Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Limpieza Social

The Independent is the first UK quality to have picked up on Guatemala's recent vigilante spree.

As with earlier external media commentary, an explicit link is being drawn between this resurgent form of extra-judicial violence and the death squads of the civil war period. By implication, the murdered mareros are also victims of a shadowy sub-state apparatus (and all of Guatemala's problems can be securely derived from its history of right-wing politics and the lasting reign of impunidad).

Yet the article concludes by referring to the 'Social Cleansing of the Town' group in San Lucas Toliman, whose activities surely suggest something more akin to a grass-roots response to the erosion of local state authority by organised criminals.

Violence is much more endemic in Guatemala, but is it really surprising that this wave of killings is benefitting from a degree of popular support? I suspect that many people in the UK would sympathise with vigilantes targeting cells of violent extremists, even if it could be shown that they were being loosely sponsored by the state. (In Spain for example, a death squad which liquidated a number of suspected Basque terrorists was ultimately shown to have links to the socialist government of Felipe González .)

In Central America the maras are taken to represent an "enemy within" that, by virtue of standing outside and in opposition to the body politic, might be said to have renounced the protections enjoyed by other citizens. It sounds harsh and it is, but it's also a line that some Western governments have been consistently pursuing themselves, albeit in more sophisticated (and deniable) ways.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Relativistic Media

Watched an interview with Lee Smolin on Redes yesterday (it being Spain they had him cornered in a cloister) into which he tossed a musical analogy for distinguishing the fundamental outlooks of classical and modern, relativistic cosmology: whereas in the classical form musical time is delimited by the fixed, external tic toc of the metronome, in many contemporary musical styles, time is instead defined by the interactions of the individual musicians.

A weaker version of the same symmetry exists in the media. For the past decade the digital new media has largely been a more distributed version of the classical 'old' media. Meanings were still being fixed on the outside then injected via websites acting as channels into a network that wasn't yet functioning properly as a network − because its underlying organisational logic remained largely digital and serial. (Hence perhaps Ted's persistent proclamations over the period that the time has come to liberate the Web from the techies .)

Within the networks of social, user-generated media however, meanings more often emerge as a result of interactions between the nodes and there is certainly no straightforward, one-way tracking of a external media and communications metronome.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Museum of London

It's a little odd that it has taken so long for us to get round to visiting this fascinating collection, though this might perhaps be put down to the museum's proximity to the Barbican − a place I used to be able to find only when I wasn't trying.

The first gallery, London before London, takes you back to the time when the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine and proto-cockneys shared the valley with bears, lions, aurocks, mammoth and rhino.

The Roman gallery features this model of Londinium's unlikely-looking brick Basilica, said to be the largest civil structure north of the Alps at the time of its construction. There are also several IKEA-style mock-ups of Romano-British living spaces.

V loved this newspaper cartoon showing the surge of humanity that flowed towards Hyde Park and the Great Exhibition in 1851. The wax dummy of old buggergrips above used to proudly advertise the skill and modishness of a Victorian barber.

The Terminal

I remember watching the reports on Channel 4's The Word back in the early 90s about Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri, the man who had taken up residence in Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988 when local immigration authorities refused him entry after his passport and United Nations refugee certificate were stolen. Amazingly, he's still there.

Spielberg has refashioned Nasseri's permanent statelessness into a more finite and sugar-coated three act comedy about a visitor to the Big Apple from the brown-tie boondocks, whose fictional war-torn homeland Krakozhia evaporates just as his feet arrive behind the yellow line at US Immigration. (After some consular lobbying the scriptwriters decided it would not after all be such a great idea for Viktor to hail from EU-member Slovenia, the 'Switzerland of Eastern Europe')

The movie's greatest inadequacies are some underwritten second-tier parts and a failure to really capture the atmosphere and daily rhythms of an airport terminal in quite the same way that Lost in Translation captured those of a big chain business hotel.

It's also a bit of a monster product placement exercise; Burger King and Borders do especially well. In fact there are more shops in this dummied up departure lounge than I remember in the airports of Houston, Miami and LA combined.

However, Hanks could so easily have been a whole lot more annoying in this role. In the end his performance is almost touching. When required to talk foreign, he babbles away in Bulgarian, probably coached by his wife Margarita Ibrahimova.

These scenes reminded me of a now legendary conversation V once had with two Bulgarians and a young man from Malawi. The Bulgarians were training in the UK with our company as part of a programme funded by the Foreign Office. The more materialistic of the pair, Assen, decided to conduct a small private survey on the relative per-capita rewards in the developing countries represented around the dinner table that night:

"How much is the celery in your country?" he asked V.

Not realising that he was referring to gross monthly income V enthusiastically reported the cheapness of apio in the Antigua's vegetable market as Assen's eyes widened. The next cross-cultural misunderstanding that evening occured shortly afterwards. The man from Malawi was left sporting an equally incredulous look, convinced that V had just informed him that "in my country the Gorillas carry guns and shoot people."

When The Terminal ends I was quite surprised that Viktor doesn't get the girl, a state of affairs that seems unusually downbeat in the context of Spielberg's oeuvre. ButI had noted something awkward about the scene transitions in the last act, and later discovered that these can be explained by the re-scripting of the last part of Viktor's story which took place after early screenings. So I would expect to find Catherine Zeta Jones's character in Viktor's arms in the alternative ending on Disk 2 of the DVD set.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Both of the programmes we've seen have explored the impact of the birth of infants with unusual genetic deformities on developing world communities caught between traditional and modern mindsets.

First there was little Milagros Cerrón Arauco, la sirena, born in Peru with fused legs, a single kidney and her sexual organs trapped in her rectum. (Sirenomelia)

Her parents were dirt-poor Andean indios whose friends and family bitterly blamed the mother's visits to the local lake for this mermaid's curse. Soon the child's biological relatives had become almost an irrelevance, displaced by a media circus stirred up by politico-physician Dr Luis Rubio, a white-suited populist who gets about in a stretch limo surrounded by 'nurses' in mini-skirts.

Baptised in the cathedral by the Bishop of Lima with the city mayor as her godfather, Milagros' fragile life was acquiring an artifical value as a unique specimen and as a foil for her saviours' self-congratulatory discourse. This biologically unlucky baby would become "a technical and artistic miracle", asserted her ambitious surgeon, and a symbol to simple people of superstitious bent everywhere that there is a salida (way out) for children with serious birth defects. We were informed at the end that Dr Rubio has moved on to 'Lobster Boy'.

This week we were taken to Egypt where a baby girl called Manar Maged was born with the fully-formed head and brain of her twin sister attached to her skull. The condition is known as craniopagus parasiticus and results when the circulatory system of one of a pair of conjoined twins fails early in pregnancy. As with the Peruvian baby it was pretty clear that the parents dearly hoped that the child would perish momentarily (as the gringos say), though the interviewers encouraged them to awkwardly relate a narrative of struggle and hope. (I doubt however that their immediate ancestors would have had any qualms about assisting the passing of such an unfortunate soul.)

If the case of the mermaid was interesting primarily for the way it unfurled the human geography of contemporary Latin America, here there were both sharper ethical issues (the parasitical head could react to stimuli and express emotion) and a more deeply fascinating biological one. There's selfishness going on here, but not just at the gene or mass media level. What kind of individual and collective interaction of embrionic genetic code decides to create a perfectly-formed human head attached to a stump instead of a fully-developed 'survival machine'? And when it lost its own blood supply, how did the twin know how to tap into its sibling's and to form that particular subset of a complete person, rather than the rather messier alternatives?

Neighbourhood Watch

For many people in Antigua chismes are primarily what make one day different from the next − the daily dose of stimulating, local community word-of-mouth reportage.

This means there are essentially two good reasons for becoming a diarist out there. Firstly, you can go about setting the record bent for posterity − rather like Procopius did with his salacious Secret History − or you can attempt to maintain an even and accurate account of all your daily encounters and activities.

V's niece Jeannette has obviously anticipated that the next time we turn up in Antigua various different verbal narratives of her year-long tenure of our house are likely to be presented to us. So last night she thought it good to forewarn us that she has been keeping a counter-balancing chronicle which can be consulted as required in order to provide factual context to any calumnias that might have been fomenting over the period of our absence.

She also reports that more barbed wire and other fortifications have been erected between the houses of V's siblings than on the walls overlooking their respective boundaries with the road and adjoining terrenos. The latest set of inter-clan barricades went up after a large cream cake was pillaged (we're not talking Red Rackham's treasure here) from Felipe's house, which is usually unoccupied during the week and therefore occasionally subject to raiding parties consisting of the junior members of the neighbouring households.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Blogger Invasion

Two of the main leads in Invasion met in a cybercafe to update their blogs in episode 8, The Dredge last night.

Undoubtedly the most prominent plug for this sort of activity I've yet spotted in a primetime drama. (Not that I watch that much, honest.)

Behind the Mirror

This weekend V passed on to me a great little story that she'd picked up on Spanish TV: a woman was rearranging things in her house when she accidentally knocked over a jug, which fell and smashed an old mirror. Amongst the shards scattered on the terracotta floor she discovered a love letter written in 1926 by "MCS". The intended recipient and object of a lifelong secret love "from behind the mirror" was her long-deceased grandmother

V described the sentiments inside this almost excessively patient romantic booby-trap as añejados mellowed and matured like fine wine bedded down in a musty old cellar; so much the more interesting and complex because of the long delay before uncorking.

Try as I might though, I just can't get the English translations of MCS's words to sound anything like as touching and poetic as the original formulations in Spanish.

"Al quebrar este espejo se habra cumplido mi deseo eterno..." (The moment this mirror breaks is the moment that my everlasting wish will have been granted.) "Tu sonrisa es un dolor, porque no es para mi" (Your smile is my agony, because it isn't for me.)

It reminds me a bit of those hoary old Catalan fishermen in Norman Lewis's Voices of the Old Sea that chose to rhyme in castellano rather than their mother tongue because of its undoubtedly superior poetic qualities.

The mirror-breaker now believes that the man who so equitably assigned his confession of hidden devotion to the whims of fate was a carpenter living in the same town as her grandmother. The rest of the story has yet to be filled out, but there's no shortage of willing investigators.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Drowning in a glass of water

This week the good citizens of Guatemala have had the chance to participate in their own little clash of civilisations after it was announced that a set of gay porn films (including one called Crossroads of Desire) had been filmed inside some of Antigua's most well-known monuments, such as Las Capuchinas and the old university of San Carlos.

An abuse of local hospitality? An affront to the religious fervour of a nation proudly "conservador y creyente"? A sign of impending moral apocalypse?

Whichever it might be, the ferocious-looking ceremonial garb of victimhood has been donned and urgent protests have been directed at local authorities. There has even been talk of a demonstration outside the residence of the most senior prelate in town.

Some have expressed the fear that this World Heritage site will become a 'mecca' for gay tourism, and that drugs, paedophilia, prostitution and all the other denominations of depravidad will not be far behind. Guatemalans suffer from near-Jamaican levels of homophobia at the best of times and it can be hard for openly gay foreigners to find accommodation with local families when they come here to study Spanish. Yet it is also the case that there has been something of a well-settled, sandals-off gay scene in Antigua for many years. Gore Vidal lived in the city from 1947 to 1949 and had little trouble developing opportunities for anonymous same sex encounters. (I came across one amusing aside from a local bloguero who tentatively reported that "a taxi-driver once told me that Wednesday night is gay night in Antigua.")

Few of the most passionately piqued appear to be residents of Antigua. Many are nostalgic long-term exiles in the US, and for nearby capitalinos Antigua presents itself as a adventure park of old world ways for taking the kids on Sunday afternoon.

It's not exactly clear what most disturbs the Guatemalans about this piece of news. It's as if an apparent act of disrespect towards one of the few things of global cultural value in their country has started all those partially-healed wounds of national indignation bleeding all over again. (Yet can we be so sure that even the Germans wouldn't bat an eyelid if someone made an S&M flick in Beethoven's old house in Bonn?)

Stepping oustide the circle of stone-throwers, you would have to conclude that the root cause of this sudden flare up of chapin complejos is some rather irresponsible reporting. No actual homosexual coupling was ever filmed in the aforementioned sites; that all took place in the Granai mansion at the entrance to the city. The camera crew later filmed actors wandering around the ruins like any other tourists. It seems that only bloggers are both able and willing to admit to having actually viewed the material in question.

Anyway, the key issues that have engaged the minds of local bloggers and their comentaristas this week are:
  • Didn't all kinds of abuses and gothic atrocities already take place in these ruined religious houses in the name of Faith?
  • And aren't these buildings a symbol of colonial esclavitud, and as such a stain on Central America's history?
  • Who, if anybody, has lined their pocket?
  • Does the UN need to get involved?
  • Would anyone have minded so much if the film had been about lesbians?

Monday, February 13, 2006


Good cast, good location, good script − which all adds up to a goodish movie. So, where did the missing 21 grams of satisfaction go to?

It was certainly grippingly suspenseful throughout, and although I've never been a huge fan of Pacino, his performance never quite rankles, even when his character Will Dormer is getting progressively bleary. It also has a couple of very memorable pedestrian chase scenes - one involving swirling fog on a pebble beach and the other traversing a river on floating logs.

Christopher Nolan has built his reputation on chronologically-challenged narratives that deliver a thought-provoking climax, but here we get a shoot-out from central casting, and all the intricacy that was carefully constructed in the mid section collapses into comparative simplicity. In fairness Nolan didn't write this one himself; it's a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name from 1997. Yet maybe that's the point − he had to take a small, clever script and coat it with Hollywood formula and celebrity, and at the end it feels just a bit overstretched.

Incidentally, in the original there is no Internal Affairs sub-plot, rather the detective that accidentally kills his partner is a Swede who shouldn't be carrying a gun in Norway.


An interesting piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker about a pit bull ban in Canada ("a generalisation about a generalisation about a trait that is in fact not general"), from which it is possible to reach a number of conclusions about the inefficiencies that tend to occur whenever we asign traits to certain categories. In another article, Gladwell argues in favour of power law solutions to problems such as violent cops, chronic homelessness and vehicle pollution.

The same issue has a fun little short story by Haruki Murakami about a woman that can't remember her own name.

Land of the Dead

"I've always wanted to know how the other half lives", says one downwardly-mobile character, clutching a bleeding forearm.

That remark aside, this time out Romero's shambling stiffs are lacking in satirical bite. Joël was right about this one. On a symbolic level it's just too obvious and on a literal one, utterly preposterous.

Scott Adams has had an amusing Certified Project Management Zombie theme going over the past week.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Killer

High-camp Hong Kong action classic from John Woo in which there can never be enough bad guys to shoot (and they can never have enough lead pumped into them) and where most of the sexual tension inbetween these immoderate shoot-outs is generated by the male leads. (Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee.) As in later examples of the genre such as Full-time Killer and the Infernal Affairs series, the handsome adversaries stare into each other's eyes with a mix of cool contempt and mutual admiration, sublimating in the direction of lust, as their automatics press onto each other's temples.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Eagle's Throne

Carlos Fuentes apparently came up with the idea for this highly entertaining novel after Bill Clinton asked him what would happen if the President of Mexico were to die in office.

La Silla del Aguila is set in 2020, but is evidently not intended as a work of futuristic science fiction, given that the premise revolves around a sudden and inconvenient deflation of the background technology. Fuentes has simply rolled Mexican politics forward enough to create a convincing cast of schemers and scoundrels without having to re-write his nation's contemporary history.

A long-time fan of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Fuentes needed a pretext for producing an epistolary novel, so we discover at the start that Mexico has incurred the wrath of President Connie Rice by siding with the Arabs on oil prices and opposing an armed US intervention in Colombia. As a result the gringos have pulled the plug on their southern neighbour's satellite telecoms. Unable to fax, phone or email, the members of Mexico's cabinet and congress have no alternative but to betray their "lifelong philosophy": never leave a written record! The personal letter (and tape) format cleverly exposes the distorted inner lives of the men and women selected to manage the collective illusion and disillusion that is Mexico.

Most of the best novels about Latin American politics have been portraits of dictatorship. Here we are perhaps given some pointers to the origins of that particular form of misrule, but this welcome addition to the genre is concerned primarily with the system that feeds and corrupts executive power south of the Rio Grande. What we witness through the correspondence is a self-regulating political climate in which flesh and blood politicians often play the equivalent role of the inanimate rocks in James Lovelock's Gaia model of the function of global weather systems.

Fuentes has said that this novel expresses the fact that "politics is the external expression of inner passions", yet my own take on it was that the character's interior worlds are as much object as subject in this most circular of political arenas.

There's certainly no room for redeemers in the maelstrom of perpetual conspiracy; one has to deceive to achieve. "You want the land and the map to match", one character reports having counselled an assassinated President-elect, "...live in peace at the centre of the map and let the labourers of corruption cultivate the land." Another notes that "every politician rises up in the ranks with a bagful of skeletons trailing behind him like cans of Coca-Cola from dragging from the tail of a rebellious but frightened cat", while an acting occupant of the Eagle's Throne is sternly warned to watch his "cost-deceit ratio".

If I hadn't thought "andale" when I first picked up the book, I certainly did by the time I turned the last page. Perhaps at times the author's own typically erudite voice could be heard in the midst of these personal missives, spoiling some of the sense of autonomous passion and reflection, but overall I was carried along by the sheer wit of his Machiavellian melodrama.

There are a number of particularly insightful observations such as this: politicians will seek advice and affirmation from intellectuals, but eventual disagreement between them is inevitable and the politician will always construe this as a betrayal. And I loved the letter where a congresswoman instructs the man she believes is her co-conspirator on how to utter the right sort of famous last words; unlike Mexico's great general Álvaro Obregón, whose own were "more tortilla chips please!" as he was gunned down at a banquet.

Anyone with a political bent, regardless of ambition and acquisitiveness, would do well to read this novel.

Whilst Fuentes was discussing it last week at the Purcell Room (having recovered from a minor electrocution incident at the lectern during his reading) a woman stood up and and walked to the front of the auditorium in order to speak:"What you are saying is very interesting, but could you lean forward closer to your microphone so that we can hear you?" That she managed to deliver this line without so much as a please or a thank you was most unusual for this country.

The author told us that it felt a bit strange to be back on the promotion trail for a book that was originally published in Spanish three years ago. He was asked why he didn't translate his own books and replied that he would lose a year of his life if he did that, and that it would be like taking the bread from the mouths of his translators!

"And I dream, make love and insult in Spanish," he chirped, before recounting the disappointment he had felt when on a visit to the Soviet Union to promote a Russian translation of one of his novels, he discovered that it had shrunk from 400 pages to around 120. "We know the tastes of the Soviet public and you don't" the publishers informed him, after explaining that all passages featuring either sex or politics had been expunged!

Fuentes' host for the talk that evening was the rather dry critic Amanda Hopkinson. When one member of the audience asked where she could get the novel in Spanish, the author charmingly suggested that they might be able to give her a copy "como un regalo", but was interrupted by mean old Hopkinson who told the punter to go to Grant & Cutler.

Clinton's original question had been: "Why are there no Vice Presidents in Mexico?" The answer − because they used to overthrow the Presidents.

The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei)

This is more or less what would have happened if Chekhov had been asked to come up with the plot for The Last Samurai.

Hiroyuki Sanada also appeared in that overblown Cruise vehicle, but here plays badly-groomed zen disciple Seibei Iguchi, aka "Twilight", a nickname bestowed on the widowed Samurai for his habit of heading straight home to his two young daughters at the end of the day, instead of going out drinking with bar girls like his workmates (one indicator of the modern relevance of its themes).

Gentle comedy and romance alleviate the pervasive mood of melancholy in a narrative built to serve the central character study that of a man whose modesty of means keep him forever on the edge of dishonour and destitution, yet whose modesty of spirit belies an heroic attempt to live the fullest of lives whilst not actually trying to move up in this world. The backdrop to this personal struggle is a political convulsion that is shunting the old clans into obsolescence while the bodies of starved peasants float slowly past the fishermen on the riverbanks.

Not quite a masterpiece, but a gem to compare with Ame Agaru (After the Rain).

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I'm a pandillero get me out of here

Next month a new locally-produced reality TV show will air in Guatemala. Partly funded by the USAID office in which V's sister-in-law works, it will show how a group of ten former mareros (gang-members) cope with living together for two weeks while volunteers from civil society venture in to teach them basic skills in accounting, customer service, human resources, sales, personal motivation and marketing.

The end result is said to be two new small businesses: a car wash and a shoe repair shop. Yet if these ventures end up going tetas arriba, the group will surely have improved their chances of being head-hunted by the kingpins of organised crime.

In Guatemala there are approximately 14,000 active mareros belonging to over 400 distinct groups. The most organised maras, such as MS-13 or Salvatrucha evolved in the Hispanic gangland/penitentiary culture of LA, exported back to Central America in the early 90s at the conclusion of the Cold War when the gringos deported numerous clicas (cells) back to their countries of origin.

The maras are a fully transnational phenomenon: MS-13 has some 20,000 members in the US and 4000 in Canada, out of a total of around 100,000 across the hemisphere. Their most common group activities are extortion and drug trafficking. The more sophisticated provide surrogate goverment in areas where state authority is patchy.

Recently the mareros have found themselves on the end of an extra-judicial backlash. There were 5,330 violent deaths in Guatemala during 2005, a figure that includes many males in their teens or early twenties who fell victim not to rival gangs, but to vigilantes with a mind to cull the maras infesting their communities.

A total of 90 people have died violently in the first week of February, 17 last Monday alone, when most of the corpses bore signs of torture and written messages alleging membership of one of the maras.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rabinal Achi

In November last year Guatemala's unique pre-Colombian drama was a declared a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.

Written in an archaic form of Achi (still spoken in Rabinal), the Rabinal Achi tells a tale from the Post-Classical era of Maya civilisation (900-1524AD): A Quiche warrior is captured by his enemies, the people of Rabinal. He is sentenced to die but pleads successfully to be able to visit his homeland one last time before his execution. He gives his word he will return, keeps it and is duly executed.

Performed in January at the feria of Rabinal since at least 1400, it is the only dramatic work in Latin America written entirely in an indigenous language and set before the the arrival of the Europeans. The characters wear wooden masks and pace back and forth in a small circle to the rhythm of the Tum, a traditional wooden drum.

Groundhog Day

A romcom that blokes can enjoy equally if not more than their partners, a deeply spiritual allegory that even agnostics can get a buzz out of. A great movie.

The genius of this story is the way it blends complex existential themes into thoroughly mainstream comedy (though Danny Rubin's original script started in the middle with a weatherman acting somewhat strangely...)

Phil Connors is a man who must experience the confines of infinite time in order to fully appreciate the freedoms of finite time. He learns along the way that days can be re-lived more easily than moments.

Slightly more cynically, you might also say that Phil surrenders his unique spiritual identity, albeit a jaded and egotistical one, in order to transform himself into the more featureless model of excellence he needs to become in order to win the prize of Rita's affection.

These are not parallel universes of the sort that we can experience indirectly through quantum interference phenomena, because from Phil's point of view they are stacked one on top of the other. It might be that he has mysteriously acquired the ability to subjectively explore each of his possible worlds one after the other, but there is a strong hint in the script that everyone else is in the warp with him, they just don't know it. (Rita's déjà vu episode.) If it wasn't that way, then we would have to assume that each of these todays is followed by tomorrows in which everyone else goes on to live the consequences that Phil has been so neatly dodging.

Anyway, parallel universes are identical at their points of connection, but those points are distinguished by distinct free choices. Each of Phil's Groundhog Days begins with him asleep, unable to be the agent of that choice.

Last week President Bush's State of the Union speech coincided with Groundhog Day.

Friday, February 03, 2006

To die in the land of Kafka

I realise now that my greatest weakness as an author could ultimately prove to be the lack of a talkative grandmother.

Never mind. At least I have now shaken the hand of one of Latin America's 'boom' writers, Mexico's leading man of letters, Carlos Fuentes. Perhaps not, in all honesty, my instinctive first choice from amongst that illustrious generation: I've read and enjoyed several of his short stories, yet I've never picked one of his novels off the shelf at the bookshop and thought "andale!"

For some reason I had always imagined that Fuentes would present a more solemn and patrician figure, like an austerely bookish version of your typical ranch-owning 'Don', but up close in person last night he appeared more pocket-sized and fragile, more paperback than hardback, and a tone or two darker than he had from back in row R in the Purcell Room. But the twinkle in his eye was unmistakeable.

After reading passages from The Eagle's Throne, his new "anticipatory" novel, Fuentes fielded a few questions, one of which prompted him to tell an amusing anecdote about a train journey he once made with two other literary superstars from the boom period, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez . The Czech novelist Milan Kundera had invited the trio to experience the Prague Spring at first hand and as they rattled across Central Europe Cortázar kept them entertained throughout the night by verbally downloading from his memory bank of mystery narratives involving trains.

On arrival in Prague Kundera invited them to a sauna. "Ni muerto" said Cortázar, leaving Carlos and Gabo to follow their new friend. At the end of their stint in the sauna, when García Márquez asked where the shower was, Kundera broke it to them that there wasn't one on site, but he had an idea. "Follow me..." He led them to a door which opened onto the banks of the river, at that time completely frozen over, but close to their exit a hole had been cut in the ice. Reporting this bracing little dip as one of the worst moments of his life, Fuentes chuckled at the memory of García Márquez bobbing up and down in the freezing water. The Colombian had later exclaimed that "for a moment, I thought we were going to die in the land of Kafka".

International Day of Anger

Michel Houellebecq faced charges of incitement to religious hatred when he published his novel Platform in 2001. Not only had he referred to Islam as "the world's most idiotic religion", he had predicted an attack by Islamicists on dissolute western tourists in Thailand, two years before the Bali bombing.

On September 10th 2001 Houellebecq's publisher felt the need to issue a public apology on behalf of the bestselling author and all round reprobate. Yet the the next day as Houellebecq sat and watched the hijacked planes slicing through the steel structure of the WTC, his writer friend Michel Déon was congratulating him: "you're saved!"

Very quickly Houellebecq's personal salvation became more general: in effect Osama Bin Laden had struck a major blow against the constraints of PC culture. For years ordinary citizens in the liberal democracies had been unable to intentionally offend all the minority groups whose sensibilities they so desperately wanted to discount, but now at last there was a permissable outlet, and one apparently sanctioned by all shades of politicians and cultural trend-setters. Even left-wingers could now safely vent their concerns about immigration, just as long as they dropped a few hints about religious differences and women's rights.

It didn't matter that elsewhere after 9-11 our real political freedoms were disappearing faster than the Siberian tiger, as long as we could bate the beardies − thereby unloading decades of pent-up liberal intolerance on these comparatively soft targets. Even the usually staid and bourgeois Danes have been provoked into a spasm of reckless bravado.

Over in Guatemala the lack of an indigenous base of Mohammedan green fascists hasn't stopped people recreating the basic ying yang divide of postmodern life. Yesterday members of an extremist cell of bible-bashers calling themselves the Social Cleansing of the Town were arrested after they set up checkpoints on a main highway near San Lucas Toliman (about 70 kilometres west of Guatemala City) and attempted to serve summary justice on passing individuals deemed to be living outside the law of God. (Petty theft and marital infidelity being the key transgressions they were picking up on.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Vaporous Thoughts

The term blogosphere also alludes to atmosphere. Let's see how far the metaphor will spread.

Whilst websites are like nodes in a network − destination points like airports that are of weightier substance than the routes flown between them − blogs really are more like molecules in a gas. In a sense they are implictly members of a higher-level system from the moment they come into being.

Unlike scientists studying gas molecules it's actually quite easy for us to isolate and analyse the properties of the individual components of our blogosphere: with tools like Technorati, Google Blogsearch and Blogpulse we can zoom straight in to the smallest components and those that are 'nearest' to them according to a given set of criteria.

But the atmospheric scientists have the edge over us when it comes to detecting and describing the higher-level regularities. (In many cases they don't need sophisticated hardware, they can just see them.)

Our blog molecules may have more individual personality, but their aggregate behaviour is much harder to specify with certainty. Sometimes when the patterns are small enough we might just get lucky with simple queries as it's never that hard to reassemble quality from a small enough set of quantities.

But reassembling truly higher-level order from many thousands of blogs would be akin to re-mapping an entire rain forest ecosystem from all the different biological bits. When you start from the bottom up you have no guarantee that you will follow all the links in the right order. (Yet I'm still optimistic that we might be able to fudge it without having to resort to complex mathematical models − that's where my contributions would end!)

As I pointed out in the previous post, we can't be certain that the properties that make the blogosphere (and the social media in general) so interesting to marketing technologists represent the average behaviour of the whole. But hypercycles, those intensely sociable, amplifying networks of meaning within the blogosphere may be having an impact that belies their relative predominance in the mix.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Seeking Hypercycles

In our industry we have used the carrot and the stick quite evenly as tools for getting attention, − both internally and externally − and perhaps at times we have been guilty of over-hyping both threats and the opportunities in order to gain the respect of the habitually complacent.

These days our carrot and stick cellars are being liberally replenished by a subtle shift in the dominant metaphor of Web usage: figuratively speaking, over the past ten years websites have gone from being interactive documents to virtual spaces and now social entities.

I've been giving some thought to one would go about locating and mapping out the most catalytic relationship clusters within social media. Forklifting a term coined by the Nobel prize-winning Chemist Manfred Eigen, I'm going to call these the social media hypercycles. (Although they are probably not as straightforwardly cyclical as the subjects of Eigen's research, the positive feedback effect is similar.)

A word or two of caution though I'd actually be surprised if hypercycles can yet be said to represent the average higher-level properties of the social media as a whole. The blogosphere still isn't (and may never become) one big closed loop busy developing and amplifying meanings and messages all by itself, whose individual participants are all fit to be described with adjectives like disruptive or unfettered.

Indeed, a good many bloggers are themselves wet-around-the-ears, wannabe communicators, and often (involuntarily or not) fetter themselves to attitudes and behaviours that are surprisingly similar to those of traditional journalists.

As a result there is still a great deal of (rather unsophisticated) one-to many publishing going on in there. For example, in recent exercises carried out on behalf of clients, I have been surprised how many times the content of a given press release has been copied word for word by individual bloggers: and these are young, non-professional topic enthusiasts, not the jaded hacks said to hang around in the space where the MSM meets PR.

Form over Substance

Steve Rubel's immediate response to Yahoo's apparent acknowledgement of Google's unassailable ascendancy in the sphere of search was to proclaim:"That's it...I have no interest in using a product that the company doesn't aspire to make best of breed."

Yet in fairness to Yahoo, they may actually be onto something. Of course this sudden reassessment of core objectives has been largely forced on them, but historically there has always been a vein of human intellectual intervention in the Yahoo approach, which has distinguished it from algorithmic alternatives such as Google. (Esther Dyson: "Yahoo is intelligent design...Google is blind evolution")

In general, when it comes to understanding things, there have always been two (mostly) separate currents in our thinking processes:

  • Substance (components, structure and quantity)
  • Form (pattern, order and quality)
The first, where we ask what things are made of and how they fit together, is the basis of all analysis and information processing. It's a methodology of measurement. The second, arguably the trickier, seeks to comprehend the configuration of internal relations − and patterns generally need to be mapped, not measured.

With all the processing power that has fallen into our laps over the past decade or so, it's hardly surprising that maps of pattern and quality have continued to play second fiddle to measurements of quantity and models of structure. Indeed, matters of quality are often supposed to be irredeemably muddled with meaning and values − compromised by subjectivity. However, the information processors typically anticipate that the problem of subjectivity will go away if the numbers are big enough - the so called wisdom of the crowd.

Google is still the best way of understanding the substance of the Web. In most instances, it's all we need to know: relationships are secondary.

Yet the very term Blogoshere, with its echoes of biosphere, suggests that social media represent a new order of webbiness where networked patterns of meaning and citation will matter more. By implication, counting up individual blogs may not tell you all you need to know about an individual organisation or brand's social media 'footprint'.

Last week Valla Vikili from Yahoo told a group of my colleagues in New York that the widespread use of social media heralded the "death of meaning". No longer would consumers so readily accept (and pay for) the meanings that communications consultants bundle in with products and services, because they now had the tools for making their own. And Yahoo has a growing interest in these tools. Their assimilation of social media start-ups like Flickr and del.icio.us surely reflects a strategy that is now perceptibly geared towards form rather than substance, which has been the natural territory of their great rival Google.

With home-made meanings increasingly emerging from and looping around the social media in unpredictable, non-linear ways (rather than being seeded into the earlier Web of comparatively atomised sites and pages) this may end up being the space to be.