature concerns about synthetic consciousness that are perhaps not quite as fascinating or philosophically-profound as he surely must imagine they are. He has tended to use the intelligent androids’ own existential jitters to drive his narratives, rather than evoking human concerns about these technological imitations. 

The baton has nevertheless been formally picked this year up by Denis Villeneueve, and even though more than 35 years have elapsed since the original Blade Runner, the Canadian director has given himself permission not to have to re-state that much of the fundamental back-story.  I guess I’m fine with that, but along the way, he went soft on the basic ground-rules, and as with any zombie or vampire franchise, the ground rules are also very important for worlds with robots. 

The three elemental givens that Scott inherited from Dick are as follows:
  • Replicants are manufactured for use off-world (only) as servants for the colonists
  • They have a very limited lifespan compared to humans
  • They appear to be missing one very significant part of the standard human psychological make-up. 
None of these is consistently upheld in Blade Runner 2049 and, as a consequence, it doesn’t really hold up either as a faithful sequel or as a convincing stand-alone premise. 

Here the quest undertaken by the central protagonist is nuanced and ultimately engaging, perhaps less Noirish than Deckard's, but the various antagonists are comparatively under-developed in terms of their motivations. Robin Wright for instance stands in for an entire ‘human’ interest for roughly half the length of the movie and then is rather wastefully thrown away. 

Somewhat optimistically, Villeneuve left enough of these cardboard cut-outs still standing to support further iterations in the future. 

Yes, it's beautiful to look at, and Roger Deakins may finally get his Oscar. But it is cursed with being inconstant with not one, but two 'sacred' texts. These things are always a bit of a hospital pass. I remember how many critics deplored the 'ridiculous' ending of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, yet this is precisely how the Pierre Boule novel concluded. And we all know what happened when Stephen King tried to make his own authentic version of The Shining

Denis Villeneuve has some previous with sources. He quite successfully added his own symbolic whimsy to José Saramago's The Double in Enemy, but he also notably flattened out the heavyweight scientific and philosophical ideas in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, which arrived on screens as Arrival

One more thing. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I found myself wondering some of the time why the andys lacked a factory marker such as blue toe-nails that would make them easier to spot. But then I realised that the author was literally dicking with the suspicion that ultimately there can be no way to tell the difference and that the whole empathy-based worldview might be delusional. 

Nevertheless, Nexus-6 Pris tells the human ‘special’ Isidore that the Chablis he has provided is ‘wasted on her’. So, instead of all that cumbersome Voight-Kamff testing apparatus, a bottle of New World Chardonnay might actually have done the trick...

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Bubbly for Christmas

The Bitcoin phenomenon has reached an interestingly delicate phase. The price inflation over 2017 looks like a bubble, but it isn’t. At least not quite. 

Bubbles like the one that helped re-set expectations of the ‘new media’ age have a number of key characteristics this one probably still lacks. 

Firstly, there is a moment when everyone realises that valuations have parted company with any kind of underlying ‘real’ economic value. Then there is the period that loads of small investors pile in. And finally there is the matter of debt. 

The man who purchased our company in 1998 used in part the shares in his own NASDAQ-quoted enterprise to do so. At the time he was secure in the conviction that these would only ever go up in value, which is possibly why he made the error of electing to pay us out after a certain period with an unfixed quantity of shares up to a an agreed fixed monetary value. Time would unfailingly work in his favour he imagined. 

His optimism was further reflected in the fact that he had been borrowing funds in order to aggressively expose himself to the wider dot com dream. 

Shortly after the deal was done the Ruble defaulted causing the first major market correction of the digital era. With share prices plummeting, our over-enthusiastic acquirer faced margin calls and had to sell his own stock in the company that he had founded simply in order to cover them. 

When the broader investing public took note that the CEO was dumping stock, panic set in quickly and the price tanked. This is how bubbles tend to play out. 

With regards to the Bitcoin situation right now there is still a comparative dearth of smaller-scale, steroid-pumped, American-style speculators in the mix, as most of the cryptocurrency is currently held either by the existing super rich or those who have become so by mining it. As for the potential for disconnect with ‘real’ values, quien sabe?! 

And over-extended debt is yet to become a big issue, though some of the exchanges are now starting to allow leverage. One article I read recently suggested that the 15x leverage on offer at the Tokyo exchange could result in ‘contagion’ - and the full zombie apocalypse is perhaps presaged by the 100x leverage offer that pops up as a sponsored link on Google. 

So the situation right now is highly volatile, but not entirely bubbly. Professor Niall Ferguson suggested recently that potential punters should.. “Think about it this way. The maximum number of bitcoins that can be created is 21m. The number of millionaires in the world, according to Credit Suisse, is 36m. Their total wealth is $128.7 trillion. If millionaires collectively decided to hold just 1% of their wealth as bitcoin, the price would be not $15,000 but north of $60,000. If they raised that to 5%, the right price for bitcoin would be above $300,000."

Maybe, but think about it this way as well. There have to be plenty of state players out there right now considering how handy it would be to propagate the impression that the cryptocurrency has somehow seriously over-reached itself. 

By helping to engineer a significant price correction right now governments in the developed world could achieve a number of significant ends. 

1) Deliver a blow to those members of the global uber-elite who have demonstrated a fairly loose commitment to the ideal of the nation state 
2) Further erode the online influence of techno-libertarians 
3) Shut down the clandestine payments and laundry system that has appeared to be emerging for organised crime, terror groups and other dark-net beneficiaries and 
4) Discredit Bitcoin just enough to permit either the passage of hefty ‘regulation’ or indeed allow for its eventual replacement with more anodyne alternatives. 

They all want to get us hooked on digital money, just not this kind. 

There was a marked dip pre-Xmas, but this may have been a response to the opening of futures markets which have made it easier to bet short, as well as some insider manipulation. Not quite the full debacle that would suit states and big institutions. 

And they really need this to happen before Bitcoin has wheedled its way further into the mainstream and a bursting bubble would inevitably pop the global economy rather more alarmingly. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

La Bodeguita del Medio

This extraneous branch of possibly the most famous drinking hole in Old Havana is situated in a surprisingly non-descript, semi-suburban quarter of the Costa Rican capital. And inauthentically tumbleweed empty at lunchtime.

The original La Bodeguita del Medio opened its doors in 1942 as a local grocery store. Rather like a version of La Antigua's very own 'La Bodegona', but requiring a diminutive.

The proprietor, one Ángel Martínez, then teamed up with a Hungarian called Sepy Dobronyi in 1951 to convert the establishment into something more akin to a bar-restaurant, serving archetypal rural Cuban dishes like ajiaco and popularising the equally quintessential local tipple, the mojito. (It is thought that this cocktail must have more venerable roots than the Daiquiri, which requires more ice.)

These days the Habana Vieja location is ground zero for Hemingway fanboys: one reason I find the Playa del Carmen outlet somewhat preferable, with its lighter Mexi-Cuban fusion grub...even though it is arguably yet more touristy.

'Papa' Hemingway supposedly said 'Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita.' and as a result, the autochthonous venues, both now owned by the island's socialist state, still pack in the punters...though it might be worth noting that for medical reasons Hemingway was not permitted to consume sugar, so Heaven knows what he was actually drinking in these joints. 

Ice may also have been an issue in the aftermath of the Revolution as its production requires copious quantities of electricity.

La Bodeguita uses cane syrup in their mojitos, plus Caribbean spearmint, the imperative ingredient that is replaced with common-all-garden mint in almost all the crappy mojitos one might ever have quaffed.

The American author was notorious for always going 'commando' and farting all persistently, so the bar was possibly not always as filled to the rafters when he was holding court in there. 

And thus this one in San José may not be so inauthentic after all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Individuals with a noted bent towards the irrational often seem to have an aversion to the unthinkable.

The type of person who asks 'ah, but what happened before the Big Bang?' is, as Stephen Hawking once noted, like someone standing on the South Pole wondering which direction is south.

Part of becoming a grown-up intellectual being is the recognition of boundaries.

Nevertheless, the question is not completely invalid. The Big Bang may have been a local event within greater processes, which strain everyday concepts like before and after.

Confronted with grief I have resorted to a more subjective explanation of time, but the truth is that it is rooted in both our conscious and unconscious selves, as biology makes no sense at all without time.


"The consumption of chiles doubled in Europe in the fifteenth century and by 27% in the sixteenth" > Food a Culinary History by Jean-Louis Flandrin et al. 

Hmm. The first part of this statement is at least mathematically accurate. As far as I am aware the first mention of chiles by a European was in a 1493 diary entry by Colombus. This leaves seven years for European chile consumption to double, from 0. And 2x 0 is...

But a 27% increase on zero in the following century? 

As I have noted before, Asian food must have been a little bland before the spread of chiles out of Central America. 

They have only been used in Szechuan cuisine for example since the 19th century....

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

First Fight

We’ve been celebrating this date for 28 years. This cake, which we prepared together last night, is a solid improvement on the soggy ‘Borracho’ I purchased at La Cenicienta in ‘89. I had to walk it uphill to the house in which I was lodging on Chipilapa (now the ITE), and it didn’t arrive in peak condition. 

Waiting in the fridge was a bottle of champagne that I’d had to go all the way to the capital to acquire in a small specialist shop under the Géminis 10 towers. Back then you could not buy champagne in La Antigua for love or money, at least not the authentically Froggy kind with actual grapes involved. It cost me Q125, which sounds cheap enough at today’s rates, but in those days your dollar only bought you just over two quetzales. V was mortified as this was then about half the monthly salary of an office worker. So it’s also the anniversary of our first fight!

Sunday, December 03, 2017


Nietzsche famously said of the French Revolution that it had become thoroughly submerged in its own discourse —  that the underlying ‘text’ had, in effect, become buried beneath all the contemporary critical interpretation.

One of the many unfortunate side effects of the rise of digital media in the past couple of decades is that we appear to have many more French Revolution-type mass chatter-events unfolding around us all the time; the kind where human action is somehow both constrained and amplified by the gabfest.

I seem to recall being straightforwardly opposed to things like BREXIT and the Trump presidency when they first impinged themselves upon my consciousness, yet nowadays have a definite urge to put my fingers in my ears whenever they are mentioned. This, I have to admit, cannot be a good thing.