Friday, March 23, 2007


It has long been an ambition of mine to stand on the site of Tenochtitlan's Templo Mayor , − where several important members of the Cortés expedition died face-up − and tomorrow, with a bit of luck and a clear run on Mexico City's complex subway system, I shall finally be able to realise it.

A blogging hiatus commences.

The Inside Man

A movie which holds up its audience with cinematic weapons that certainly look like the real thing, but turn out to be flimsy and plastic.

Aside from the flash-forwards and the imagined action sequences, Spike Lee's film is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is, with a special mention in that respect for the dialogue.

Jodie Foster's powerbroker with a permasmirk is particularly annoying.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Have been thinking about this for a few days now. I am particularly fond of new ideas that appear to confirm my intuitive prejudices!

The behaviour of entangled photons has long seemed to present some difficulties for Einsteinian relativity. But this alternative, retrocausal explanation would suggest that the spooky action occurs across temporal rather than spatial distances.

I found especially intriguing the idea voiced by Australian researcher Paul Davies: that there might be a literally loopy explanation for the way that the structural set-up of universe appears to be optimised for the existence of conscious life.

"The universe might actually be able to fine-tune itself. If you assume the laws of physics do not reside outside the physical universe, but rather are part of it, they can only be as precise as can be calculated from the total information content of the universe. The universe's information content is limited by its size, so just after the Big Bang, while the universe was still infinitesimally small, there may have been wiggle room, or imprecision, in the laws of nature. And room for retrocausality. If it exists, the presence of conscious observers later in history could exert an influence on those first moments, shaping the laws of physics to be favorable for life."

This is clearly more satisfactory than the more familiar 'there must be an infinite number of less fine-tuned universes out there too' explanation.

Anyway, I'm far more comfortable thinking of 'God' as the end product of our cosmos than as some sort of sentient creator person outside of it, who somehow still manages to behave as if He were possessed of a consciousness moving in one direction along the fourth dimension much like our own.

The sweater's in the post

The Menchurian candidate will receive the full backing of comrade Evo (and Juanes).

Santos Ramirez, an influential senator from the Bolivian president's Movement Toward Socialism party said that it will send delegates to Guatemala on Saturday to advise her. Morales himself may turn up on March 30 for the summit on indigenous peoples.

"We have decided to send an envoy to that brother country to accompany and support comrade Menchu in her bid."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Family operation?

New arrests in the case of the dead Guanacos. Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann identified the suspects picked up in Jalpatagua as Mario Javier Lemus Escobar, Obdulio Waldemar de Leon Lemus, Carlos Orellana Donis and Linda Castillo Orellana. So far seven cops have also been implicated. Four died in prison in famously "murky circumstances", one is still in custody − and so far still alive − and two more are on the run.

Straight to video

Cash and Curry.


Update: And this even more so.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Intelligence for dummies

In our quest for more time-efficient ways of charting the blogosphere we have set ourselves up to be presented to by a number of firms with 'innovative proprietary methodologies' and afternoon-killing PowerPoint decks to prove it. The formula touted by the one we met today was depressingly familiar.

Entrepreneurial numbercruncher + complex content-crawling algorithms + a load of processing power + a load of storage space + a load of bandwidth = "intelligence".

I wouldn't mind it if they were generally a bit more honest and admitted that what "intelligence" means in this case is some sort of partial, statistically-devised opinion, the awareness of which may or may not be commercially relevant for the client that paid to run the algorithms that build all those colourful little graphs.

In the specific case here I even came to doubt whether they really have all the stuff on the left of the = sign nailed. But its the "intelligence" thing that usually has me running to man my side of the battle lines.

"We can measure sentiment to 90% accuracy using algorithms," we were told without a hint of any of the body language normally associated with the telling of porkies. The face of a former MOTD presenter with an unusually protruding chin immediately formed in my mind.

If one let these over-confident bits of code loose on long-form content like Crime and Punishment I wonder what its sentiment would turn out to be? Pissed off most probably, which was what I was feeling several slides into the presentation.

The essence of the pitch was this: we can help you measure the influence of comment in the blogosphere. Such a tool would indeed be handy, but unlike this one it would need to go beyond scoring individual bloggers as detached nodes of influence. I'd want to know more about the impact of networked relationships and resonance. I'd want to find a way to visually represent what Tristram Shandy calls "that circle of importance, of which kind every soul living, whether he has a shirt to his back or no, ----has one surrounding him."

Trust the monkey-minded mathematicians to want to pull things apart in order to understand them better. The moment they spot anything ineluctably complex and three dimensional they immediately want to attack it with formulae until it is as flat as a hedgehog at Hockenheim. In most cases the end result is digital snake-oil, commonly sold to PR punters with a left-brain inferiority complex.

What we really need is a browsing interface that would allow us to define our entry point (blog, blogger, permalink, topic, blogroll etc), fine tune our assumptions (a DIY proprietary methodology no less) and then explore along multiple dimensions the relationships that emerge.

We could quickly visualise the strength and frequency of comment and citation between bloggers and we might also be able to track paths into and out of the mainstream media. This would not only be a better way of monitoring the blogosphere (for us communications professionals) it would possibly also be a better way of interacting with it altogether (at least in certain contexts).

Oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like Ted.

The death of an assumption

One of modern biology's most 'common' assumptions was left looking a little exposed this week as evidence emerged that seems to suggest that new species form more easily in temperate rather than equatorial climes. The expansive natural diversity that exists between the tropics had always seemed to suggest the opposite conclusion, but it turns out that the abundance of life down there reflects a reduced rate of extinction, and not as previously thought, an enhanced rate of speciation.

Robachicos y el cadaver politico

This week the US State Department (finally) advised that it could no longer recommend that Americans adopt children from Guatemala, up to now the second biggest source of orphans (or near enough) imported into the States:

"Adopting a child in a system that is based on a conflict of interests, that is rampant with fraud, and that unduly enriches facilitators is a very uncertain proposition with potential serious lifelong consequences...When you decide whether to move forward with adoption in Guatemala, you should consider factors beyond timing."

I have always felt uncomfortable about the proportion of baby-snatchers on US-bound flights out of Guatemala. It will be interesting to see what effect this new advice has.

On a different note, I was discussing with my sister-in-law yesterday what the Guatemalan government is doing to try to persuade its newly-returned (deported) citizens from immediately planning a return trip pa'l norte. For example the Ministerio de Trabajo is trying to set them up with jobs, but these tend to pay Q1,200.00 ($155) per month compared to to the $1,500 (plus inconveniences) that a similar temporary position in the US would be likely to earn them.

Yesterday it was reported that the amount of money sent home by Latin American migrant workers to their families has reached more than $62bn, a figure which already exceeds the combined total of all direct foreign investment and foreign aid to the region. In the case of Guatemala, these remesas form a significant part of the local economy, which was why Oscar Berger was so keen to discuss US immigration policy with lame ducky last week.

Unfortunately, since the Democrats took Congress, Dubya has been the most strangely waddling of all presidential ducks. El Pais summarised the problem with his Latin American tour as right message, wrong messenger. What America needs is an Executive branch that can visit neighbouring countries without the need to shut down their city centres, airspace and mobile phone grids in the interests of his or her own personal security. Someone that could, for instance, safely include the capital in an official visit to their southern neighbour.

Hurdles at sea

New Zealand's record-seeking bio-fuelled trimaran Earthrace has been impounded in Guatemala after it crashed into an "unlit" fishing boat (i.e. quite possibly a drugs pickup vessel) just off the Pacific coast and knocked three crewmen overboard, one of whom is now presumed drowned. Skipper Pete Bethune from Auckland is appealing for local sympathy on the grounds that they stopped to save one of the unfortunate 'fishermen'. The Kiwis see this fatal incident as yet another unfortunate 'hurdle' that their round-the-world record bid will have to leap over.

Nice boat. I'm sure there's at least one retired colonel in Guatemala who thinks it would look rather excelente moored outside his pad on the Rio Dulce. (Thanks to Scott for this link)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Host (Gwoemul)

The yanks have tipped their gunk into the Han river and what emerges is like a bulbous, amphibian t-rex with a set of expanding flabby chops rather like the Predator (but flabbier).

Gwoemul is an original mix of nice-looking Korean arthouse horror, political satire and slapstick comedy. When these elements hang together well it's gripping; when they don't, it isn't.

Indeed the pacing is generally quite uneven, with the monster's importance to the story waxing and waning over the two hour running time. Plenty of people die as a result of their interactions with it, but not in the deliberate, economical way normally associated with predation.

The farcical elements to the scenario felt at times as if they were there to cover up what the literal-minded would take to be the weaknesses of the plot. Yet perhaps the comic interludes are more effective for native audiences.

Anyway, there are some very atmospheric moments, generally those which take place under bridges and inside the Seoul sewer network. And it picks itself up for a great, and ultimately quite daring, conclusion.

Revolution Awards

Went along with my Netcoms colleagues to the Revolution Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel ballroom last Friday. Our LG Chocolate Blogger Relations programme won a commendation in the Technology and Telecoms category.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Road

All the usual McCarthy bombast has been cauterised. His latest novel is an exercise in carefully-judged understatement.

A father and his young son, born after a firey apocalypse of uncertain origin, are pushing a cart with their few belongings southwards along a road set between frazzled trees and covered in swirling black ash. "Each the other's world entire."

The episodic narrative tracks their encounters with this forsaken landscape and its human remnants, the desperate and the starving and the resurgently evil groups of bloodcultists and cannibals. (Though no other wildlife whatsoever, oddly enough.)

None of the set piece images and incidents in this sequence becomes more important than just another stop on the journey. But the technique of revealing this ruined world through an array of glimpses makes what we do see that much more convincing and disturbing. The scenario is familiar from Science Fiction in the 70s and 80s, but McCarthy's treatment of it is unique. It's one of the most touching modern novels I have ever read.

Secuestro Express

This is a situation that wants to be story but somehow doesn't quite make the transition.

'Express' kidnappings involve snatching rich kids as they fall out of the nightclubs of the Latin American metropolis (here Caracas) and holding them for several hours until their parents have coughed up a comparatively modest five figure ransom.

This phenomenon formed the basis for an idea for a short film that writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz ended up stretching to feature length, without apparently expanding much upon important stuff like plot and character.

About of a third of the way through, the City of God vibe that it kicks off with seems to be giving way to a bizarre farce, in which one of secuestrados is held up by a rival gunman when taking cash out at the ATM for his kidnappers. Soon after that the car that the kidnappers grabbed along with their victims is itself stolen. There's also a bizarre mid-section twist involving a vicious dope-dealing queen. But none of this really comes to anything, and Jakubowicz's stated intent of generating awareness of the maelstrom of crime and corruption resulting from the extremes of deprivation in Latin America is undermined by his choice of hip urban musicians to play the men on the side of poverty. There are too many camera tricks and not enough real grit. Always a pleasure to watch Mia Maestro though.

Orange alert

"Guatemala's National Disaster Reduction Coordination (CONRED) office declared an orange alert on Friday after the Fuego Volcano, some 45 km from Guatemala City, erupted and triggered waves of small earthquakes. According to reports reaching here, the eruption spewed ash 500 meters into the air, and triggered 20 to 30 small earthquakes a minute."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Limpieza Espiritual

Maya priests seeking their ancestors' forgiveness at Iximché following the visit of international persona non grata George W. Bush earlier in the week. By the look of things it was a jolly affair with marimba accompaniment.

They needed to get all the bad vibes cleaned up before comrade Evo Morales visits Guatemala later this month.

Though if he turns up in that sweater, they may have to come back again...

Red Nose Day

Even the riverbus has one today.


First Starbucks was getting a load of gyp from the pesky Ethiopeans, now this.

Buzzed up

Taiwan is thinking of selling some of its mothballed F5-E fighters and Guatemala is reportedly amongst the interested buyers.

They must have got the buzz earlier this week when their airspace was hijacked by USAF jets during the visit of 'El Pato Cojo'. Washington, which places strict controls on the resale of military hardware it provides to allies, would have final say on the sale. (The US is bound by law to assist Taiwan in its defence.)

Now that the spiritual clean-up operation has been completed and all vestiges of the President's phantasmal slime scraped off the ruins at Iximché, it has emerged that what really narked the local community was the fact that the version of the ancient Mayan ballgame set up for Bush to witness at the site involved a gold-coloured soccer ball.

ISN Security Watch reports today that Dubya's tour down south didn't achieve very much. Well, duh!

Al rojo vivo!

V just called. She's up on the top terrace watching the Volcán de Fuego in tremendous eruption. The dog is sitting at her side, apparently in need of some emotional guidance on this one.

She insists she has never seen the volcano looking so beautiful or so scary, at least not since seeing all those tostados at Pompeii a couple of years ago. (Definitely more terrifying than this leisurely evening 'phutt' that I photographed back in January.)

The noise is like constant thunder she reports, (I could hear it down the line) and with her bincoulars she can see firey rocks being hurled out of the burbling, incandescent crater. Locals, like her sister on Yepocapa, are on yellow alert. (Today's photo op for Rudy?)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

John and Sally not needed?

Hardly surprisingly, Mark Cuban is enthusiastically applauding the Viacom suit. He doesn't seem to want to recognise how the combined impact of convergence, personalisation and peer-to-peer connections is likely to change the way media is produced and consumed.

"Viacom doesnt need John or Sally to upload video for them. They are more than capable of doing it themselves. If Viacom wants to put up snippets, scenes, mashups, mockups, quarter, half or full episodes of anything they own, there is nothing to stop them. Its their choice. If they are smart, they will fill every Gootube Server they can reach with their content in a manner that drives viewers back to Viacom properties. They will experiment with every option, including those that engage and involve their viewers, to see what works and what doesn't work and what makes them the most money. Why not ? Google is paying for all the bandwidth."

Trouble is John and Sally are starting to feel the same way about the likes of Viacom. I do understand how their business model is fundamentally threatened by content 'sharing' GooTubers in the ways that Cuban describes, and it may well be that one reason that they perceive the social media as threat rather than opportunity is that they simply don't fancy the challenge of adapting to the new circumstances, and may rightly suspect that it is likely to be new players in the content marketplace that end up doing this best.

The mother of all smoothies

Ohmigod, I want to attack this stall with my liquidiser...especially as some of the bubbles in the champagne I drank last night seem to have become trapped behind my right eyeball.

25 millionth

I was up high in a pod last night helping the London Eye to celebrate and publicise the imminent (even more so now that the weather has turned) arrival of their 25 millionth passenger. The milestone is to be marked by the launch of an online photography competition, from which the entries will later be used to form a giant digital mosaic.

When the Eye was first lifted up out of the Thames it was predicted that it might just achieve 2m visitors a year, but has in fact managed to pull in over 3m in each of its seven years of operation. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris it's one of those 'temporary' examples of best practice engineering that very quickly establishes itself as an irreplaceable urban icon. It's also another of those soaring structures that is arguably at its most startling when you stand directly underneath it, bend your neck back slowly and commence gawping along an upward gradient.

We were joined by some members of my blogroll, including such eminent local bloggers as London Daily Photo and Diamond Geezer (And now OntoLondon.)

Rednex on the rampage

More exemplary hearts and minds soldiering from the US Marines in Ramadi.


According to a Gitmo transcript released today by the Pentagon, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has fessed up to being the brains behind the murder of Princess Diana, the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the disappearance of Shergar.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hot Fuzz

George laughed heartily when Billie Whitelaw, famed for her Sam Beckett roles, whips a sten gun out of her basket.

You certainly need to be playing with a full deck of cultural references to appreciate this movie. For instance, if I didn't know what it was like to shop at the Somerfield's in Pangbourne, I might not have found it quite such a hoot.

I disagree with those that moan that the final twenty minutes or so are overcooked. This seems to be very much part of the satirical point that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are trying to make. I especially liked the way that much of the 'comedy' here is played very straight, very subtle and very visual.

Generally a vast improvement on the usual Richard Curtis ouput from Working Title (even though I wasn't such a huge fan of Wright and Pegg's Shaun of the Dead.)

Correction appended

The New York Times had to post a correction today after one of its hacks got a little overexcited about relative poverty levels in Guatemala: "An article on Monday about child labor in Guatemala, one of the five countries President Bush visited on a trip to Latin America, misstated the minimum wage there. It is about $1 an hour, not $1 a day."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Having survived Guate, Bush is on his way to the Yucatán. In preparation for his visit the Mexican Federal authorities have elected to improve security in Mérida by disarming the local police force! The city has experienced a plague of locusts over the last few days.

Dubya was upstaged yesterday by Israel's now recalled ambassador in San Salvador, who was found wandering the city's streets drunk and naked, apart from some items of bondage gear. It is said that Ambassador Tzuriel Refael was able to identify himself to police only after a rubber ball had been removed from his mouth.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Por el lado oscuro

Tonight I went along to the first of two literary events that we have been invited to by the Guatemalan embassy: the launch in translation of Oswaldo Salazar's From the Darkness at Canning House , home of the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Council. (A very worthy organisation with a smart residence at No2 Belgrave Square.)

Salazar (pictured here at the left with his translator Gavin O'Toole) has created a fictional treatment of the story of Mauricia Hernández, a woman sentenced to death for the murder of her husband in late thirties Guatemala − back in the days when a single killing could still create a public scandal. The author cites the work of Michel Foucault as particularly influential in helping him structure this tale of a woman whose case was played out within the nation's rigid "structures of authority".

The man whose power intersected all these circles in 1939 was Jorge Ubico, a political leader with a reported fondness for executing convicted criminals in the very place they had committed their crimes. (During the Q&A session someone asked if the death penalty was used frequently today in Guatemala. Not really, Salazar replied, but someone in the room piped up that this was one reason why the 'anonymous' death sentence has become so popular out there.)

I bought a copy of the novel and had it signed, using the opportunity to tip the author off about The Menace of Guatemala. I also had a chat with the wife of a well known demi-Spanish academic (formerly of Oxford and now resident at Tufts in Boston) whose own book on the history of the Americas I had signed at Daunt Books back in 2003.

I dropped into the conversation my somewhat controversial notion that I would like to read (or indeed write) a book about Guatemala that isn't essentially an exercise in issue-tainment. Something with universal themes that could transcend the country's familiar niche as the seat of entrenched structures of authority and the dispiriting cruelties that they engender.

I have in mind something elegaic − the sort of story one can imagine whilst listening to Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. It wouldn't necessarily have to exist in a state of hopeless denial about the social realities of contemporary Guatemala. The 'darkness' would still be there, but over in the corner of the room, as in a David Lynch movie.

Italy is a messed-up sort of country, but Americans that go there end up wanting to become Italians. Americans that go to Guatemala generally don't end up wanting to become Chapines. This discrepancy alone is an open invitation to artistic exploration.

An Inconvenient Truth

Leaving aside Florida (it will soon be underwater anyway) how on this fever-ridden Earth did Al Gore manage to lose his home state of Tennessee?

This film is as much about Gore the man, the career, as it is about one of the two big crises that are currently combining to screw up the end of history.

It is delicately poised between poignant retrospective and the work of a man that might just still fancy his chances as one of those middle of the road, reasonable-sounding revolutionaries destined to kick start a movement that will ultimately go on to devour him and all his kind.

The former next President of the United States and current advisor to the likes of Google and Apple is suddenly an It-bloke. He might yet become the first black...polo-neck wearing President of the US.

At the level of pure statistics, he makes his case well here, and with great humour. But he doesn't answer even half the questions that he throws up.

Americans like to admire the beauty of the Earth pictured from space and the beauty of their constitution and way of life. Everything in between is a problem to be contained, or ignored. So Gore's presentation offers America the chance to make a number of relatively painless adjustments in order to persist, and in so doing dodges its own even more inconvenient truths.

Along the way he raises the matter of human population growth in the Gore lifetime, driven largely by groups on the margin (and beyond) of the affluent world, that have successfully reduced the Malthusian pressures on their population levels using second hand cast-offs from our own technological advances. His "ethical imperative" appears to embrace not just generations that have yet to be born, but also generations that other, equally morally-sensitive people, might argue ought not to be born.

It is clearly not a perspective that addresses in any significant way the instabilities arising from the way that population, wealth and resources are structured in the world today. It's all about keeping the top spinning. As long as we cut down on business travel and recycle our pizza packaging we can preserve a global system that does very little to help lift the largest proportion of our fellow men out of their subsistence economies. (And God help us and our planet if they did!)

I was persuaded on all the superficial levels that Gore intends to persuade his audience, but there's a recalcitrant little vulcan in me that welcomes Global Warming. Nearing 40 and childless, I have an unfulfilled ambition to live in interesting times. A dose of controlled cataclysm seems oddly appealing. (It may for example deliver the kind of technological and societal leap forward that we used to only get from World Wars.)

What will it all mean for Freedom, broadly defined? In the short-term it seems that a great deal of pressure will fall on the individuals and their LCD TVs left on standby than on the intermediate structures that determine how we conduct large-scale agriculture and shipping for example. This may be experienced immediately as an increase in social control. Yet I have yet to make up my mind what Gore's graphs could mean for the future of personal freedom in the longer term. Perhaps these unborn generations that we seem to care so much about, will turn out to be the sort of people that are more completely aware of their overall footprint on this planet, not just in terms of CO2, but also in terms of how their socio-political choices help to determine the prospects of the planet's other living occupants.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Heading west

Today was my mother's 76th birthday. While I waited for her to get ready to go out for dinner I browsed a copy of the Evening Standard from August 18, 1955. It was in remarkably good condition. She kept it because it has a prominent piece about her winning a big public fashion competition in Eastbourne the day before. It also had a poignant piece about the precocious academic achievements of the 13 year-old Sheridan Morley who died last month.

"Don't be too glamorous," a boyfriend had once advised her on the phone before picking her up. The memory makes her chuckle now.

I'd just finished watching the last episode of Cambridge Spies this afternoon before setting off. When the subject came up over dinner she told me that she used to know Kim Philby 's wife. In the mini-series Philby is played by Toby Stephens, apparently an acquaitance of mine back in the days when I was learning multiplication. I do remember a kiddy party held at his mother's home in Chelsea, because when my own mother picked me up she got lost and we ended up on the Robin Hood roundabout near Kingstgon. Maggie Smith lived just off the west end of King's Road and we lived at its inception next to St Peter's Church in Eaton Square. Both SW1. Getting home should have been a doddle.

One of the more interesting secondary figures in Cambridge Spies is James Jesus Angleton, now the subject of de Niro's The Good Shepherd. It is said that Graham Greene resigned from MI6 in order to avoid becoming embroiled in the unmasking of Philby, a personal friend of his.

Dubya's Eve

The mood in Guate is very tense. O tells us that embassy officials are being told what to do and where to go on a need-to-know basis. He is forbidden from using his mobile phone. The Palacio Nacional is closed and the Maya have started their Bush-hex vigils. If there is one country in the world where even the standard precautions may not be enough this is it. Clinton came to Antigua, stayed at the Posada del Angel and, as the photos on the pock-marked plaster walls still attest, patronised a good number of local businesses. Bush will be lucky, and brave, if he ever steps out of his limo. V saw a man with a welcoming banner for the President today: "No cansaremos hasta verle muerto, hijo de puta."

Friday, March 09, 2007


Had lunch today with Baksheesh at Imli, a really excellent new Indian-style tapas place on Wardour Street. Over the meal he showed me the business card of someone he'd just met in Ghana. This guy runs a firm called Podference that can convert a conference call into a podcast within a hour of the last "goodbye". They also have a system for hosting 'rolling' teleconferences where people can come and go as they please, with the whole discussion being delivered later as an edited audio file. Neat.


Find out if your website is visible in China!
(Courtesy of the Pigeon Blog)

Doused in spiritual bleach

Indigenous organisations in Guatemala have announced that they intend to conduct purification ceremonies at Maya archaeological sites about to be befouled by the visit of the US President.

They will also be conducting on-going prayer vigils in Tecpán as a kind of real-time purge of the Bush hoodoo.

The director of Coordinadora Indígena y Campesina de Guatemala (CONIC), Juan Tiney, has explained how and why the clean-up will be conducted next Tuesday at Iximché, ancient capital of the Kakchiqueles:

"La presencia del señor Bush en un lugar como Iximché mancha la honra de ese sitio, por todas las muertes y dolor que ha sembrado en el mundo. Llegar a esas tierras santas atenta contra nuestra cultura" (Dubya's presence is a stain on the honour of this site, for all the pain and death that he has sown in this world. His arrival on these scared grounds is a kick in the nuts for our culture.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"Fearsomely stinky"

Beats feeding the ducks in Regent's park.

"Dying is pointless"

Reality finally disappeared for Jean Baudrillard last Tuesday.

In a way it's a bit of a shame that at the time of his dematerialisation he is most remembered for that rather rarefied observation about the first Gulf War. For me it was the spit and sparkle of his theory fictions that will provide the coolest of the memories. He was, as I have said before, something of a proto-blogger, developing a form of fragmentary rhetoric that has undoubtedly influenced me personally. How can one not regret the passing of a writer who dared to suggest that:

"It is the task of radical thought, since the world is given to us in unintelligibility, to make it more unintelligible."

I can't wait to congratulate him

It's clearer to me now why V's brother has been sent out to Tecpán this week.

Dubya's PR team (perhaps on a tip off from USAID) have arranged for the Prez to to meet up there with Mayan lettuce-farmer Mariano Canu whose association, Labradores Mayas, produces 95,000 heads of lettuce a week, thanks in part to $325,000 worth of technical assistance from an aid programme. Canu told the AP that he intends to ask the President if they can start to export their produce to the US. Good luck to him.

An excerpt from Bush's speech on Monday:

"Here's an interesting story for you. Mariano Canu, he was an indigenous farmer in Guatemala whose land provided barely enough corn and beans to feed his family. He was scratching to get ahead. No one in his family had ever been to college. Most of the people in his village never got past the sixth grade. Mariano began tilling the fields at age seven. He had spent his life in grinding poverty, and it looked as though his children would suffer the same fate.

"Trade helped him a lot, and here's how. To take advantage of new opportunities, he organized an association of small farmers called Labradores Mayas. These farmers began growing vegetables that they can sell overseas, high-valued crops like lettuce and carrots and celery. They took out a loan. Capital matters. It's important to have capital available if we want our neighbors to be able to realize a better tomorrow. And they built an irrigation system with that loan. And soon they were selling their crops to large companies like Wal-Mart Central America. With the money Mariano has earned, he was able to send his son to college. Today Labradores is a thriving business that supports more than a thousand jobs in production and transportation and the marketing of internationally sold vegetables.

"One of the stops on my trip is going to be to see Mariano. I can't wait to congratulate him on not losing hope and faith. I also look forward to seeing a thriving enterprise that began with one dream. And it's in the interests of the United States to promote those dreams. People like Mariano are showing what the people of this region can accomplish when given a chance. By helping our neighbors build strong and vibrant economies, we increase the standard of living for all of us.

"You know, not far from the White House is a statue of the great liberator, Simon Bolivar

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Went with TC to check out Brian Eno's installation at Selfridges today.

"It uses multiple monitors to display a constantly evolving painting, generated from handmade images, randomly combined by computers, creating an ever-changing ‘painting’ consisting of hand-made elements that evolve into almost countless variations."

TC reckoned that the (77m) individual images were "not very grown up" (all a bit first year St Martin's college) and that the best thing about it was the sofas that you could literally collapse on. Of course, that's what the Viola room at the Tate Modern lacks. Sofas!

It reminded me of my efforts to try to perceive the shifting contours of the Atlantic as I overflew it last December. I discovered that you need to zoom in on localised textures in order to perceive the ocean's subtle motion. Pull back, and it's a seemingly static surface. All I needed was Eno's ambient gurgles on my iPod!

The better part of valour

Unsurprisingly, President Oscar Berger cancelled his confidence-building visit to El Salvador.

He had earlier bragged that he would travel across to San Salvador by road driving his own car in order to demonstrate how convinced he was that the route was safe, but in the end decided to indefinitely postpone the trip. It wouldn't do to be dead just before Dubya shows up, would it?

Nice sash isn't it? I once accidentally kocked over the Guatemalan flag in a branch of Banco Industrial and from the expressions on the faces of the people around me thought I'd be making my one phone call to Amnesty International.


Just used Google Groups to locate my debut posting on Usenet from March 16, 1995.

I asked how the Aztecs made their chocolate and pulque drinks and had a set of interesting replies.

Frenchise operation

Abu Dhabi has paid France $520m for conceding the Louvre name for their 'universal' art museum due to open in 2010.

They have also thrown in a further $747m for art loans, special exhibitions and management advice, $32.5m for refurbishing a bit of the original in Paris, and have agreed to buy 40 Airbus aircraft of the kind that nobody else seems to want. (This is all in addition to the $10.4 billion worth of French armaments purchased over the past decade.)

A couple of years after this flying saucer touches down, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will also open on Saadiyat Island, which sits opposite the main part of the city.

And so it begins...

Don't you just hate it when old men in pointy hats say that at the start of really crucial battles?

Anyway, Dubya is finally on his way. Personally I think the tour really ought to commence with him symbolically climbing over the wall he has erected along the border with Mexico.

His opening salvo will no doubt have left Chávez and the Bolivarians fulminating: a direct comparison between George Washington and Simón Bolívar in a speech delivered yesterday.

We had a rather unenlightening email today from our global IT manager prepping us for the scheduling chaos sure to result from the fact that the US and Canada are switching to daylight savings time earlier this year. The Mexicans are making a show of their petulance by not conforming.

This reminds me how the (unmarked) US air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 arrived an hour late because George Bush senior and his CIA cronies in Guatemala City had failed to check whether Cuba was in a different time zone.

Cost of living

A quarter of the world's 30 cheapest places to live are in Latin America according to The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Guatemala City is the most expensive within this group however, 63rd in the list published yesterday, with Mexico City in 68th place.

Tokyo, displaced last year as the world's most expensive place to live by Oslo, has now been passed by Paris, Copenhagen and London as well. (Osaka is the only other non-European city in the top ten.)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

People of Earth...

Scott Karp asks us 'Who's right about the social media revolution - the people or the revolutionaries?'

I studied the patterns behind revolutions for a whole term in my final year at Cambridge. The moment of disconnect between the mass population and the self-appointed agents of wholesale change is a near-omnipresent stage in these sort of upheavals.

We all remember those 70s sci-fi scenarios that assumed there would be a fixed timetable for throwing all of our antique furniture on the bonfire. The commonest mistake of all would-be revolutionaries is to assume that they can and should pulverise all the useful manifestations of the ancien regime. Whether its starting point is the Communist Manifesto or the Cluetrain Manifesto, revolutionaries mental faculties become tend to become hijacked by a semi-autonomous discourse that impairs their ability to perceive balance.

When the people − in whose name they believe they are pursuing such an exciting vocation − begin to drag their feet cloddishly, the revolutionary cadre typically responds by upping its use of the terminology of violence and death. Change or die, becomes the pervasive mantra.

Yet for those of us who prefer their change to be a tad more focussed, the superimposition of new forms onto the old is necessarily a phenomenon in need of careful, case-by-case management.

Now I can't claim to be loyal, long-term eyeball of USA Today, but I have been similarly underwhelmed by the makeover recently imposed on Britain's own The Times. At the moment it looks like a bad case of someone got Wordpress for Christmas.

Anti-social media?

It's ironic that an important part of the ethic behind what we call social media is itself anti-social in origin. One way of looking at the Net is as an elitist utopia that dynamically maintains itself in a fairly constant state of incipient failure: misanthropy posing as idealised popular democracy. Hardly surprising really, as the greatest popular democracy of them all regarded the majority of its inhabitants as something less than fully human.

The info-age elites have created one virtually-gated community after another only to see each of them overrun in turn by the marketers and the masses. And so they move on to the next big thing...

And as Michel Houellebecq has pointed out, our society's most absurdly ascendant elite, the one whose values are coming to override all others in our culture, is Youth. MySpace typifies this − hideous, but essentially the collective handiwork of the narrow (and callow) demographic that matters most to our civilisation.

The other half

According to George W. Bush's national security advisor Stephen Hadley, there are "a lot of false promises today" in Latin America. His jefe's forthcoming tour of the region would seem to indicate that he believes there might still be room for a few more.

Dubya has said that he will use his multi-stop tour to showcase "the other half of his agenda." (It's a shame that he has left this other 50% until the last 20% of his administration.)

"And I'm going to make this pledge," he added yesterday. "The goal of this great country, the goal of a country full of generous people, is an Americas where the dignity of every person is respected, where all find room at the table, and where opportunity reaches into every village and every home." Aww.

There's even wild talk of including workers' rights in future trade accords! This will all of course be welcome news to the thousands of Guatemalans that his government has begun to re-naturalise.

More pointedly perhaps, Hadley noted that "if governments make the right choices, they will have a partner in the United States."

This is the beginning then of the great counter-attack. In recent times the Washington Consensus has appeared restricted to a narrow range of ZIP codes in the DC area, as Caracas, La Paz, Quito, Buenos Aires (sort of) and Managua have aligned themselves with Havana in their enthusiastic repudiation of the Yanquis.

The Bush administration is indeed fortunate not to have 'lost' Latin America to an even greater extent whilst they were otherwise distracted by making a mess of the Middle East. Chávez, who has a counter-tour planned, has failed to fully exploit his regional opportunity over the past few years, and has experienced significant set-backs, most notably in Peru and Mexico. Securing cheap public transport for benefits scroungers in London won't rank as his greatest geopolitical achievement, and given the pivotal significance now of the pragmatic Lula, encouraging his cuate Evo to nationalise Brazilian-held energy assets in Bolivia will surely be deemed to have been a bit precipitate by future historians.

Yet La Menchu's recent declaration of her intent to stand for the Presidency in Guatemala will have served as a timely reminder that new fronts could yet be about to open in what El Pais yesterday dubbed The battle for Latin America. Bush arrives there on Sunday.

Campaña Negra

Senior local government officials in El Salvador are suggesting to the media that their constituents are still too terrified to contemplate visiting Guatemala for the forseeable future. Should keep the crowds down while I'm out there for Semana Santa!

It's ironic because when I first went to the region in the 80s it was the (short) chapter on El Salvador in Central America on a Shoestring that was most likely to deter potential visitors.

582,676 Salvadoreños came to Guatemala last year. That's 35 % of the total number of foreign visitors, in what was a record year for tourism.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Heading for the border

Javier Figueroa, the Police sub-director who resigned last Friday in the wake of the murder of the cops implicated in the killings of three Salvadorean politicians has now legged it to Costa Rica with his wife and children. He was one of two very senior officials in the PNC whose resignations were forced, apparently because authorities feared for the impartiality of their investigations into events at El Boquerón. It is now believed the four policemen were killed by inmates using weapons hidden in a DVD player, and not by an armed gang from outside as previously thought.

T - 6

"And if during the Latin American tour he starts on March 8th Mr Bush bumps into the odd demonstration, so what?" (The Economist 3/3)

By the time Bush reaches Guatemala next Sunday local demonstrators may already have exhausted themselves. Dozens of activists were outside the US Embassy in Guatemala City this weekend, putting on a noisy demonstration of the feelings of repudio that the US President inspires. Banners were waved calling him a 'terrorist' and an 'enemy of humanity'. There's another sizeable demonstration planned for next Saturday, the day before Dubya turns up. (Presumably not in Airforce One, which being a 747, is likely to overshoot the runway and end up in the barranco.)

V's brother has just secured a position on the staff at the American embassy (I helped him with his CV) Interesting times...

These crowds may be united in the conviction that Bush has no business in Guatemala, but in fact his little tour might just help to stimulate the agrarian economies of several sugar-growing nations. In his recent State of the Union speech Bush optimistically implied that the US would be producing most of the required 130 billion litres of ethanol from its own crops. (There is still a 54% duty on imported ethanol, and a powerful farming lobby to support it)

However, with the more friendly Latin American countries like Brazil and Colombia investing heavily in new ethanol plants, the Bushes (led by Jeb with his Interamerican Ethanol Commission) probably anticipate a way for them to whack several piñatas with the same stick: stimulating rural economies, stemming the tide of illegal immigrants, bolstering market-friendly democracies and limiting the disruptive opportunities available to Chávez and his Bolivarians.


A very sad sight on Kings Road this Saturday.

What do you reckon? Starbucks, Nero...Pret?

Also, Sloane Square may soon have to be renamed Sloane Cross.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ripley's Game

As a thriller nowhere near as exiting or even as well-written as The Talented Mr Ripley, but Highsmith's highly civilised killer-of-necessity and the relationships that form around him remain intensely interesting. I might have been disappointed for the first 50 pages or so, yet immediately after finishing the last page I hurried over to Foyles and bought Ripley Under Ground.

Milan Kundera has recently written that it is the particular duty of the novel to unmask the transcendent beauty of everyday detail. Highsmith's darkly misanthropic narratives would therefore seem to fall well-outside the scope of what the Czech author considers most valuable about the novel form. And yet there is an obvious parallel, as her best stories sardonically tease out the hidden menace and meaninglessness behind ordinary existence.

I haven't seen the movie but I can't imagine that John Malkovich was particularly well cast. My mate Christofer would make a better Tom; the role requires disarming charm and excellent improvisation skills! (Highsmith herself praised Alain Delon as the ideal Mr Ripley.)

I wonder whether she had already been diagnosed with terminal leukemia − like Jonathan Trevanny in this novel − when she wrote it. She wasn't to die for another twenty years however.

Update: Just discovered that Wim Wenders' The American Friend (with Dennis Hopper) is also a loose adaptation of this story.

Friday, March 02, 2007


Someone asked me this week if I have a gun in Guatemala. The answer is no. Though contrary to what many might suspect, I do know how to handle firearms. I was a member of the Cambridge University pistol club (pre-Dunblane) and fired both revolvers and 44 magnums in competition against Oxford. I also had a little extra coaching from a friend's father who was a Colonel in the Military Police and one of the Army's leading marksmen. I was generally quite competent at marksmanship as a young man. I also tried archery, and was fairly good at that too.

However, I cannot imagine the circumstances in which I would be prepared to take aim and shoot at a real flesh and blood human being with the intent to kill, or maim. It's just so against what I believe in that it would make gun ownership fairly pointless in the circumstances referred to, especially when one considers the additional dangers that it usually presents. V knows of several people in her peer group who, like the King of Spain, accidentally shot and killed a family member at some stage in their formative years.

I have however had a gun pointed directly at me in Guatemala. I was walking alone up a quiet street in Antigua and when I reached a crossroads a car pulled up next to me. The driver's side window came down and out came the business end of an automatic pistol. The gunman was a youngish member of the country's elite en route back to the capital after what was presumably a coke-fuelled weekend. Imitating a suitable amount of recoil he made a bang bang you're dead mate gesture, cackled and hit the gas.


People working in Guatemala's media industry experienced an upsurge yesterday in death-threat related emails. One sender in particular,, was spamming journalists with warnings about the fatal consequences that would apply should they continue to report on the February 19 murders of three Salvadoran legislators and their driver and of the subsequent elimination in jail of the four police officers arrested for the crime. Erick Salazar, assistant news director at Guatevision TV, claimed that the emails referred explicitly to individual staff member's families and their recent movements. Others received anonymous calls on their mobile phones.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Queen

"Will someone please save these people from themselves," exhorts Tony Blair, meaning of course the blinking, blinkered Windsors, but the drift of this film is that he could equally well have been referring to the New Labour movement and the celebrity culture it wilfully nurtured.

Alastair Campbell was speaking at our offices a few weeks ago. He claimed that Stephen Frears has admitted to him that almost nobody was willing to provide himself and Peter Morgan with accurate reports of what went on in Westminster and Balmoral in the week after Diana's death, so that in the end they made the whole thing up. Yet some reviewers have pointed to the group of silent aids that are shown behind Blair as he ticks off his press secretary as evidence that certain scenes are more closely based on authentic eye-witness testimony.

I remember that week well. It did feel like the capital had somehow fallen into the hands of 'the people' and that anything would be possible if 'the people' willed it. I also recall watching groups of crestfallen individuals clutching bunches of flowers getting off the Tube at High Street Ken bound for Kensington Palace and thinking thoughts akin to those expressed here by the Duke of Edinburgh: "Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew...and they think we're mad." An odd mix of exhilaration and revulsion. The film captures those mixed emotions extremely well. And it's funny, gripping, charming and in places vaguely disturbing. It captures the would-be republican's dilemma perfectly.

Mark Kermode apparently still thinks it's a TV drama not a feature film proper. It certainly starts off that way, with some rather artificial dialogue, but Mirren and Sheen in particular do somehow manage to lift it up to another level of interest.