Thursday, June 30, 2005

Mnemotechny (2)

Children are very often the subjects of some of the most shamefully devious experiments.

Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) attempted to manufacture feral toddlers capable of speaking the pre-Babel 'natural' language of mankind...and God. (In another one of his ground-breaking experiments Freddy locked some convicts in an airtight room until they suffocated, then attempted to observe their souls escaping when the door was opened.)

More recently pyscholgists have been practicing the magical toy-shrinking machine experiment on the pre or proto-linguistic. Seeing the toy apparently shrink is a memorable event for most 2 or 3-year olds, but when reminded of the event 6 months to a year later they are only able to describe it using the limited vocabulary they had at the time, not the words they have acquired since. This reveals something interesting about the links between memory and language and may explain why we are all amnesiacs when it comes to our earliest years.

Lost Blogger?

It's a wonder that Ted isn't a blogger. Maybe his fundamental aversion to mark-up languages like XML and HTML prevents him from indulging.

Gary Wolf reports how Ted's book Computer Lib/Dream Machines was "a collection of individual rants" often separated by transitions asserting that certain observations "didn't fit anywhere else, so they might as well go here".

I loved the job titles the Xanadu team allocated themselves, epecially Gayle Pergamit's Hidden Variable!

Mnemotechny (1)

Gary Wolf's article immediately brought to mind one of Borges' short stories Funes, el Memorioso.

Borges had a precociously shrewd position on mankind's relationship with information, coupled with a prescient understanding of the key dilemmas that the Information Age would expose.

Funes is a crippled street-kid from a small town in Uruguay in the 1880s suffering from an reverse aphasia involving 'perfect' memory and perception.

"Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. He determined to reduce all of his past experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically. Two considerations dissuaded him: the thought that the task was interminable and the thought that it was useless. He knew that at the hour of his death he would scarcely have finished classifying even all the memories of his childhood."

A consequence of this condition is that Funes is "almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen."

With his imagination overawed by particulars, Funes lives in a darkened room, able to attain the abstraction of sleep only with difficulty. He spends his days mentally reconstructing other entire days. (A version of Borges' metaphor of the map that perfectly matches the terrain.)

The narrator uncovers an important paradox: "Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details."

"All our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed. Perhaps we all have the certainty, deep inside, that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything there is to know."

Wolf recounts his amused astonishment when Ted starts camcording his notebook during an interview - an apparently obsessive behaviour that the journalist associates with the pathology of ADD. Yet perhaps Ted is subconsciously laying down a perfect Borgian map to his thinking, or maybe even a complex set of breadcrumbs which can be put together in any number of ways to trace a pathway through all the particulars he's gathered. (Does it ever reach its destination?)

In conversation at least, Ted seems to be delegating part of his attention to a recording device. Whether or not that frees up his mind to perceive things differently is an interesting question, but he does seem to converse in unconventional ways.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


"Another scabby, vacant town..."

As with Shrek, the introduction of a scene-stealing donkey co-protagonist/antagonist is the key to most of the entertainment value in Tim Moore's Spanish Steps.

The blurb on the back and on the inside cover hails Moore as "without doubt the funniest travel writer in the world" and "a writer of considerably more substance" than Bill Bryson. Still, I have to say that I treated the first few chapters as something of a guilty pleasure. Comic and well-written it certainly was, but was there going to be a subtle poetic payload too?

The author has picked a "sin-deductible" itinerary inherantly purged of the "empty decadence" of normal holidaymaking or touring. Yet some way into his pilgrimage he asks himself whether he has "remained a spiritual pigmy, scrabbling foolishly around through the transcendental low-ground, as all the Big Answers pass overhead". Fortunately, his amusing travelogue answers its own charge of "cosmic inadequacy" by asking most of the Medium-sized Questions. As is entirely appropriate to an account of a pilgrim's progress, the prose within expands and deepens, while its author attains life-changing insights like "treat all strangers as if they had paid for your dinner."

Amongst the greatest challenges of such a trans-iberian burro-lugging journey are food that offends "every sense except taste", "the oppressive nudity of bulbous strangers." and daily "getting out of synch with the bed hogging army of enduro freaks".

Moore reveals how, as if in exchange for all the feral donkeys and camels that the Aussies have had to chase around the outback with automatic rifles, northern Spain has become lined with "VapoRub" eucalyptus forests, the result of an experimentation with antipodean fauna back in the 1860s that didn't quite go according to plan. He describes eastern Galicia as "Wales with Lizards".

Today the camino may be a lifestyle choice for the brittle, emotional refugees of consumerism but it was the Medieval world's most well-trodden track - up to one million pilgrims set off for Santiago de Compostela from the Pyrennees each year during the twelfth century. Today however, the camino dissects the Spain I most adore - a country characterised by a unique unevenness of population density, both geographically and temporally, a land of simple pleasures, packed with beautiful locations "nobody can be arsed to catch".

At Astorga Moore pauses to relate the true-ish story of Don Suero de Quiñones who demanded of any that wished to cross the bridge ("el paso honroso") there that they avow the incomparable beauty of his lady, Doña Leonor de Tovar. Terry Jones included similarly daft knights-erratic in both Mony Python and the Holy Grail and Labyrith, but the best parody was undoubtedly belongs to Cervantes. On of Don Quijote's first abortive jousts is with a group of travelling merchants who are inappropriately sceptical when asked to confess that Dulcinea is the fairest maid of them all. "Can we at least see a little portrait...?"

Antigua Guatemala (or La Antigua - the old one) was originally called Santiago, and it is the apostle in his gung-ho matamoros garb who is seen on horseback leaping all three surrounding volcanoes on the city's ancient seal.


One of the highlights of what may have been the short-flowering London summer was Ted Nelson's 68th birthday barbecue at Frode's. During the festivities Ted announced that the occasion also marked the tenth anniversary of Wired's publication of Gary Wolf's article about his work ("the longest running vaporware project in the history of computing") and that he was just about ready now to issue his definitive rebuttal.

I'm in the midst of reading Wolf's piece, which raises all sorts of juicy issues about the role of iconoclastic thinkers and their thoughts, which I shall address piecemeal in this blog over the next period of output.

In one respect at least Ted and I are kindred spirits - hoarders of meanings and associations. Though in my case I have found that this medium has at least allowed me to undertake at least a partial digestion - the essentially unfinished nature of the weblog is a benediction in this respect. (Hence "circling around the object of contemplation".)

Right now I'm trying to think of other major cultural contributors that have either been serial gestators/non-completers or whose actual output represents a sequence of limited spin-offs from a magnum opus that never made it out of their heads. Any suggestions?

In the world of literature Robert Musil springs to mind. Gogol's Dead Souls is another famously incomplete vision, part published and part immolated when its author literally lost the plot.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

No slurping

The gradual march towards the society where all expressions of carnality are regarded as anti-social by the dominant machine class took a tiny hop forward today when the New York Subway issued a new list of banned things - this will now include "sipping from an open container" (I wonder if this excludes those take-away tops you get from Starbucks with a little hole to suck through?) Last year there were moves afoot to ban the taking of photographs on the subway, but this activity is apparently regarded more favourably in 2005. Ditto the registering of voters.

Whatever, Kinga

Saskia the silent assassin has been lured out into dangerous world of deprecating decibels - and as a result she appears to be have been irretrievably holed beneath the waterline.

I couldn't actually disagree with any part of venemous tirade that she directed at Makosi the other night, but in the political context of the game it's served only to pitch her and her satellites into a hot war they don't look like winning. (Brand new housemate Orlaith has already displayed a more sophisticated mastery of the art of assertiveness.)

Last night's snogathon smacked of desperation. The problem is that in spite of the factual acccuracy of her attempted character assassination of mendacious Makosi, it skirted too close to obnoxious nastiness (and ethno-xenophobia even: "People like you always have a chip on their shoulder") given that the matter in question was the trivial issue of the odious Maxwell's booze fix.

Monday, June 27, 2005


Takashi Ishii may be to movies what Ian Schrager is to hotels. So stylish it hurts, but not everything works as it should.

Gonin is a bit hard to follow at first but I found my powers of concentration bucked up in the second hour once the mood had switched to the kind of acute terror found rarely these days even in card-carrying horror movies.

Five individuals, as oddly suited to each other's company as Big Brother housemates, decide to break into the local Yakuza HQ and make off the contents of the safe. The leader of the gang, a gay nightclub owner, is motivated by a desire to repay his debt to the very same mobsters! (For some reason he thinks the Yakuza will be less pissed off with them if they don't actually kill or maim any goons during this raid.)

The story moves from heist to horror as we watch how the five (gonin means five people in Japanese, I can now proudly observe) are systematically stalked and eliminated by Beat Takeshi's impassive nettoyer, who gratifes himself after a killing by sodomising his own brother.

The action takes place in a dystopic Osaka where the criminal underworld appears to be located quite literally in Hades. "Not a feel-good movie", one critic has observed.

Ishii spent 25 years creating manga before turning to cinema, and he does seem to have a comic artist's approach to character. It takes too long for some of the key protagonists to take shape and in several cases you find yourself realising too late that they were actually worth taking a real interest in.

El Otro Lado de la Cama

Not so much Pedro Almodóvar-lite as musical Milan Kundera.

The critics over here panned this movie, and from watching the subtitles I could generally see why. (OK, the songs aren't that great either.) So much depends on gesture, intonation, colourful vocabulary and cultural references. I wouldn't have thought that either Bend it Like Beckham or Shaun of the Dead go down that well in Madrid either.

By my reckoning Y Tu Mama Tambien for example, lost about 30% of its wit in translation. It just happened to feature a set of such comically-pregnant situations that it ultimately didn't matter than much.

The Other Side of the Bed has been accused of being thematically unoriginal - well, my aunt and uncle got it together this way too, drawn into each other's arms when they discovered that their respective spouses had hooked up. Maybe that was unoriginal of them, but the fact is that these webs of friendship, attraction, love and deceit are a resilient feature of adult life.

In some ways this is a more joyful version of Closer, though writer David Serrano chose to do what Marber avoided: include auxilliary characters whose own interactions connect to and compound the main two couple drama.

I enjoyed taxista Rafa's observation that ex-girlfriends are better than girlfriends in that they last for life, and the way his cereberal chum Carlos can never really get more than a couple of words in during their group's bar-room tertulios.

There's a sequel in post-production - Los Dos Lados de La Cama.

The Snakes are Hissing

As Victor the Evictor loved to say last year.

Evictee Roberto has been snapped up by Aldo Zilli who plans to turn him into the new face of televised Italian cookery. He's certainly better off out of the house than in it, as the long-anticipated and potentially bloody showdown between Team Diva and Team Chav seems to have been brought forward by his departure on Friday.

The other day Science amusingly referred to Team Chav as "Tweedle Dumb, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Twat", though the new trio in Big Brother's secret airless hole would appear to be equally deserving of the collective epithet. (Eugene may actually prove less interesting to listen to than the helicopter drone that E4 typically deploys to blank out dodgy dialogue.)

Team Diva have been tentatively exploring their own possibilities for future internecine backstabbings when Cidergate erupted, Vanessa having nasaly whispered to Makosi that Kemal was her fan, not her friend.

The vitriolic response the alco-rustling was led by Maxwell and Saskia - hunchback and hunchfront. "It's the principle", bleeted Saskia, forgetting how her gang had callously deprived the loners and moaners of their vino ration back in the days when their own star was in the ascendant.

Craig looked like a net-gainer in the game of chimpanzee politics just a few days ago, but now that the battle lines are drawn it's not going to be easy for him to move around (and across) so freely.

In contrast Derek's toast appears to have landed butter-side up.


Cervantes realised some way into writing the first book of Don Quijote that something was missing - something that would allow him to fully explore the comic possibilities of his deranged don. That something turned out to be a fat little man and a donkey. The laughs in Shrek owe a lot to the ogre's four-legged sidekick too - remove the burro, and you'd have a much less flavoursome movie.

We were about 20 minutes in before we switched to the Spanish audio track. Somehow it just seemed more 'dubbed' in the English, and you've got to ask questions about Mike Myers' Scottish accent. (Apparently Myers asked to re-record the entire voiceover using this accent once he had already completed it once.) Grouching away in castellano, Shrek became the very image of the kind of hobnail you typically encounter at the reception desk of rural hostales in northern Spain.

It's not quite up to Pixar standards, but Shrek makes the most of a simple story, with a few (but not too many) knowing postmodern winks, and it's all charmingly and inventively written and realised.

Lord Farquaad's conformist drawbridged-community must surely be a sideswipe at Disney's Magic Kingdom and the Small World attraction. His facial features apparently resemble those of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. (a.k.a. Fuckwad)

Shrek 4 has already been announced and Shrek 5 is thought to be on Jeffrey Katzenberg's to-do list.


We've just had an intense seven days of summer, roughly three apiece either side of the solstice, but the season appears to be stuttering already. Still, it lasted long enough to remind us of the pleasures of our lazy riverside existence.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Sugar and Spice

The Independent led with an pretty lame article earlier this week decrying EU Sugar subsidies. Contrasting an aristocrat worth £35m with a subsistence farmer in Mozambique on £300 a year, it shamelessly attempted to lay the blame for the situation where Oxfam told it to - that dastardly EU sugar regime. This involves Geldof levels of disingenuousness.

Mozambique has been witnessing the economic outcomes of a 20 year civil war. Before independence in 1975, its sugar cultivation was characterised by sizeable and often very profitable estates. According to my friend Baksheesh who works in the sugar trade, if prices were freed up the real beneficiaries would be countries like Brazil who would be able to supply to the EU profitably. Mozambique would still be a relatively uncompetitive mess.

"Prices would go up overall since world market would have to adjust upwards to natural EU price which is now kept separate from the rest of the world. There are positives and negatives to everything", he adds.

The EU is planning to reform its regime next year (not initially mentioned by the Indie) but in fact this has not been welcomed by many developing world producers who suspect they will actually lose out from this. (Hence the demands for compensation.)

A reduction in subsidy is likely to result in certain European countries curtailing sugar production altogether causing hardship in places like rural Spain and Italy, as opposed to aristocratic England.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


It's said that the test of a good scientific theory is whether or not it can be falsified.

This week's summer scare theory which amongst other things hypothesises that soy sauce damages fertility would seem to pass that test with flying colours. There are one and a quarter billion Chinese well placed to falsify it.

It's also worth noting that Europe's population was growing very fast in the seventeenth century when beer was consumed at all times in preference to water.

It's time for a summertime embargo on journalists attending scientific conventions - a bit like a hosepipe ban. BBC Breakfast in particular needs to demonstrate an understanding of the difference between the provision of balanced 'news' and 'a new report published today'.

Jarst Bodeez!

Nobody would ever have asked Arnie "where are the bodies?" but apparently this is precisely the question that Spiked is directing at Sir Bob Geldof following his obviously 'Jimmy Hill' story on the Jonathan Ross show about how an Italian island shoreline is being visited almost daily by bloated African corpses.

While Holden Caulfield fretted over where the ducks went in winter, I often find myself pondering the improbable lack of inanimate flesh in daily life. (It's less of a problem in Guatemala where most major thoroughfares feature a couple of steaming stiffs every day.)

And it's not just a mankind issue - why aren't our forest floors not littered with John Doe squirrels? I know that Nature has a well-rehearsed tidy-up act, but it's almost too good to be true!

On the subject of Nature and its imponderables, exactly why are those little mice that scurry around beneath the tracks at Leicester Square Underground station precisely the right grimy brown colour of the ageing concrete below the platform?

The Darwinistic explanation is clear - random mutation followed by a selection pressure favouring mice that were better camouflaged. Hello, selection pressure? Does that mean that there are some hitherto undiscovered carniverous mouse-eaters lurking down on the Piccadilly Line?

Guerrilla Marketing

Somebody obviously doesn't want Herbie to ride again.

Actually, it was hard not to reach the conclusion that this particular piece of street art resulted from a burning mattress being thrown onto the car's roof from a second floor window.

Might 'a woman scorned' have been involved? Or were the Fulham branch of Al Qaeda practicing a for a new suicide mission in Leicester Square?

Perhaps the whole thing just a clever piece of guerilla marketing for Herbie: Fully Loaded ?

Princess Mononoke

The Japanese habit of populating their stories with characters of indeterminate moral status is something that has interested me for a while and I've commented how, in the pyschological horror genre, it adds an extra layer of enigma that usually works well.

I'm not so sure it works so well here though. One of the Disney team assembled to handle the dubbing for the anglophone market observes on the extras disc that Miyazaki's film has "many themes, not the least of which is Man's relationship to Nature". Indeed, there seem to be many different, complex and often ambiguous themes and characters, yet the message that emerges from them isn't really that much more sophisticated than the one that trumpeted itself from Michael Jackson's Earthsong video.

This won't stop me being a fan of Miyazaki - Even with the very best modern CGI Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy still failed to match the 'fantasy' tableaux that Studio Ghibli has taken to such great heights. I still can't wait to see Howl's Moving Castle.

Perhaps the problem is simply that I saw Spirited Away first. That is an animated film that I can watch all or part of over and over again for the sheer pleasure of visiting its imaginary backdrops. Princess Mononoke shares Spirited Away 's visual inventiveness, unpredictable story trajectories and astounding landscapes improbably constructed out of the same raw material as our own natural and material worlds, but somehow it's not a place I will hurry back to.

"Too messy" V also concluded. It is also quite brutal in places, perhaps unnecessarily so. I would have thought most under-10s would tend to be even more traumatised by it than I was by the fairly comparable Watership Down in '78!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Derek Watch

Derek is arguably the pinnacle of BB housemateydom, the ideal to which all others appear to be aspiring - the 100% authentic phoney.

He does say some outrageous things. For example, yesterday he observed that there is nothing you could ever say to Vanessa that would stimulate her to say something meaningful. And, even more jaw-droppingly, "Science is the first black man I have known that would make me go out and join the BNP...tomorrow".

Having made it clear to most of his younger housemates that he considers them to be lazy, ignorant peasants, it would seem that his days of televisual encarceration are numbered.

Yet it was a very smart idea to put someone in there who thinks of himself as an outsider to the something-for-nothing celebrity culture. You get the feeling watching Derek that the pressure to conform within the society has has chosen has suppressed some of his natural drama. And his close friendship with the Hamiltons suggests that he's closer to the torrid corruptions of Heat than he might otherwise be prepared to admit.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Cultural Hyphenation

Chris Anderson has consistently hailed Bollywood as a potential trailblazer for Long Tail Economics. Yet this is probably precisely the area where he could do with refining his working definition of "niche".

When SKY first launched on the ASTRA satellite over Europe it was briefly possible to watch a number of German channels, even a Mexican one (Galavision). Yet once Murdoch had migrated to the digital dishes, these opportunities for expanding one's horizons were curtailed. There's now a 'Specialist' section on the SKY DIGITAL menu, but these channels cater for people whose identities (as opposed to just their tastes) are inherently transnational - hybridised from birth, unavoidably acculturated.

Across the pond these people are known as hyphenated Americans. What perhaps originated in political correctness, has typically resulted in an overwhelming level of choice on the shelf: Korean-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans are now all going to get their own MTV stations, according to the New York Times. This abundance of bicultural, hyphenated MTV may look like a more niche-centric broadcasting model, but I remember the days when all we had over here was MTV Europe and, mama mia, they played stuff like Eros Ramazzotti.

It might have been one size fits all, but given the way the 'hit' industry is constructed geographically, it gave the viewer a chance to be exposed to material outside of their local mainstream. The likes of MTV-Desi simply reproduce the captive audience dynamics of the old model along broadly ethnic lines.

Apathetic from Mayfair

Looks like my chum over at the Schadenfreude Blog has successfully terrorised his way to a new second build Land Rover Discovery. I shall miss having to empathise with his epic struggle.

It's given me the idea for a new clause in all contracts with Web design agencies - public atonement for any "first build F*** Ups" does sound like a very good idea.


"Marketing is not about trickery or even insincerity. It's about spreading ideas that you believe in, sharing ideas you're passionate about... and doing it with authenticity."

Or so says Seth in his latest retort to the marketers are liars allegation. There's an implied separation of contagious mechanism from viral payload here. In my view good marketing is as much about the quality and authenticity of the latter as it is about passionately sneezing the news out to consumers.

On the specific issue of good cellists versus good marketers:

- Yo Yo Ma had to possess a payload of unquestionable talent before he went about spreading himself
- Much of the Ma publicity is targeted at precisely the kind of folk that haven't heard of any other cellists
- Ma got lucky when Jacqueline Du Pré kicked it leaving him the renowned Davydov cello. (Some co-branding ensued...)

Big Slasher

If the Big Brother house were literally a house of horror whose eponymous owner wears a grimy ice-hockey mask and carries a sharp and deadly weapon, how would Hollywood handle the sequence of bloody departures?

And who would be left for the final confrontation? Last man standing is actually most often a woman, but so far over the years BB has failed to consistently reproduce this trope.

Saskia appears to have some of the necessary Sigourney Weaver/J-LO gutsiness, but her (current) male lead is a low-rent knife magnet.

Most screenwriters would find ways for her to end up in the arms of Italian paratrooper Roberto, the only housemate apparently capable of dealing with any situation more challenging than getting out of bed. (But then most screenwriters could learn a lot from watching how the people you expect to be drawn together in BB actually aren't, and how the eddies of controversy that pass through the group foster surprisingly multi-dimensional bonds and resentments.)

Makosi is a possible alternative amazon, but something tells me she's being stalked by a come-uppance that will catch up with her sooner or later.

Thus far at least Derek and Science have avoided the terminal logic of "the brother always gets it" convention. My suspicion is that Mary, the much-abducted witch bitch would have merited a longer stay in the story, while Vanessa sports the kind of basic thickness of intellect and thinness of personality that predictably delimits life expectancy in these circumstances.

Craig and Kemal - there's room for one of these in the final reel, but not both. The unlucky one can be expected to last long into Act 2 before going down spectacularly.

As we saw recently in House of Wax, a large group of post-teenager anti-victims can be effectively divided into two to increase their points of cull-ability. Something similar seems to have occurred 'naturally' in the BB house.

From Anthony and Octavian to Hitler and Stalin, two large power blocks usually collaborate to finish off the minor competition before addressing their own more fundamental quarrel. And so the two candidates for the cool group in this year's BB could have been expected to focus on removing the marginals for at least another week or so, but instead I suspect that the nominations announced later today will show that Makosi's clique have launched a sneakily preemptive Operation Barbarossa of their own - and the first target lying just over the border in this case is Anthony.

Ay, or is that Aieeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Shaun of the Dead

Are the nation's upper lips still stiff or have they gone slack?

Whatever the answer, this lower-middle-class zombie spoof left me feeling vaguely ashamed to be British (a state of mind further juiced up by the antics of Maxwell Trotter Ward on Big Brother.)

The writers were obviously trying to send up more than just George Romero's recently deceased but now not so wide awake horror format, but whilst the visual comedy scores a few telling head-shots with the old cricket bat, the verbal gags are like an ineffectual rain of glancing blows.

Can dogs look up?

"Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals": Winston Churchill

Contagion, end of

At the end of the day I'm not the only one to have taken note of the extraordinarily pestillent verbal meme which heads up this sentence. Indeed, at the end of the day, it's dog eat dog, end of, observed the cultural transmission expert that Channel 4 dredged up for their Big Brother catch-up show last night. There have been over 200 ends of the day on this year's show and every housemate has now said it at least once. This marks my final contribution to the spread of the virus.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Intelligent Design

At the end of the day the argument between the proponents of intelligent design and the neo-Darwinists is one about the nature of intelligence itself.

The ID camp can't handle the idea that life took shape as the result of a process that was mindless - which is the clear implication of the work of materialist philosophers like Daniel Dennet.

No, they say, life-forms look like they were designed by an intelligent designer, ergo they were.

Now when they argue that random mutation coupled with natural selection can't account for all the biochemical intricacies we see in Nature they may actually have a point, but their alternative explanation requires the intervention of intelligence from outside Nature.

You get the impression that while the materialists see self-conscious intelligence as a bizarre aberration within a mindless material universe - our peculiar aberration as people - the ID camp regard the source of intelligent design as some sort of super-person with essentially the same mental attributes of an ordinary human being but generally operating on an infinite scale.

The materialists are locked into a worldview that refuses to acknowledge any other way of perceiving reality except as a the cumulative result of the interactions of tiny, individual pieces of matter.

Cosmologists might be telling us that time, randomness, three-dimensional space etc might all be considered artefacts of perception, but the Neo-Ds aren't listening. For them evolution is a sequential algorithm that takes tiny things and under certain conditions and over geological timeframes creates larger, more interesting structures.

They're just not that interested whether along the way it results in patterns (such as intelligence) that mirror fundamental properties and processes of the universe at many different scales and possibly across different dimensions as well.

Nice Fringe

Chris Anderson has been discussing the noise level in The Long Tail with John Hagel.

The latter is a self-confessed long-term escapee from mainstream taste, who claims that "the signal to noise ratio decreases as I move up the tail", and that "the real that the sheer quantity (rather than the quality) of items increases as we move down the tail and the ready availability of information about these items diminishes - that's what increases the difficulty of connecting with relevant resources as we move down the tail."

Anderson has responded with the results of some desk research on his own and his friends' music collections and found that "In the big picture of the Long Tail, there are so many items that even today's niche looks relatively popular. For instance, the average sales rank in my own collection was 25,000. That may sound super-fringe, but it still puts my average in the top 5% of Amazon's offerings. You've got to pull back and see the whole market. And at that resolution, the falling s/n ratio curve I originally described emerges for almost all of us. "

It seems to me that there's a class of people in the marketplace for whom the distinction between the product and information about the product is usually fairly clear. For these people information technologies give the rational consumer a better chance of making the connection between taste and target. And most probably, they sought personal definition through distinction long before the new tools emerged.

But just how representative are they? And are the new technologies converting more and more consumers into fringe activists?

I think it remains the case that for a large number of people the information content of the product and information about the product tends to blend at a semiotic level. So, instead of the indexical relationship between them (such as all this talk of signal and noise suggests), you often have a symbolic one instead.

The Long Tail may just be one aspect of a two-pronged phenomenon:
  • on the one hand the scope of the information index is being widened
  • on the other the scope of dense semiotic connectivity is spreading beyond what used to be the more contained mainstream.

Cheque Please

At the end of the day No Free Lunch Theorems appear to be telling us something rather counterintuitive about search algorithms. I first encountered these ideas in an article in the New Yorker by H. Allen Orr about Intelligent Design (more on that another time).

"Consider a search for high ground on some unfamiliar, hilly terrain. You’re on foot and it’s a moonless night; you’ve got two hours to reach the highest place you can. How to proceed? One sensible search algorithm might say, “Walk uphill in the steepest possible direction; if no direction uphill is available, take a couple of steps to the left and try again.” This algorithm insures that you’re generally moving upward. Another search algorithm—a so-called blind search algorithm—might say, “Walk in a random direction.” This would sometimes take you uphill but sometimes down. Roughly, the N.F.L. theorems prove the surprising fact that, averaged over all possible terrains, no search algorithm is better than any other. "

(The proponents of intelligent design proceed as follows: natural selection is an algorithm so therefore it's no better than any other way of generating bio-chemical complexity. The reasons why this approach is misguided are explained here.)

However, when I read the analogy above I immediately suspected that Orr might have exaggerated the case against search methodologies.

At the end of the day, Google works doesn't it? I still can't say I fully understand the maths, but from these descriptions I think it can be said that the prescription applies specifically to generalised search algorithms and the ways that their performance compares to highly specialised algorithms.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

All Washed Up

At the end of the day that rather pointless shipwreck scene in Kingdom of Heaven, turns out to be nothing less than the original opening as conceived by screenscribbler William Monahan. Ridley Scott persuaded him to kick-off the story with Balian located in a gloom-ridden French landscape, but somehow the shipwreck stayed. A cinematic spandrel?

In another early draft the film commenced with two modern day reporters taking cover in Godfrey's tomb while assorted local religious groups attempt to kill each other outside.

Of Material Import

At the end of the day I would describe myself as a non-materialist atheist.

I firmly believe that Western society in particular could benefit greatly from a full and frank discussion between atheists of the materialist sort (Richard Dawkins et al.) and those, like myself, of the non-materialist variety.

Unfortunately, Dawkins and his like have been determined to dodge this confrontation, preferring to affect that they are locked in a vital and fairly perpetual debate with monotheistic creationists, the advocates of intelligent design and the massed ranks of the confused and irrational.

These are soft targets and they know it. Furthermore, they are unlikely to ever be vulnerable to an on-going assault of dry reasoning.

At the end of the day

One of the senior partners at the advertising agency I joined back in '91 was the first person of my acquaintance that made extensive use of the phrase in the title of this post. Here we are in 2005, and several of the BB housemates appear unable to start any sentence without adding this prefix. It's a pandemic.

So in a spirit of capitulation to the zeitgeist I shall see if it does indeed add a touch of terminality to my blog posts during the rest of the week.


Some interesting news from the excavations at Waka' (El Peru) in Northern Guatemala, some 40 miles west of Tikal.

Two young-adult female skeletons have been located in stacked formation in a tomb beneath a broad landing on a pyramid stairway. Neither had dental cavities indicating a diet rich in meat and fruit, as opposed to the corn with which the commoners lined their panzas. This is perhaps ironic as the experts on the scene are insisting that the pair were most likely sacrificed to the Maize god. One was pregnant.

The pottery around them dates their burial to around AD 350, the Early Classic period.

Last year a Queen's tomb was dicovered at the same site.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Living in a box

Saturday morning's individual task was rather like a bizarre performance art installation - the balking toxes, as V put in with one of her little roonerspisms. We switched on to find all the housemates chattering away from inside cardboard boxes with their photo pasted on the outside and embarked on an endurance test that was to last almost 27 hours.

The prize was a luxury three course meal for three successive nights. Self-manufactured toff Derek Laud Haw Haw cynically tempted Craig out of his box by reminding him that he'd cited "toast and jam" as his favourite food on the forms they had to complete before entering the house!

"I've never had a problem with my own company...I bet it's a damn sight more comfortable than where they found Saddam Hussein" Derek preached from inside his new gaff.

When it was all over both he and Roberto both claimed to prefer it inside the box than outside where interactions with other people's company and the constant scrutiny of the cameras are unavoidable. I preferred Del Boy inside his box too. V says he reminds her of my mother!

Meanwhile she hates Maxwell with a passion as he typifies the complacency, selfishness and vulgarity of the English everyman: the "I'm just here to enjoy myself" approach to life. It particularly irks her in the context of her own experience of middle-order life in Guatemala. A good proportion of the middle-class Westerners that flock to Guatemala appear to be seeking their own lost authenticity in the routines of its rural poor. (The urban equivalents are generally more scary.) But in a country where extremes of wealth and poverty are stable and lasting, the real front line is occupied by the chronically unstable middle-classes.

PE Teacher and former paratrooper Roberto Conte has been at the centre of all the mealtime bickering. He certainly seems to share V's perspective that food is the basis of all civisilised manners. (Amongst the many human divides the BB format exposes is that between people for whom 'food' consists primarily of versatile staples and those who like to scribble "biscuits" at the top of their shopping lists.) She can't comprehend why the other housemates fail to realise that in this context the Italian is like an alien being that they could learn from.

Other than Roberto, V has warmed to Anthony aka Chico Importante who she regards as a true innocent that rarely seems to be harbouring cynical thoughts. He has many good qualities, but the sad thing is that he almost certainly won't build on them, she says.

The Counterculture Countered

"By the early 21st century, the counterculture's governing ideas of rebelliousness and "cool" have become the "central ideology" of consumerism. Wherever you find capitalism at its most vigorous - as in the marketing of sportswear and pop music - a "rebel sell" philosophy is at work."

These are some interesting ideas that I recently found in Andy Beckett's review of The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter - which must surely be worth a read.

These two Canadian academics argue in their new book that as Capitalism has switched from the supply of material needs to the provision of personal distinction, it has absorbed much of the discourse of its former opposition and that dissent has itself become commodified. The disciples of No Logo are "outwardly iconoclastic but actually status-seeking and snobbish."

The authors speak of "the society-wide triumph of the logic of the high school". For the past thirty years political rebellion has been steadily transformed into a lifestyle choice (Frida Kahlo as fridge magnet) and an increasingly youth-orientated one at that. This ensures that it is both transient and hopelessly entangled with the urge to acquire short-term prestige.


Plenty of good foreplay, but no orgasm. So highly enjoyable, to a point. We both had a suspicion that our delight might be disguising a steady march towards a semi-satisfactory conclusion, almost from the start - which happens to be one of the better movie openings in recent years. (Team America has a good one too!)

The plot situation is of the kind that in itself requires a Houdini-like escape act. Everything could be as it seems, but where would you go from there? Lasting ambiguity or a radical twist are the two most common approaches to the predicament (the former more common in Latin American literature, the latter in North American cinema).

In a move reminiscent of A Tale of Two Sisters, Birth opts for a partial resolution two thirds of the way in, but in this case the extended epilogue which takes the place of a real climax fails to re-spring the tension or re-establish any ambiguity. (One suspects that the co-writers were ultimately beset with ambivalence about their conclusion, as opposed to suggestive ambiguity.)

Nicole Kidman has always been close to the top of V's list of least favourite thesps - 'La Pinocha', and she doesn't cover herself in glory here, though the blame may have to be shared with the script. We felt we needed much more from Anna in the key moments when she chooses to believe and then un-believe. In a fictional world populated by so many unsympathetic characters, many of whom seem to harbour dark secrets, we need her to offer us more of a beacon. The concert hall scene is her only real high point.

While The Sixth Sense benefitted from the enormous charm of it's child star, Haley Joel Osment, Birth's Cameron Bright is in comparison Wayne Ronney junior. (Muy parecido a ese chiriz en About a Boy) V felt sure that the mood of blank potentuousness that surrounded this child couldn't explain away his lack of Patrick Swayze-style joy at the 'reunion' with his wife.

Birth has a British Director and a Frenchman amongst its writers, but it's a shame that the film was produced by the nation least equipped psychologically to handle the erotic insinuations beneath it carries in its subconscious. This is another one of those stories that the Europeans, and the French in particular, might have done better on their own. (And the theme of class never really works well in American movies.)

As if to compensate for the reticence about the undercurrents the director and production team focus to good effect on the surface - the uptown appartment block, the patrician interiors, the Saturnine aspect of Central Park.

There are loads of clever scene transitions, and I loved the birthday cake device which allows Sean to sneak unnoticed into the family inner sanctum. We were both also amused when Joseph provided an explanation of the significance of the bridge scene for the benefit of the popcorn- spilling latecomers that tend to miss the title sequence.

Alexandre Desplat's score is superb.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Misanthrope Porn

Another eviction night looms. This year's fractious housemates have burned brighter and faster. There's a mood of collapse and it's only the end of week two. Big Brother is a marvellous thing - at once a celebration of the freaky and the universal, the hateful and the compassion-inspiring. One minute a housemate arouses violent fantasies in viewer and fellow-contestant alike, the next minute they inflame a sense of basic human fellowship and belonging. One way or another that house brings out the worst and the best in everyone, viewers and viewed.

Signs without Signifiers

Commentators are plentiful that refer (ironically?) to the essentially self-referential nature of our popular culture. Does anyone know however if someone has written a book which looks a bit more deeply into this phenomenon?

Some questions that have occurred to me recently are:

- As people grow older within their popular culture they must be creating a map of it in their heads, partly indexical, partly symbolic. Does this mean that people within different age-groups perceive the connections differently?
- Are people living longer useful/youthful cultural lives?
- What specific attributes of the modern digital information media (speed, volume, storage etc.) are the biggest catalysts of denser, more reciprocal connections?
- Is meaning really becoming detached from its moorings and is this a cumulative process as Baudrillard would probably suggest.

Monkey Business

The first piece of research discussed in this post by Anil Dash proves nothing about our rationality except that economists typically harbour the dubious notion that the idea of money that we carry around in our heads is purely quantitative.

In fact it's highly unlikely that we would manage our budgets like a mental spreadsheet - there are different categories of wants and different emotional contexts to purchases. (For instance, the effort we put into buying a new TV may exceed that we're prepared to allocate to a similarly-priced but more regular, overhead-type cost.)

In the second study involving the Capuchin monkeys it's unclear whether the subjects understood the gambling game. Otherwise, of course the monkey that has two grapes will object to losing one? The mathematics of survival are brutally simple and selfish. As for us humans, there's a gameshow format in there somwhere. win

Has anyone else noticed how the real voice of Maria Sharapova has been retired from the Palmolive ads in time for Wimbledon? Stephen Hawking could have put more passion into the voiceover; there was something cold and creepy about it. "And when your Centre Court moment comes..." , you experience the Siberian chill. Brrrrrr.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Getting Medieval

In an email yesterday Frode rounded on my recent critique of Kingdom of Heaven:

"Not 100% historic? Neither are cowboy movies. ALL movies, apart from sci-fi, are set in some historic period, why do they all have to be historical documentaries?"

I do actually agree with this. In fact my beef with Scott was the way his medieval epic appears to have fallen between the two stools of accuracy and drama. (A fate Gladiator avoided by cloaking itself more explicitly and successfully in the garb of myth. )

However, the relationship between History and its cinematic representation is on reflection worthy of a monograph. (There appears to be nothing in this space already on Amazon...). For the time being however here are some general observations:

History being history, it rarely conforms to the three act CHNS (Classic Hollywood Narrative System) in terms of the way it sets up story, character, incident and structure. As I said in my earlier post, the entertainment needs of the audience do require that the screenwriter treats recorded events essentially as raw material.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar the historical Cid failed to die at the seige of Valencia and so was not fastened in a lifeless state to his white charger in order to cut a swathe through the terrified Moorish horde gathered on the beach. But it sure made for a great cinematic climax.

Long before Hollywood, there was Will Shakespeare, the absolute master of the re-engineering of reported historical fact. Yes, there was a shaggy Scottish usurper called Macbeth, but do we care? And when I think of Julius Caesar I think primarily of "Et tu Brute?" (both in the play and in Asterix the Gladiator!)

Since the Greeks first came up with the idea, drama has shaped our historical consciousness in important ways.

Scholars may fret over whether Richard III was really such a so-and-so as the bard portrayed him, and will argue that the reputation of the house of York was a pressing political issue in Elizabethan times, but the fact is that it no longer really matters to us.

The kind of history that does matter to us is usually more recent history. Wanton alterations or inaccuracies in films about the Second World War or even about the Balkan conflicts are often interpreted as overtly political acts. Ten years ago a film about Europe's Holy War against the Islamic states in the Levant would probably have been able to be as inaccurate as it liked. Recent historical events have telescoped our sense of the history that matters, so there's no use pretending that Kingdom of Heaven is exempt from this sort of topical scrutiny.

If I ever get round to writing a book about Cinema and History, the Middle Ages will make an obvious choice for Volume One.

Like an American the (generalised) Medieval person could be said to have possessed a limited historical perspective and inhabited a culture with a marked tendency to self-mythologise. As a result many film-makers have represented the middle ages in a manner akin to the way that the era saw itself i.e heroic feats of chivalry, courtly love etc.

The medieval imagination was notoriously good at making the most out of its own unpromising historical circumstances. A few desultory skirmishes between invading Anglo-Saxons and retreating Britons became the basis for the elaborate Arthurian legends, while an opportunistic piece of Basque terrorism practiced on Charlemagne's rearguard in the Pyrenees was re-worked into an heroic last stand for the flower of Frankish chivalry against a vast Islamic host - Le Chanson de Roland. (The fact that much of the activity of the earliest printing presses a few hundred years later was dedicated to churning out mediocre re-treadings of the same old chivalric storylines empowers the satire in Cervantes' Don Quijote. KofH's script might well have merited inclusion the literary auto da fe at casa Quijote.)

The other approach to the period is "warts and all" - depicting it as a thoroughly umodern, unreconstructed and generally smeggy sort of place to spend one's alloted time. (The Name of the Rose etc.)

Both of these themes are present to some extent in Kingdom of Heaven, but Scott's commitment to either is fairly loose. His response to the imperfect genre-fication of this part of history has been to import motifs from other more established genres.

Several books have been written about those "cowboy movies" and the different ways that they have mythologised the American Inner Imperium across the decades. I strongly suspect that Kingdom of Heaven consciously borrows from the Western corpus - such as the scene where Balian awaits three potential assassins under a tree. And as you can usually tell from the latest Western what America is currently thinking about its historical mission and the unfortunate tribes that got in its way, in years to come people will regard this film primarily as an early twenty first century liberal take on religious conflict.

Personally, I'd like to see more films about the middle ages that explore less common themes, such as the parallels with today's developing world. And whilst the period successfully incubated what we now regard as the modern Western outlook, it also saw the brief flourishing of some significant alternatives, which were either forcibly suppressed by the medieval mainstream or ultimately blended into it on their own accord. There's a clear case to be made for the relevance of these to our general historical understanding; an opportunity is being missed.

One interesting example of the exchange between cinema and history in the last couple of years was Walter Salles The Motorcycle Diaries - a personal docu-story stalked by powerful shades of history and myth. The film has certainly made one young man's personal travel journal accessible to many who might not otherwise know or care to know that much about el Che. Salles' films typically adopt a documentary style, which conveys a sense of accuracy even when facts are being embellished. In this film, important details are omitted and new moments constructed. These changes have the effect of simultaneously making the story more universal, while at the same time feeding the myth which exists outside of it. This end result is ambivalent, but it's clever and handles its source material in a more deliberate and controlled way than Scott did his.

Orale Carnal

Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and more recently Closer clearly harbours some downbeat views on relationships, and Carnal Knowledge was probably his least ambiguously unsentimental take on the masculine contribution to sexual real-politik.

I first saw this film one night with V over a decade ago, and we both recall being far more impressed than we were with this renewed acquaintance. She used to number it amongst her all-time favourites. Maybe when you first see it you can better sense the ground being broken?

One of the most prominent novel techniques that Nichols clearly revelled in is that of leaving the camera on the face and torso of one character during a conversation involving several others outside the shot.

Such humour as there is is of the malicious sort and you need to be in the appropriately negative frame of mind for that. Back in 1971 the print was seized and film faced charges of obscenity in the U.S. Supreme Court. Odd perhaps, because there's really not that much sex or nudity, but Jack Nicholson does get to say "cunt" in amusing circumstances. (Proof again that only some people can use this word without appearing to be one themselves.)

Obscene more by implication than representation perhaps. The judges decided that Carnal Knowledge "did not depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way", though they might have added that it does suggest that the sexual conduct of the average male tends to the nasty (and the sad). In the end Feiffer's story would have us pity these sad specimens who have spent thirty years finding out the hard way that their carnal expectations are never going to be endorsed by their experience.

The first female object that both friends bounce off is provided by Candice Bergen (who auditioned unsuccessfully for the part of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, played by the late Anne Bancroft.) At the time Art Garfunkel and Ann-Margaret were viewed as odd casting decisions, but both acquitted themselves well enough.

Jack Nicholson has an extended rant which is clearly a precursor to some of his more famous later interpretations, and apparently left him unable to speak for a day after the scene was shot. At one point he shouts "heeeeeeeeeeeeeres Bo-bby"!

Otra Derrota

Things are looking down again for Guatemala's hopes for Germany 2006 after their defeat last night to Costa Rica. With the score at 2-2, Paulo César Wanchope snatched a late winner for the ticos during extra time. Coach Ramón Maradiaga reckons the opposition was unconvincing in victory and that provides some scope for optimism. Next up Panama on August 17, but the real decider will be the home tie against Costa Rica on 12/10, the final day of CONCACAF qualifying.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Unas líneas de Byron que combinaron bien con mi humor durante el fin de semana pasada – las saqué del poema For Inez, que se encuentra dentro del primer canto de Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

It is that settled, ceaseless gloom
The fabled Hebrew wanderer bore,
That will not look beyond the tomb,
But cannot hope for rest before.

What exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where’er I be,
The blight of life - the demon Thought.

Yet others rapt in pleasure seem,
And taste of all that I forsake:
Oh! may they still of transport dream,
And ne’er, at least like me, awake!

Y mas adelante en el segundo canto, estas palabras que captan casi perfectamente la amargura de dejar atrás vistas extraordinarias:

That he who there at such an hour hath been,
Will wistful linger on that hallowed spot;
Then slowly tear him from the witching scene,
Sigh forth one wish that such had been his lot,
Then turn to hate a world he had almost forgot.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Amongst a number of hilariously harsh short stories by SAKI I've read this week is this one in which the narrator is haunted by the mean-spirit of a tight-fisted acquaintance. Before tormenting his parsimonious pal into an early grave, the narrator had related that:

"I have known him indulge in agonies of perjury rather than admit the incriminating possession of a copper coin when change was needed to tip a waiter...The knowledge of this amiable weakness offered a perpetual temptation to play upon Laploshka's fears of involuntary generosity. To offer him a lift in a cab and pretend not to have enough money to pay the fair, to fluster him with a request for a sixpence when his hand was full of silver just received in change..."

We all know people like this!

I also enjoyed The Background in which Henri Deplis, a commercial traveller from Luxembourg, finds that he has become the human canvas for a priceless work of art, The Fall of Icarus, etched into his skin by a body art genius. Unable to pay his debt to the tattoo artist's widow, ownership of the masterpiece passes to the City of Bergamo:

"Public interest and official vigilance increased as the matter became more widely known, and Deplis was unable to take a simple dip in the sea or river on the hottest afternoon unless clothed up to the collar-bone in a substantial bathing garment. Later on the authorities of Bergamo conceived the idea that salt water might be injurious to the masterpiece, and a perpetual injunction was obtained which debarred the muchly harassed commercial traveller from sea bathing under any circumstances."

When told that he will no longer be able to travel due to Italy's strict export controls, Deplis turns to politics. The Icarus is eventually irretrievably ruined when at an anarchists' convention one of his fellow delegates breaks a phial full of corrosive liquid over his back.

"In the quieter streets of Paris, especially in the neighbourhood of the Ministry of Fine Arts, you may sometimes meet a depressed, anxious-looking man, who, if you pass him the time of day, will answer you with a slight Luxemburgian accent. He nurses the illusion that he is one of the lost arms of the Venus de Milo, and hopes that the French Government may be persuaded to buy him."

Monday, June 06, 2005

Monkey See, Monkey Do

This morning, during an early morning ride down from Kingsbury on the Jubilee Line a fine-suited, silver-haired man in the seat next to me was reading a book flattened out across his leather briefcase. The chapter title caught my eye: Consultants. Ride them like Horses. By the time we reached Baker Street he was asleep.

KFC's recent commercial showing call centre workers singing with their mouths full has become Britain's most complained about ad, after the the ASA received 1,671 complaints.

It rejected them: "As teaching good table manners is an ongoing process needing frequent reminders at meal times, we do not agree that the advertisement would have a detrimental effect".

Hardly surprising if you think about it- any acknowledgement that watching people behaving uncouthly on TV might actually contribute to the spread of bad manners in general would represent an important if indirect concession to the persistent grousers who insist that the violence on our screens feeds the violence in the world around us.

I guess they migh have had resorted to this tried and tested line of argument: that only those already pre-disposed to sing with their mouths full are at risk from KFC's ad!

There's an interesting post here by Dan Jaffe (of ANA - Association of National Advertisers) which points out that the childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions during a decade that overall above-the-line expenditures and the number of food, beverage and restaurant ads seen by children under age 12, have declined. Meanwhile Societies like Sweden that have banned advertising to children have not been able to reduce their obesity rates.

Anyway, it's been a while since an ad made any sort of impression on me, but last week two did:

- Esure have made appropriately memorable use of a mouse character to promote their online service. Nearly a decade of mainstream eBusiness and I'm genuinely surprised that this is (apparently) the first time such an easily-recommendable idea has been realised. And in a sector where channel-personification was deployed to such great effect by Direct Line.

- The AA's new ad portrays some of the curious circumstances in which those little yellow vans have been called out to save the day. It's one of those ads you used to see a lot of in the early 90s: a series of little human-interest vignettes set to classical music. You can tell how this one started: "What data do you have on unusual call-outs?" It's still very well done and stands out as the technique has falled into dis-use of late.

The Flying Dustbin

Day 11. The removal of the psychotic psychic hasn't prevented a rash of confrontations in the Big Brother house this weekend. So far this year the protagonisms and antagonisms are banding and disbanding according to the issue of the moment.

Gossip hacks are united in pointing to cross-dressing Kemal as a likely winner, hoping that none of us have spotted what an odious little creep he is. As for slightly unhinged street sage Science, soon it may not be just his hairstyle that's in need of a restraining order.

Derek, the dapper cross-dresser of stereotypes is providing an amusing political commentary from the inside.

Someone was humming the ASDA tune yesterday and E4 neglected to edit it out with the usual tweeting noises.

On Sunday we prepared ourselves a delicious breakfast based on one of Roberto's well-received late night recipes - French Toast with a layer of mozzarella, a rocket salad, sliced banana and miel de palma (palm tree honey) from La Gomera.

Kung Fu Tennis

"A bit too good to be true" was V's verdict on Raphael Nadal after we had watched him despatch Mariano Puerta (and earlier her personal favourite Roger Federer) at Roland Garros. She will concede that Nadal sports a rear end superior to any on view even in the women's tour, a genuine matador's backside, which was treated to the appropriate fanfares throughout the final on Sunday.

The day before Mary Pierce had played as if she'd been paid to throw her match against Henin-Hardenne. Nadal found Puerta to be a more worthy final obstacle, but under the expectant gaze of his King, the young mayorquino reached a plateau of form that proved as invincible as Asterix after a heavy magic potion session.

In the semi-final Federer's grace and economy of movement were made to look non-commital and uninventive. It's a shame, because Roland Garros and Roger Federer need each other. Nadal is a special talent, but will need to show signs at Wimbledon in a couple of weeks that he's more than just a clay-court specialist.

Meanwhile Guatemala, missing both Ruiz and Pezzarossi, lost at home 0-2 to Mexico, but fortunately the USA also stuffed the ticos. Wednesday's game between the two recently-drubbed Central American teams is now a must-win for Guatemala if they're to keep their World Cup dream alive.

Sun, Sand and Sangria

Writing about the unlikely medical expertise of the 12th century crusaders in Kingdom of Heaven last week I neglected to mention my recent discovery (in the pages of Don Quijote) that Sangria originally signified bloodletting...of the medicinal sort.


"Violence is indispensable to get other messages across. This bothers me a lot" observes Takeshi Kitano in the documentary made during the making of Hana-Bi (Fireworks).

This is the most self-indulently arty Kitano film I've yet seen; his own music and paintings are prominent, arguably over prominent. The score sounds a bit like the theme from some execrable seventies series and tends to drown out the action in places.

Clearly the order in which you experience the works of an important artist will be crucial to your appreciation of their greatness. The first Joseph Conrad novel you choose to read, the first Almodovar film you see - these experiences define all future expectations.

The maturing of Almodovar has also resulted in greater emotional complexity, but this has not always translated into greater depth. (Conrad is generally regarded to have gone off the boil later in his career, but perhaps as a result of a decrease rather than an increase in his level of ambition.)

Yoshitaka Nishi, the inevitable ruffian with inner sensitivities at the heart of this film, is one of Kitano's most reflexively and blankly brutal protagonists, yet appears to have redeeming features beyond the usual existential crisis.

There are many moments in Hana-Bi I know I would have been lastingly impressed with, had I not already seen their like in other Kitano movies. Still, there's much to enjoy and to decipher. One distinguishing feature of this film is the way the director involves the viewer in the (re-)construction of the meaning of many of the scenes.

Friday, June 03, 2005


On Wednesday Chris Anderson posted on the six reasons he prefers good blogs to most traditional journalism. These include "when they make mistakes, they tend to correct them".

So it's time for me to correct one of mine. In my posting dated 25/5/05 I left the professional reputation of Rosarito's slain police chief Carlos Bowser-Miret open to cynical speculation and was deservedly rebuked by a relative of his.

In my defence I did at the time have a look around for some background on what seemed to be a striking story and could find none, but in the past couple of weeks a number of articles have appeared in the MSM which have filled out the details a bit. There seems little reason to doubt that Bowser Miret was one of the good guys.

This blog strives for a facetious, irony-laden tone and makes no pretence to be a news source, but in future greater care will be taken over the sensitivities surrounding comments passed here.

House of Wax

"I don't do formula" contends serial unpublished author Miles Raymond in Rex Pickett's Sideways.

Formula is hard to do well. One a genre has matured the distinction between motif and cliché is at best imprecise, and recently the fashion in the slashers been to seek credibility through an ironic conspicuousness of reference.

House of Wax has its "hello, is anybody there?" moments and the mere prescence of Paris Hilton will encourage many critics to look down their noses at it, but I'm willing to contend that this is actually a very worthy contribution to the formula.

Overall a faultess execution of what this kind of script is supposed to execute - dumb American youth. V was suffering from fingernail depletion at the end!

Paris Hilton found herself at the mercy of the rednecks a year or so back when she signed up for Fox's The Simple Life, but these dentally-challenged heartlanders have no intention of being a reforming influence for this particular pool of ominously-detoured post-teens.

Stunning contemporary effects and production design are embedded in a nostalgic set-up. It's all rather Friday the 13th meets the Twilight Zone. The art deco architecture of this deadly "off the GPS" destination is particularly pleasing.

The script is well-structured, has instances of memorable dialogue and takes time to develop the soon-to-be-dead into credible individuals. It may not make us want them to live to become useful members of society, but then why should it? And while you could argue that the victims make some fairly suicidal decisions along the way, that's also part of the formula isn't it?

Before the movie started we watched a trailer for the American re-make of Dark Water, directed by, of all people, Walter Salles. An unlikely fan of Asian psychological horror if ever there was one. Of all ways to sell out to Hollywood, the remake is the least propitious. It's hard to tell from the trailer what Salles is bringing to the party other than anglicisation.

El Profe

Guatemalan national Otto Roberto Herrera Garcia, “el Profe”, has joined Dubya's list of international narco-kingpins, which now numbers 57.

Mexico has strength in depth here, as they do on the soccer field. Guatemalan sportswriters have noted with consternation that a max-power Mexican equipo has today arrived in the country for tomorrow's crucial World Cup tie.

Herrera Garcia's escape from a Mexican jail last month prompted the immediate detention of 45 members of the Reclusorio Sur prison staff. The big difference for them will be that they no longer get to go home in the evenings.


I'm not sure whether or not to be depressed about my recent discovery that Paul Giamatti is actually a couple of months younger than I am. When I wrote my review of Rex Pickett's Sideways I was convinced that Alexander Payne had made the characters a decade or so older than the novel's protagonists! TC was right after all.

When V and I watched the film on DVD a few nights ago, she independently reached the conclusion that Thomas Haden Church's performance is the more striking of the central pair.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

"The fashion now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the medieval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other." (SAKI)

Critic Roger Ebert has bizarrely described Ridley Scott's new epic as "a profound work of faith". It's more like a profound work of liberal agnosticism (and I'm not so sure it's all that profound either.)

It's a film that shares the themes, style and quality of 1492: Conquest of Paradise - as opposed to those of the largely more satisfying Gladiator. Whereas Scott's conquistador epic took time to show us the dream before it becomes a nightmare, Kingdom of Heaven never properly addresses the daring and enthusiasm of the crusaders. Instead we get a bleak opening sequence which makes more than a nod to The Seventh Seal and the rest of the drama never quite shakes off this Bergmanesque gloom.

Richard the Lionheart does get to make one of his customary epilogical entrances looking very much like every schoolboy's image of the Crusader, but the overtly good-intentioned Godfrey and Tiberias embody in physical terms at least a worn out and well-scarred ideal.

Bloom is well-cast as the wry yet dashing young blacksmith turned knight, courtly lover and proto American settler. But by the end of the film the script has strangely required him to mutate into a reincarnation of Russell Crowe's Maximus Decimus, i.e. an inspirational, speechifying warlord with the tactical and strategic military nouse to match his wily saracen opponent. In this latter role he fails, though not entirely dismally. (viz Troy.)

Much has been made of the historical near-accuracy of Kingdom of Heaven. That episode where Guy de Lusignan attempts to ensnare Saladin within the rules of Middle-Eastern hospitality by passing the slush puppy to Reynald de Chatillon is an actual recorded event. Gladiator had a greater ratio of fiction to history and I sense that this allowed its makers more freedom (And according to a friend of mine with a doctorate in Classical studies the end result is faithful in its spirit at least.) As we saw with 1492 a determination to be true to historical events and protagonists, involves forcing them to conform to the standard Hollywood dramatic form, which in turn requires that a certain number of key individuals are pared down to barely one-dimensional villainhood. (I agree with one critic who thinks Jeremy Irons' character Tiberias looks like a baddy that at the last minute was told to be nice!)

Now I can't claim to have a detailed knowledge of medieval medicine, but these crusaders seem to be remarkably well-informed about the causes of infection. Was this knowledge somehow lost before the Black Death? I also think it's vaguely anachronistic that a mother would commit suicide over the loss of a child.

That shipwreck is utterly unnecessary. All those bodies laid out neatly on the beach and only Balian and one horse conveniently alive enough to carry on the crusade.

Scott's visual idiom is now as distinctive as that of a director of animations like Miyazaki. There are abundant examples in this film of the things he does well:

- Vistas that feature a seamless blending of sets, people and CGI effects
- Armies drawing close for battle. (His close-up battle sequences are far less convincing though.)
- Atmospheric interiors

One atmospheric interior that I objected to however was that of the Reales Alcázares in Seville, made to stand in as the palace of the king of Jerusalem. Personal familiarity with that building may make the insistent use of the location that much more more bothersome, but this is such a famous and well-visited Iberian landmark. It's a bit like making a film about the Raj using Brighton Pavillion as the main location. (Or the Taj Mahal in a film about Brighton!)

Whatever else can be said about Scott's reconstruction of history, I'm sure the late Edward Said would have chided at his representation of 'orientals'. (He'd surely point to the various scenes inspired by Occidentals (i.e. Westerns), which carry the implication that Arab Muslims are functionally interchangeable with the redskins of the American plains.)

I'm not going to comment on how relevant this film is to the War on Terror, but suffice to say throughout the film characters are practically lining up to make unrealistically temperate assessments of the theo/geo-politics of their time.

To borrow an analytical model from Chris Anderson, there was perhaps a wider dynamic range of responses to infidels throughout the period of the early middle ages. Where the two civilisations collided you were indeed as likely to witness cultural miscegenation as relentless hostility, but tolerance does not necessarily imply wishy-washy eucumenical reasonableness of the kind that Balian himself personifies.

The influence of Peter Jackson's LOTR on both Revenge of the Sith and Kingdom of Heaven is conspicuous, though in The Two Towers Jackson gave us a better sense of who is inside Helm's Deep and why we should care about them than Scott does with the similarly-beseiged occupants of Jerusalem.

Ebert concludes that this film "will be absorbed in those staples of all historical epics, battle and romance". The trouble is that it kind of comes pre-absorbed.

V found the whole thing an umcomfortable experience; she tried to focus on enjoying the action and ignoring the story but even then couldn't find anything to really latch onto. "There's nothing new...". It made me recall how she lapped up the intensity of the flirtation between Jin and Mei in The House of Flying Daggers, but the tryst between Balian and Sybilla is little more than a plot vehicle here.

Ridley Scott surely has a better idea than George Lucas about the difference between the wood and the trees, but seeing this film again reminded of that conversation with Ted last Friday, where we discussed how the effect-loaded Star Wars prequels were the end product of improved means serving sadly diminished ends.

How long before someone decides to re-make El Cid?

One Nil

Guatemala's 2006 World Cup campaign gets under way again this weekend with a much-anticipated home tie against the Aztecas. Yesterday a dead body showed up in Guatemala City's Zona 13 emblazoned with the modestly optimistic prediction “Guate 1 - México 0”.

Quixotic or Gatsbyesque?

Jay Gatsby and Don Quijote are both the result partially successful self-rebranding exercises. While Gatz was Gatsby's discarded identity, Quijote's possible former surnames include Quesada, Quijano or even Quijada.

Both characters have repositioned themselves in order to seek truth through fantasy, though Quijote is as concerned with the means as the ends; Gatsby's feelings about his own means are one of the great mysteries of Fitzgerald's novel.

I am perhaps fortunate to have two individuals in my close acquaintance that merit correlation with these great figures from literature. The first aspires to be Gatsby, but the Jay Gatsby of the means not the ends - a would-be arriviste whose state of perpetual arrival has over time led him further and further from his desired destination. His head contains ideas of fame and fortune that are far less sublimated than those that drove our aforementioned heroes. El Quijote aspires to be famoso in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Gatsby seeks symmetry in his desire for a woman whose "voice is full of money".

The other person I have in mind is more the model of the ascendant parvenu, even down to the "old sport" sort of linguistic affections. Yet he lacks Gatsby's willingness to move amongst the gregarious and you would be hard-pressed to identify his little green light. Instead he has the Quixotic tendency to hold a mirror up to himself in everything he does, as if deep-down he has concluded that embodying the paradigm will be sufficient reward in this life.

Gran Hermano Dia 7

'Mikhazi' has successfully passed her week one test, pissing the others off just enough to avoid the public vote, but possibly not enough to unify the whole house against her long term.

We know have one of those situations that makes Big Brother so enjoyable. The phoney war is over and sides are being taken, but based on intelligence that we the viewers gleefully know to be misguided. Eviction candidate Mary, looking increasingly like she's just crawled out of the TV like Sadako from the Ringu films, is conducting the flow of embittered whispers: "Their little group....they think they're so clever." etc. If she survives on Friday it will definitely be a case of Ju:On, The Grudge next week.

It's funny how cigar and brandy-loving Tory-boy Derek has a knack for getting under black skin in particular. "I've never heard a black man talk like that", opined one lady that Channel 4 interviewed. By breaking with culturally-agreed postures, Derek is challenging perceptions of race within as well as without his own 'community' and there is some value in this.

Science on the other hand, is living the stereotype in an accepted, authentically Afro-Caribbean way. He reminds me of those undulating rude boys that line the streets of Belize City.

This year the men have big personalities and the girls have big...

The lack of mammaries last year must surely have been raised as an issue in viewer polls. Saskia's aren't fake, she insists, her scars are the result of open heart surgery, which we all know involves incisions under the armpits.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Shaolin Soccer

I know now that I won't have any trouble persuading V to come to the cinema this summer to see Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle. She was cracking up from the first bit of (literally) banana-skin humour.

This film is simply superb; it has everything. Who needs the spirit of Bruce Grobelaar in goal when you can have Bruce Lee's? (Dudek's big moment last week would have been even more memorable had he beckoned them on like that with the gloved finger.)

Chow has blended visual, deadpan, goofball and gross-out comedy in a film that even manages to be moving at the same time that it is funny. I can't think of many Western equivalents that achieve this nowadays. (It's the little details that do it - like when Sing (Brother #5) takes Mui to the mall and it becomes clear that he has traded these moments for a night cleaning the floors.)

"You have humiliated me. My whole family will have to commit suicide in front of you", was a very memorable line. The Chinese can laugh at themselves!

Independents' Day

Today's the day our lives are supposed to be blighted by anxieties about the plight of independent retailers. Appropriately, my award-nominated blogger-friend Joel has posted one of his characteristically non-committal commentaries on the West-Ken Chainstore Massacre.

I'm a little surprised though that he hasn't made the point that the French supermarket giants appear to coexist better with their boulangerie buddies. France has its Carrefour and ("bigger than Tesco", Joel once jingo'd to me) while Spain has its El Cortes Ingles amongst others, but neither suffers to anything like the same extent as this particular nation of shopkeepers from the cloned high street phenomenon.

Most of the corner shops closing currently withering under the relentless assault of the ubermarkets were established by opportunistic immigrants in the 60s and 70s when the indigenous stand-alone store was already close to extinction. Yet wander down the main drag of any provincial French town and you will continue to see traditional, locally run, non-chain retailers.

I recently found a few clues to what has happened on this island in the pages of Marketing Judo, a black-belt guide to zigging to the competitions' zag, by the people that took Harry Ramsden's fish and chips global and now run the La Tasca chain of Spanish tapas bars.

"Look for all the points of leverage" they advise, generally meaning the pyschological assets of your own venture and that of potential partners. Domino's Pizza for instance, successfully leveraged The Simpsons to increase like for like sales by 27% and Caffe Nero has successfully "partnered Italy".

In short, this book contends that success will come to those that work on the balance between spin and business basics. Now, there is indeed a great deal of interesting strategic marketing advice in this well-constructed little book, but it also fed some of my longer-term misgivings about the conduct of branding in the UK.

With Harry Ramsden Barnes and Richardson re-spun a "lost property" brand, developing a substantial business by milking (leveraging, re-spinning etc.) the emotional and intellectual assets implicated in the name. They heep praise on other notable black belts : Cobra, a beer dreamed up in England as the perfect curryhouse compliment, and Pret a Manger who like to tell you how passionate they feel about their carrot cake.

One thing I have learned on my many visits to Spain is that while Spaniards are passionate about life and many of its sub-disciplines, carrot cake is not likely to be one of the things that stokes their fires.

La Tasca embodies for me the paradoxes that this form of marketing generates. I've enjoyed eating at the West India Quay restaurant on a number of occasions and it does yank a few of my Hispanofile chains. But in spite of all the care that has gone into the Iberian knick-knacks dotted around the walls and the pretty peninsular personnel, there is something intrinsically inauthentic about a tapas chain.

Anyway, my take is that Spanish eating habits really ought not to be so violently separated from Spanish living habits. In that sense the Caffe Nero "partnership with Italy" is a little less phoney.

One of the dangers of Marketing Judo is a commercial climate where spin, however well-grounded, is primary and the goal of all independent retail practice is rapid growth and exit. Meanwhile the product we consume disappears under multiple layers of abstract pyschological content.

What works for nimble newcomers keen to throw unsuspecting opponents also works for the in-house marketing teams of the brand behemoths; and so the network of leveraged relationships proliferates. (What percentage of ice-cream products today refer to extra-sector branding?)

You end up with an circular phenomenon not unlike what my friend Chris thinks is happening to the Blogosphere - rapidly accelerating self-reference.

So, give some thought to whether the accumulation of retail power is being driven by economic logic or whether it is at least a partly psychological phenomenon, one that we Brits seem to be at the vanguard of. After all. we were the first to industrialise and de-industrialisation has come as quite a profound shock to us. Perhaps our way of dealing with it has been to learn the tricks of the marketable arts with all their sneaky value-added brand abstractions in order to avoid being regularly roughed up by the Asian Tigers.

And being an authentically mongrel nation we were never really that committed to authenticity anyway.

(Self-referential complexity leading to the illusion of progress does seem to be a bit of a theme of mine lately!)