Friday, July 29, 2005

Burnin' Gherkin

As part of Thursday's security frenzy, the Hurricane Clipper was trailed down the river from Tower Bridge by a Police launch, not a particularly resassuring sight to anyone that recalls the service of the General Belgrano's destroyer escort. (Didn't even stick around to fish survivors out of the water!)

A few more shots of life on the Thames taken during the stop-start London summer. I'm rather proud of this one - the sun only sets directly behind the pepino for a day or so each year.

My Brazilian friend Antonio, whose father served as his nation's ambassador in three European capitals, has informed me that London has the second largest community of leros outside Brazil.

The largest, oddly, is in Boston, MA. Antonio reckons that this is because many choose to settle in the area after studying at Harvard and the other major universities around that city. It's fair to say too that not all the Brazilians in London are 'language students' like the unfortunate de Menezes. Antonio's brother is one amongst many well-educated Brazilians making a living in the City.

Forbidden Nation

So how come the Basques don't go in for suicide bombings? The question is worth a thought or two, given the views of Professor Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win, and self-appointed expert on the phenomenon of suicide terrorism.

Pape's key observations are that "Islamic fundamentalism is not as closely associated with suicide terrorism as many people think" and that "overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland." (So by implication, if we withdraw from Iraq, they will stop blowing themselves, and us up. Hmmm.)

Back to the Vascos. Having enjoyed de facto autonomy from roughly Roman times through to the end of the Second Carlist Wars in 1876, and then again, briefly, during the Republic, many Basques might indeed have acquired the suspicion that their homeland has been subjected to encroaching occupation by the late-developing Spanish state.

During the dictatorship efforts were made to ethnically dilute Euskadi by encouraging immigration into the region from Castillian Spain. However nebulous the state of Basque political autonomy before the Civil War, it's unlikely that Europe's most genetically-detached population would ever have felt such a sense of acute danger to the persistence of their unique cultural identity as during the forty years of Franco. The transition to democracy should have eased the situation but the ratification of the new constitution was mishandled, and ETA responded by killing 100 people each year between 1979 and 1981.

But unlike the exploding Islamics, Tamil Tigers, Marxists and other assorted fanatics, Basque nationalism has not been informed by an overriding political superstition. i.e. deep down they wouldn't rather that the whole world spoke Euskera and submitted to the fueros.

This is an obvious point that Pape seems to miss - that the pyschology of the suicide terrorist is cushioned by a transcendent political or spiritual ideology.

In its Iranian cleric manifestation Islamic fundamentalism may appear to be 'conservative', but the essence of Islam was a radical rejection of customary Arabian society. The Basques on the other hand were the most conservative and 'customary' element within the forces that lined up against the fascists, and in spite of the racialist themes within the thinking of Sabino Arana, Basque nationalist urges have remained largely defensive in character.

Pape makes another point in order to undermine any simple association between Islamic extremism and suicide terror: "Sudan is a country of 21 million people. Its government is extremely Islamic fundamentalist. The ideology of Sudan was so congenial to Osama bin Laden that he spent three years in Sudan in the 1990s. Yet there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Sudan."

Well, there's always a first time for everything...

Presumably though, an Islamic fundamentalist living in a society that more or less matches his beliefs, is unlikely to feel the necessary sense of stewing irritation fomented by trespassing infidel values.

London's suicide terrorists are a mixed bunch, some born here, others apparently not. It may well be the case that the coalition's occupation of Iraq has made the difference between angry words and violent action for these men. But at the level of competing civilisations concepts like "occupation" and "homeland" are much more fluid than Pape acknowledges (and likely to become more so).

It should be remembered that the terrorist cell in Madrid intended to continue their campaign after the election of Zapatero and the announcement that Spain would be withdrawing its troops from Iraq and how prominently Al Andalus figures in Jihadist nostalgia.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Basque Ball

Julio Medem's approach here is interesting even if you have little interest in the low-level conflict that has repeatedly flared out of the nationalist discourse of Europe's (ab-)originals.

The Basque director bears witness to this strife using a crowd of informed witnesses. "Like a big tongue perpetually touching a sore tooth" is how one of these tries to capture the essence of this atavistic identity crisis - one of the few stabs at succinct summary Medem has compiled - for other than an appeal for dialogue, he appears happy to leave most of the painful contradictions bouncing around the court.

While many historical commentators aim for synthesis, stepping back from the views on the ground, adopting the posture of scientific objectivity, Medem seems to be revelling in a thoroughly embroiled, multivalent stance - what in modern critical theory is sometimes referred to as an immanent critique.

I'm not sure how many individuals participated, perhaps more than 70. The editing creates poignant contrasts, such as when the wife of a man murdered by the terrorists speaks in excerpts spliced with the views of the wife of an etarrista encarcerated far from his homeland. Sometimes Medem seems to be weaving a kind of artificial composite when his subjects' words are cut and collated to sound like an exchange between empassioned debaters in the same room.

Most of all though, Pelota Vasca reminded me that all history starts like this, and that all erudite synthesis is inevitably a lossy process.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Appropriately enough perhaps, I made the first of two trips to the Soviet Union in 1984, experienced and recalled as a daze of vodka and overstuffed art galleries. The subsequent visit exactly a year later was undertaken in part to lay down some more precise and considered memories, but over time it has been the original experience that has re-asserted itself. Who for instance was our Intourist guide in 1985?

No trouble remembering the previous year's appointee - Galina. Conspicuous amidst the dystopic textures of Moscow, Galina was a magnificent specimen, something the regime could be trully proud of! Her tour-leading attire was the epitome of 80s spook-chic: beige leather knee-high boots, a fur-rimmed light brown coat and a fox fur hat. She was in her mid-thirties, a party member and married to a translator of BBC Radio shows.

During one of the more uninhibited parties we threw in our Leningrad hotel Galina suddenly appeared in our midst and announced that "the mileeeesha men are coming". She then helped herself to a glass of vodka and downed it in one quick movement, and when her face was back in the upright position it sported a mischievous smile.

I often wonder what has become of Galina. I would have thought she would have adapted to Glasnost fairly effortlessly, but then what?

I'm glad I saw experienced the brittle furniture and other accoutrements of the 'evil empire' before the USSR passed into history. You might say that the difference between it and say Orwell's Landing Strip One, is one of degree. (Roger Ebert's review of Goodbye Lenin! for instance seems not to grasp this scale: "What 'Goodbye, Lenin' never quite deals with is the wrong-headedness of its heroine. Imagine a film named 'Goodbye, Hitler!' in which a loving son tries to protect his cherished mother from news of the fall of the Third Reich.")

Wrong-headed the Soviet Union of the 1980s certainly was, but it's an adjective that could only really be used euphemistically to describe the Third Reich! We all felt we were visiting a place of fascinating otherness, one where individual freedom was being corked up systematically, but it didn't feel absolutely, irredeemably bad.

Naturally enough though we looked for signs of Orwellian nightmares everywhere, convincing ourselves that the man with headphones in the last compartment of our carriage on the train to Novgorod was charged with pinpointing the thought crimes latent in our boisterous adolescent conversations. There was one American in our party that seemed unwilling to have any indoor conversation without first turning on the shower and flushing the toilet.

Anyway, even by the time Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four the worst excesses of the Stalinist era were in the past and had been more than adequately captured in fiction by Arthur Koestler and Eugene Zamiatin. These writers saw Stalinism as a terrifying splicing of personal and collective dictatorship. Yet it seems to me that Orwell's worst fears lay in a subtly different direction.

An instinctive libertarian with a pronounced social conscience, this old-Etonian must have surely have wondered how it would be possible to surrender power to the proles without establishing a dictatorship of the vulgar. His experiences during the Spanish Civil War would also have strongly suggested to him that all political ideologies carry an embryonic tyranny in their bellies.

"We live in an age which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist — or perhaps one ought to say, in which the individual is ceasing to have the illusion of being autonomous", he wrote, expressing a vital apprehension that the age-old battle between the Yin of the individual and the Yang of the collective was about to be won definitively by the latter.

Before leading him to Room 101 O'Brien informs Winston Smith that "the weakness of the cell is the vigour of the organism". However, neither biology nor Taoist philosophy support this view! I recently postulated in this blog how the tensions between cell and organism might ultimately be unresolvable because they drive one of the key mechanims of our macroscopic reality.

Yet Orwell articulates the view in his novel that man has reached a historical watershed, a point where, thanks to technology, inequality will no longer have to be the inevitable cost of civilisation. Unfortunately however, he reckoned this was precisely the point when pure power was in a position to make use of that same technology to stage a coup, thereby instigating a cruel, inequitable and ex-historical society based on a sort of collective solipsism.

Nineteen Eighty Four has been described as a satire, a portent, and as an extension of visible trends in post-war socialist Britain, yet none of these descriptions quite encapsulates the intent I detect in its narrative: having convinced himself that a true social-democratic utopia was now suddenly possible, the dying Orwell used his final creative burst to explore the terrifying, and for him immanent flipside, the perfect dystopia. (You might say that Orwell wasn't wrong about the future so much as misguided about the state of his own present situation. )

Thanks to Lord Acton and the various Latin American literary treatments of tyrrany, we know what tends to happen to those endowed with absolute power. But as a spokesperson for his regime O'Brien isn't exactly corrupt - he's more like an emotionally sterilised agent of pure collective despotism. Orwell tried very hard to make O'Brien's psychology credible, but although the resulting portrait is indeed very frightening, it's just not believable in its own terms.

However, it's undoubtedly interesting that it's easier for us to imagine the incarnation of pure evil than pure good on this Earth. Indeed, here in the West we generally expect our evil to be unsullied - hence the widespread consternation at the pitiable, dog-loving Hitler of Downfall.

Personally, I don't believe we can close all the loopholes for good, or for evil. And perhaps neither did Orwell as the perspective adopted by the appendix provides some indirect grounds for hope.

Watching the crowds queueing to buy the new Harry Potter novel the weekend before last reminded me of one of Winston Smith's consoling catchphrases: "sanity is not statistical".

8 Women

There are times when you just have to shrug your shoulders and say "not really my cup of tea" and this is surely one of them.

Fans of musicals, Agathe Christie whodunnits, theatrical dialogue and Amelie-style Gallic quirkiness will no doubt be delighted by François Ozon's film, but I am none of these. (I have however been a fan of Ozon's later output, such as Swimming Pool and 5x2. )

We ended up watching most of the second half on fast forward. It began with just the musical numbers then extended to the wider action once we realised that most of the limited pleasure we were able to derive from 8 Femmes was already fully present in its opening scenes. The bright, almost glowing cinematography was particularly stunning, but the impact of this too wore off quite quickly.

The other night we re-watched the final third of another movie with a French Director, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If there's one key difference between Gondry's film and Ozon's, it is that the former makes you think. Now you can argue that 8 Femmes sets out to be pure entertainment for movie buffs, but some kind of intellectual content always helps to make "not my cup of tea"-type entertainment bearable. (For instance, V professes not to like films "with lots of shooting", but throughly enjoys Takeshi Kitano's yakuza sagas.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Nikki Duffy's Super Ingredients column in Weekend last Saturday featured Miltomates (Or tomatillos in Mexico, which Duffy anglicises as Tomatilloes).

These fruity little lanterns are one of the main ingredients of Guatemalan cuisine - 2 ounces are typically deployed in Pepián for example. In an effort to make them sound more versatile, Duffy recommends "for a totally different super fresh flavour serve them raw in salad", something that no self-respecting Guatemalan cook would ever do, V insists.

It's worth saying though that there's loads of coconuts and lemongrass in Guatemala too yet nothing on the menu much like a Thai curry! (In fact, lemongrass is almost exclusively used to make a kind of curative infusion over there.)

Regional chefs can get very dogmatic about their ingredients. A celebrity cook from the Caribbean recently told BBC2 viewers of Saturday Kitchen that plantains are vegetables and shouldn't ever be eaten raw. V just laughed; she likes to pokes fun at the islanders for the way they prefer to cook their plantains when they're hard and green. They are indeed difficult to eat straight out of their skins then, but once they have matured (i.e. turned a uniform dark brown) they can be quite pleasant when uncooked, though ideally they should be enjoyed fried, boiled or best of all, microwaved.

(Some confusion arises from the use of plátano in Spain to mean banana, whereas in Latin America banano is used. )

Shades of Risk

Suppose I give up trying to find work in the UK and head for Rio, where I work illegally, earning cash for export, until I am gunned down by Brazilian police who mistake me for a local favela gangster. Big international story? Hundreds of ex-pat Brits marching on the streets of Brasilia demanding justice? Don't think so.

When the media have finished milking the story of the cruel death of an innocent migrant worker on the London Underground, our Latin American community may come to regret the extra exposure that this incident has afforded them. The Brazilians in particular have been riding their luck a bit over the past decade or so.

Indeed, in being taken for an Islamic terrorist Jean Charles de Menezes fell foul of the kind of discrimination that London's latins have generally been immune to. Xenophobic rants about 'asylum seekers' or more positive discourse about multiculturalism have thus far largely been targeted mainly at Asian and African communities.

At around 100,000, the capital's Brazilian population is now half that of its Jewish population, the latter having been around for a lot longer in those sort of numbers. Many are young and single and enter as students of English, before drifting into unskilled and semi-skilled employment - like blocking the flow of pavement traffic on Oxford Street whilst holding up a sign to the nearest Pizza Hut.

Jean Charles de Menezes was in some senses implicitly already a fugitive, having taken a calculated risk in remaining beyond his technical welcome. I've witnessed incidents in Miami involving Cubans and armed Immigration officials, and can report that the risks of economic migrancy are not to be snorted at. (I know of an Ecuadorian lady that was brusquely accosted by police on Oxford Street a few years ago and deported the next day. She's back now though, having discovered that it's easier to re-enter via Scotland, and I think she's been here long enough now to avoid a repeat eviction.)

These sort of international workers are taking economic advantage of the melting pot far more explicitly than many of the asylum-seekers that the Daily Mail so abhors. (Though they are probably less likely to end up as part of a gang of professional benefits spongers.) They have profited from a comparative lenience on the part of the Home Office, for whom they have probably not been foreign (or dark) enough as a group to create serious anxiety. Last Friday though, de Menezes was just dark enough to die.

Dodging the Hive

Blogs don't have to speak with a dissident voice, but they owe much of their value and potential to the fact that collectively they have been speaking with a dissonant one - cutting against the grain of more traditional channels.

For this reason alarm bells started to ring when I read The Catalyst Group's report on blogs and usability. The term usability has obvious connotations of utility, or what Marxists refer to as use value. You don't have to be a Marxist though to spot how the Catalyst report insistently ties usability to "consumer acceptance", a would-be synonym for exchange value.

Theodor Adorno famously referred to high art and popular art as two halves of an integral freedom which don't add up. He distinguished autonomous creativity, undertaken privately, with commercial creativity which tended towards commoditisation. It seems to me that up to now blogs have straddled this divide quite nicely. Yet Adorno warns us that mass culture is hell-bent on crushing all insubordination to the logic of exchange value and works continuously to re-absorb discordant strands within communications culture.

It's probably no coincidence that I began blogging myself at a time when I became fascinated with the fragmentary observations of Jean Baudrillard and the astute and autonomous journal entries of Samuel Pepys, and I sincerely hope however that blogging can maintain its distinctive stylistic form as it comes under extreme integrative pressure from 'the mainstream' in the next year or so.

In his introduction to Adorno's The Culture Industry, J.M. Bernstein writes that:

"Fragmentary writing is modernist, it's logical and syntactical dislocations the cognitive equivalence of dissonance in music. Fragmentary writing functions through the multiplication of logically distinct perspectives, each one of which is something of a theoretical caricature."

If this sounds at all like this blog, then I'm doing something right!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Unified Theory

  • Humans and chimps are said to share 98.5% of their genetic code.
  • Biologically the distinctions of race are "meaningless", because the variations between ethnic groups are very minor compared to those within them.

Observations like these continually crop up in popular science. They suggest answers to old questions whilst provoking new ones that few have yet been able or willing to address. How for example can we account for the fact that some differences, however small, are in effect more equal than others?

I suspect that the existence of two alternative, equally fundamental approaches to the natural world is acting as a barrier here that future thinkers will need to acknowledge, if not clear:

Selfish Gene - all creatures great and small are epiphenomena resulting from the all out war of the autonomous and randomly-inclined bits of code we call genes.

GAIA - Nature is one big connected system whose parts can only be fully understood in terms of the behaviour of the whole.

Just like the argument between relativity and quantum theory in contemporary physics, these apparently irreconcilable models appear to both be true at the same time. Significant? We may come to appreciate just how so if we could only stop trying to resolve the putative argument between them once and for all.

I'd like to think that a 'Gaia' approach to human differences may help us overcome some of the sensitivities surrounding biological inheritance in human beings. We could then start to treat species as working systems in which different layers of variation, themselves of variable proportion in the population, could be shown to influence adaptability in relation to different strata of environmental factors.

Such an approach would inevitably provide insights on the following issues that surround the operations of the gene pool:

- How many result from 'random' mutation and how many patterns could be predicted with some degree of probability?

- How many might have co-evolved with culture? To what extent has culture become part of the system?

I think we shall find that race is significant, though differently so to some of the other clusters of physical and psychological traits that can be identified across the species. And certainly not for the reasons that racial scientists in the last century imagined.

Tudo Bomb

Tossing aside concerns about "perceived racism", SKY's defence analyst Colonel Mike Dewar observed on Thursday evening that "if it means that we have to be suspicious of people with darker skins, then so be it", thereby opening up the possibility of Islamic martyrdom to a more diverse cross-section of Londoners.

Aside from being compromisingly swarthy, Jean Charles de Menezes was executed the next morning whilst reportedly wearing a highly suspicious padded jacket in what we Brits refer to as "warm weather". (Being an electrician on his way to work, it's also possible he had some wires dangling out of his pockets.)

Shortly after the Stockwell incident the city of London was being buzzed by a pair of Chinooks. Now unless these were specially modified surveillance Chinooks, or the intention was to impress potential terrorists with the size of our helicopters, these choppers were surely packed with more of those shoot-to-kill types ready for rapid deployment down dangling ropes onto the streets below.

The Guardian had some bad news last week for Islamic martyrs, self-activating and otherwise. The Syriac word hur, which Koranic translators typically render as virgin, could in fact refer to a chilled drink of white raisins. Downing 72 of these concoctions is likely to render the Just eternally vomitous.

In fact, Ibn Warraq points out in his article that the exact number of houris is never specified in the Koran itself, and so vivid are the descriptions of the gardens of paradise that some scholars have suspected that their ultimate author was describing representative art of Christian origin, having misinterpreted chaste angels as male and female figures of the sensual sort. (These black and doe-eyed maidens were said to be able to shag as much as they like and still remain virgins, rather like Makosi in Big Brother)

Ibn Warraq also quotes 15th century Muslim theologian Al-Suyuti who wrote "the penis of the Elected never softens. The erection is eternal", another heavenly reward for the Elected (erected?) that merits a second or third thought.

Las Edades de Lulu

Two years before completing the wonderful Jamon Jamon in '92 Bigas Luna made this, an utter stinker.

I remember abandoning Almudena Grandes' novel in the early 90s with essentially similar misgivings - in spite of all the deviant sex this is dull, dull, dull. (It reminded V of the equally tedious Sexual life of Catherine M. )

A film about obsession should be claustrophobic not boring. Superficially, we witness a progressive and essentially southbound 'sexual awakening', but neither the dialogue nor the action permit us any insight into the characters' inner world. The film is three quarters over before there is anything that amounts to real drama.

Javier Bardem has certainly moved on to better things.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Unbounded Labyrinth

The universe isn't just a big mystery, it is most likely also a perfect mystery. Why should it be otherwise?

The job of religions has been to provide superficial answers to the key questions arising from this mystery, such as how we ought to live and what the significance is of our deaths. For the devout the dimensions of the core mystery will not appear to have altered much in the past couple of millennia, but the experience of agnostics has been markedly different.

The scientific method was founded on the discovery of important regularities which for long promised a progressive unravelling of the mystery. It was rather like turning left at every junction in the labyrinth. Yet few scientific discoveries delivered by this method in the last century can be said to have narrowed the overall scope of the puzzle. In fact, the more we have progressed the bigger the labyrinth has appeared to be, and we may even have to consider that the centre that we have been working towards is but a local one within a much greater maze.

Eastern spirituality attempts to encompass the 'whole' problem more earnestly than the the monotheistic faiths which, to a greater or lesser extent, underpin a system of denial that diverts believers' attention from the wider web of forking questions.

Since the end of the Middle Ages, Christianity has diversified out of one-dimensional denial. Islam, on the other hand, hasn't - and now, confronted on its most ragged edges by the triumphant decadence of the other ahl al Kitâb (peoples of the book), the Muslim way of denial has hypertrophied with potentially unpleasant consequences for all in a globalised world.

Intertextuality (4)

"The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books." (Jorge Luis Borges)

I had little thought to return to this topic, at least before concluding the novels mentioned in earlier posts, but my recent re-reading of Borges' The Aleph has prompted a few additional thoughts.

There's no doubt that these tales are thoroughly webby and hypertextual. Yet unlike Cortázar's Hopscotch, the links between the characters, themes and objects in Borges' commentaries on imagined erudition take shape in the mind of the reader: no tentative authorial web has been laid down across the narratives. In a way they are, as Paul Ricoeur (who died last month) might have said, produced at the discursive level not the lexical.

Ricoeur's concept of split reference, where some of the implicit 'hyperlinking' can only be fully appreciated at the hermeneutical level of the complete work or set of works is therefore an important qualification for any 'hyper' strategies based on theories of reference.

La Hora Chapina

Philosophers speak of phenomenological time and cosmological time, but the situation in our home is a tad more complicated: we have bedroom time, living room time, kitchen time etc.

Bedroom time for instance runs roughly ten minutes ahead of TV time. In fact not a single member of the heterogenous collection of time-keeping devices that V maintains around the flat has been set to follow TV Time. Yet she knows exactly how fast or slow each of them is in relation to it.

This convulted, self-referential time-keeping system sustains a well-honed strategy for arriving consistently late at all locations outside of its compass...or better still, not at all - Hora Chapina.

Don't ever let anyone convince you that Guatemalans have a 'relaxed' attitude to time! Their ancestors were Maya.

Televisions, telephones? Let's not go there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


In her Spiked column Jennie Bristow suggests that these days, if you are unlucky to become a victim of the men that prefer death to Pepsi-Cola, you are more likely to have people scrambling about your stricken body trying to photograph you with their mobiles than offering you first aid, the last rites or simply pinching your watch.

The new publication model is indiscriminate publication followed (hopefully) by filtration and aggregation - technology-enhanced crowd wisdom. The resulting disintermediation of professional creator-filterers is filling our public spaces with fanatical happy-snappy citizen reporters. We have all becoming walking cameras.

Nano brothers are watching us...

Circle Squarers

Man of the moment H.G. Wells once predicted that "statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read or write."

There's a body of opinion within my own industry that insists that statistical literacy should be as necessary for our own profession as say the ability to effectively use various influence techniques "in order to bridge differing viewpoints and create win-win outcomes".

Perhaps they should ponder this excellent quotation from Aaron Levenstein:

"Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."

Back on the Thames

As I click to publish this post my desk and chair are undulating on a gentle Soho swell - one of the stranger phenomenological consequences of my current mode of transport.

On July 7 the bombers gave me little alternative but to return to the river and I have kept up the waterborne journeys to and from Savoy Pier ever since.

Whilst I worked in Covent Garden between '91 and '92 I used to splurge to work on the original riverbus service until its premature demise. Thames Clippers inherited a few of the newer catamarans abandonned in St Katherine's Dock when the old consortium went down. These were re-christened Star, Sky and Storm Clipper and now serve up a bit of cramped and noisy nostalgia for those pioneering early days.

The flagships of the new fleet are the Hurricane clippers, which inside have the sanitised ambience of floating conference auditoria, though you can sit oustide on the rear deck and get a facefull of spray. Best of the bunch though are the mid-sized Sun and Moon clippers, which have more space aft for deck cavorting.

I'm keeping it up, not just because of the recent nice weather and the distantly lingering threat of a detonating dervish on the Undergound but because I get to work and then home again in a good mood, with a pleasant feeling of having had a little adventure.

Of my fellow river-farers, I'd say that the passcard holders tend to sport a steadily smug look , but the out-of-towners look around them with such genuine astonishment and glee that it's infectious.

The other morning while we stopped at Bankside pier, I set myself the task of looking at St Paul's with fresh eyes. It's hard - there's a memory-mould in my head that only a glimpse of the external form of the cathedral instantly activates. But since its recent scrub, the colonnaded cylinder beneath the dome shimmers in the sunlight in a way that for a while at least will register as engrossingly unfamiliar.

A bit like an oil painting I reflected as a fluttering line of little black birds drifted diagonally across the dome; and then I realised that what this scene really evoked wasn't fine art at all, but one of those marvels of CGI architecture, like the Coliseum in Gladiator.

This morning on my uphill stroll from the riverbank I found the pavement in Mercer Street blocked by an enormous mottled grey gull, of the kind you are far more likely to see cruising above the cliffs of the Costa da Morte in Galicia, than outside the entrance to a mansion block in London's West End.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Grave of the Fireflies

A striking blend of poetic delight and distressing realist gloom that could probably only have been achieved in this way with animation.

The original novel Hotaru no haka by Akiyuki Nosaka was firmly based on his own wartime experiences. His little sister died largely from hunger like Setsuko, and the author admits to a lifetime of survivor's guilt compounded by the fact that when out scrounging for food, he would tend to feed himself first. Akiyuki has commented in interview that his tragedy follows the shinjuu romantic double-suicide genre of the joruri puppet plays by Chikamatsu Monzaemon.

Isao Takahata's 1988 anime version shows us how the Kobe firestorms first displace then ultimately engulf two young lives. Death comes by neglect - the system (state, family) neglects the pair, and Seita is unable to properly care for Setsuko once they have left society behind. Her death prompts him to neglect himself to death as well.

The story could have been a out and out downer, but the beauty (and in places cutesiness) of the animation tempers the mood.

The rich and evocative detail of the backgrounds and of many of the small narrative incidents oddly contrasts with the manga stylisation of the foreground characters.

I have on several occasions debated with my father the ethics of fire-bombing Japan. For him, and for many of his generation, it was total war and the consequences of defeat were unthinkable. Any means were therefore justified to secure victory. Yet knowing how gentle and restrained he otherwise is, it still bothers me that he finds it hard to find feelings of pity for the enemy civilians whose deaths made this victory possible.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Dialectic of Brand

I came across this post by John Hagel in which he outlines what he sees as the progression of successive constraints that have determined the history of the Brand:

- quality
- shelf space
- customer attention

Hagel concludes that Customer-centric brands will tend to dominate from now on because of their promise "that if you give them their attention, they will give you a better return on your attention than anyone else"

This strictly linear model requires segment-specific brands to be nothing other than transitional phenomena. Yet I could name several instances where producers have allowed markets to disaggregate only to slowly re-impose segment marketing on them. In some cases customer-centricity has itself been the transitional form.

There's obviously a deep-seated need in the Western pysche to construct pathways to meaning made up of discreet and conclusive steps - and to fervently declare the death of the past at almost every milestone. ("The aristocracy of the brand is dead. Long live the meritocracy of product": James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. )

"Solvitur ambulando" (It is solved by walking) St Augustine is supposed to have said, referring to the great labyrinth which the straight line path of Christianity proposed to lead us out of. Me, I'm happier inside the labyrinth. The moment you leave it you surrender your best chance of reaching a profound understanding of things.

Top Ten Philosophers

"The safest generalization that can be made about the history of western philosophy is that it is all a series of footnotes to Plato." (Alfred North Whitehead)

Yet on the latest BBC Radio Four list the original man of the Matrix trails in fifth, polling just 5.65% of the vote. Even combining him with Socrates (not an entirely unreasonable thing to do) would secure the joint-offering only a bronze medal.

Nice to see that super-sceptic David Hume did so well though. At both school and university it was strongly suggested to me that he might well be the greatest of the great, but both his historical situation and his lasting off-the-page persona have been awkward and unfashionable. Maybe a beard would have helped?

Lilja 4-Ever

Moodysson's relentlessly downbeat film suffers in comparison with Joshua Marston's Maria Full of Grace I think.

Lilja, like Maria, suffers a sudden, escalating collapse of all the things that might have made life in her hope-drained situation bearable. Compared to Maria, she's a far more clear-cut victim of the cruel turn of events that sucks her towards her fate in the comfortable world.

We were both ended up a little irritated that the fate Lilja is shown running from at the beginning arrives at the terminus of this downhill tumble with no further unanticipated refinements.

Moodysson has apparently claimed a redemptive Christian message, but can only broach this on screen by adding some near ridiculous scenes involving nativity play- style angel wings. Some may argue that Joshua Marston's film pulled its punches in ways that Moodysson single-mindedly avoids. For me though, those pulled-punches resulted in a more interesting, and nuanced perspective, where the human impact of an unpleasant trade is shown to be knotty enough to merit serious reflection.

The logline for Lilja 4-Ever could well have been Life is shit and then you die. Gloomy for sure, but ultimately not all that challenging.


This lot get as close as cute anthropomorphic cartoon animals will probably ever get to being red in tooth and claw, but there's a line that can't be crossed and although Madagascar tentatively pokes a hoof over it, this self-constraint ultimately adds to the irresolute feel of the final third.

This may not be the most innovative of the new generation of digital animations, but it's generally amusing. Possibly the best gag, surrounding the arrival of a group of pugnacious dissident penguins in Antarctica, is one you see approaching from a distance, but is still pretty hilarious when it arrives.

None of the characters are especially well 'drawn', but the stormy seas the animals tumble into inside crates is are memorably realised. The celebrity voiceovers were again a bit hit and miss, with a special mention for David Schwimmer on the miss side.

There are several enjoyable, adults-only references to movies like Planet of the Apes and American Beauty.

The Sound on the Page

Almost all discussions about blogs in the context of professional communications make reference to the contrast between their open, transparent, personal tone compared to the supposedly more tight-arsed personality of the average corporate press release. The implication is that firms need to adapt, to become more loose-arsed, if they want to thrive in the new environment.

There's some truth in this, but a post by Scott Esposito last week reminded me that the inexpressive nature of corporate PR has been a reflection of what Ben Yagoda has called the 'middle-style' of traditional journalism, where words are assembled efficiently into a conduit for facts. It also prompted me to recall that one of the principal reasons I steered clear of a career in journalism was the fear of being trained out of the writing style I felt most comfortable with.

While many bloggers clearly aspire to be citizen journalists, the medium they operate in certainly encourages a more essay-like style, where the language and nuanced emotion are more often regarded as more important than a strict adherence to the facts.

Bloggers take much greater care about HOW they say things than reporters. So while the press release is targeted at a generic style, an equivalent for the blogging world may have to be flexible enough to adopt any number of different stylised idioms - which essentially means that the new medium favours genuine verbal craftspeople over the semi-skilled technicians of factory-line PR.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Please report any unattended pack...istanis

Back in the early 90s Canary Wharf security had what they obviously thought was a fool-proof method of terrorist detection. When you pulled up to the checkpoint at the gate they asked you to say something to them. If youse had an Ulster accent, the game would be up.

As complacency reasserted itself, the thin blue line was replaced by a thicker line of West Africans, and the potential for false positives (and outright misses) was inflated.

These measures were made necessary by the foiled IRA plot to blow up the then largely empty Wharf in 1992. On the night that the provisionals came to Docklands V and I were standing beside a Mercury public telephone in Cabot Square making calls to Guatemala using some phonecards I had been given at work.

Suddenly the square filled up with armed men in black balaclavas and kevlar vests and we were duly advised by a bloke in a passing black Landrover to leave the vecinity at once. (No black choppers, but it would have been dangerous with so many tall buildings around!)

Now the interesting thing is that we left the scene some 20 minutes before the terrorists arrived in their big blue van. The next day the official reports stated that the plot had been foiled quite fortuitously when " two men tried to park the van near the office tower, security guards came over to investigate. One of the two men inside the van pulled a gun, and he and his accomplice escaped in a smallervan that was waiting nearby, according to police."

Even more interesting was the fact that the friend we had been calling in Guatemala from the phonebox had a call from Scotland Yard the next day. Impressive you might think - no lead left unfollowed. Yet it might have been more impressive if the spook making the investigative call had been able to speak some Spanish.

(One of the rumours circulating last week was that a pair of suicide bombers had been intercepted and shot dead at Canary Wharf. This now features as a discarded lie. )

The dead of any war get far more column inches than the maimed. As of today the US has lost 1333 men and women to hostile action in the War on Terror. 12,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the insurgency since the invasion, at an average 500 per month, though last month the figure rose to 800, effectively one per hour.

What must the figure be for lives disfigured in any number of ways? We're told that around 700 people were injured in last week's attacks and as yet the limbless and the pyschologically scarred predominantly remain anonymous. V told me yesterday that she thought it would be worse to survive a tube bomb as an amputee than to die in the instant. (It was those reports of lost legs in the Hilton lobby bomb in September '75 that gave me nightmares at the time. Only 2 died, but 63 were hurt.)

Given the choice most of us would choose to fall to bits more slowly, but as a manner of extinction, instant vaporisation combines being one of the best ways of departing this Earth, with being one of the worst ways of losing a loved one.

During the 1975 bombing campaign in London, the IRA cell developed a particularly memorable terror technique which involved throwing explosive devices through the windows of fashionable London Restaurants. (It intrigues me why today's terrorists haven't figured out that they could potentially wreak greater havoc by targeting less 'ordinary' citizens.) I remember that nearly every restaurant I went to with my parents soon featured net curtains. I only got to see these at lunchtimes. When they went out in the evenings without me that winter I used to shake with fear that I wouldn't see them again.

On Tuesday 18th November 1975 some friends of my parents were having dinner at Walton's in Walton Street when an IRA bomb came in through the window and landed under their table killing two of the diners instantly. I recall watching one of the survivors of that meal jogging in a pool in Spain the following summer - her legs were still full of shrapnel.

No doubt some will feel that the events of last week could never have happened if we hadn't signed up for the NeocCon Imperial project, supported Israel, women's rights etc. Yet given the newspaper reports that suicide-backpacker Hasib Hussain was leaving little notes in his fellow students' lunchboxes saying "you'll be next" back in September 2001 at the tender age of 14, this piece of thinking may be wishful.

A peripheral member of my father's family has landed herself a stolid policeman as a husband. A few years ago 'Plod' was asigned to some specialist unit within the Metropolitan Police charged with dealing with (or thinking deeply about) the threat posed to the capital by Islamic extremists. Twice a year at my father's events I would have to endure him sentenciously pronouncing at the table that "it's not a matter of if, but when..." Unfortunately, he now needs to equip himself with a new conversation killer.

Speaking of conversation killers Ted Nelson has an effective one, which he recently delivered with aplomb at a dinner at Frode's:

"Did you know that the only difference bewteen a language and a dialect is that a language has an army?"

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Crazy in the Coconut

"That boy needs therapy", goes that song by the Avalanches.

Science is a walking demonstration of the difference between clubability and watchability. No, of course you wouldn't want him as a neighbour, let alone a flatmate, but he's delivering excellent value inside the BB house. "Why was you not who you was when you were with Lesley?" Science recently asked camp chameleon Craig, "I preferred you when you was before. You defended me when you was being that, which you were before."

It really would be almost too much to hope for to witness the surprise but long-overdue exit of agent of divine providence Makosi Musambasi tomorrow. "I used to have servants" she crowed yesterday. Ok, but now you live in the First World and you have a washing machine. Get over it.

Compared with Science's family Makosi's are distinctly un-modish: servants they may have had, but what they now have is a furry orange sofa in High Wicombe. As for Makosi's afro wig, it's starting to look a bit tatty, rather like one of my old teddy bears.

Derek, reputedly the only Black member of the Monday Club, is very much the dark horse this year. He was once asked by saboteurs how he could approve hunting animals in the company of white people who 200 years ago would instead have been hunting the likes of him. "That is no problem", he replied: "300 years previously, my ancestors would have been eating them." The longer Derek stays in the show the more prominent the oriental half of his ancestry seems to me...yet it is clearly the particular combination of blackness, gayness and poshness that defines his nascent celebrity in the public consciousness. The drink driving conviction that prevented him from standing for Parliament in 1997 is unlikely to remain a serious impediment to his political ambitions once he finally emerges from the BB kindergarten.

With Orlaith and Vanessa around it's no wonder that there's been such an outbreak of sexual ambiguity. Excessive exposure to the likes of those two is likely to cause an chronic case of misogyny. Derek asked for the psychologist yesterday because on seing Vanessa tuck into her sixth piece of toast he experienced emotions similar to those you feel "when you are about to murder someone". Careful Derek, remember that upcoming vacancy at the top of the party!

So who's going to win? (BB, not the Tory leadership election that is.) Hard to say really. There aren't really any deserving cases, though Anthony's endearing lack of gorm and native wickedness could catch him the big prize. In Eugene he has a competitor for the sympathy vote, though pity might be the more appropriate emotion in his case. There are times when I would rather listen to the drone of a helicopter.

Kemal is another hedgehog, and one of those one-trick wonders won last year. (Though in the Diary Room he's been more Victor than Nadia.)

Overall, this year's Big Brother has been more Machiavellian than Orwellian. It's almost as if the whole show is being masterminded by an arch-manipulator that has given each of the dominant personalities in turn just enough rope to hang themselves with.

Even when he's at his most relentlessly ratty, you can't help empathising with Science- there's just something little boy lost about him. "Keep your head down son", advised his ultra cool dad, echoing Derek's "be a soldier not a kamikaze". V would now like to see him beat the odds and win.

In the stories of Jorge Luis Borges the hardened compadres of the Buenos Aires slums have their hands on their knives ever ready to preemptively avenge the merest bruise inflicted on their thin-skinned honours. Yet if Science is anything to go by, the macho-posturing in the ghettos of West Yorkshire is a lot more barking than biting.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Bandit Fascists

The UK government could (and to some extent should) consider the relationship between 'ordinary muslims' and the Islamic extremists in same way that the Guatemalan state used to consider the one between Marxist guerrillas and the indigenous population.

That's not to say that it would be advised to reach the same drastic conclusions - as the institutionalised hate-crimes (relocation, genocide) perpetrated against the Indians over during the eighties only strengthened the originally quite tenuous links between ideological communism and native collectivism.

If there's one thing revolutionary types have learned over the past one hundred or so years it's that your basic peasant is some way from being a model card-carrying party member. So, you would be right to expect the same sort of dissonance between your 'ordinary muslim' and the generic AK-waving terrorist.

Yet important points of contact do exist. Following the same comparison, the modernising nation state in Guatemala was confronted with a group of people whose basic consciousness was at serious variance with the politically dominant system of values. (Perceived ethnicity was of course another important level of contention.) This sort of situation provides a substrate for violent insurgency which committed extremists (and many of the actions taken against them) could over time puff up significantly.

Now it seems to me that there's is a fair deal of naivety (and creeping hypocrisy) in contemporary liberalism. The working assumption that open social systems can assimilate closed ones without unpredictable side-effects is surely worth examining. It's clearly no longer just a question of which team the locals cheer for at the test match at Heddingly.

Let's start with some useful generalisations: In any organic system at the celular, individual and social level there is always a definable tension between open-pluralistic and closed-collective patterns of organisation and behaviour. In human societies this tension is the principal yin-yang of underlying political process.

We are fortunate that classical Greece provides us with two essential examples of the basic alternatives: Athens (open and pluralistic) and Sparta (closed, collective, totalitarian even). We are able to see how the Athenian system responded to military defeat by Sparta in practice by closing up politically, whilst over in theory Plato's Republic provided a comprehensive argument for a well-structured authoritarian state run by an elite oligarchy.

These basic tendencies exist within most religions as well. Chritianity has over the centuries featured strong ascetic, sensualist, authoritarian, democratic, personal and collectivist currents. Ever since Jesus made his little "give unto Caesar" speech and then Caesar in the form of Constantine took what was apparently his to take, there has been a fundamental political ambiguity in the Christian faith. (All of which means that it has been able to adapt to many different historical circumstances, but which also makes any discussion about the essence and impact of Christianity rather circular.)

The open society in the west has generally congratulated itself for the way that it burned away most of the malignant despotism inherent in its most of own denominations. It should not however assume that the same treatment will be efficacious in all cases.

In the other desert monotheisms the authoritarian model is more dominant. Yesterday Dr Hani Al-Siba'i reminded Al Jazeera that Islamic law doesn't recognise the term civilian. Indeed, Islam was specifically planned with theocracy in mind and Mohammed's revelation involved a violent purification of what he and his followers saw as the corrupt, pluralistic society that then existed in Mecca. The resulting religious block has only on a handful of occasions been diverted very far from the essence of this sternly disapproving worldview. (One should not forget either that while we Europeans were being Enlightened, America was busy becoming America, and that fascism of the Christian variety is alive and well in the red states. )

The western world appeared to deal definitively with its totalitarian demons in the middle of the last century. Yet rarely in biology does a pure individual or collective unit exist - the system as a whole retains the right to rebalance itself along one or other principle according to prevailing circumstances. Modern government gives one or other the opportunity to monopolise the use of violence - so when the fascist tendency can no longer hog the state aparatus, it eventually resurfaces as banditry. And in the particular instance that we now face, a virulently form of religious-fundamentalist banditry. (That the closed society these Islamo-bandidos fantasise about doesn't necessarily have to be realised on this Earth, makes it that much more pernicious in nature and nihilistic in its expression.)

In this religious guise it is harder for liberals to take on directly. Being based on 'faith', it blends in with a wider community of the faithful whose personal convictions (even when they involve things that liberal society otherwise finds distasteful) must be tolerated. So the liberal state resorts to cheating - it retains the surface rhetoric of liberalism while underneath its methods of self-defence harden along authoritarian lines.

On a wider level the open liberal society has been surreptitiously restructuring in order to preserve the cultural and economic benefits of freedom, whilst at the same time effectively closing down on other levels. The principal neurosis of 'free' citizens now revolves around choice, the expansion of which offers an antidote to the obvious narrowing of other aspects of our society - we keep consuming in order to preserve the sense of things feeling that they are geeting ever better.

Frankly this is all very ostrich-like. We are guilty of systematically confusing the opportunities to express our individuality that consumerism provides with the altogether bulkier concept of freedom. This should be a cause for concern amongst 'ordinary westerners' too. There are aspects of our society that may well deserve the disdain of more traditional value systems and it would be delusional to suppose that the problem would go away if only these people could get with the programme and just buy stuff.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Goodbye Lenin!

Imagine your homeland was dismantled around you in a matter of months. However shoddy it had been, you'd inevitably feel a sense of displacement. (It's as if Britain were 'reunited' with France and almost overnight there were no plastic bags or Australian wine in the supermarkets and suddenly everybody felt they had to do their best to be rude beyond the call of duty!)

Goodbye Lenin! is much more moving than it is outright hilarious, which was a surprise as for some reason I had expected somewhat lighter comedy. The central 'Rip Van Winkle' plot device is a bit fanciful , but undoubtedly handy for getting across a range of both touching and serious points about the demise of the DDR. The country itself might have been crap, but some of its more ingenuous lost ideals are shown to merit poignant reflection. I'm sure generations of Germans will look back on this strangely sad satire as a work of some significance.

Typical of a European film, there is no full restoration of equilibrium at the end for Alex and his family, and here that is very much part of the point.

And in a strange parallel with the plot the makers of the film had to use CGI to remove evidence of Berlin's unchecked westernisation since 1990.


A out and out chunderfest. It felt like we had the dry heaves by the end.

The premise is ropey to start with, but the writers don't seem to want their audience to suspend disbelief for more than 30 seconds at a time. It leads you to suspect that Working Title must possess one of those Orwellian kaleidoscope scriptwriting machines in their basement such is the shameless formulaic pilfering from Notting Hill, Bridget Jones et al.

No chance of this inspiring any future British champions - Bettany's Peter Colt is an amalgamation of almost all the stereotypes that have held the game back in this country for so long. The rest of his family are the kind of attenuated toffs that this production team specialises in.

Colt has a knack for getting to the Dorchester in his kit car by heading east through Admiralty Arch and to Brighton via the M4 and Dover. He can somehow combine a winning run in SW15 with a dirty seaside weekend, and several wine-fuelled dinners and parties.

There are hardly any insider insights for genuine fans.

Utterly Dreadful. But in say twenty years may make interesting Christmas viewing simply for the nostalgic tour of London cerca 2004 it has incidentally put together.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Intertextuality (3)

I guess its time for me to prepare an assault on both Julio Cortázar's Rayuela ('66) and Nabokov's Pale Fire ('62). The former has daunted me up to now for the simple reason that you inherently have to read it at least twice to appreciate the alternative pathways its author intended. (Though worryingly this page offers a third reading guide!) Maybe a reading in Spanish then in English would sugar the pill.

The novel's main claim to fame is its non-sequential alternative narrative, leading to the possibility of non-serial interpretations.

Ted once sought the rights to do a hypertext demonstration using Pale Fire, but in the end IBM never went ahead with this. As in Rayuela the identity of the Nabokov's narrator is an established mystery. I suspect that Pale Fire examines its own navel more comprehensively than Rayuela, as Cortázar adopted the form primarily to resonate with the disjointed lifestyles of his 60s protagonists.

Cortázar's and Nabokov can be lumped with the likes of Joyce and Proust in the subset of writers that have attempted to transcend language in literature. But although highly-influential none really changed the traditional form of the novel for good. Painters have generally had greater success in this area. It seems that you can expand narrative downwards into areas beneath the watershed of consciousness, but language never really behaves as if it really belongs there - the resulting experience is tentative, best mystical.

Intertextuality (2)

Charles Sanders Peirce classified our way of interpreting stuff in the following ascending order of reference categories:
- similarity
- correlation
- convention

The latter method is the basis of symbolic interpretation. Most of this goes on at the higher-order yet sub-conscious level of our thinking, and usually doesn't involve any jumps in the conscious flow.

Hyperlinking gives us a sense of the recursive nature of symbolic reference, but as Terence Deacon put it in a slightly different context, "Focusing on correspondence alone collapses a multilevel relationship into a simple mapping relationship".

I can only recommend Deacon's book The Symbolic Species in which he outlined why symbols are classic case of a reference system that is hard to get started from the bottom up. He reckons that humans learn symbols at a critical stage in the development of the young mind where indexical relationships can be suppressed or subordinated to inter-symbol relationships, thereby prioritising higher-order regularity.

This is achieved by what he describes as "a shift in mnemonic strategy". Our nearest relatives, the chimps tend to struggle with symbols. But tellingly, young chimps and bonobos can make significant progress.

Anyway, these posts have not been an argument against technologies which augment our conscious intentions and actions, but a plea for consideration of the ways that browser software could also benefit from a shift of mnemonic strategy - tools that augment the way we process connections sub-consciously as opposed to dragging submerged references into and out of working memory. I suspect that this objective is anyway in line with Ted's vision of a transcended text that can render our internal reflections and imagination.

The first thing that has to go is the hierarchical folder system called Favourites (Bookmarks). Instead there should be a tool that recognises the difference between sites we habitually visit and pages whose content we wish to assimilate. This could be done with a tagging system. Frode's keyboard shortcuts could also be deployed here.

How about a version of a desktop search applet (like Google's) that is integrated with the browser and only indexed and searched the sites we had tagged? This could be coupled with an Autonomy-style engine that maps out higher level associations between 'stored' passages of text. (Local storage would be the exception not the rule.)


I found these scans lurking in the nether levels of my Powerbook last week and I realise that enough time has now passed for me to feel pangs of nostalgia about the whole complicated process. Somewhow it no longer feels like an event that belongs to this period of our lives.

There's a towering, mechanically-respirating mannequin of Darth Vader made largely from LEGO in our reception today.

Intertextuality (1)

Hyper. A word that carries associations of both enhancement...and of excess.

Links certainly put the hyper into hypertext: "A link may be though of as a jump opportunity" says Ted. "Our Western cultural tradition is a great procession of writings, all with links implicit and explicit between them".

While traditional HTML handles those explicit links well enough, Frode's hyperwords demo shows how we can start to address the implicit connections. Compared to Ted Nelson and Paul Otlet before him, Frode's approach is more of a bottom-up one, apparently less obsessed with the formal architecture and internal classification of a greater docuverse.

But the potential for digressive jump-iness remains. Consciously we process our thoughts serially, sub-consciously however, we're thoroughly parallel. Frode's model allows us to think of all the ways we might want to consciously interact with text. Trouble is, that choosing to perform an action inevitably breaks the flow / interrupts the planned sequence.

In some cases not a bad thing. Yet one of the criticism's levelled at Tristram Shandy, (Sterne's unconventional novel now seen as a precursor of hypertext) is that "it is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time". Generally, we'd rather our experiences of the Web weren't open to the charge of simultaneous omni-presence and omni-absence.

Bottom-up or top down, hypertext systems are essentially about mapping correlations between passages of text. Until we have computers that can interpret semantically, hyperlinks will probably remain a compromise concept that in general operates at the level of low-level associations even though there is some aspiration to imitate more complex correlations.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Top Spot

Blog de mi Guatemala has got very excited about Guatemala's inclusion on a BBC list of "top ten" cultural destinations on the planet, an elite which includes St Petersburg, New England and...Newcastle. (OK, so it's a rolling weekly list...)

This hasn't deterred the country's leading daily La Prensa Libre which has followed up with the claim that Guatemala has seen off all competition and is in fact the No1 for 2005.

Gareth Gates

Panic not, this blog isn't dumbing that far down. However:

- Stammerers usually have no trouble singing
- It's easier for people to recall lyrics than the words of poems
- More babies than adults have perfect pitch

Stephen Mithen's new book, The Singing Neanderthals argues that perfect pitch could interfere with language acquisition so is generally debased in the general adult population. (Where just 1 in 10,000 possess it.) Only trained musicians appear to have an above average chance of retaining the ability. Mithen also speculates that our sense of rhythm evolved in tandem with the ability to walk upright. (Think Travolta)

House in Order?

A little debate with Frode last night about the BBC's discrimination against the Paris and Rome Live8 Concerts raises some minor but mentionable ironies.

The 'invisibility' of local artists derives from the same cultural and economic factors that make the world's poor invisible, and helps a small minority accumulate the lion's share of the available goodies.

The concert in Cornwall was thrown together at the last minute in recognition of the fact that Africa's talented but under-affluent musicians deserved a share of the exposure. (Youssou N'Dour had to spread himself a bit, appearing in London, Cornwall and Paris during the day.)

The music industry has been the most media-vociferous in its determination to preserve the inequalities of wealth distribution amongst its artists.

Reading Don Quijote has lately reminded me that "famous" originally meant being worthy of fame. Many of the biggest name artists in world music are indeed worthy of fame, but the industry as a whole today promotes many who are not, and the effect of this is that even the worthy ones habitually stoop to the methods of the unworthy for the expansion or preservation of their own celebrity. (How much of Snoop Dog's mate David Beckham's fame is worthy fame?)

This was a celebration of connectedness on behalf of the unconnected.

On another note, the story of hope that Birhan embodies does indeed indicate to the doubters that disaster or famine relief generally does work. What is does not show is that long-term international aid can make poverty history (or even address Africa's even more acute curse - disease).

Yes governance is an issue across Africa, but it is also a Western one. The commitment of the US Government to overseas assistance is amongst the lowest in relative terms amongst the G8 and has always been strongly tied to strategic interest.


"It's hard to work up genuine sympathy for a failure of niceties towards people who would never consider upholding such niceties in return - to stick up for the human rights of people who despise the idea of human rights. And yet the growing evidence of ugly behaviour is distressing in the extreme, not because of the injury to the detainees, but because of the injury to ourselves, to our identity as free and moral people living "under law", to our sense of what we stand for and who we are; and that identity is, or should be, something that conservatives and liberals should both be determined to defend."

Those were the words of Salman Rushdie in the Guardian back on June 25th. These outrageous views on human rights and Gitmo (Guantánamo Bay) could be reworked into a justification for Live8 with embarrassing ease: "Not because pointless African people are starving, but because watching them starve is an affront injury to ourselves, to our identity as free and moral people, to our sense of what we stand for and who we are; and that identity is..."

Monday, July 04, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

Ticks all the boxes, in Bold. Bigger in almost every sense than Stephen Chow's earlier Shaolin Soccer, but somehow still not quite as good.

The same key ingredients are there: (very) wicked humour, ecstatic, effect-driven visual invention, and all-round escalation. And when the action moves to Pig Sty alley it looks like it will also have the same soft heart, but sadly this hardens by degrees along the way.

If Hero was martial high-art, this is martial postmodern pop-art. It floats on a shimmering surface of multidimensional borrowings, without ever showing signs of sinking back into arch derivativeness like Tarantino's Kill Bill.

The harpist assassins are genius.

V remarked that it was often like watching a cartoon with real people and that the effect was almost nightmarish.

It's a while since I have seen a film with such enormous potential to be influential on our future viewing tastes. The New York Times reports today that "some of the biggest movie studios are now scrambling onto the mainland and planning to invest more than $150 million over the next few years in China's burgeoning film industry."

An Eden Project?

I came across this piece by Professor Jared Diamond last week in which he argues that the adoption of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of humanity.

It's essentially a modern scientific update of the Eden myth in which our hunter-gatherer forefathers collectively plugged for progress and growth (economic and demographic), thereby inadvertently opting into inequality, unbalanced nutrition, shorter statures and lives of high-dudgeon, for the majority at least.

Diamond seems to be arguing that because hunter-gatherers only had to 'work' for 14 hours a week, they were necessarily a happier bunch and no less capable of composing the B-minor Mass than those whose leisure derives from economic surplus. Hmm.

Anyway, in the context of Live8, it's worth giving this perspective some serious think-time.

Good and Evil both seem to have far greater impact on the human world once the apple of agriculture has been munched. Most Westerners implicitly understand the hidden cost of comet-colliding space-probes, and Live8 represents part of their effort to set limits to the degree of loss that can be suffered in a competitive world. But are we able to say that as a species that we would be better off leading an unchanging in-tune-with-nature existence? Would we sacrifice all of modern science and medicine just so that no human child ever goes hungry again?

In our secular era the whole idea of social stagnation seems like an affront to what is perhaps the key mystery of the cosmos- Time. If we can't believe in personal salvation, we can at least believe that our fellow humans are heading somewhere meaningful.

A few last points:

- Diamond forgot to mention that we owe most of our infectious diseases to the domestication of animals. Still, who knows what impact a pandemic might have had historically on communities organised the way Diamond suggests if they had persisted globally into the last Millennium.
- Neanderthals led a specialist lifestyle and got tossed out of the simian tree by more chameleon-like homo sapiens. Evolution favours the exploration of new possibilities.
- One word...Yanomami.

Live8 Highs and Lows

- Madge. Never been that big a fan, but her live act has always been in a class of its own.
- Robby was nevertheless the only one that made us briefly regret not actually being there. I must be getting old - he may even be growing on me.
- Loose canine: Someone forgot to tell Snoop Dog to go easy on the motherfuckin' lyrics.
- 'Go West': The Petshop Boys closing the gig behind St Basil's in Moscow.
- Those guitar-totin' Tuaregs Tinariwen over at the Eden Project. (Where was Manu Chao?)
- Ricky Gervais' thanks for voting out Saskia gag.
- Elton John. You'd have to assume that his annual expenditure on shoes exceeds certain African nations' healthcare budgets.
- Dido was saved by Youssou N'Dour. Her voice has the archetypal studio-scale timbre. At one point she seemed to be attempting an impersonation of Shakira. (The real thing was over in Paris but sadly we missed her.)
- It's a shame the BBC assumes that the concerts in Paris and Rome would be of lesser interest to us than Philadelphia and Berlin. Rome was actually the biggest of the lot.
- Mariah Carey should surely not have attempted to fit into a dress like the one she wore on the cover of her eponymous debut album in 1990.
- George Michael looks increasingly like someone doing a bad impersonation of himself.
- A-HA in Berlin. Morten Harket has done a better job of fending off old father Time than Simon Le Bon. (Destiny's Child also looked like the years are catching them up fast. )
- Bill Gates' strode on stage as if to announce the launch of a fab new software tool from Microsoft that squeezes camels through the eyes of needles.

Hats off to Bob Geldof for his PR masterstroke of producing the very alive, very beautiful and very academically successful young woman that had been filmed with just minutes to live sometime during the original Ethiopian famine.

V reckons Bob looks like he's spent the last 20 years up in the attic.

Review Coefficient

A team of scientists has modelled what they call the "review coefficient", an indicator of the impact of word-of-mouth on box office takings.

"The comedy 'Kissing Jessica Stein', for example, can be modelled using a large, positive review coefficient. It started with initially poor attendance, but increased its box-office take over the following five weeks owing to good reports from the audience. In contrast, 'Blade II' looks like a classic bomb: a large negative review coefficient matches its quick dive in takings."

Interestingly though, stall and dive aside, the way blockbusters are distributed meant that Blade II had ten times the takings of Kissing Jessica Stein. One for the long-tailers to ponder?

There's no question however that staying power will be increasingly important given that 70% of film revenue already comes from outside the box office.

Howling Gale

There's no question that many people with a rounded knowledge of African affairs have elected to assume a relatively sceptical position on the likely efficacy of Live8.

And if the campaign were targeted at Central America instead of Sub-Saharan Africa, I'd surely be amongst those expressing the view that debt cancellation and premium aid packages are likely to make bog-all immediate difference to the endemically poor in that region.

But when it comes to contemporary political consciousness perhaps the blunt instrument
(or as Bob would have it, the incoming gale at Gleneagles) is the best we have.

"We used to have movements, now we have moments", observed Andrew Marr to Jonathan Ross on Saturday. Yet he remains an cautious enthusiast of these "new politics".

Bob's basic belief in the wrongness of children going to sleep hungry feeds an eucumenical, ideology-flexible campaign that seems like the only available antidote to the apathy generated by unmediated complexity in an otherwise trivial culture.

Yet I've noted before that there's just something rather jarring about the fact that it's the most ephemeral aspect of pop culture that is shaping this particular 'higher-level' political discourse.

Saskia, end of

With the eviction of Saskia the Big Brother house has lost its alpha male. "Like a dude with tits" ruminated Anthony, though not until she was safely outside.

To see her off Maxwell adopted the Vivian from The Young Ones look.

It does look like her departure signalled to Endemol that it was safe again to introduce significant volumes of alcohol into the house. Saskia may be remembered as the housemate that stifled all the fun and games for 5 weeks (I always knew it was laregely Team Saskia not poor old Roberto doing this), though one of the banners waved at her on Friday taunted "Saskia, we've already fogotten you".

When asked about the 'racial divide' in the house Saskia retorted with an enhanced version of the "some of my best friends are Jewish" argument. You can learn a lot about what racism is and isn't from this spontaneously-occurring situation - in truth a variegated instance of us-and-them-ism, including ageist, homophobic, xenophobic, ethnic, sexist and regionalist prejudices, general envy and other petty resentments.

The Black Angel

Kuro no tenshi (Vol.1) was Takeshi Ishii's 1997 first stab at the female assassin phenotype, carefully interbred with the attributes of yakuza revenge thriller and (as with Gonin), those of nail-biting psychological horror. It works for me.

There's one scene in particular that marks it out as something rather different- Ikko and her accomplice Zill from LA are holed up in a gaudy Tokyo hotel room when he suddenly bangs their boogie box into life. It's undoubtedly a phatt tune so he leaps onto the bed and starts breakdancing on the duvet. Moments later he joins Ikko at the foot of the bed for a beautifully choreographed dance sequence that somehow feels genuinely spontaneous and oh so Japanese.

The pair are supposed to be Japanese Americans and so are required to explete in English ("fuckin' a") and otherwise mumble anglophonically. The home audience gets subtitles, but it was all a bit Gleek to us.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Nice Try

"Nice Try" Ted likes to quip when asked about the World Wide Web.

Now, just imagine there really was a creator God...and that He had a professional peer group and one particular maverick malcontented antecessor looking reprovingly over His shoulder.

"Nice try mate...but there's too much redundancy...too many sub-optimal life forms...not exactly what I had in mind when I came up with the idea of self-organising biochemical systems."

Under the influence of Gnosticism (a faith made famous in Western Europe by the Cathars which posits that the material world could only be the handiwork of the dark side of the Divine), Hakim the veiled prophet preached to 8th century Persians that planet Earth was the work of the least competent and vertically nethermost of the 999 deities. Unlike the Albigensians, Hakim held out for the belief that licentiousness was as valid a response to the carnal as abstinence.

Transclusive Ernies

Ted Nelson invented the concept of hypertext, an achievement that has earned him many accolades including (in 2001) the French honour of "Officier des Arts et Lettres". Arts and letters not, interestingly enough, computer science, where the impact of Ted's particular vision has been far less pronounced than he might have wished as a young man.

In Literary Machines he tried to pinpoint the meaning of his brainchild thus: "By 'hypertext' I mean nonsequential writing - text that branches and allows choice to the reader, best read at an interactive screen."

Interestingly enough, this definition positions hypertext as end product of laying down of non-sequential, branched associations, as opposed to the internal mechanism of a universal system of reference. Yet he has devoted most of his life to just such a system - Xanadu.

At the heart of the practical side of Xanadu was Ted's notion of transclusion, whereby author-creators could 'quote' each other using shortcuts that didn't actually generate a new copy of the quoted material. Transclusion was to have driven a system of royalty micropayments, the units of which Ted called ernies.

According to Wolf, the project had some serious technical limitations - everything in the library had to somehow be simultaneously accessible which implied vast memory requirements and almost unpredented computing power.

Perhaps there are other more fundamental problems with the approach? For a start it seems to belong to the un-wholey 'atomist' alliance (genes, particles etc.) which describes any system as a compilation of discreet units. As I pointed out in my previous post, high-order human knowledge is laregely symbolic - and symbols (unlike mere correlations) are hard to learn one at a time...

Mnemotechny (3)

Gary Wolf indicated that Ted's habit of recording everything exemplifies a lifelong fight against encroaching amnesia.

Some however, embrace forgetfulness. In Eliseo Subiela's Last Images of the Shipwreck, Claudio (played by the late Hugo Soto) is attempting to un-learn his vocabulary one word a day - every time he encounters the film's chief protagonist Roberto, his contributions to their conversations are fractured by the growing number of deletions.

Should cultural memory really be any more universal and complete than individual human memory? (Borges' Funes the Memorious embodies the curse of 'perfect information'.)

Perhaps techno-utopians misunderstand the role of recollection in the web of connections that is knowledge? "Information is where you find it" says Ted, but if you could literally find it everywhere, how would you start to look? Any would-be docuverse would have to accommodate the fact that human knowledge comprises symbols to an even greater extent than it comprises data.