Monday, April 30, 2007


5pm, Viernes Santo, 2007. Salida de la Procesión de Señor Sepultado y María Santísima de la Soledad, Templo de la Escuela de Cristo, La Antigua Guatemala.

Como noté antes, el anda fue espectacular...especialmente su cúpula retráctil:

Improving the blog search interface

Anyone that has ever done regular research using blogs is likely to be aware of how time-consuming and ultimately frustrating the task can be using existing tools.

Some additional assistance from automation would undoubtedly be welcome, but as I pointed out last month, the most assertive methodologies on offer tend to be founded on somewhat misdirected notions of influence and intelligence.

One of the pretentious books I keep close to my desk is a volume entitled Doing Internet Research from 1999, and I have only just realised that it has an interesting-looking − though as yet unread − chapter on Studying On-line Social Networks. I shall have to read this and report back, but in the meantime here are a few suggestions both for blogging and blog-browsing interfaces, which I think would make life a whole lot easier for communications professionals.

1) Print blog post (with or without comments). Scott Adams's blog posts regularly have several hundred comments, making each use of the browser's in-built print functionality an act of deforestation. Fixing this quickly surely can't be beyond Google/

2) Writers and readers can tag individual posts with keywords and phrases. The information-seeker should therefore be able to use either or both of these to conduct their search, independently of other indexation criteria/algorithms.

3) It might also be handy to be able to search comments independently.

4) Simple built-in tools for scoring relevance and favourability would allow the researcher to structure and categorise the information from the moment they choose to keep it.

5) Writers should also be able to add a description tag to their posts rather like the meta-tag equivalent on non-blog Web pages.

6) Oh how useful it would be to conduct a search that would return the most linked/cited/commented posts relevant to a particular keyword string or set of tags.

There is a pervasive assumption that the basic unit of influence within the blogosphere is the blogger. Now I've pointed out before that addressing a connected medium as the blogosphere in terms of units of anything is a flawed approach borrowed from other spheres of investigation, but if you really had to identify the basic underlying element of blog-influence it would usually be more reasonable to suggest that it is the post itself rather than the individual that posted it.

The very nature of search means that the searcher must have some nodal unit in mind when their query is first constructed. This could be blogger, blog-post, commenter, comment, topic, tag etc. In many cases however, the searcher will want to quickly move on to re-construct ( and perhaps also visualise) the networked relationships from which the impact of this form of communication ultimately derives. These can be either explicit (links, comments) or implicit (unlinked citation, blogrolls, tags, topics etc.).

The functionality described in 6) above would be all the more valuable if the searches could be saved and automated so that new additions to each blog mini-sphere could be picked up and assimilated.

One final suggestion before I throw this one open. In same way that you can use Google to search and monitor an individual website, you should already be able to use Google blogsearch to carve up an individual blog any which way you want. For example..
  • Show me all posts matching a given tag or key phrase query
  • Now show me which ones have the most out-links/in-links
  • Now show me all posts matching the same query on other blogs this one is linked to (either in the text, the comments or via the blogroll).
and so on.

Update: Technorati has gone some way towards the ideal by allowing the searcher to click to a page displaying the full set of links referencing each post returned by the original query.

But this sort of interface is still like squirelling around a tree: you can run out along an interesting branch, but you have to come back again to the main trunk in order to access the other branches. When pressed, a squirrel in a hurry can jump between branches that are close enough for such acrobatics, but the Technorati-squirrel can't do this because it literally can't see the other nearby branches in information space.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


An electric atmosphere and copious quantities of incense awaited the arrival of the Escuela de Cristo procession in the Parque Central on Good Friday. You can hear V spluttering on the soundtrack.

The God Delusion

As a practically lifelong unbeliever and sceptic, I undertook this book with trepidation, all too familiar with the damage that Richard Dawkins's blinkered logic tends to inflict on the atheist cause.

Ever since I first read The Selfish Gene over a decade ago I have noted his unnerving ability to leave strewn behind his jauntily self-confident prose, the very logical and metaphorical tools that any reasonably intelligent person can pick up and use to expose the weaknesses of his core arguments. And his newest book is no exception.

Of what possible relevance are fairies at the bottom of the garden and rampant spaghetti monsters to what the writer the book is dedicated to famously characterised as "the answer to life the universe and everything"? Dawkins himself notes that people tend to form models of the world they find themselves in, and it is surely far more probable that your average human being will include some sort of God in their personal model than say, Bertrand Russell's intergalactic teapot. Indeed, the gap in question is rather more obviously God-shaped than teapot shaped.

At one point noting that theologians and philosophers tend to inhabit the supposedly narrowing gap beyond the magisterium of empirical investigation, he goes on to rubbish the claims of theology to be any kind of subject at all. Of philosophy we hear no more. Has he granted it its place in the twilight zone by default?

"There is no reason," he says, "to regard God as immune from consideration along the spectrum of probabilities," and then goes on to supply a number of very good reasons in his final chapter covering quantum theory and its counterintuitive assaults on common sense. The ultimate 747 gambit is based on the huge assumption that the probability of supernatural intelligence has to be examined like that of any other chunk of complex matter on the middle-world scale.

The narrowness of Dawkins's own "mental burkha window" is as apparent as ever. He is the epitome of the middle-of-the-road English intellectual, imperiously dismissing the "Franco-phoneyism" of important (if flawed) Gallic thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. I wonder what Ethiopia's undernourished children would make of his assertion that we have no business complaining about our "time in the sun"; indeed to do so would be a "callous insult" to all those unborn combinations of human DNA.

To the charge that he willfully confuses the issue of the origins of life with the origins of the universe, Dawkins would probably argue in his defence that he is simply responding to the sophistry of his creationist opponents. But the confusion remains, and it muddies his exposition.

But all that said, what would we do without Richard Dawkins? It's clearer than ever that atheism needs a spokesperson in a western society that appears to have lost its connection with the cultural gains of the Enlightenment. And for better or for worse, Dawkins is the man that has stepped up to the podium (or the pulpit!).

Ultimately, I have to say that I have a good deal of sympathy for his conviction that Abrahamic monotheism is the "great unmentionable evil at the centre of our culture, " and I can understand his bitter frustration at "the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion" that seems to be solidifying in the modern West.

The fact that each of the four gospels has a significantly different take on the circumstances of Jesus' birth should, I believe, be something that seriously bothers all believing Christians every time Christmas comes round. The ignorance of scripture amongst most of the self-professed devout Catholics that I have interrogated in Guatemala is also something that regularly astounds me.

But Dawkins never addresses the fact that there is a cultural as well as individual psychological need for the exortations, consolations and inspirations of religion. How would a society that had wholeheartedly accepted both the finality of death and the absence of final justice actually function in practice?

It's clear from looking at the areas of human culture where monotheism itself is absent that it would indeed be possible to eradicate it within the space of several generations. The efforts of the communists to do so in recent history should not be taken to indicate the futility of such a programme, because Marx's own opiate was in many ways a simple substitute. Yet could we really collectively accept that there might be no decisive justice for the downtrodden either in history or the hereafter?

Anyway, the Professor's closed-minded zeal is always stimulating, as is his aforementioned generosity in providing his readers with handy armaments for resisting him as he tries to drag them away from their infantile fantasies. Like his idol Darwin, he aspires to be a burkha-lifter, and does largely succeed, if not always in the ways intended.

One of the book's most impassioned passages concerns our cultural response to the discovery of the frozen corpse of a young Inca princess sacrificed many centuries ago high up in the Andes. It doesn't matter that she herself felt proud to give up her life to the sun god, he pleads, she wasn't in possession of the facts, and the act undoubtedly remains a senseless, cold-hearted murder whatever the local cultural context. Though Dawkins doesn't directly make the connection, the fact that the veil is wholeheartedly supported by many Muslim girls is surely vulnerable to assault from the very same logic.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Quaking in Kent

In Guatemala 5.4 would still be a temblor, not a terremoto. They are reasonably regular occurrences and hardly make the national news, let alone the international. But this is England and few Canadians would recognise what we refer to as a blizzard either.

Earth tremors are of course comparatively unusual in the British Isles, and who can criticise the good folk of Kent if they felt a surge of panic this Saturday morning when their boiled eggs toppled out of their egg cups.

The first tremor I experienced in Guatemala was a mild one. I've described before on this blog my amazement at how everyone around me just carried on eating their lunch. Douglas Adams's famous phrase "reality's on the blink" sprung to mind.

Apart from the big El Salavador quake of 2000, all the 6+ tremors I have since been shaken by have occurred in the night (or indeed the afternoon) whilst I was asleep. And as they tend to be of short duration, each was experienced amidst those strange few seconds of rebooting consciousness where the mind is awake but the body isn't...which generally adds to the weirdness.

Sure enough, the day I turned up in Guatemala last month I decided to take a short nap after unpacking. I was woken by a lick to the chin from the dog and immediately noticed how the house was wobbling. These were the last big throbs of seismic angst emanating from the Volcán de Fuego, which had been fuming angrily for several days before my arrival. After rousing me, Jin proceeded to go on a tour of the whole house checking each room in turn, obviously very concerned.

Update: they are now saying that this morning's tremor measured 4.3 on the Richter scale and there are reports of people trapped beneath collapsed IKEA furniture.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea

After the unbecoming bloatedness of The Secret History, a concise and very beautiful novel. (Think waif-like Japanese model standing next to Anna Nicole Smith in her heyday.)

The cartoon below does I think capture the essential outline of Mishima's story. As to what it is actually about, I'd venture to say it deals with the crisis of 'maturity' that many an adult has to face. (Though the idea that a group of teenage males might have formed a violently nihilistic philosophy in anticipation of it, is perhaps this novel's particular contribution to our culture.)

Reaching middle age, merchant-seaman Ryuji Tsukazaki meets lonely widow Fusako and through her overcomes his "antipathy to land", shedding his long-standing and fairly optimistic conviction that his life on the high seas would lead him towards a personal moment of glory, reserved by fate for him alone.

He therefore proposes to Fusako, a situation which will require him to transform himself into the land-lubbing father of her thirteen-year-old son Nobouru. He does not, cannot, realise that Noboru is his nemesis; that the boy belongs to a twistedly heterodox gang of boys who regard fatherhood as the very worst state of man ("fathers are the flies of this world...a reality-concealing machine"), and that they will ultimately seek to punish him for abandoning his path to glory, for becoming such a "disgraceful charicature". They collectively decide to do this before they turn fourteen and the Japanese state can punish them. Few that have reached a certain age and resigned themselves to mediocrity can have unknowingly tossed themselves into such a snakepit!

I'd recommend this novel without hesitation. I love how the story emerges naturally from the simple combination of a physical situation (a locked bedroom, a peephole) with an existential human drama, and how Mishima subtly urges us to consider how the evil that inhabits the mind of Noboru might in fact derive from the icy hauteur of his mother, even though she appears otherwise decent and fully committed to the un-reality and un-freedom of the well-to-do adult world. (This is most pointedly suggested in the scenes where Fusako meets up with her client Yoriko, a beautiful film actress whom she rather callously dismisses as flawed and vulgar.)

Time's up

In an important, well worth considering sense, the moment I die, the moment you die, even the moment that Julius Caesar and Jesus of Nazareth die, are all the very same moment. For from the particular frame of reference of extinguished consciousness, there is no longer any subjective time. Death collapses all the dimensions that are otherwise needed to stop things happening at the same place at the same time.

Within the larger misunderstanding that we call The Afterlife, there is a common, smaller misunderstanding: that those we loved that have long since passed away are somehow sitting up there checking their watches, waiting for us to join them!

A bit weird

A few days ago I spotted an old biography of Mstislav Rostropovich in the window of Foyles and yesterday, on a whim, I decided to check Wikipedia to see if he was still alive.

I was surprised to discover that he still was, but as it turned out, he very soon wouldn't be.

I only saw him play live once, at the Barbican. He was performing Shostakovich's quirky jazz suites as part of a trio.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Palabras Encadenadas (Killing Words)

This engrossing Spanish-Argie thriller stars the appealingly mordant Darío Grandinetti (Probably best known from Almodóvar's Hable con Ella, but most fondly recalled by me in Eliseo Subiela's excellent El Lado Oscuro del Corazón, 1 and 2.)

Here he plays Ramón, a university lecturer who early on we see explaining on video just how he got into the business of serial-killing.

The rest of the movie basically alternates between situations in which Ramón is in the midst of an intense interview. In the first he is tormenting his ex-wife Laura, apparently his helpless captive in a well kitted-out pyscho's underground lair, whilst in the second of these cat and mouse games, two detectives are subsequently interrogating him as the prime suspect following her mysterious disappearance.

The interplay of these counterposed dramas is very well-handled. The overall mood is playful, with a bit of a nasty edge. To some extent it's also quite predictable: Ramón must create doubt in the minds of the police, and in doing so toys with our own doubts about the reality of what we see in the other section of the narrative. But this in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the way the story unfolds.

I especially enjoyed the section where Ramón gives the cops a plausible account of how he went about kidnapping his ex, which forms a voiceover overlaying a flashback which depicts the subtly different actual circumstances of the abduction.

One odd aspect of the film is the game which gives it its name. Ramón challenges Laura to respond to each word he pronounces with another beginning with the last syllable of his own. In this section the subtitles are of course unable to directly translate the Spanish words delivered by the actors as this would make little sense, but it does seem rather odd if you are listening to the spoken words whilst following the text on the screen.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Cabecitas de Plomo II

V reports that the cops moving into their new base just down the road from us have done something especially annoying: they have painted the exterior wall of the house in the colours of the PNC, black and yellow. It really is very fortunate that they didn't take the place next door after all.

The Secret History

I was a bit disappointed by this, especially as I'd always had in mind that Tartt's debut novel was one of the great reads of the 90s that I had somehow missed out on up until now.

It starts off well enough. There are obvious echoes of works like Brideshead Revisted and The Dead Poets Society, but strangely enough the set-up reminded me a lot of The Magus, another fat novel that I polished off on holiday in Antigua a few years ago.

Yet while the concept, to which the prologue gives the reader a substantial taster, is pretty good, after a hundred or so pages I began to have to recognise that it has not been especially well realised (or indeed well-written.)

The underlying storyline is the familiar one where a young 'everyman' suddenly finds himself mixed up with a mysterious, gilt-edged elite, from which he invariably ends up being spewed out at the end. (Christopher Booker has also noted that the narrator/protagonist of this story type will almost always fail to end up attached to the girl that has stirred his affections inside this excitingly exotic wonderland.)

The trouble here is that I knew a number of people in Cambridge the like of Julian and his amoral classics clique and somehow Tartt's attempt to realise them as fictional characters falls well short of what might have been imagine-able.

Julian and Henry in particular are like place-holders for characters that need a lot more work if they are to engage our interest as much as the story seems to require. We hear reports of Julian's special character and charisma from his pupils, but Tartt neglects to show us directly just how he inspires such devotion.

Perhaps the one character that takes shape rather better than the others is the victim, Bunny. I kept thinking of Freddy Miles as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr Ripley, but there are several other real life equivalents for me to be reminded of too.

When a long narrative like this winds up and the narrator reflects on the trajectories of the key characters, I'm used to having a strong sense of nostalgia for the way things were back in the first act. There's usually a poignant sense of the impact of time and fate on the key relationships. In the epilogue Tartt tries rather archly to deliver this effect...and fails.

I hear that an attempt is under way to bring this story to the silver screen. If so, there's a great deal that will have to be cut out or worked up, and the dialogue will have to be significantly improved. Perhaps if these characters can be made to say cleverer, more thought-provoking things the whole plot will be more immediately interesting. As it is in the novel, I couldn't really have cared less if they had all ended up driving off a cliff at the end.

Guatemalan GP

V was at the Autodromo los Vocanes (close to Escuintla) with Felipe and family yesterday, enjoying the dirtbike Grand Prix.

Tony Bou of the Montesa team came in first on both days, while Adam Raga and Takahisa Fujinami came second and third on the Sunday trial which la retahila attended.

It is the first time the (FIM SPEA Trial) World Championship has come to Latin America since the series started in 1975.

Antichrist faces setback

José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican cult-leader and self-styled Antichrist, has been denied entry to Guatemala, where thousands of his followers have been gathering. It seems that he will now have to addresss them on a live video link, unless his legal team can overturn the ban.

In spite of having 666 tattooed on his arm, de Jesús Miranda apparently feels that the resurrected Christ has been properly integrated into his own person, which means that his own teachings can be said to supercede those of Jesus. His Growing in Grace church has 2m followers worldwide.

Guatemalan authorities have decided, after weeks of deliberation, that the visit constituted a threat to their national security. (Anyone that proclaims that all Catholic priests are kiddyfiddlers must be a terrorist, right?)

Curse of the Golden Flower

"A typical family Christmas," joked Surfer when we left the Kensington Odeon.

I reckon that any family would become violently disfunctional if they had to live day in and day out in a palace with that sort of decor.

Whilst it's all very sumptuous to look at (and the Ninjas came sailing in on time to keep Surfer from nodding off), one is really none the wiser at the end, except that it seems clear that the Tang Dynasty must have been one of the shortest in Chinese history.

When not focussing on the elaborate interiors and the rather obscurely-grounded familial intrigue that inhabits them, Zang Zhimou's film feels like a dry run for his stageing of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games. Gong Li's captivating screen presence saves it from feeling massively overblown.

We both felt the opening sequence − which showed the girls of the court rising in unison − might have signalled an intent to reveal more of the social reality behind palace life, but as ever with Zhang, the masses remain strikingly faceless.

Geniosity, an update

Frode has clarified what he means by this: "More like the act of using ones genius to help others, like pointing out something useful/clever to someone," as opposed to showing off.

Friday, April 20, 2007

They keep on about it

The Guardian has published yet another article today about the femicide problem in Guatemala. As ever the explanations offered for the "root cause" of the surge in violence are fairly weak and derivative. This paragraph is interesting though:

"When discussing these crimes it is necessary to put them in context - Guatemala is seeing a general explosion of violence, and 10 times as many men as women are killed each year. The murder of women wouldn't be a specific area of concern, then, if activists were not convinced that they are dying in a very different way. They call it femicide, claiming that while male victims are much more likely to die because they get involved in disputes, or join violent groups, women are being targeted in unprovoked attacks. And, they add, even women who expose themselves to risk by joining the ultra-violent gangs known as "maras" tend to be killed with a sadism not usually suffered by men."

The Good German Shepherd

Geniosity, a neologism recently coined by Frode to designate a readiness to share one's genius with others!

Today I will partake of a little of his own geniosity by borrowing the title he has devised for a combo-sequel to both The Good Shepherd and The Good German for this post about our dog in Antigua.

Firstly Jin became a father just before I left Guatemala. The eight puppies will share my birthday.

It also seems that V has at last found a suitable long-term home for him, a matter that has been of great concern to us both since she first rescued him from abandonment and near starvation last summer.

At a party last weekend she met a wealthy Anglo-Spanish woman that has a seafront home in Brighton and a big estate close to Tecpán which she runs as a stables/riding school. V invited her to come and meet Jin earlier this week and they really bonded (After a shaky start, because he jumped up and flattened her nose when she first arrived.)

It's a great relief to us to know that he is going somewhere where he will be loved and looked after and where he will have much more of an open space to roam around in. We'll miss him a lot, but will be able to visit.

As for the kittens (also plucked by V from near certain death) the grey one, 'Tiger', has learned how to climb up the bourgainvillea in the garden but not yet how to get down again, which V is finding more than a bit frustrating. From the start Tiger has been the object of some fairly shameless favouritism, but of late V has found reason to transfer more of her affection to the endearingly runtier, gatito pintado, 'Cherry'.

Frode and I had dinner at the HK Diner in Wardour Street with his fashion-photographer friend Enamul last night. "Isn't this just the best restaurant in London?" Frode enthused. "...No," replied Enamul bravely. The sea bass was very good though. Earlier we'd tried Kowloon in the characterful Gerrard Mansions building, which serves a variety of oriental pastries in a setting Frode described as almost calculated neglect. Unfortunately the main kitchen is closed for a few weeks and I didn't fancy a curry bun for dinner.


On both legs of my journey between Mexico DF and Guatemala City I had the opportunity to snap away at Popocatepetl from various angles.

Of all the shots I took, I think this one best captures the extraordinary effect the volcano has had on the wider landscape around it.

The last time I flew past this monster in the mid-90s it was in full eruption, which was a little worrying, but the sun was setting behind the huge ash cloud and it has to have been one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Avril is the new Mai

We are having something of a premature summer here in London and there is a sudden superabundance of blossom in SW3.

Monday is actually quite a big night in Chelsea, because a certain proportion of the local population have spent the weekend out of town and so often make a big effort to dress up and go out on the first night of the new week.

As a belated birthday treat my mother took me to a recent discovery of hers, a high-end French bistro on Dovehouse Street near Chelsea Square called Le Colombier.

I had a delicious escabeche of dorade (bream) as my starter (essentially an uptown version of ceviche), followed by a skewer of pejesapo (monkfish), which I all too routinely pick when eating out, but in this instance turned up a touch too soggy and lukewarm. Not enough to spoil my overall sense of satisfaction with the occasion however.

It's the sort of place where I like to look around at the people sitting at nearby tables. Unfortunately it's also the sort of place where my mother likes to interact with them.

Didier the manager, whose manners were described as "ugly" by one London-Eating reviewer, was a study in effortful charm as my mother engaged him in her postprandial prattle. Merci, Merci, you've paid the bill, now ALLEZ VOUS, was the subtext of his obeisance.

Cabecitas de Plomo

Having narrowly avoided getting the PNC as our immediate neighbours (instead we got some Guanacos with a Karaoke machine), it seems that the cops have chosen to move into the more spacious property about fifty metres down the road, which until recently was one of the old folks' homes known as Cabecitas de Algodón.

They are being forced to vacate the Palacio de los Capitanes General (pictured) as this historical building in the centre of Antigua is being redeveloped into something that tourists will feel more comfortable visiting.

The interior ministry carried out a proper purge of the police force this week. First to go were around 20 serving army officers that have recently been occuping key posts in arms control, internal affairs, logistics, inspection and personnel. It was also announced that Capt. Alexander Gomez, the new chief of the PNC Criminal Investigation Department (DINC), a unit heavily implicated in the murder of the ARENA politicians, would dismiss 60 per cent of his staff.

On the Saturday I arrived in Guatemala we stopped off at Pizza Hut on the way out of the city, close to Cemaco/Tikal Futura. Esau then parked on a bend just before San Lucas and we started to munch. In front of us were two PNC picops whose occupants got down and strolled nonchalently past our windows. They looked like they were after mordidas of one kind or another!

Their attention was eventually drawn to a packed bus headed for Chimaltenango which they flagged down and then ordered all the male passengers to get down. Such inter-urban transport is often operating without the necessary paperwork which, according to Esau, provides the cops with a nice little earner before the Semana Santa break.

This bus-stopping activity was stepped up over the course of the following week. A police chief outlined to a Telediario reporter the kind of irregularities they were typically looking out for, such as overcrowded buses, a phenomenon "que de cierta manera provoca accidentes" (o sea mordidas).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Whilst the Romans with their broom-brush helmets are a personal favourite of mine, the USP of Antigua's annual Semana Santa relajo must surely be all of those elaborate ceremonial carpets made from coloured sawdust, flowers, fruit and veg and many other improvised materials, each one a celebration of evanescent domestic creativity.

I made a particular effort to wander around observing the method of their construction. It strikes me that the peculiar urban geography and sociology of La Antigua are both factors helping to promote excellence in the outcome, though I did stumble across one group of men having quite an entertainingly heated argument about how best to design the 'o7 version of their carpet. (I captured this on video this and will possibly upload at a later date. Nothing like a good Chapin ruction.)

The more spectacular examples of these carpets can reputedly cost a household up to 5000 Quetzales (approximately $650) and some famlies come out several times during the latter stages of Easter, building new carpets on the ruins of the old.


Cormac McCarthy's The Road has (deservedly I think) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. $10,000 doesn't seem that much though.

Running Amok

Amidst all the journos, constitutional experts, gun-fetishists and gun-phobes wheeled on by the news corporations this morning, perhaps there should have been room for an anthropologist or two.

Clearly the ability to purchase a semi-automatic rifle at Wall-Mart makes killing a lot of people in one stint a whole lot easier. But the basic phenomenon where a young man with no previous inclination to violence suddenly takes up a weapon and attempts to murder just about everyone he comes across, is a fairly common in a number of primitive societies. What US cops today call going postal has been known in Malaysia for centuries as running amok.

In terms of why this keeps happening, Wikipedia cites that "the explanation which is now most widely accepted is that amok is closely related to male honor." Perhaps the root problem isn't the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms, but a cultural debility within a supposedly modern society, where primitive mentalities are apparently able to resurface with some degree of regularity.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Viernes Santo by me

At any other time of year La Antigua Guatemala has the atmosphere of a town that is perhaps just few thousand people short of critical mass. Not so during Semana Santa though, when it appears to have been fully restored to its former role of teeming capital for the whole region.

This year it was widely reported that visitor numbers were down (especially from El Salvador) but it felt cramped enough for me.

Die-hard unbeliever I might be, but I couldn't help but partake in the collective rapture when the Escuela de Cristo anda entered the Parque Central and slowly rocked towards the cathedral where hundred of candle-wielding catholics awaited it.

The E de C anda itself was magnificent. V said it was the best she'd ever seen. It's centrepiece was a Renaissance dome at the back-end, possibly modelled on painted antecedents in the Vatican, which featured a retractable cupola that could be activated in those streets where low slung cables are the norm.

When the anda entered the main square this cupola was down, and given the lack of overhead wires in the vicinity, we all thought that the mechanism might have become jammed, but no, they had of course planned for it to re-emerge as the procession rounded the corner, eliciting a collective "aaaaah" from the mass of onlookers.

The spaced-out Californian that lives in V's sister's house told me that he hadn't been expecting anything like this when he turned up in Antigua: "Dude, they all look like one of those sinister secret societies, like in that Stanley Kubrick movie."

The San Felipe procession is by far the smokiest of the season. You could track its progress around town using the mushroom cloud of luminous incense that it was throwing up. Participation in it has rather less snob-value compared to its rival. "Muco-ruchos," I joked to V as it passed, leaving us gasping for breath.

Anyway, these were my own pics of the mysterious goings-on that day.

Procesión de la Consagrada Imagen de Jesús Nazareno De La Merced

Procesión de Señor Sepultado y María Santísima de la Soledad, Templo de la Escuela de Cristo

Viernes Santo by Felipe

My brother-in-law Felipe is not only a much better photographer than I am, he also has a far superior professional digital camera. It is therefore his images of the Good Friday processions that I will promote here first.

There are three main processions around La Antigua on Viernes Santo. The first which emerges from La Merced at about 5am is more or less a re-run of the Palm Sunday procession as far as I could tell, except that there is some Roman cavalry and the cucuruchos all carry lances. (So no shopping bags possible this time!)

This procession concludes at 3pm, traditionally the hour of Christ's passing. This is the last one where purple tunics are worn. Those that wish to participate in either of the late-afternoon processions have to effect a quick costume change into the black tunics appropriate for carrying either of the Critstos sepultados which belong to the Escuela de Cristo in Antigua and its rival from San Felipe de Jesús, a colonia just outside the centre.

In days gone by it was not unheard of for these two processions to meet head on, with neither immediately willing to cede priority and back up. In today's Guatemala such an encounter could have very unpleasant consequences, so it's generally a good thing that new routes were devised that make these kind of collisions far less likely. (Just the week before the Desfile Bufo, a more secular street march involving members of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, had kicked off with a shoot-out between members of the engineering faculty.)

Felipe's photo-sets include many more images of intact ceremonial alfombras (carpets). There are two reasons for this. Firstly, although it had been our plan to get up early with him on Friday morning (4am) we ended up having one two many tequilas at Cafe Ana with Orly and Victor Hugo and didn't make it home until after three. (This does mean that I have plenty of pics of the carpets in their earlier stages of composition, which I will touch upon in a later post.)

Felipe was also cargando in two of the processions, which permitted him to get some fairly unique shots from beneath the andas. His cucurucho get-up also provided him with an access-all-areas permit to generally move around and in front of the procession in motion. (I saw one guy in mufti who tried to cross the street in front of the La Merced anda being set-upon vigorously by an over-keen legionary with a plastic gladius. )

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The King

An intriguing but ultimately frustrating thriller about Elvis, the son of a pastor and a Mexican prostitute.

A young man suffering from a highly-nuanced psychosis, Elvis wreaks revenge on the father that spurns him, murdering his half-brother and sleeping with his half-sister. His inner emotions and intentions are never fully transparent.

Part of what makes the movie interesting is the attention Marsh and Addica have given to characters (such as the pastor's son Paul) and to scenes which serve a largely symbolic function. William Hurt is again impressive as Pastor David Sandow.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Bush never got to meet lechugero Mariano Canu in Tecpán. The President's security team went on a massive recce in the days before he visited Guatemala and in the end decided that the terrain close to the US-funded lettuce patch was unsafe.

A few days after I arrived the King and Queen of Spain turned up in a Spanish airforce jet and subsequently visited San Pedro las Huertas close to Antigua. Oscar Berger looked like a midget next to Juan Carlos when he greeted him on the tarmac at Aurora International.


See here a handy little device carried in the vanguard of the processions in Antigua for ensuring that the Holy COD remains crucifiction and not strangulation or indeed electrocution.

There's possibly nothing quite like Semana Santa in Antigua for prompting the unbeliever to reflect on the sources of his or her unbelief.

V's notion of God is broadly similar to the one that is often referred to as Einsteinian. God is Nature, the big picture, the whole shebang. Occasionally I've witnessed the looks of confusion and dismay she is capable of eliciting on the faces of her fellow Antigueños when she breezily asserts that "we are God."

By this she essentially means that human sentience is a very significant part of that Nature which encompasses her notion of the Divine. For her God is not something that can be referred to as He or She, not something with beliefs and desires, and rather more pertinently, not something that can be nailed to a cross.

It strikes me that the essential piece of misinformation that the faithful receive by way of religious instruction is the notion that categories like Truth, Beauty, Good and Evil can meaningfully exist in perfect, uncontested form. Perfection and wholeness are not in fact synonymous. The most intense good or evil will often shine through the cracks in everyday reality, still in a sense transcendental, but not I suspect as markers for some uniform, non-dimensional aggregate that is permently resident in a wooly beyond.

A valuable lesson that can be learned from reading Plato's Symposium (as opposed to the Koran for instance) is that many different competing explanations can all contribute to our understanding of life. Each can be partly right and partly wrong to greater or lesser extent, but none can ever be perfectly right for the very nature of knowledge − and indeed of all explanation − is surely incompleteness.

People still take sides today as if it were reasonable to assume that Marxism for example is either a flawless descriptive/predictive system or otherwise unadulterated bunk. If only we could all be taught at a young age to properly grasp the partial nature of all rational descriptions of reality. (It would certainly reduce much of the common misunderstandings surrounding the appropriate demarcation of the explanative spheres of Science and Religion.)

Atheism has certainly been given a bad name over the past hundred years or so, first by the communists and more recently by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the self-styled brights; a name which leaves little doubt about their opinion of people that cherish a contrasting, more spiritual view of the cosmos.

For both of these groups, the root of their rejection of faith has been a zealous form of materialism, which as far as I am concerned is an alternative belief system. The blinkered nature of Dawkins' world-view is often quite staggering. He seems to genuinely believe he can shut down the 'God Delusion' once and for all simply by asserting that any divinity would have to be subject to the same laws of probability that apply to large-scale material objects − at the classical level of explanation familiar to everyday human experience, yet apparently meaningless at the scale of particle physics.

For most of the chapines I know atheist is synonymous with immoralist. It's no use pointing out that there is usually a greater proportion of individuals holding religious beliefs in the prison population than there is in the general population outside.

Personally I have a hard time understanding how anyone that has received their understanding of right and wrong by way of religious instruction can ever really be characterised as truly moral. Time and again one sees how un-reflected ethical impulses are inclined to degrade relatively quickly once exposed to extraordinary situations.


"It's almost like Billy Zane was never a good actor," V lamented at the end.

Zane has made a career out of maritime disasters and you might say that there has been none more disasterous than this one, were it not for the fact that it is so bizarrely entertaining. It has a bit of everything and a whole load of nothing.

After their pleasure cruiser goes down three equally unsympathetic characters end up marooned for months on what must be the Caribbean's least visited desert island.

Zane plays a boozy, egotistical rich bloke running to seed on both physical and mental levels with Brook, his real life fiancee, assuming the role of the fickle, slutty trophy wife of his nightmares. She is inevitably drawn to uptight mangazo Manuel played by Juan Pablo di Pace, a character hailing from that famously tropical nation, Argentina. Little does she know that back on the mainland Manuel's jilted ex is in fact a vindictive voodoo witch whose sanguinary imprecations are seen to be negatively influencing the shipwrecked threesome's ability to establish domestic detante on their island.

A veritable chirmolazo, that had us laughing more than most self-professed comedies. Not sure I could recommend it with a straight face though.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Panzas Verdes

My brother-in-law tried to convince me last week that all the world's avocados descend from an original seed grown in Antigua Guatemala.

I made a mental note to look into this on my return and it turns out that he is not entirely misinformed. There were actually three unique ancestral varieties, one from Antigua Guatemala, one from Mexico and another from the Windies.

The Spanish word for avocado, aguacate, derives from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word ahuacatl, meaning testicle.


Anda in one hand...and a bag with some new undies in the other.

This cucurucho clearly had time to do a spot of shopping in between his turnos on Palm Sunday.

At one point during Semana Santa V asked me to try to guess how many were carrying guns underneath their tunics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Had this rather special view of La Antigua, the Panchoy valley and the three volcanoes yesterday morning.

For a change we took off to the south, overflying the smouldering Pacaya, then following the jagged edge of the Sierra Madre west into Mexico, passing just north of Atitlán about six minutes into the flight.

I was also able to get some great shots of Popocatepetl, which I will upload to the Flickr page in due course.

Three airports

Madrid, Mexico DF and Guatemala City: arriving in these cities by air usually involves making tight, circular approaches that skirt around the looming cordon of hills that surround them.

Madrid and DF have smart new terminals whose concourses are graced by singular examples of feminine beauty and slick automatically-flushing toilets of the kind that like to flush several times while you are actually using them.

Guatemala City's airport isn't quite up to speed yet on either of these facilities but Aurora International is in the process of being transformed into "the most up-to-date airport in Central America," a shiny architectural wonder that will it seems retain the much-loved rollercoaster runway which has long been the centrepiece of the original.

Meanwhile the new T4 terminal at Madrid Barajas (pictured) is indeed a thing of beauty. I found myself riding its moving walkways gob-upwards, as if visiting a vaulted Gothic marvel like King's College in Cambridge. The gradations of colour on the iron roof supports is a particularly appealing feature of this design.

I very nearly missed my flight home on Tuesday morning. The 4am airport shuttle that we had organised didn't show up. They had been late before but after an hour waiting outside the door we were beginning to despair. (We live far enough from the centre of Antigua to make alternative options at that time of the morning very limited indeed.)

V started digging around in a discarded handbag and found a business card belonging to an old friend. She called him and woke him and he immediately agreed to come to the rescue. I made it to Aurora about an hour before take-off and was the last to check in for the Mexicana flight. It was still touch and go because the refurbishment of the terminal has limited the space currently available to the hundreds of passengers that depart Guatemala around 7am every morning. The queues for paying the airport security tax and then the main security checks were worryingly long, but I managed to jump the former with some help from an airport official and made it to my seat before the horde of grizzly Swedish hippies that had been ahead of me at check-in.

Security at Guatemala's main airport is much tighter than at Benito Juárez International in Mexico City: you get the full Homeland Security treatment including shoe and belt removal.

V managed to get the defaulting shuttle agency to reimburse her not only for the original fee but also to refund her the sum she paid to our rescuer!

Chapin political jest

¿Por qué se sabe que Álvaro Colom usa Telefonica?

Porque no habla claro y no está contigo.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Pinche lurgies

I'd only been on the ground in Mexico City for about ten minutes before I heard my first "Orale carnal!" Perhaps what surprised me most about DF was just how Mexican it was. Even Guatemala City has a bit more of an international vibe on initial acquaintance. And for such as famously populous place, the streets were remarkably quiet that Saturday morning.

Not that I saw a great deal of this huge metropolis. We came down in a weak morning light when the sun was yet to lift itself up from behind the city's surrounding mountains and their mantle of murk.

I was feeling a bit of culture shock as I voyaged underground on the Metro, trying to figure out on the hop the various line changes I would need to make to get from the aiport to the Zócalo. At every stop someone would get on with a portable digital music player with speakers strapped around their waist, blasting out tracks from some CD of largely local interest that they were hoping to sell to the apathetic lot slouched on the benches around the carriage.

A few days after my arrival in Guate I went down with the lurgies and the unseasonal dampness of the weather hasn't helped my recovery. I'm unlikely to blog further before my return, but will be uploading pics as I take them here.