Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Long Tail Ghetto

Blog Maverick exposes some of the ironies of the Long Tail:
  • Whilst increasingly attractive to a certain kind of electronic reseller, it's not a place any genuinely ambitious content-creator will want to stay for any length of time
  • Many will sign-up for OPM (Other People's Money) in order to break through the content ceiling and onto the vertical ramp
  • Only the moderately successful further down the ramp will remain enthusiastic about user-uploaded versions of their content
  • For those that have benefitted to the full from Big Money investment, losses due to copyright infringement will appear to outweigh any potential benefit from extra views.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Contributors to Spiked have recently criticised other journalists' obsession with all things Islamic.

Yet the media really only has two registers today, obsessed and completely uninterested, and the challenge posed by Islamism is simply not one we can collectively afford to be uninterested in. I think it likely that the West will experience some sort of cultural correction to consumerism during this century, and for the sake of our present freedoms, I would rather this was largely driven by the rational rather than the religious. I am particularly keen that Islamism should play a very limited role.

I challenge those that worry about creeping Islamophobia to look at the other side of media obsession by spending an evening taking in current affairs programming on The Islam Channel or Unity Muslim.

"Let's have a free and fair debate on the effects of apparel," suggested someone on Yusuf Chambers's programme on Friday, clearly inviting contributions similar to those of Australia's leading Muslim cleric last week. The host nodded, adding that Christian women think they are free, but are being used. Christians can't be trusted to have a free and fair debate, it was then suggested, "because they have destroyed their religion".

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Suburban Nihilism

I'm not sure that I agree with the likes of Holt and Eagleton that Richard Dawkins is obliged to address his polemic against religious belief at the more sophisticated end of modern theology. Simple faith isn't just the faith of the simple, it is the foundation of all religious systems. In that sense I can better understand the fundamentalist than the 'sophisticated' believer who chooses not to fully incorporate some of the most basic tenets of Christian dogma into his or her faith (Holy Trinity, Resurrection, Virgin Birth etc.)

Neither of those reviewers addresses the context of Dawkins's book: that a nation that emerged from an enlightened millieux that included the likes of Thomas Paine is now collectively inclined to value a cell more than an adult human being. Dawkins calls this an "intellectual emergency" and worries that we face "nothing less than a global assualt on rationality".

His response has been to have a full-on rant about religion, which has raised a number of important issues which he himself has apparently neglected to flesh out. For instance, can society as a whole "raise its consciousness", can everyone live their lives on the assumption that He isn't there, or is it just an elite option for the cheerily nihilistic denizens of "north Oxford"?! What are the cultural conditions for a genuine re-Enlightenment in the West?

As the originator of the belatedly trendy term meme, Dawkins refuses to give up on his notion that religious education is a form of child abuse. Evidence from identical twins points to a genetic basis for religiosity, and believers tend to live longer, apparently happier lives, but Dawkins refuses to concede that religion might be adaptive in itself. Instead he suggests that belief in God is a byproduct of our instinct to believe everything our parents tell us and religious dogmas are cultural memes that benefit themselves not the minds they inhabit.

Like Dan Dennett Richard Dawkins is often caught out trying to use Darwinian natural selection as a universal system of explanation. Jim Holt picked him up on his insistence that all complex things − and Dawkins insists that God must be the most complex of all − derive from simpler ones.

"Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat)."

Of all the arguments for a Deity (or at least some sort of transcendental purpose in the cosmos) , the design argument − which notes that we exist in a markedly bio-friendly universe− is for me the hardest to dismiss. The standard counter-argument, that this is likely to be just one of many universes, most of which are fundamentally eco-hostile, has always struck me as a bit of a fudge. (It's hardly "parsimonious" to throw in all those extra universes simply in order to neutralise the conclusions that one might otherwise draw from the way our own is calibrated.)

No end to the deadlock

At 41 unresolved ballots, the Guatemala-Venezuela Security Council tussle is already the third most protracted in the U.N.'s 61-year history. (The previous record is 155 rounds, set in 1980: the General Assembly had given up on Cuba and Colombia after 154, and chose Mexico on the 155th.)

Fuel-injected Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez now believes he can kind of have his way by nominating Bolivia as a compromise candidate; in effect setting up his buddy Evo Morales as his UN proxy. Comrade Evo might not be able to shake Noam Chomsky's oeuvre at the council quite so convincingly, but his government would surely deliver all the necessary leftist-populist rhetoric.

Guatemala isn't yet ready to give up the fight. "It would be unfair if someone else would capitalize without effort on the huge amount of work we've put into this," Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal observed plaintively yesterday.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Place of Soldiers

On paper at least, the rationale for the invasion occupation of Afghanistan seemed fairly simple back in 2001. These days it is more likely to appeal to those that prefer their situations to be riddled with sobering contradictions, if not completely intractable.

I am following with great interest Elizabeth Rubin's account of her experiences In the land of the Taliban in which she attempts to uncover the reasons for the recent resurgence of the men in white turbans.

From 1994-2001 the Taliban were an entrenched and isolated medieval regime. In Rubin's words "a cloistered clique". Thanks in part to the Internet − not always a progressive force − this once inward looking rebellion has become part of what may yet become a global insurgency of the Muslim umma. (It's worth recalling here that the genocidal activities of Guatemala's military governments in the 80s ultimately served only to foster something which had not really existed before outside the pages of the National Geographic, a unified Maya identity. )

There are still a great many different interests in play here, many different local counter-narratives that fit to a greater or lesser extent the outside world's understanding of what is at stake. No wonder NATO troops are starting to ponder the identity of their elusive enemy. 'Terrorist' will hardly make much sense to anyone on the ground.

And amongst the jihadis themselves there are several different notions of what the holy war should mean. For some it is a war of liberation, for others a war of self-improvement. Only a minority perhaps have a geopolitical view. For many Afghans lodged in between the warring forces, allegiance is necessarily allocated on a pragmatic basis.

The Taliban too have become more pragmatic. Pre-2001 they suppressed the cultivation of opium poppies. Now they are encouraging it, and reaping the financial benefits.

As nation-builders the Americans are literally cowboys. Unwilling to fill the power vacuum they have allowed the warlords to rally, and to shore up their reestablished power, some of these strongmen have tended to label anyone in their way Al Qaeda, in the hope of drawing in an airstrike from the obliging Kaffirs.

Meanwhile Pakistan's heart feels one thing while its tongue says another. There are many reasons for this. Their bitter rivalry with India, one of Karzai's main supporters along with America, their territorial ambitions, Musharraf's need to appease his country's own religious factions and the suspicion that the Americans have used them "like condoms". As in Guatemala retired army Generals represent a semi-secret power structure that the executive branch can control only loosely.

And then there's Gitmo, lately excused by Olly North in the following manner:
"Of the 247 detainees who have been released thus far, 25 -- more than ten percent -- are believed to have returned to the "jihad." One of them, Abdullah Mehsud, spent two years in Guantanamo after being captured fighting with the Taliban. He was released after convincing U.S. interrogators that he was an innocent Afghan tribesman. Last October, after returning to Pakistan, his "country of choice," he kidnapped two Chinese engineers. He claims that he and his followers will "fight America and its allies until the very end."

"Mullah Shahzada spent two years at a special "seaside house" with fellow teenage detainees. There he was taught English, played sports, and watched videos designed to make him "like us." After swearing an oath against violence he was returned to Afghanistan. Just weeks later he became one of twelve former detainees confirmed killed by coalition forces while fighting with Taliban al Qaeda units. "

I wonder where you can get hold of those become like us videos!


Russell T. Davies's Doctor Who spin-off got off to a great start on Sunday. It's been scheduled post-watershed, so the content is slightly more mature, while retaining the camp inventiveness of the parent show. This will distinguish it from US precedents like The X Files and Bones which have taken themselves a bit more seriously.

The revived corpse which confirmed in despairing tones that there is nothing after death was one of its more startlingly adult moments.

Jim Holt's review of The God Delusion is being talked about across the blogosphere. I will have get my own perspective on it out later, but with reference to that Torchwood scene, I did enjoy Holt's reflections on the implications of nothingness after death:

"If the after-death options are either a beatific vision (God) or oblivion (no God), then it is poignant to think that believers will never discover that they are wrong, whereas Dawkins and fellow atheists will never discover that they are right."

Church of Scienceology

The High Priest of Unbelief has started his own sect!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Guatemalan Blog Directory

DesdeGuate has published this handy little dynamic directory of the most active Guatemalan blogs.

"Wife Sentence"

There are two kinds of wedlock that any sensible bachelor should do his level best to avoid: marriage to a dowdy and submissive piece of female furniture and marriage to a shallow, materialistic scrubber.

However Rachel DeWoskin, writing in the Sunday Times magazine, reveals that the wealthier sort of Chinese man has the genuinely masochistic option of experiencing both at the same time, all thanks to a modern cultural spin on the ancient tradition of ernai, or second wives.

Her article also contained this little gem:
"The China Daily, China’s biggest English-language newspaper, reported this August that a new “anger release” bar had opened in eastern China, at which clients can take out their aggression by punching and kicking male servers. It noted, without analysis of why this might be, that the clients are mostly karaoke and massage parlour hostesses, mostly angry women."

Blast from the past

On a visit to a cemetery for fallen Contra rebels, former gun-runner, dope-trafficker, Marine Colonel and overturned convict Oliver North has advised Nicaraguans that, in his opinion, re-electing Daniel Ortega would not be good for their country, or his; especially his.

"Makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann"

The Professor sent me this link to Terry Eagleton's review of The God Delusion in the London Review of Books. Apparently another savaging for Dawkins.

Yet Eagleton has some slippery arguments of his own up his sleeve: "It would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing," which reminds me of "to be or not to be, that is the answer, not the question"!

He setting up something of a straw man himself in this review − Richard Dawkins, the provincial philistine who thinks all faith is blind faith. I rather think Dawkins knows that many religious people consider themselves persuaded of the existence of God, but that they are sadly a minority. The reasonableness of some people's spirituality cannot begin to excuse the wider tendency throughout history to often violent unreasonableness.

I think it is also deeply disingenuous of Eagelton to insist that militant Islamism is a purely political phenomenon, and not a religious one at all.

And whilst Darwinian Natural Selection may not be able to explain how we first got on the simple to complex ladder, how nothing became something, it is not fair to say, I think, that Science as a whole has nada to contribute to answering this question, and can therefore leave this little niche for the religious to hold onto.

Autumn Harvest

I was in a pretty foul mood all day yesterday, largely because a broken third of a contact lens had got stuck in my right eye and was refusing to come out. It finally slipped into the outer corner of my cornea in the late evening and I was able to achieve an extraction. Ouch.

I might have been a bit hard on Bruce Brown's surfing sequel, but the lens accident occurred on Sunday morning as a direct result of rubbing my eyes during one of its rather repetitive wave riding sequences.

Yesterday morning I found the Mac surrounded by grape pips: V had been up late, working. The banana pile had gone down a bit too. These bananas were rather strange. Costa Rican and purchased at the Loon Fung they looked showroom perfect in their green plastic tub, but the moment we got them home they started to come out in big black bruises as if they had been secretly abused all day at the shop!

The other day I bought some dodgy Spanish peaches at Tesco. They looked alright in their skins, but once peeled had the appearance of mangy old foam tennis balls, an effect that can usually be ascribed to pre-sale freezing, which V reckons was a bit of a dirty trick from Tesco. The impact on flavour was also pronounced − they had become intensely, plumily, unpleasantly sugary.

Meanwhile the short fig season has come and gone. I find figs rather bland, but as we have had a warmish start to Autumn it has been possible to throw them on the barbecue outside which perks up their flavour no end.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Endless Summer II

We were nowhere near as "stoked" as we had been after watching the 60s original last week.

That film made spending the rest of your life following the summer around the globe in search of the perfect wave sound like a heroic adventure, but here it comes over as a waster's pipe dream, a pathway to lifelong immaturity.

The two young men that exemplified 60s cool have been supplanted by a pair of '94 vintage that exude a kind of moronic monomania. All the charming innocence of Brown's original vision and narration has curdled into culpable naivety, and what then seemed fresh and spontaneous now looks tediously over-calculated.

In the thirty year interval the world might have moved on, but Surfer buddiedom apparently hasn't.

There are some great "in the pipe" sequences, but if you watch the first ten minutes you have seen pretty much all the film has to offer in the spectacular department too.

Less of a Hang 10 than a Hang 4.5.

Dawkins on the canvas?

There's a view out there that says Richard Dawkins fell for a couple of sucker punches in his recent debate on the existence of God with Irish Independent's David Quinn.

Having read the transcript I'd say that Dawkins still came through on points, but dropped his guard myseriously on tricky issues like the origin of matter and the nature of free will, which he didn't seem prepared to debate from an empiricist perspective.

Dawkins took a hit unnecessarily on two occasions in particular:
  • Quinn argued that it was 'reasonable' to speculate on the existence of an uncaused cause. Dawkins failed to address this except to say that it was "improbable" and missed his chance to ask Quinn whether the rest of Catholic dogma was all equally 'reasonable'. (It is one thing to give the hole in our knowledge of first causes a name, it is entirely another to give Him offspring.)

  • He allowed Quinn to suggest that atheism has been equally if not more murderous in its effects at a geopolitical level than religion. He could easily have pointed out that Pol Pot et al. are examples of atheism functioning more like alternative, systematic belief rather than genuine un-belief...but then this is a known defect in Dawkins's own technique, which has itself often been tagged as "fundamentalist", and not without justification.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Bears in the Woods

I was watching episode three of the third series of Lost last night and it rekindled some of my anxieties about the colour of polar bears.

I remember reading a book years ago by John Barrow which explained that polar bears are not really white, at least not any more than the sky is really blue. They have black skin and transparent fur which reflects white light. At the time I thought to myself that they still look kind of white in the dark though!

Anyway, in Lost last night these tropical polar bears were charging around the jungle leaving little tufts of white fur caught on the low-level foliage. Do polar bears molt like cheap Chinese-made teddies? Would the fur they shed really look so bright and white?

These bears look seriously pissed off with their new habitat. And what is it with elephants and sting-rays these days? They seem to have joined the Islamic armed resistance.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Spain, my favourite spots (1)

In no particular order I'm going to do a start a series of posts today on my ten favourite spots in Spain. My first pick is the island of La Gomera, actually some 700 miles from the Iberian Peninsula.

The highlight here is the central massif which rises to 1487m and is largely covered in ancient laurels − the very beautiful and Tolkienesque National Park of Garajonay, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I've never been to Peru, but some of the landscapes in the central part of the island remind me of images I have seen of the Andean cordillera around Macchu Picchu, though on a smaller-scale of course.

The indigenous people of La Gomera, known as Gauches, had developed a form of speech based on high-pitched whistles which the Spanish colonists dubbed the Silbo and adopted themselves from the sixteenth century. (A bit like yodelling, but probably more irritating to dogs.) Although ideal for communicating across the island's steep barrancos it had begun to die out until the local government made learning it in school compulsory at the start of this century.

The capital is the picturesque little town of San Sebastián de la Gomera. V and I had a great evening here in Decemeber 2002 when we sneaked into a semi-private celebration with a live band in an open patio and danced the night away with a joyful, multi-generational Christmas convocation. I made some videos of this bash which I will treasure for life. (Sadly I only have videos, as my digital camera was broken at the time.) The locals are very friendly and speak with an accent that sounds more like Cuban Spanish than the lisped castellano of Toledo.

There's a famous old Parador up on the rock overlooking the harbour, but it was shut when we were there. Unlike nearby Tenerife, La Gomera has been comparatively untouched by mass tourism, though there are a few large three and four star hotels dotted around the coast catering mainly to the German middle classes (processed cheese, ballroom dancing etc.)

This was the last bit of old Spain that Colombus saw before completing his first crossing to the Caribbean, as he put into the harbour here in order to have La Pinta repaired.

We experienced some of the heaviest rainfall I have ever seen one night on the western Gran Rey coast. Part of the road running beside the rocky beach was washed away by a swollen stream and almost every groove on the peaks behind us had become a powerful waterfall cascading over the edge of the massif to the shore level many hundreds of feet below.

The boat-ride over from Tenerife afforded us a very memorable view of the top third of the Teide volcano emerging from a mist that had settled like a hoop around its ample skirts. (It is the third largest volcano on Earth.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Safe to blog

Here's one of those articles in the Telegraph today which sets out to reassure their readers that it's now safe to mention your blog at cocktail parties, the kind that kicks off with a broad apology for the medium's early adopters, before consigning them to the history bin.

Personally however, I think the blog style is at its most interesting when it approaches soliloquy − sometimes it's actually worth trying to express yourself as if you have an audience of one. I have to check myself occasionally when I discover that my own blog is becoming too declamatory and uni-directional, too focused on an imaginary virtual auditorium around it.

Without at least a degree of introversion a blog simply becomes old fashioned communication flowing from a different format.

I don't think of blogging as a cheap form of therapy, but it's a very useful way of assimilating new information through quite formalised reflection. It's rather like opening up your own private input-output port and keeping a regular log of what passes through it. Organisations that adopt the form but forget to look within as they speak without might be both missing the point and asking for trouble.

Ebookers v Expedia

This weekend we were exploring costs and options for our Christmas visit to Guatemala.

Over the course of the past couple of years it has become clear that online at least, Expedia and Ebookers have the most competitive prices, though the final choice has tended to depend on the season. Expedia were best over the summer for example, but in winter Ebookers appears to have the edge. (Travelocity and Opodo are generally around 20% more expensive.)

A couple of years ago, around March, I bought a return via LA with United through Ebookers for just under £400. That looks like a bit of a one off. The best price for a return flight in the middle of next month is around £670 and a month later the same flight costs almost double. This is where we usually need to get creative with our routing.

One thing I have learned this year however is that the Expedia fares have a significant catch: you cannot, at any price, change the return date on the ticket once you have purchased it. (On the same flight on the same dates EBookers will permit a change for £100. )

This can be a huge problem for V whose time out there is often dependent on factors she cannot predict with 100% accuracy when making reservations online from London, and caused her much grief earlier this year when she discovered the restriction on her Expedia fare and had to return to the UK leaving some of her projects half-finished. It looks like Ebookers now stands alone in this sector!

Owners of the Universe ahead

After ten ballots Guatemala leads Venezuela 110 to 77 in the battle for the vacant UN Security Council seat, still 15 votes short of the 125 needed for victory. Chávez's ambassador, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, claimed not to be feuding with Guatemala, “a brother country,” but “fighting against the owners of the universe.”

State of Denial

Simon Jenkins has reviewed Bob Woodward's State of Denial: Bush at War Part III.
"As for the pretence that Britain was an equal partner in this venture,
the only references to Blair are to how much, or how little, he should be told.
He was not just Bush’s poodle, but one with neither bite nor bark. This is not
just America’s disgrace."

Running on Karma

This is the movie that V says she has been waiting for! The first two thirds have just about everything: action, comedy, romance and horror. Thereafter it makes a sharp turn into very different territory.

I think it's a bit of a shame that the last third can be so readily compared to the final part of the Matrix trilogy, with its semi-coherent existential pseudo-deepness.

It's rather hard to focus on this kind of content and narrative structure after what has come before, but overall the experience remains very positive. Andy Lau's performance in a plastic body is enough to make you doubt the Schwarzenegger legend!

Monday, October 16, 2006

The veil, again

Recent media coverage surrounding the white hot topic of whether British Muslim women have an inalienable right to their modesty in all circumstances has further demonstrated that this particular debate is surely not the best way of grappling with the important underlying issues.

The argument about the veil is not about whether religious people should have the right to try and live by their own silly set of rules. In a liberal society they do, and we should tolerate them, to a point. That point is when those rules appear to be solidifying into an ideological position that is fundamentally intolerant towards the rights of the rest of society.

Inevitably, some defective thinkers in the media have been arguing that some (though the more audacious have implied all) Muslim women choose to display their modesty in this way and that as such it can be considered a bold feminist rejection of the kind of sexual signalling that their oppressed non-Muslim sisters indulge in. For these commentators a culture that systematically denies women (or indeed anyone) choice, is instead providing a vital opportunity for altogether admirable rebellion against the mores of the Western sexual marketplace.

Now compare the following two statements:

1) I belong to a group of committed druids that represents a small but growing portion of the population. I assert my right to carry my sickle around at work and expect to be treated with respect by my colleagues.

2) I belong to a group of committed fascists that represents a small but growing portion of the population. I assert my right to wear my red Nazi arm-band at work and have little respect for anyone that doesn't behave as I do. I am likely to show violent intolerance to anyone that dares to sit in judgement on my beliefs and attitudes.

In the past we tended to put our bearded and veiled Islamic neighbours into category 1). Increasingly however, as a society we are wondering whether we ought in fact to assign them to category 2). They are calling this victimisation, but many in the mainstream detect that what we might before have taken as pardonable silliness could in fact token an intolerant non-liberal sensibility that in the aggregate is assuming an increasingly aggressive stance towards the free choices of the people outside their little in-group.

Unlike the Nazi arm-band, the Niqab is not an offensive symbol per se, it is just a rather blatant statement of non-integration. But is the comparison really that much dafter than one that suggests the wearers of the veil are all daring individualists?

The Endless Summer

We've been having something of an endless summer here in London. It was a misty nineteen degrees on the balcony on both Saturday and Sunday over the weekend, with the Thames swishing gently like the Med often does at first light. More reasons to postpone the de-commissioning of our barbecue for the winter.

Il Surfero upped and went to Sennen this weekend and we are looking forward to his blog post and pictures. A while back he recommended to us Bruce Brown's classic surf movie from '66, and this Sunday morning we found ourselves being thoroughly absorbed by it. It's not just a surf movie, it's a kind of boys-own adventure, not quite as non-PC as Tintin, but getting there. I doubt you could make a movie like this today; everything that is fun, fresh and charmingly cheesey in Brown's film would surely come across as commercial and arrogant today. It only cost $50,000 too.

The two surfers following the sunshine and waves around the globe are recognisably first generation moderns, and there is an often poignant innocence about both their own world and the far away coastlines that they set about initiating in the way of the board. The scenes at Cape St Francis in South Africa come close to being surfer porn. V loved it, chuckling in particular at Mike's little radio and when Brown wistfully urged his audience to "think of the thousands of waves that went to waste," before Homo Surfensis arrived on this unique stretch of coast.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The thinking person's Soho Square

London Daily Photo today features Phoenix Gardens, a semi-hidden West End sanctuary about four minutes walk from my office. It's a seductive little space that sets itself apart by serving up primly Bohemian prohibitions against the everyday Soho Square sort of entertainments. In summer it can still get pretty packed, and I sometimes sit and read in St Giles's churchyard next door.

The four hundred-year-old git

This week in 1663 Sam Pepys has been deeply concerned about a lack of wind and stools and about the untidiness of his home. To make matters worse on October 11 his wife Elizabeth "forebore to make herself clean to-day, but continued in a sluttish condition".

I made the mistake of bringing the topic up over our own evening meal at home the other night and V rather curtly reminded me that she did not "want a four hundred-year-old git interrupting her dinner" with his bowel movements.

Later on we discussed the ways in which my biography and interests have tracked those of the famous diarist:

- Same school
- Same university (though not same college)
- Regular trips up and down the river
- Great fondness for Greenwich park
- Avid collector of books

I don't go to the theatre as regularly as Sam did...but then we have movies now.

Nor do I molest little girls in churches during my lunch break.

Casualties of War

Samizdata has put the Lancet's figure of 600,000 Iraqi war dead in context, with a view to suggesting that it is "inherently incredible":

  • It exceeds by 25% the casualties (450,000) , military and civilian, suffered by Great Britain in all of World War II, including the Blitz, the African, Pacific and European campaigns
  • It exceeds by 25% the casualties (460,000), civilian and military, suffered by Italy in all of World War II
  • It exceeds the casualties (562,000), military and civilian, suffered by France in World War II, including the initial battles with the Germans, the Occupation, and the reconquest by the Allies.
  • It approaches the 3.6% rate experienced by the Japanese in World War II.

There were however said to have been "more than a million" Iraqi casualties in the Iran-Iraq War and Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism claims that over a million have so far perished in the conflict in the Sudan, though recent UN estimates put the figure at around 400,000.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Satirical Exchange

Scott and I had a useful exchange of acerbic cartoons yesterday. First I sent him Peter Bagge's Beware the Brown Peril, the truth behind the job-stealing, disease-carrying, terrorist invasion from the south, and in reply he sent me a link to the biting Get your war on strip, which I shall have to start working through in manageable installments.

Debt for Nature

In the largest agreement yet reached under the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act of 1998, the United States has agreed to forgive $24.4 million of Guatemalan debt in order to free up the money for use in forest conservation over the next 15 years.

Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, two international non-profits, have helped put the landmark deal together, and to sweeten it, each also donated $1 million towards local conservation initiatives in four of the big national reserves.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Wilderness Within

The nation I live in is slowly waking up to the realisation that perhaps after all, some forms of descrimination are necessary in a liberal society, if not actually a democratic duty. Inevitably some of the newly roused are still in a semi-conscious, hypnagogic state and thus prone to make statements that will seem more than a bit flaky when recalled later on.

In the light of morning the multi-headed ism monster that we imagined tensed up inside our cultural closet seems less likely to jump out and tear apart anyone reckless enough to hazard a value judgement, to lay down a discrimination.

You can almost hear the sound of the bed springs in the mainstream media as commentators everywhere rub the sleep out of their eyes and lift themselves up...with perhaps just a parting thought about that relativist who could still be hiding under the bed.

There have always been people whose concept of freedom means freedom from the rest of us. America was effectively founded by such folk and today Belize is home to communities of Mennonites that found Alaska much too civilised for them. As the flow of eco-tourists to Central America's Caribbean coast increases they may soon be looking for another pristine wilderness to relocate to. The ascetic form of Islam contains within it that same rejection of the mainstream, but crucially without the urge to run away from places where God's rule on Earth has been suspended. Instead, they are obliged to unsuspend it in situ, wherever possible.

A cheerful focus on diversity may not have led, as the Daily Diana suggested earlier in the week, to Britain's inner cities becoming "sectarian hell-holes, where communities live in a climate of mutual suspicion and hatred", but as a political society we have rather carelessly permitted the thickening of distinctly-uniformed in-groups within our society that have a basic tendency to regard everyone else as the out-group. That itself is a form of discrimination, but not one that a liberal society should allow to hold sway within its borders.

Veiled Truth

Frode pointed me to this interesting letter in the (printed edition) of today's Independent. At the very least it would seem to indicate that Jack Straw is in good company, as Allah Himself also prefers women to take their veils off in his constituency consulting room:

"Sir: I am not sure what the furore is about the veil. There is no such thing as a Muslim veil. A veil is a piece of cloth some women use to cover their face. It has nothing to do with religion. During the pilgrimage in Mecca the women are forbidden to cover their face or wear a veiled ihram the pilgrimage robe. (Ha-dith al Bukhari 25:23). Women offering prayers, whether in private or in a mosque, should uncover the hands and face.

"There is no injunction in the Quran stating that women should cover their face. All that the Quran says (Surah XXIV, verses 30 and 31) is that both men and women "should lower their gaze and guard their modesty". Working women, whether as domestics or in public, in most countries where there is a large Muslim population, have of necessity to work unveiled.

The veil is a cultural norm, a custom in some countries. It is claimed by those who do not know, or who do not wish to know, that it is the religion of Islam which prescribes that women should be veiled. This has never been so.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Memento Mori / The Eye 2

I think I must have maxed myself out on the Asian horror genre now.

Both of these movies are visually interesting and have great musical scores, but the underlying formula is getting very tired and I was personally too knocked out to watch through to the end of either. (V did though, and was un-astounded by the ways things panned out.)

El mal siempre busca una segunda oportunidad is the Spanish tagline for the Pang brothers' The Eye 2, perhaps a chilling warning about sequels in general. Its frazzled female protagonist doesn't need a corneal transplant in order to see dead people; instead this time round a near-death experience is enough to get them popping up in taxis and on crowded subway trains, and in a bizarre Buddhist angle, jostling to dive into her womb so they can get on with their next karmic cycle. Religion in horror only really works if you are a signed-up member of the faithful, and here it is operating pretty close to the level of ignorant superstition.

Memento Mori (sequel to Whispering Corridors) is about a pair of telepathic lesbians in an all-girls school. They produce a colourful journal together then one of them croaks and starts to haunt the school via said diary, which has fallen into the hands of a third girl that is mildly obsessed about the first two. Or at least that's what I gathered what was going on in the flurry of flashbacks and flash-forwards before chiller fatigue gripped me and I lost consciousness.

Stylish, surreal, dreamlike, tense in places, there's ultimately not much more to these stories than the tale of a protagonist that needs to overcome an acutely vindictive spook. I think I've reached the point where the ghost with issues scenario needs to call it quits and start walking towards the white light.

Odd Marketing

The marketing team Oddbins have made a couple of decisions recently that, from my perspective at least, appear counter-productive.

Firstly, they have decided to only offer discounts when you buy six bottles or more. As an occasional Oddbins shopper in central London, I am rarely in a position to carry half a dozen bottles home, and anyway tend to use their stores (in preference to say Waitrose, Majestic or a long-tailed online stockist, which are all at least equally well-stocked and convenient) to try out 'odd' bottles of wine that take my fancy or are needed for a social emergency. (I wonder how many of their urban customers can easily park outside...or are strong enough to manage a half-case?)

Worse still they have simultaneously come up with their first budget-priced own label bottles of white and red. "So good...we decided to put our name on the bottle." Except that the red is so bad I am unlikely ever to trust the brand ever again. Instead of one of the few undrinkable wines from the Languedoc, why couldn't they have chosen a blend that would associate a bit of delight (as well as value) with their name?

I was going to have a rant as well about Screenselect's online transition to Lovefilm.com, but aside from the fact that their bright new website is still a bit clunky, my initial suspicion on arrival on the home page that they might be turning private content into social content by stealth was entirely unfounded. In fact, I dare say that I would actually be prepared to voluntarily devote some of my time to contributing to a more social movie recommendations space, so it now strikes me that the new DVD rental entity could be missing a trick here. Meanwhile my decision to reward Netflix for their decision to run a $1m recommendation-algorithm competition by buying more of their stock seems to be (mutually) paying off.


What is it with Dominik Moll and his endings? He's one of those men that can get a good idea off the ground, but needs a 'completer' to finish it off − in this case his usual collaborator Gilles Marchand, who in our view also made such a bodge of the fifth act of Harry, He's Here to Help, a film which had also been remarkably tense and atmospheric prior to its resolution.

Moll apparently wanted to take his characters off to Scandinavia for a finale involving a mass migration of lemmings. Instead Marchand suggested what turns out to be a rather half-hearted ghost story, of the Asian alma en pena variety. Perhaps after all, a bit more ambiguity around the character of Bénédicte might actually have helped. We both thought this might have been a clear case of the missed twist. V says she probably would have wrapped up with one implying that Madame Getty had been faking it all along. (Gallic ambiguity is a dangerous game however; it didn't quite work for either Harry or for François Ozon's Swimming Pool.)

Laurent Lucas again asumes the lead role of Moll's everyman in a situation which can ultimately only be resolved by resorting to violence and subterfuge. Charlotte Rampling plays the embittered older spouse, looking already more like a visiting stiff in the scenes where she is ostensibly alive. This character epitomises a certain kind of stuck up middle-aged woman − we have one living in a flat below us, a doctor − that inherently despises young people, especially the younger, more sensual sort of woman.

As ever with French thrillers, the locations are nearly all fully-fledged characters in the story. Some of the scoring is a bit too boisterous however, and there are some very dicky special effects: the heli-webcam, the lemming-infested kitchen and a gas explosion that looks like a nuclear holocaust. The flying webcam got the biggest laugh out of me − lothario CEO Monsieur Pollock finds out that Alain has been using the company's prototype with voyeristic intent and remarks that he didn't think he could be so childish. What else could you use that thing for?!

The best that can be said about the last half hour is that it is Lynchian. The voice-over at the end which blithely assumes that our principal interest is the outcome of the lemming mystery is pretty un-called for.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Tolerance and its proper use

After I came down from Cambridge a friend of my father recommended that I subject myself to some pyschometric tests. And so it was that I found myself in a big old house on Crooms Hill in Greenwich holding a piece of paper which, amongst other things, informed me of my tendency towards intolerance.

These days whenever I feel that the steaming magma of intolerance is starting to ooze out of my ears and nose I pick up my copy of André Comte-Sponville's A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues and turn to chapter 13, Tolerance.

The proper objects of this virtue, he advises, are things that it is within our power to prevent, and it has particular value when exercised against our own interests.

"To philosophise is to think without the benefit of proof...when a truth is known with certainty, tolerance is irrelevant because it has no object."

Believers that cannot prove they are right should recognise that their position is essentially the same as their adversaries, just as convinced and just as incapable of convincing others that their truth is the real one. That is the basis of tolerance. Importantly however, it does not require you to acknowledge their right to a different opinion, as that would be "to lapse into subjectivism, relativism and skepticism".

The morally wrong or an intolerant group that threatens the very basis of tolerance should not be tolerated. I do tend to agree with Paul Berman's position on the Saudis.

"Peace and safety may not be compatible, in the end, with the existence of a fanatical, obscurantist, intolerant, anti-Semitic, obsessively patriarchal, polygamous, terror-minded, theocratic, supremely wealthy petro-monarchy that insists on spreading its missionary message to the world."

In the past I have observed that I would really rather that the monotheistically-minded found another planet to live on, but reluctantly, I have to accept that religiosity is a natural phenomenon, and that there are surely sequences of DNA in our genome which encode for a pyschological bias towards Faith, which then operates within a fairly well-defined cognitive niche in the human mind. And a great pity it is. Unfortunately, all previous attempts by rationalists to either eradicate or replace traditional belief have demonstrated conclusively the folly of such ventures.

As fellow atheist Comte-Sponville puts it, "There can be no intelligence without the freedom to come to one's own judgment...intolerance makes people stupid just as stupidity makes people intolerant. "


In what I think most will agree is an exaggerated response to the BBC debate on Fiona Bruce's crucifix, Leo McKinstry wrote in the Daily Diana today that the "self-loathers have taken over civic life...Britain is now governed by a suicide cult".

Meanwhile the BBC's Newsnight daily email asks us to consider the possibility that "one day soon a Muslim journalist who happens to wear a headscarf will become a reporter and then a presenter on national television." Have they forgotten their old pal Rageh Omah so soon? The one that went all fundamentalist on them and left the BBC? Now Darren Jordan is joining him over on Al Jazeera.


Jack Straw's observations on how the use of the veil is preventing northerners from being their usual annoyingly chirpy selves in the High Street might possibly result in the evolution of new kind of socially-considerate Fatwah: It would be preferable if Mr Straw were to be dead, but it is not necessarily Allah's will that it be so.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring.

Watching this film I can understand what Pope Benedict meant when he described Buddhism as spiritual masturbation. The location alone is enough to whip anyone up into a state of metaphysical arousal.

Kim Ki-Duk brings over the themes of floating microcosms and violent jealousy from The Isle. In an interview on the DVD he explains that whilst he was over at Sundance festival promoting that film, he suddenly felt the need to step outside and ask himself "what's it all about?". It's a sensation that many who see this film are bound to share.

As the title suggests, the plot is a cycle. In springtime a boy monk resides with an old Master in perfect isolation from the "secular world" in an idyllic floating monastery − purpose-built for the film − and during the seasons in-between we witness through a series of powerful poetic impressions a Buddhist take on the stages of life, which in the hands of this director, are at once serene, dark and funny. I especially enjoyed the first two seasons of this fable.

The original setting was to have been the summit of a mountain, but then Kim Ki-Duk discovered this beautiful reservoir lined with scores of partially sunken three hundred-year-old trees. I do hope they left the monastery there.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Unknown Unknowns

Kant thought it was an out and out "scandal" that so much has to be left to Faith, and if anything the potential scope of cosmological unknown unknowns within has increased substantially since his times (with much of this looking like unknowable unknowns).

Anyone of philosophical bent can today enjoy the irony that radical scepticism offers our best hope of a rational form of consolation. If you doubt the fundamental origins of our knowledge about the world, if like Nick Bostrom, you think it possible that we are living within a fiendishly complex ancestor simulation, then some sort of survival of consciousness beyond 'material' death becomes a serious topic of reasoned debate. (As long as you keep it within the realms of hyothesis, nobody is going to accuse you of starting your own sect!)

The issue I have with Bostrom's thesis however is this: why would vastly clever, technologically-empowered civilisations care to simulate a universe as apparently meaningless as this one?

Out of Brazil

We went along last night to the Collyer Bristow Gallery where the opening of their new exhibition, Samuel Guimarães: Out of Brazil was being celebrated with drinks and gentle bossa nova played by Ife Tolentino. The ambassador was amongst the honoured guests, having left his driver double-parked right outside.

Guimarães went native for a decade and the works on display reflect the engagement of a playful sensibility with the Amazonians and their ecosystem. I did wonder though how much of the craft was the artist's own. Was it some anonymous Indian for example that produced the intricately decorated wooden clubs that hung beneath Guimarães's plastic representations of shrunken human heads?

"Is this what they do to clients that don't pay up?" quipped someone that appeared briefly at my side.

The exhibition continues until November 22.

The nerve that Boris touched

In British middle-class fantasy land Muslim immigrants read Shakespeare and respect the lifestyle choices of the gay Jewish couple next door, and the working classes give up smoking, drink moderately and eat only what Jamie Oliver tells them to. The white-collared of this land have always hoped that the plebs could somehow be more like them, and never more so than now when they are increasingly given to considering the long-term healthcare tax hit implicit in all those annoying habits of the less affluent.

Oddly enough, in Dickens's time the food of the poor was oysters; some hardly ate anything else. And further back still in the Middle Ages, it was the upper, equestrian classes that had the unhealthiest of available diets. Things might change again, but my bet is that it won't be thanks to the Nanny state.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The 7 Habits of Highly-Engineered People

Have just migrated to the new blogger.com in beta and thought this oldy but goody from Po Bronson (parodying Steven Covey) would make a good test post:

1 They will be generous even in their own selfishness
2 Blindness improves their vision
3 They will not only bite the hand that feeds them they will bit their own hand
4 They work hard to maintain the image that they don't care about their image
5 They will continue trying to fix what's not broken until it is
6 "I didn't answer incorrectly, you just asked the wrong question"
7 Consider absence of criticism as a compliment.


Another interesting article on the workings of the Former Democratic Republic of Pavón .

"Halfway down the main avenue, through a blue door, was the telephone centre with 14 outside lines and booths for privacy. Seven stores further down, past the video arcade where you could play a game shooting up police officers, was the internet cafe with high-speed access. A bookshop across the way offered religious titles as well as an academic tome, La Tortura, with insights on mental and physical abuse. For lunch you could sit down in the local pizza restaurant or, if you were in a rush, grab a burger and beer from one of the stalls...

"Inmates with money had access to plush homes, restaurants, spa baths, prostitutes, cocaine and internet access, all contained within the wire-fence perimeter. Those of modest means were condemned to squalid dormitories and indentured labour at crack and cocaine laboratories, as well as cannabis operations...Some inmates were forced to hand over wives and daughters to the committee as concubines,...farming meant milking fellow inmates for every privilege: $US1.30 ($1.75) for a spouse to visit, $US5 for a phone call, more for electricity and medical attention. The fees generated an estimated $US20,000 a month."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Foto por un Quetzal"

V and I recently had an amusing debate about the possibility that this photo from Guatemala (spotted in a Flikr pool) could have been taken with pervy intent. It took me back to Jill Greenberg's notion that we project our own subconscious depravities back onto the images we see!

Anyway, it's certainly true that on maiden visits to the Third World, people tend to take a whole load of pictures of children. A glance at my own album from Belize in 1988 confirms this. Nevertheless, between the two extremes of voluntary worker and sex tourist, there are many transients out there in the developing world that have never really got over this, and are perhaps never really happier except when surrounded by packs of apparently adoring, underprivileged kids. It's not quite unconditional love, but they are generally easier to please than their parents.

In Antigua there's a crusty old yank that cruises the market with a cute little puppy that he all too obviously uses as a kid-magnet. And around a year or so ago I heard the story of a CIA agent in Guatemala that was running a safe house for street kids that turned out not to be such a safe place for them to stay. He was found out and fired, fled to the states and shortly after arrested for a gruesome murder. The last we heard he was claiming to have been acting under orders.

Seeing (Ensaio sobre a Lucidez)

Not ultimately one of those sequels that matches or even improves upon the original, though I somehow doubt that this was always intended as a sequel. I'd wager that José Saramago conceived of his blank ballot scenario before he spotted the neat symmetries it would avail him of. For if in Blindness his characters had shuffled from darkness towards light and here in Seeing the trajectory is duly reversed, and what starts off as a fairly jaunty satire, ends with a bleakness that cast a gloom over my memories of the earlier work.

The new novel might be called Seeing, but the allegory at its heart is not that much more self-explanatory than the previous one. "There are none so blind as those who will not see", the author reminds us, and later has a character note how some individuals do eventually manage to attain a moment of painful lucidez in their political lives. "When we are born, when we enter this world, it's as if we signed a pact for the rest of our life, but a day may come when we will ask ourselves, Who signed this on my behalf?"

In Blindness the situation in this same city was very simple: Day of the Triffids without the killer plants. According to Michael Pye this was "as high concept as any George Romero movie, to which it comes embarrassingly close at times." The crisis here appears more subtle. A local election is held and 73% of the ballots cast in the capital turn out to be blanks. A "dissolute use of the vote" according to the ruling right-wing party, who have the election re-taken only to find that now 80% of voters have chosen to expose this hidden fault in democracy.

The government starts to panic, ironically using the police force to encourage strikes and then faking a terrorist atrocity before deciding to abandon the capital completely. A state of seige ensues, even though some recognise that it is probably "nonsense to take away the rights of someone whose only crime had been to make use of those rights."

We know this is the same city that suffered the "white blindness" because it becomes a topic around the cabinet table. At one point Saramago playfully suggests that it's his own country of Portugal he has in mind here, only to later state that the city has never suffered a major earthquake, which rules out Lisbon.

Rather than attempt to resolve this intriguing scenario the second half of the novel digs up the "doctor's wife" and the other characters we may know from Blindness and kind of finishes off their story instead, without really adding greatly to the meaning of that fable.

Anyway, I'm used to Saramago's style by now and appreciative of the surreptitious poetry his narrators are fond of delivering. In Seeing he gives us a taxi driver that claims to use his mirror to look into his passengers' souls, insurgents that carry the white flag as a symbol of solidarity and rebellion not surrender, and lines like this: "No doubt our finest torture specialists kiss their children when they get home, and some may even cry at the cinema."

Saramago would probably be a shoe-in for the title of World's Greatest Living Author if only because, unlike the other likely candidates, he is still churning out novels regularly in his eighties. Somehow I'd think I'd rather have someone like Haruki Murakami round for dinner thoug; it might be hard to get much out of him, but with Saramago the opposite problem would surely apply. Like García Márquez Saramago is an old warhorse of the totalitarian left and could easily spoil the mood with his entrenched views! You'd have to keep him off politics at all costs...get him to talk about his dog etc.

Disgruntled from Yorkshire

In apparently stark contrast to Paul Berman's view that the threat posed by radical Islamic terror is a reconfiguration of "the war between liberalism and the apocalyptic and phantasmagorical movements that have risen up against liberal civilisation ever since the calamities of the First World War," Spiked's Brendan O'Neill sees it as "less evidence of any kind of ‘clash of civilisations’ and more the consequence of the decline and fall of Western civilisation and its move into a new era of identity, narcissism and malaise."

Between 9-11 and 7-7 many European commentators exhibited a new-found solidarity with the Palestinian cause. If people were prepared to blow themselves up, they must be being almost incomprehensibly oppressed. Suicide terror became a measure of Zionist guilt. Then a bunch of fairly mainstream British Muslims from Yorkshire self-detonated on London's transport network and a revised explanation was required.

O'Neill for instance, sets about denying non-domestic causality. "The 7-7 atrocity was a very British bombing," as the bombers were just an extreme instance of our society's disgruntlement with itself, particualrly with Bluewater chavs, urban nightclub "slags" and such like. "They were a product of identity politics and victim cuture more than radical foreign Islamism...from their narcissistic elevation of identity to their use of body for transcendence, their terrorist attack was made at home."

So, O'Neill concludes, see not the hand of Liberalism's oldest foe, but instead its growing tendency to self-mutilate. "A scream of rage from within," comparable say to the fashion for body piercing. This is dangerous nonsense.

I don't think the London bombers' apparent lack of contact with ranting Imams should be taken to indicate that they simply used their religion to "contextualise" an already present desire to harm themselves and other random members of a degenerate society. No, in a shift remarkably similar to that which occured when bubonic plague became pneumonic plague, the pathology of Islamism is now "in the air" and it no longer requires direct contact with a radical 'rat' for the epidemic to spread from susceptible individual to susceptible individual.

Monday, October 02, 2006


We had some of the heaviest rain I've ever seen in London over the past few days, a dense downpour that woke me on Friday night and then a briefly biblical swirling storm of hail on Sunday afternoon. Unlike the tourists on the open decks of the boats of Catamaran Cruises the gulls knew it was coming and had all settled in tight little groups on the surface of the Thames minutes before the first crack of thunder. August used to end this way with a bang, but as Spring showed up less than punctually this year, so too Summer is finishing up about a month late.

343 years ago on September 29, Samuel Pepys wrote: "Then in the evening, towards night, it fell to thunder, lighten, and rain so violently that my house was all afloat, and I in all the rain up to the gutters, and there dabbled in the rain and wet half an hour, enough to have killed a man. "

Steamboy (Suchîmubôi)

It's bizarre that a film that is clever on so many levels can end up being so utterly stupid.

This anachronism-packed retro futurist tale of science on the rampage in Victorian England was, at $20m, the most expensive anime ever made, took ten years to complete, and comprises 180,000 individual drawings.

It is stunningly detailed, but in all the wrong places. Not one of the main characters is even vaguely agreeable. Canadian Anna Paquin's appalling rendition of Sam's northern accent is just about the only noteworthy thing about the film's eponymous star, nicknamed "Harry Explota"by V. That and the fact that he remains so unphased about the grand-scale mayhem and careless destruction of human life going on around him, which we both found rather disturbing.

The energetic early chase scenes in Manchester (Marx and Engels appear as extras chatting in the background) had promised much, but Katsuhiro Ôtomo thereafter loses himself (and the plot) in what Ebert called "action doodles".