Thursday, May 31, 2007

Falling Man

I've not read any DeLillo before, but I had heard that if you wanted one novelist in particular to come along and sort out the events 9-11 for us, he'd be your man.

I found this book strangely gripping and have yet to work out why. It lacks the usual adhesives in terms of traditional plot and character development. Instead DeLillo has strung together a series of short vignettes which are book-ended by set-piece descriptions of the more immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre.

It's a narrative which is cleverly structured to pick-up momentum in an unconventional way. Somehow I always knew that we would end up back in the North Tower on September 11 for a final flashback which would contextualise the meditations on the individual and cultural impact of "the planes" ('9-11' is never mentioned) which form the inner ingredients of the sandwich. And this 'faith' in the narrative loop helped to pull me along through all those rather loosely connected scenes (and conversations about pencils).

It begins with an attorney from the North Tower of the WTC called Keith Neudecker stumbling around lower-Manhattan's dust-palled streets covered in fragments of glass and dollops of blood, mostly not his own. Offered a lift by a passing lorry driver he gives the address of his estranged wife Lianne and their son Justin. The marriage then re-ignites on the basis of their urgent need for a shared localised meaning, but Keith also briefly pursues a relationship with a woman called Florence, a fellow-survivor with whom he shares a unique set of personal experiences that overrides their everyday incompatibility.

Lianne's mother Nina has a long-term relationship with a German art-dealer called Martin who may or may not have been a terrorist himself in his youth. Their discussions about "the planes" lead to the inexorable dissolution of their bond. Lianne's father had killed himself during her childhood upon learning that he was suffering from dementia, and she now works with a group of patients with early-stage Alzheimer's, while being quietly obsessed with the idea that she in turn will soon start to disintegrate. After Keith moves back in she is angered by a fellow tenant of Greek origin who plays new-agey Sufic music all day in her flat (e.g. Islamic) and ends up attacking this woman.

'Falling Man' is the name given by the media to this poor chap, caught by camera in a strikingly composed instant within his flailing fall from the Windows on the World restaurant. In DeLillo's novel it is the name of a performance artist called David Janiak (I instinctively went to Wikipedia to check whether he was real!) who, dressed as a businessman in a suit and tie, throws himself off bridges and buildings attached to a non-elastic harness. This spectacle is an incremental form of self-murder as the equipment Janiak employs is slowly destroying his spine. He eventually dies of 'natural causes', apparently depressed by his gathering physical ruin, but his brother later tells the media that he had been planning one final jump without a harness. Crucially, when asked by reporters, Janiak has nothing else to say about the meaning of his gesture beyond the act of doing it. (One of the striking aspects for me about reading this novel is that it unconsciously triggered me to fully imagine taking that immense fall myself, but for some reason I was looking up as I plumetted, not down.)

This sub-plot serves a double purpose here I suspect. On the one hand as a bit of a pre-loaded decoy for any criticism that DeLillo might himself attract from making art from tragedy and on the other, showing how the victims of grand-scale terror have their own illusions of society so completely shattered that they end up sharing many aspects of the Jihadist outlook. (Keith ends up hiding from the numbness within him by becoming utterly absorbed by the narrow code of the professional poker player.)

There were times when I suspected that DeLillo was trying to disguise the fact that he had nothing particularly new or insightful to say about this event by resorting to calculated obliqueness. Indeed the most direct representation of character in the novel, Hammad the terrorist, is tellingly shallow. Yet Hammad's journey from the Hamburg Cell to American Airlines Flight 11, which DeLillo weaves into his other post 9-11 plot segments, provides the necessary rational for returning to the point of entry in the final few pages.

Scott had warned me that DeLillo wasn't exactly a "wordsmith" along the lines of a Cormac McCarthy and the prose is indeed of an up and down quality. Yet DeLillo is obviously more considered in his vocabulary than McCarthy, and in this novel there are some incredibly well-fashioned descriptions of the kinds of things that one might otherwise refer to as non-descript.

My only other quibble with the writing style is that everyone seems to talk like an essayist, whilst appearing to be too busy listening to their own words rather than reacting to the other little essays being worded around them. But you might also regard it as an interesting, idiosyncratic technique.

Porque vos, ellos y yo somos Guatemala!

Actually, the guy pouring petrol into his car with the fag in his mouth is Guatemala.

Many thanks to Scott for this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Me voy pa'l norte

Another excellent track from Grammy-winners Calle 13.

It features the Orishas, a superb Cuban hip-hop group. V's favourite track of theirs is Reina de la Calle, but as there isn't a decent version of it on YouTube, here's Represent.

Attack of the wi-fi routers

Hilarious cartoon about the hidden killer lurking in our homes and schools!

This one looks especially evil.


Film Noir in and around a modern high school in San Clemente, California. Not quite tongue-in-cheek enough to be amusing and not quite serious enough to be emotionally engaging.

Still, I was fascinated by the stonewashed scenery and to some extent by the earnestness of the stylised dialogue, replete with out-moded 50s slang straight out of a Raymond Carver novel.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Dawkins Delusion?

Richard Dawkins preaches that religious belief is a kind of mind virus. One has to wonder therefore where he thinks people tend to catch the Christian variant of this pathogen, because he also asserts that he'd be perfectly happy for people to carry on reading the Bible − for its literary merits of course − even after science has finally cured believers of their residual faith.

The advantage if my logical quibble there with The God Delusion is that it is belief-neutral. The same cannot be said of Alister McGrath's compact counter-polemic, which has much the same sort of mix of affront and dodgy reasoning as its target.

Ironically, Dawkins has of late managed to evolve his own thinking into a "misfiring of something useful", and on balance might be said to have fully deserved this attemped mugging, however bungled it turns out to have been.

For McGrath, Dawkins's bestselling book is part of the Western cultural response to 9-11: religious extremism, especially the Islamic kind, has driven neo-atheists like Dawkins to start digging their trenches rather more publicly, he suggests.

Actually I think it is Christianity that particularly bugs Dawkins, because Islam, in spite of its contemporary association with rag-head toe-rags, had a long and mutually beneficial association with mathematics and science, and along with Judaism still offers up less intense provocation to the rational mind.

When people that I otherwise consider to be mentally competent start trying to tell me that − spiritual yearnings aside − they genuinely believe that a Palestinian Jew who lived 2000 years ago was the son of a virgin and the creator of the universe, the thought that they might be a bit thick after all inevitably crosses my mind!

Dawkins's own position is clear when he mocks the stated belief of the late Pope John Paul II that it was Our Lady of Fatima that preserved him from assassination in 1981. So why should Dawkins − as his critics strongly suggest − brush up on theology in order to address its sophisticated end, when the former leader of the Catholic church can profess this kind of nonsense?

McGrath himself is a lapsed scientist (and atheist) and as such has been going in the opposite direction to Dawkins along the "intellectual superhighway". It must be a while however since he studied molecular biophysics: "How can Dawkins speak of religion as something accidental," he asks "when his understanding of the evolutionary process precludes any theoretical framework that allows him to suggest that some outcomes are 'intentional' and others 'accidental'. Except of course that scientists use adaptive to contrast with accidental, not intentional.

One of his key arguments does merit more consideration: we human beings are capable of great good and great evil and whenever our ideals become transcendentalised (be they religious or secular) we are likely to realise these potentials most fully:

"The simplistic belief that the elimination of religion would lead to the ending of violence, social tension or discrimination is thus sociologically naive. It fails to take account of the way in which human beings create values and norms, and make sense of their identity and their surroundings. If religion were to cease to exist, other social demarcators would emerge as decisive, some of which would become transcendentalised in due course."

McGrath won't acknowledge though that in spite of his excessive claims for the explanative powers of Science, Richard Dawkins is essentially a spokesman for a non-transcendentalised humanist/atheist worldview, one that cannot be usefully compared to the brutal godlessness of Stalin's Russia.

There's a line in Don DeLillo's new novel that I think is very relevant here: religion elevates consciousness in some, reduces it in others. Those whose consciousness has been elevated by their religious belief possibly do have good reason to be miffed by the general tone of The God Delusion, but Professor Dawkins represents a discipline of knowledge acquisition that can really only serve to open up the mind, and frankly I'm with him all the way when he seethes at the prospect of complacent masses whose minds have been stultified by incuriosity and prejudice.

McGrath can tot up the number of scientist-believers all he likes, but it is this special knack for creating new idiots, that sets religion apart from the natural sciences. Scientists are by definition not naturally inclined to ignorance. Religion in contrast preys on those that are.

In Guatemala in particular I regularly come up against people who have been taught to deny themselves the right to think as individuals. Religious belief may not do this to everybody that it touches, but it does it to enough of them to merit the sense of outrage that pervades Dawkins's book.

Perhaps McGrath is right to imply that Dawkins is deluded in stipulating that science is the only reliable tool we possess for understanding the world. There may well be natural limits to what the empirical method can tell us about our cosmological situation, but the gap thus opened up is in a sense antithetical to reliable statements. (And if anything McGrath has made the case for philosophy's role in addressing transcendent questions, as opposed to theology.)

McGrath's most disingenuous remarks turn up towards the conclusion of his tract when he opines that "the phenomenon of religion is a provisional, human institution." It's absolute truth Jim, but not as we know it.

This film is not yet rated

Worth watching just for the deleted snippets of puppet sex from Team America. Matt Stone explains that he and Trey Parker had cunningly bulked up the bedroom scene with eye-popping a la carte activities such as water sports and coprophilia in order to give the MPAA raters something to get their teeth into and thus ensure that the bulk of it survived the attentions of this anonymous committee of professional prigs.

Kirby Dick's investigation of the secretive ratings board is so good natured and humorous, that you hardly pause to reflect on some of the sinister tactics he brings to bear on the case, like employing a lesbian PI and her daughter to rummage through the rubbish and personal lives of the serving raters that they systematically unmask.

I found it all a touch too insular to really stoke up my sense of outrage. "I'm going to say the F word," says interviewee Bingham Ray, "I believe this is a fascist system." Well yes, it is vaguely disturbing that there's a Catholic priest and a Pentacostal minister on the appeals board, but Iran it isn't. The very worse thing that can happen to controversial directors is denial of access to markets, rather than say, burning at the stake or public stoning.

Another of Dick's interviewees tellingly concludes that formal government censorship might be preferable to the MPAA system simply because it would be inherently more accountable.

Tim Guest on virtual worlds

Watched Tim Guest plugging his book Second Lives from the Hay Festival this morning.

Guest, who grew up in a commune, believes that virtual worlds provide a modern solution to the alienation problem that drove his mother into the arms of the hippie counterculture: "How do we be together when we feel so alone".

He told the SKY reporter that over time people "become more honest" about themselves in Second Life. He believes that virtual worlds like SL will evolve to become as vivid and complete as real life. This is all very well and good, but what if people's virtual social behaviours also evolve to this point of such indistinguishability? What use are a bunch of honest, miserable, sociopathic avatars? Of course it could work the other way, with manners more appropriate to virtual situations crossing over.

SKY launches its virtual newsroom tomorrow.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Top Top Ten

This is just the kind of book my loo needed. 125 established anglophone writers have picked their top ten books and this is the resulting list of lists. (* marks the books I too have read at some stage and could therefore theoretically include in my own list, below.)

1. Anna Karenina *
2. Madame Bovary *
3. War and Peace *
4. Lolita *
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
6. Hamlet *
7. The Great Gatsby *
8. In Search of Lost Time
9. The stories of Anton Chekhov *
10. Middlemarch *

The individual lists are interesting too. Most of the writers seemed to have really struggled with the task of picking just ten books for their pantheon. "You sometimes can't tell if a book really was great or if it just hit the spot that needed hitting at the time," writes Mary Gaitskill.

Sven Birkerts tries to sum up what the top top ten tells us about the aggregated taste of modern writers: "The collective preference reflected in this list of greats is clearly for memorable character-driven dramas of love and death delineated in sensuous, nuanced prose." And later adds that although we may live in a world of distracting digital info-bites "our emotional centres of gravity..are still attuned to expressions of an earlier, far less diffuse world."

These are stories with extrememely vivid central characters. "To read their lives is to be forced to reconsider our own," Birkerts concludes. Hmm. I did enjoy the two Tolstoy books on the master list, but they weren't really life-reconsidering material for me, at least at the time that I read them.

Two of the books on the list above walked straight into my own selection, whilst another ended up on the sub's bench. In the case of a pair of my favourite authors, I struggled to pick one work to properly represent what they have meant for me.

Anyway, here's my list:

1. Crime and Punishment
2. Victory
3. The collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges
4. Lolita
5. Don Quixote de la Mancha
6. The stories of Anton Chekhov
7. One Hundred Years of Solitude
8. The Sun also Rises
9. The Catcher in the Rye
10 El Señor Presidente

The Great Gatsby, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Odyssey and Byron's Don Juan were so nearly there. For Conrad and Hemingway, the problem was, as I said, picking the one that mattered most. For Whom the Bells Toll is a better book than The Sun also Rises, but it was the latter work that made a difference to me as a teenager. Many of the 125 list-building writers picked Heart of Darkness, but my favourite Conrad novels have always been Victory, Lord Jim, Nostromo and The Rescue. In the end I decided that Victory hangs together best as a story.

Alongside The Catcher in the Rye I considered a novel with similar themes that is not on any of these lists: Mala Onda by Chile's Alberto Fuguet. It is perhaps the key work of the McOndo movement in contemporary Latin American fiction, a very conscious moving on from Gabo's Macondo, Isabel Allende's flying grandmothers etc.

One Hundred Years of Solitude may not be García Márquez's best book, and it's certainly not my personal favourite, nevertheless it's unquestionably the one that makes the difference.

El Señor Presidente is also something of an idiosyncratic pick, but Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias did win the Nobel prize and although it's a bugger to read, its payload of love, death and terrifying tyrrany ended up hitting a certain spot of mine that needed hitting at the time. Other densely-constructed narratives I considered for the No10 spot were Saramago's Blindness and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

A good number of the writers collaborating in this bog-book picked Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It will be a while before I get to the end of that sprawling text and it might just end up in my top ten one day, though displacing what, I'm not yet sure.

Meanwhile, Chris Anderson of Long-Tail fame has posted his top five business books, ...which reads like a list of business books for people who don't really like to read business books.
I shall have to give some thought now to my top ten list of non-fiction books. Kevin Kelly's Out of Control would certainly be on it. Like The Selfish Gene, it has some remarkable blind spots, but it is also one of the most mind-expanding reads penned in English in the last half-century.

Secuestro super-express

Not sure if this is a positive development or not, but the latest express kidnappings in Central America have been so speeded up by technology, that in some cases they don't even seem to need a victim. And many of the perpetrators are already in jail...

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Álvaro Colom's poll rating has slipped to 25.9% almost a week after he accidentally posioned a bunch of freeloaders at one of his rallies. The Menchurian Candidate still trails in third place, but with an improved rating of 6.2%. What happened to Fritz?

Who's afraid of wi-fi?

Rob Lyons of Spiked has been getting on Panorama's case:

"Given the paucity of evidence about the negative health impacts of wi-fi, a more interesting documentary might have examined the reasons why some groups of people alight upon one aspect or another of modern life (wi-fi, power lines, pesticides, household chemicals - the list seems endless) to explain mysterious illness or as the focus of fears about the future. As Frank Furedi notes elsewhere on spiked, ‘perceptions of risk, ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability.’"

Meanwhile, anyone still keen to avoid those clouds of harmful radiation can sign-up for a new hot-spot detection service called We-Fi.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Le dîner de cons

I haven't laughed so much in ages. I guess the silliness of French comedy strongly appeals to me. I found Les Visiteurs hilarious. Even Monsieur Hulot's holiday gets me sniggering.

This one started out as a stage play, written by Francis Veber, co-scripter of La Cage Aux Folles and has the structure of a classic French farce.

The dinner in the title never actually happens. It is weekly event organised by publisher Pierre Brochant and his smug, affluent chums. Each one has to find an idiot to bring along who can then talk about their lives and consuming passions, be they boomerangs or match-stick models, for the general amusement of their cruel sponsors.

Pierre has located his idiot for the upcoming dinner through a trusted source, but by the time the well intentioned but maladroit government official Monsieur Pignon (played by the late Jacques Villeret) arrives at his swish Parisian pad, Pierre is having acute back and marriage problems.

The comic situations branch out thick and fast as Pignon decides to stick around and make himself useful. (In fact you are left with the feeling that there were more such situations latent in the scenario than Veber was actually able to fit in.)

If there's one particular silly moment that I will cherish it is when Pierre pours vinegar into the Chateau Lafite he is about to serve to an unexpected guest, a tax inspector, and at first discovers that the newly fashioned petit vin has a bit more body than it had before.

It's nearly ten years old and there's still no sign of a Hollywood remake. This may not be a bad thing as Veber himself would like it to be a Robin Williams vehicle.

Traveller's Dilemma

The Scientific American has an interesting article this week about the Traveller's Dilemma, a peculiar game theory scenario in which real live humans don't appear to opt for the path of rational self(ish) interest after all. (It is set up so that they should logically tumble down a staircase of backward induction to reach the Nash Equilibrium, which in this case the lowest value on offer.)

The piece's author Kaushik Basu asks if altruism might be hardwired into our minds after all. "Altruism, socialisation and faulty reasoning guide most individual's choices" and "What is interesting is that the rejection of formal rationality and logic has a kind of meta-rationality to it."

Hmm, maybe, but I'd still wager you'd get different results if you played the game in different cultural contexts. Might try it out on a couple of likely-looking chapines next time I'm out there.

The Time Machine

The bits that most impressed themselves on my young mind when I first saw this movie were those that George Pal added to Wells's tale; in particular the stops that the traveler makes in the early part of the 2oth century.

65 years of hindsight and global conflict made these scenes possible, and it serves to remind us how sure that generation was that humanity's final destruction was most probably just around the corner. They had a far less limp-wristed apocalypse in mind too: global warming of the most intense kind.

Re-watching the movie many years later and having recently read the book, I cannot but regret some of the creative decisions that Pal had to take to turn it into a 50s-style sci-fi adventure. The sting of Wells's vision of our posterity as over-specialised Underworld and Overworld beings evolved in turn from the men of labour and luxury has to a large extent been taken out. Weena survives, the Morlocks get genocided, and George himself becomes an uncomplicated man of action that ends up devoting his life to rebuilding the future he's just destabilised.

In contrast, in the world that H.G. Well began writing in, the imminent catastrophe facing mankind was perceived as a social one and needed fixing in the present. His Time Traveller is a more nuanced personality, with some important contradictions. "The fact is that the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt you saw all around him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness." I've known a couple of individuals like this...

The DVD has a fun little documentary made in the 90s which charts the checkered history of the time machine prop itself.

Suzanne's guitar

That little video of Chilean agit prop on the grid prompted me to see what else I could find on YouTube. Well, there's this cool little clip showing how Suzanne Vega's SL guitar was made. Below it there's another one showing her avatar 'singing' Tom's Diner live. Interview is skippable.

Death Line (a.k.a. Raw Meat)

You could drive a District Line train through the holes in the plot, but no matter, Death Line from 1972 features an excellent performance from Donald Pleasance, a bizarre cameo from Christopher Lee and plenty of seventies Tube nostalgia.

The basic idea is that a bunch of tunnelers became trapped underground near the old abandoned British Museum station in 1892, and after five generations of eating each other and the occasional unfortunate last-train passenger at Russell Square, the police finally take notice when a perv with a bowler hat and an OBE goes missing.

After his girfriend dies in childbirth there is only one of these unpleasant subterranean cannibals left: 'The Man', whose torrents of sticky dribble reminded me of Alien. When he gets really worked up he screeches "Mind the Doors", a gag that will be somewhat lost on Londoners young enough not to remember tube trains with conductors.

Experiencing gremlins in Second Life?

La Cumbia del Mole

Media-Mixteca Lila Downs canta con su voz hosca La Cumbia del Mole.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Travesuras de la niña mala

Vargas Llosa's apparent lack of an out-and-out masterpiece may in part account for his failure thus far to secure for himself the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Yet the buzz of admiration I felt for this work the moment I had turned the last page, led me to briefly consider whether it could edge it for him.

Then I reflected back on the rather clichéd tours of Lima, Paris, London, Tokyo and Madrid, the workaday accounts of the relevant political and cultural goings on across three decades, and the rather uninspired collection of secondary cast members.

No, this is perhaps no masterpiece, but whilst acknowledging that readers with a markedly different romantic education to my own will possibly not find this apparently light novel as moving as I did, I'd say that the unusual love story at the heart of it is one of the subtlest, most perceptive studies to emerge from the Peruvian author's imagination over the course of his long career.

It's as if there are two channels within this narrative: one in which the author was working at the height of his powers and another in which he was on autopilot. (Oddly enough many of his novels have a more explicit two-tone structure, with the chapters toing and froing between alternative perspectives.)

Unlike that difficult fictional symphony Conversation in the Cathedral, this story of love at cross purposes saunters off unpretentiously from the first page at the buoyant compas of a Pérez Prado mambo. Plot-wise there isn't much to it. Ricardo recounts the various stages of an interpretor-translator's life lived in five different capitals, relieved of mediocrity only by its repeated intersections with the biography of his miscreant lover.

It was a story that was always going to be hard to end, and Vargas Llosa does rather well in the circumstances. It struck me quite early on that it would be fun to adapt this for the screen, yet how much of the subtlety of this narrative would be lost in the third person, so to speak? The narrator Ricardo is to a large extent a foil for la niña mala. If we can't directly witness the effect she had on his mind, his character will lose a good deal of definition.

Whatever my misgivings this is a very good novel indeed, and la niña mala could well be one of the better female characters in contemporary fiction. Compared to nineteenth century archetypes like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, the cleverness of Vargas Llosa's compact rendition of this audacious Peruvian woman lies in what has been omitted. And if you take the time to fill in the gaps the lively beat does eventually give way to a haunting bolero.

Dodgy sarnies

Handing out ham sandwiches at political rallies is a common practice in Guatemala that some fussy folk have equated with vote-buying. Well, current poll-leader Álvaro Colom may be down at least 120 votes after that number of erstwhile supporters attending the UNE party meeting last weekend had to be treated for food poisoning afterwards.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Axiom or theorem?

Mathmatician Christian Calude has (quite cunnigly) asked "Is the existence of God an axiom or a theorem?"

It's the axiomatics that most seem to bother Richard Dawkins: "I do think that intelligent, sophisticated theologians are almost totally irrelvant to the phenomenon of religion in the world today...because they're outnumbered by vast hordes of religious idiots."

Yet does his belief that the non-existence of God is self-evident make him a bit of an axiomatic himself; an irreligious idiot?

Ruth Gledhill, the Times Religion Correspondent appears to have teased out the closet Pantheist in Professor Dawkins by chucking rather duplicitous vocab like numinous and transcendent at him.

"There is something our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly," he eventually volunteered. (Note though - Gledhill herself doesn't - that Dawkins does not mean by this something that one is obliged to worship.)

Ultimately the difference between Richard Dawkins's 'something' and the faith-heads' God is explanation. If Dawkins found God, he'd expect to understand Him, using step-by-step logic. (I'm being careful to capitalise here in case sic-os like Bill O'Reilly get on my case. See below.)

Trouble is, thanks to Gödel's incompleteness, Turing's incomputability and Heisenberg's uncertainty, we are already able to appreciate the likely role of the inexplicable in the fundamental fabric of our cosmic environment. God may not be compressible into His component axioms after all.

Anyway, when it comes to Science and Religion, it strikes me that there are essentially three positions that it is sensible to espouse (other than Gould's fence-sitting separate magesteria cop-out):

1) Current scientific theory and religion cannot be reconciled. Dawkins hints at this strongly but cannot prove it, and so ends up resorting to fundamentalist-type reasoning himself.

2) Current scientific theory can be reconciled with some sort of omnipotent, omniscient being, though perhaps not the the one described in the New and Old Testaments and the Koran.

3) Current scientific theory is wrong in as much as it disagrees with a literal interpretation of scripture.

A possible fourth position, that current scientific theory can be reconciled with pilars of stone, virgin births etc is not one that intelligent believers appear genuinely comfortable with, and as a result they will immediately drift into pantheistic sophisms the moment the subject comes up.

Cosmic smog

Attention all electro-sensitives! My suspicion that it is only a matter of time before we are told that the Big Bang - history's greatest wi-fi hot spot - can be seriously damaging to our health, has been bolstered today by following the heated exchanges heralding Panorama's investigation into the wi-fi 'smog' in our schools. Indeed a commenter on the Guardian Technology Blog has pointed out that the Cosmic Background Radiation from the Big Bang operates at the same 12cm wavelength as your average wi-fi router.

Update: The evidence that Panorama presents wantonly confuses the issue of the radiation emitted by mobile phones and that emitted by mobile phone masts. Indeed, the unusually high level of bollocks emitted by this documentary has in some ways spoiled my enjoyment of last week's exposé of Scientology.

"Some of these are run by a company called...the cloud". (You'd almost think it was all a bit tongue in cheek...but it isn't.)

Quoting Ian Betteridge (Technovia): "Professor Johansson doesn’t’ know the difference between high-frequency ionizing radiation - things like gamma rays emitted by a nuclear bomb - and non-ionizing radiation like radio waves..."

And Dr Michael Clark, of the Health Protection Agency: "When we have conducted measurements in schools, typical exposures from wi-fi are around 20 millionths of the international guideline levels of exposure to radiation. As a comparison, a child on a mobile phone receives up to 50 per cent of guideline levels. So a year sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile. If wi-fi should be taken out of schools, then the mobile phone network should be shut down, too — and FM radio and TV, as the strength of their signals is similar to that from wi-fi in classrooms."

There's got to be a case for shutting Panorama down after this blatant piece of scare-mongering.

Transantiago torched in SL

Since February residents of Santiago Chile have had a new urban transport network called Transantiago , which sounds a bit like Guatemala City's new Bus Rapid Transport system known as the Transmetro....except that it's even less popular with its intended passengers.

Chilean activists decided to organise a protest in Second Life. They began by constructing the appropriate environment, a model of the national palace (famously bombed in 1973 with Salvador Allende inside it) and then gathered en masse to make their feelings felt.

As with all such protests, some just waved placards and 'shouted' a lot, whilst others converted themselves into flames and torched the virtual bus that was parked in front of the virtual seat of government. A minority just took off their clothes. Nobody had thought to organise the the virtual riot squad with tear gas and watercannon.

Many complained of getting "stucked": the idea had been to protest in such a way as to avoid paralysing the streets of Chile's capital, but the sheer quantity of avatar-activists meant that they instead rapidly paralysed the SL grid, with the inevitable loss of user experience.


I was struggling to appreciate the coolness of Southampton University's new experimental search engine until I realised that you could move the three category boxes at the top around, as well as adding extra ones from the list on the menu above. The developers call this interface trick sorting and slicing.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Jin and his daughter Cherry

Murder by numbers

My mother watched a programme the other night about a gay couple trying to adopt a child in Guatemala that must have ticked most of her prejudice boxes. She triumphantly announced to me afterwards that the programme makers had described Guatemala as "the most dangerous place in the world".

Last year 5885 people died violently in Guatemala, and 98% of these murders remain 'unsolved'. That makes 19 a day, the highest rate in all Latin America.

But does that make Guatemala City comparably dangerous to cities like Baghdad? Even if the statisticians told me that the murder rate was around 20 a day in both the Iraqi capital and Guatemala City, I know which one of the two environments would feel more dangerous to me personally.

What about of hunter-gatherer communities, many of which have a much higher murder rate than industrial societies, where self-murder is usually higher up the exit list? Outsiders often look upon these 'traditional' ways of life as an approximation to paradise/utopia, yet their violent-death statistics are highly revealing.

Federer wins!

Roger Federer has finally managed to beat Rafa Nadal on clay, ending the Spaniard's 81 match winning streak on the surface which dated back to April 2005. The doubters have been circling around Federer since the start of the Spring, and in the first set he played as if he couldn't keep his eyes from drifting up to them. But then suddently he rediscovered his invincibility and ended up taking the third set 6-0. Roll on Roland Garros!

Friday, May 18, 2007

The bells, the bells

Mexico City's Zócalo has some of the clankiest cathedral bells I've ever heard.

The cathedral of Toledo on which this one was partially modelled, lacks this kind of wide open space in front of it. Over there I've observed Japanese tourists desperately backing up into the narrow corner about 30 yards and 30 degress from the façade where it is just about possible to take a pic with a compact camera that encompasses the whole of it.

By contrast the architects of New Spain might be said to have overdone the expansiveness of Mexico's Plaza de la Constitución. (Though the whole point might have been the flattening of the Mexica/Aztec structures that they had found there.)

The cathedral was consecrated while still incomplete in 1667 and the two bell towers and the central dome designed by Manuel Tolsa were eventually finished in 1813. The adjoining Sagrario, which serves as a parish church for the area, was constructed with the local tezontle stone in the 1700s and features a Churrigueresque façade, a style of stucco decoration popular in Iberia between 1600 and 1750.

Aside from Toledo, other famous examples are the charterhouse of Granada and Santiago de Compostella.

Churro de la Chingada

A velación is an evening when Guatemalans are supposed to visit their local church to pay their respects to their religious idols before they get carted around town in formal procession. In fact what happens is that most of them make it to just outside the church, where they proceed to stuff their faces with seasonal snack-foods, such as buñuelos, churros, tostadas etc and wait for someone they know to turn up.

A few years ago one entrepreneurial soul in Antigua had the bright idea of going to Domino's and buying loads of pizzas which he then sold at a profit (per slice) at the velaciónes leading up to Semana Santa. Domino's realised they were missing a trick, so now each time street food sellers gather you can spot their branded sun-shade and the bloke with the blue baseball cap beneath it selling vast quantities of offical Domnino's pizza which I guess, in spite of the din of generators, has to be more eco-friendly snack, because it cuts out the man on the motorbike.

The typical Guatemalan churro is a doughy, coiled serpent whose habitat is stygian re-re-cooked oil, and is to my mind is nowhere near as yummy as its Andaluz equivalent, ideally consumed with dense hot chocolate in a cafe in Sevilla.

The Rebel Sell (2)

Some more juicy arguments from Heath and Potter's book.

1) You can't fight consumerism simply by consuming less (or indeed by changing your own consciousness).

As everything you earn gets spent one way or another, the only sure way to downshift your contribution to consumerism is to earn less. When you put your money in the bank instead of spending it on goods you have deciced you don't need, that simply frees up someone else to spend it on your behalf.

[This one is OK as far as it goes, but it's always been clear to me that although your average Guatemalan enjoys a trip to the market as much as anyone else, there is generally more to their individuality than how they define themselves as buyers. ]

2) Engaging in 'virtuous activities' is one of the major psychological devices that consumers use to grant themselves permission to overspend.

Most of the lifestyles that are commonly promoted as anti-consumerist play a significant role in promoting competitive consumption.

"In the last forty years anti-materialist values have been one of the biggest cash cows of American consumer capitalism." Organic food for instance, is labour intensive and is "one of the major forces driving the return to an almost aristocratic class structure in the United States, in which the wealthy no longer eat the same food as the poor."

3) Rebellion against aesthetic and sartorial norms is not actually subversive.

"Whether people have piercings and tattoos, what kind of clothes they wear, what music they listen to simply does not matter from the standpoint of the capitalist system. Corporations are fundamentally neutral when it comes to gray flannel suits and biker jackets."

and "How many more decades will it take before we realise that nuns who say 'fuck' are not radical, they are simply entertainment?"

4) Undergound/Cool taste inevitably drifts towards stuff that sucks (i.e stuff that is increasingly difficult for the mainstream to co-opt).

"In an effort to avoid the tyrrany of mass society the rebel increasingly finds himself in a half-empty bar listening to music that he himself acknowledges to be 'annoying', feeling superior to the poseurs."

[Yet surely not all refined taste can be dismissed as higher-order posing? There are real issues of quality at stake here. There really is a lot of dross in the mainstream so one's motives for admiring things outside of it are not always insincerely 'elitist'. When I first started listening to classical music I liked the Bruch violin concerto. I still do, it's a high-quality mainstream piece, but over the years I have also come to enjoy less accessible compositions.

The accessibility of some types of art is something you have to work on, but these are personal tastes: I don't force myself to listen to ugly music in order to feel superior to the vulgar masses.

And whilst I will grant that there is a persistent taint of status-seeking dishonesty in the production and consumption of all experimental art, it also remains the driving force of innovation in our culture. Beethoven's late quartets must have sounded very 'underground' in their own day.]

and lastly, 5) The point at which rebellion becomes genuinely disruptive generally coincides with the point at which it becomes genuinely anti-social. And then you're not so much being a rebel as being a nuisance.

Did it drop?

Biofuels driving up the price of corn

The Mesoamerican Food Security Early Warning System (MFEWS) has alerted that high corn prices and shortages will affect lower-income families in Guatemala from June to August, a time when the second harvest of the year has not even begun.

The cause is cited as the demand for ethanol production in the States, which has pushed the price of a bushel of corn from $4 to $8. Ethanol producers have consumed 86 million metric tons, 5 million over the figure originally projected. Rather than importing ethanol from Guatemala where it can be more efficiently produced from sugar, the good people of states like Iowa are obstinately trying to go it alone.

Local grain prices in Guatemala are also increasing, and as many farmers believe this is a trend that will continue, they are making substantial purchases of animal fodder, which may further affect the price and availability of corn for human consumption.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

La Incondicional

In the Autumn of 1989, shortly before V's nieces introduced me to her, I was living in their house in Antigua. Over breakfast they liked to tune the FM dial to La Feminina and turn up the volume. Every half hour or so this particular track came round and the youngest of the sisters Wendy (then just 9) used to enjoy tormenting me with it, thrusting her index finger towards a point midway between my eyes with every plaintive tuuuuu belted out by Luis Miguel.

The director of this video had obviously fully assimilated the gay vibe from Top Gun.

You have to be glad that Luis heads straight for the barbers.

Race to the Bottom

In The Rebel Sell, Heath and Potter heap scorn on Michael Moore's contention that gun control laws alone will not solve America's mass-killings problem. Instead they assert that a simple change in the rules rather than a cultural transformation will do the trick.

Yet I'm not at all sure that the role of culture in collective behaviours can be that easily dismissed. I've seen plenty of circumstantial evidence that certain types of individual personality types − and indeed some cultures − are more prone to engage in collectively self-defeating activities (such as private gun ownership) than others.

Take the question I have been asked many times recently. What is the cause of the escalating violence in Guatemala? When it comes to "root causes" the usual suspects are very much in evidence, poverty, inequality etc. And there's the much-mentioned, still-looming spectre of the thirty-year civil war. Yet it's hard to cook up a complete explanation using these standard ingredients. There must be cultural sauce that needs to be added at the end.

If there is a race to the bottom being held somewhere, Guatemalans are liable to sign-up to take part. The urge to distrust is a seemingly unavoidable part of chapin culture. Few would recognise the sort of situation where your centrally-casted Englishman would pause to give someone the benefit of the doubt, even if that involves unilaterally dropping his natural defences against exploitation.

Taken in the aggregate Brits and Guatemalans are rather obviously running alternative versions of John Locke's social contract software in their heads, regardless of the basic rules, which in some cases (such as how to respond to each of the three colours on traffic lights) are essentially the same everywhere. It would be a serious mistake I feel, to presume that the relationship between culture and institutions can be characterised by an unfluctuating directionality.

So when Michael Moore talks of a "culture of fear" in the US, he may just be on to something. (I recently suggested that a similar trait might be part of the explanation for the exaggerated religious credulity in the US.)

Rationality is never a level playing field.

Junto a mi chucho espiando horizontes

Miguel Bosé has recently released a new version of his classic Si tu no vuelves, this time round a collaboration with the shockingly talented Shakira.

Not sure about this one; it seems to lack the relentless emotion of the original. But it is growing on me.

This unofficial-looking video certainly doesn't know where it's going symbolically, starting off with bull-fighters and ending up with Shakira doing an impression of a giant moth.

Bosé himself is the son of the the legendary bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín and the Italian actress Lucia Bosé.

Compare and contrast the '93 original here:

And this one by Mexican pair Chetes and Amaral:

It's one of those ballads of overwrought Latin sentiment, the introverted poetry of which is hard to capture in video. It's a nice piece of music, but the power lies in the lyrics.

Si tú no vuelves
se secarán todos los mares
y esperaré sin ti
tapiado al fondo de algún recuerdo
Si tú no vuelves
mi voluntad se hará pequeña...
y quedaré aquí
junto a mi perro espiando horizóntes
Si tú no vuelves
no quedarán más que desiertos
y escucharé por sí
algún latido le queda a esta tierra
que era tan serena cuando me querías
había un perfume fresco que yo respiraba
era tan bonita, era así de grande
y no tenía fin...
Y cada noche vendrá una estrella
a hacerme compañía
que te cuente como estoy
y sepas lo que hay.
Dime amor, amor, amor
estoy aquí ¿no ves?
Si no vuelves no habrá vida
no sé lo que haré
Si tú no vuelves
ni habrá esperanza ni habrá nada
Caminaré sin ti
con mi tristeza bebiendo lluvia
que era tan serena cuando me querías
había un perfume fresco que yo respiraba
era tan bonita, era así de grande
y no tenía fin...
Y cada noche vendrá una estrella
a hacerme compañía
que te cuente como estoy
y sepas lo que hay.
Dime amor, amor, amor
estoy aquí ¿no ves?
Si no vuelves no habrá vida
no sé lo que haré
Y cada noche vendrá una estrella
a hacerme compañía
que te cuente como estoy
y sepas lo que hay.
Dime amor, amor, amor
estoy aquí ¿no ves?
Si no vuelves no habrá vida
no sé lo que haré

Random News

In fifteen minutes you will still be wondering...whether anything more interesting is happening in the world today than the disappearance of a four-year-old in 'Prayer de Louche'.

Of course the most interesting issue surrounding the conflict in Iraq remains whether Prince Harry should be allowed to go and take part in it. A former colleague of mine, Colonel 'Bosnia' Bob Stewart DSO, was on BBC Breakfast this morning and it looked like he'd had one too many espressos before going into his debate with John Nichol on this all-important military issue. Barking out the reasons for his apparent u-turn since his previous appearance on the comfy sofa, he appeared to want to drag everyone's blood-pressure levels up with his own.

In an unusual break from the inexorable build-up to the mass public grief event still to come, Sky News invited James Whale on last weekend to review the papers. There were more worried looks on the faces of the anchor-folk as Whale went off script a bit. "Do you want to know my opinion? Well, I'll tell you my opinion..." And that was that all male children should be reversibly sterilised and forced to apply as adults for a breeding license.

Whale's Wikipedia entry informs us that "James is an honorary bishop in the Ralian religion, he is not afraid to mension this on air, on 14th May 2007 James said "I am an honorary bishop in the Ralian religion".

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Penguins in bed

There's a version of Ricardo Arjona's video for Pinguinos en la Cama in which the Guatemalan cantautor is accompanied by the Argentine model Emilia Attias. Then there's this one, where the song becomes a duet with Argentine-born Chenoa.

Bangs for your buck

Marcus Chown (many thanks for your comment on my earlier post!) references Douglas Adams's remark about parallel universes being neither parallel nor universes, which reminded me that there's a similar quote out there about the Big Bang being neither big nor indeed a bang.

Indeed it seems it wasn't so much an explosion of stuff into space as a rapid expansion of space and time, which just happened to have stuff it it. If we could take an escalator up to the next dimension in order to watch the expansion of our 3D universe, it would appear like the inflating 2D surface of a balloon. It's no doubt a very important event in the history of our local universe, but it may just be that, a local event, and it almost certainly wasn't the first thing that ever happened.

Scientists used to argue about whether gravity would eventually regain the upper hand and our universe would reach the end of the tape and start rewinding all the way back to a Big Crunch. There's a chapter in The Never-ending Days of Being Dead entitled Yo Yo Universe (the Spanish translation is interesting) that explores the ideas of Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok, whose cyclic model of how the universe swells, shows how Big Bangs might be able to keep on repeating like Groundhog Day, without the need for a radical contraction of all the matter the universe contains.

I've just finished the chapter after that, Keeping it Real, in which Marus Chown points out that although most scientists habitually only fret about reconciling General Relativity and Quantum Theory in the long past cosmological era when things could be both tiny and massive, the truth is that all the atoms in our bodies (and all other macroscopic objects) are at this very moment behaving weirdly, regardless of our own constant efforts to appear normal.

Which means that Quantum Theory is truly not just a description of the properties of really titchy stuff like elementary particles, but instead a fundamental description of the 'reality' that we ourselves really only experience as a result of an effect of an effect of whatever ultimate reality there might be out there.

We can never directly experience the indeterminate world, because there are simply too many atoms in our immediate vicinity; conditions in which the wave function, which we can witness only as an interference pattern, decoheres within around a ten millionth trillionth of a second. But a being able to somehow isolate itself from all the particles around it, could be in two places at once, no trouble.

Que seas feliz feliz feliz

A bit more Hacienda-chic from Luis Miguel, el sol de México. Notice how he walks up to the chica with the corset and Maria Callas eyeliner and dips his head seductively like Horatio Caine from CSI:Miami. Forgot the shades though.

Le Chevalier Tempête / Los Plateados

When I was a boy, Saturday mornings were often livened up by a French-made serial called Le Chevalier Tempête which the BBC re-fashioned (and along the way made a whole lot sillier) as The Flashing Blade.

Interestingly, they never got round to dubbing and broadcasting the final episode. It is something of an epilogue, but unless you've seen it you won't realise that a) one of the lead characters doesn't die in the final battle and b) the French version was actually intended as serious drama.

The general idea was that in 1630 the nasty pointy-bearded Spaniards were beseiging the unlaundered French defenders of Casal, a fort in Italy...but the historical geo-politics escaped us.

Perhaps the best thing about this show was its opening title sequence. It gives you a pretty good idea what the appeal of it was to the immature male imagination.

Ditto, the opening titles of much more recent Mexican telenovela Los Plateados.

One can never underestimate the importance of a cheesey theme song.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Data Visualisation

From Mashable's 16 Awesome Data Visualization Tools, I have picked my favourites:

Walk2Web, Quintura and especially Kartoo look like they have taken visualised search to levels that I will now find genuinely useful in my professional life. In each case the interface will take a bit of getting used to, so I'd expect to be using them as accessories to our existing methods, for the time being at least.

They will certainly help us to quickly grasp the nature and extent of the connections between the topics (and the websites) that are the subjects of our search asignments. They are bound to be a source of 'free' ideas too.

Fidg't's Visualizer can also provide handy insights into how online social ties are reflected in user-generated content production and consumption behaviours.

The Rebel Sell (1)

Don't get me wrong, I'm really enjoying this book and I am sympathetic to its project of debunking countercultural rebellion.

Indeed I remember thinking at Cambridge that the biggest conformists of all were the members of the various rebel subcultures.

I also appreciate the key distinction Heath and Potter make between dissent and deviance: that the dissenter would re-set the rules for everyone, not selfishly for himself alone like the deviant.

And I feel I have a certain special perspective on this issue: one home with hand-made furniture and another with largely mass-produced stuff. One foot in a country where people will unquestioningly form an orderly queue and stop at traffic lights during the night, and the other foot in well, Guatemala.

But there are arguments deployed here that are not as secure as they might initially seem, and although I'm not even half way through the text, my need to quibble is quite urgent.

1) If consumerism were all about conformism, why is the desire to stand-out its primary driving force?

This does seem like a compelling hippie-slammer, but it's really just a restatement of the contradiction at the heart of American society. How can the world's most individualistic nation also be the world's most herd-like?

In my book, when you come across a contradiction like this you should celebrate it, rather than try to make it go away, for it may be telling you something interesting about the world.

2) The engine of consumerism is a 'mass-action problem' similar to the prisoner's dilemma, such that a good number of people that buy 4-wheel drives do so defensively, in order to protect themselves from the other people on the road with a propensity to crash into them and kill their children.

This trouble here is really the perennial economists' tendency to regard all consumers as equally rational agents operating on a level playing field. It's based on a rather simplistic version of game theory. But there are different base mixes of personality types in different societies, and alternative cultural responses to the fundamental dilemma. For instance, I've said many times before that what most strikes me about Guatemalans' response to these so-called mass action problems is their willingness to screw their compatriots even when they apparently seem to know that it is not in their best, rational interests to do so. And then there are the stupid people. (Scott Adams's Induhviduals)

3) Social status is subject to diminishing marginal utility so that the less you have of it the more you are willing to pay for it.

So, the plebs end up spending more on status-enhancing gear than us inherently classier folk. This hypothesis, lifted from Thorstein Veblen, is fine on paper. But what of the boxer from the slums that suddenly makes his millions, sees his status surge, yet can't help continuing to spend money as if it is going out of fashion? His race to the bottom has become a solo journey. Some people are not only keeping up with the Joneses, they are trying to blast themselves clear of their own humble upbringings.

4) Once GDP per capita reaches $10,000, further economic growth generates no gains in happiness. With the abundance of stuff in our lives, how come we aren't more satisfied?

Those econonists again, failing to realise that their rational agents are getting older. Societies with lower GDP per capita see less economic and social change in the course of their citizens' reduced life-spans. Societies where income increases significantly over the space of a generation are likley to feature unhappier late-middle-aged people. (And yet societies, like Guatemala, where the generations stick together more, are perhaps less prone to this downer effect. )

I don't have an answer to the dilemma in 1). But consider the case of the soldier in war. His existence is driven by both intense, aggressive competition and an unquestioning conformity to a set of values, both local to his unit, and national to his political identity and the system which created the conflict he finds himself embroiled in.

So, lots to think about. More soon.

28 Weeks Later

If you wanted to rebuild British civilisation London E14 wouldn't be the most obvious seeding point, but hey, it's my own neighbourhood, so I just had to go and see this entertaining sequel to 28 Days Later.

And so I had the pleasure last night of watching Canary Wharf (and by implication the cinema I was in) getting so badly bombed by the USAF that the resulting fireball surges all the way down the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and lights up the face of the statue of General James Wolfe which overlooks the Isle of Dogs from its high vantage point across the Thames.

In some ways Poplar was the ideal location as it really does look that grimy and apocalyptic almost every morning. All they had to do was shoo away the resident zombies (more the shuffling sort) for that realistic forsaken inner city look.

Alex Garland freely admits that his original concept was inspired by John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. Garland and Boyle have stepped aside here to allow Canary Islander Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, director of the excellent Intacto, to move us on to the period twenty-eight weeks after Cillian Murphy had traversed a deserted Westminster Bridge, a time when the rage virus appears to have spent itself out and an American-led expeditionary force is trying to repopulate London from within a secure 'Green Zone'. (The political subtext is obvious without being especially informative.) The Yanks have orders to go code red if the sickness resurges (or in-surges!) within the protected area, which of course it does.

The rage-plaguers defy the rule that says that sick people are debilitated. Turbo Zombies is how Paul Arendt has described them, while Mark Kermode, an acknowledged authority on the subject, insists that they can't be proper zombies because they don't actually die before the sudden change in their dietary habits. Fresnadillo handles the transformation of a leading character into one of these ultra-peckish types very well, but for most of the movie they seem to be moving too fast for him and his camera to keep up with them.

Aside from the camera jitter, the film's other faults include the fact that the occupying Americans are massively under-staffed compared to say one of Zhang Yimou's Chinese hordes and the general lack of character development, but in spite of all that I really enjoyed it, perhaps even more so than the obviously subtler and smarter original.

It also features the ever lovely-but-doomed Rose Byrne. There's a sad quality to her beauty which has resulted in her being consistently hired to play characters whose destinies don't work out especially well. (And as it was in Sunshine, her final moments here are rather hard to track.)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

You gotta fight for your party

Some arsehole obviously thought it would be a really good wheeze to throw a corporate 'communist party' on the The Silver Sturgeon last week. Convention dictates that we find this less offensive than the Nazi Reichskriegsflagge. But tot up the number of lives ruined by both systems and it's more or less even-steven.

I'm sure this image would resonate nicely with Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, authors of The Rebel Sell: How the counterculture became consumer culture, which I will be reviewing shortly.


This was Jaume Balagueró's follow-up to Los Sin Nombre, using Hollywood-based actors and funding, and it's definitely more derivative drag than thrill-filled homage!

The Shining gets the rip-off treatment more than any other precursor, but Balagueró is also revisiting the conceit of his earlier film: that pure evil can be conjured out of medical-occult experiments involving domestic murder.

Here though he has failed to create characters we can really care about, or to put them in situations that are genuinely chilling.

The performances of the non-anglophone actors are especially stiff, and it's clear that the script was also put together by men with a late-learned grasp of English.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Señor Matanza

One of my favourite videos of all time, featuring a young-looking Manu Chao, then front man for his band Mano Negra. (Worth watching through to the end!)

"Ese federal, ese chivato y ese sapo, el sindicato
y el obispo, el general son propriedad
del Señor Matanza"

On oublie tout, on devient fou

It's Eurovision night. Which reminds me that TC and I have recently been trying to trump each other with cheesey Latin tunes sung by operatic tenors. She started it with Aquellos Ojos Verdes and Méjico Lindo (y Querido) sung by the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. But I reckon this little number by Roberto Alagna is frankly unanswerable.

Alagna had a much-reported hissy fit at La Scala last December, storming off stage during a performance of Aida when he was booed by the loggione. The conductor here looks like he might be a bit more tolerant of that sort of behaviour than Franco Zeffirelli was in Milan.

Ay cabrones, get ready to boo...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Y caduque en la muerte

There's a whole generation of men in La Antigua Guatemala who claim to have played basketball on the courts of Jocotenenango with the city's most famous, Grammy-winning son.

Mojado (Wetback) :

El Blaxicano ve te cuelga jeta

El rapeo chicano at it's best: La Receta from Kemo the Blaxican.
Video's a bit messed up though!

A nation of shopkeepers?

The Independent has dug up some of the ironies of the recent French Presidential election. Ségo, widely seen as the candidate of the past, was supported by a far greater number of young people than Sarko, whose typical voter was a male shopkeeper in his sixties in a rural town in eastern or southern France.


I got stuck behind this 8-decked Norwegian ship, the MS Fram, on the way into work this morning. (These penguins were not waddling along the banks of the Thames; I just didn't have my digital camera with me.)

The Silver Sturgeon was hogging the overtaking lane so to speak, so the Riverbus had to chug along in the wake of this 2007-model liner from Narvik, which is no doubt accustomed to moving very cautiously along its local coastline.

Lost interest yet?

In a move that was possibly designed to be heartening, the makers of Lost have announced that there will be three more full seasons before the series closes out in 2010. (I'm one of the saddos that hasn't missed a single episode.)

This news led me to suspect that many of the approximations to sense achieved over the course of Season Three have in fact been false dawns, but Wednesday night's show, The Man Behind the Curtain, was certainly a biggie, drawing in an extra 1m viewers stateside. It featured the long-awaited back-story of bug-eyed Ben and went some way to explaining the (unpleasant) fate of the Dharma initiative. Jacob has also been revealed, sort-of.


The question of whether there is intelligent life out there in the universe would seem to boil down to whether or not you consider yourself to be intelligent.

Based on a plug from the Professor I picked up Marcus Chown's The Never Ending Days of Being Dead in Foyles and read the first chapter: Elvis Lives.

In it Chown argues that if you accept the premises of quantum theory and inflation (a key part of the standard cosmological model), then you must accept that there is a being identical to you at a fairly predictable distance from your current location. Additionally, there may also be another identical you at an altogether unpredictable distance, the doppelgänger resulting from the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory.

And this is what is interesting to me about the current state of such parallel universe hypotheses, that there can be two absolutely identical individuals doing identical things, differing only in the theoretical reason for their being there in the first place.

I have a couple of issues with Chown's logic, which maybe someone better versed in such matters can help clear up for me:

1) Is "to all intents and purposes infinite" really the same thing as infinite? This seems quite crucial because the relative nature of the first type of infinity might prevent it from driving the rest of Chown's argument.

2) If there is a finite number of ways of arranging matter in an "infinite" bubble-universe, will all possible instances inevitably occur?

I had a similar quibble with Richard Dawkins's assertion in The God Delusion that there must be a version of me with green hair somewhere 'out there'. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think the number of possible events that are realised in practice will be constrained by the number of possible histories that follow from the starting conditions.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Loadsa Pissarros

One of my cousins works for this venerable dynasty. For just how many generations have they been foisting impressionist art on us? (Lélia Pissaroo mightn't like to admit it, but some of her most notable pieces are rumoured to have appeared on printed paper napkins back home in France.)

Sci-fi Wi-fi

Turn your TV on after you've yanked out the aerial. One per cent of the static you see on screen is an echo of the Big Bang, the Cosmic Background Radiation or 'CMB'. How long before they tell us it's a public health risk?

Stupid people

The life sentence handed out by a US judge to a pair of vegans whose baby died six weeks after birth having been fed a diet largely made up of soy milk and organic apple juice, has led me to reflect on the wider political/cultural threat posed by stupid people.

Earlier this week veteran star-gazer Patrick Moore (pictured) complained that women were ruining the BBC, and by implication, western civilisation as a whole: “The trouble is that the BBC now is run by women and it shows: soap operas, cooking, quizzes, kitchen-sink plays. You wouldn’t have had that in the golden days.”

It strikes me that the cantankerous old astronomer is not alone in sensing the general rise of stupidity in our society, but has mistakenly blamed it on in-built gender impulses. Female stupidity is of course especially annoying to us men, just as male dumbness surely rankles with the opposite sex.

Perhaps there might indeed be cultural reasons why women have tended to be more emotionally engaged with matters that would strike the likes of Patrick Moore as trivial. Who can deny that British women are still more likely to be interested in astrology than astronomy?

But then Moore's probably not flicked onto Men and Motors recently. Personally I'd rather be locked in a room with someone wittering on about Paris Hilton and Peter Andre than a bloke desperate to share with me their love for Torquay United and everyday DIY projects.

Working in a marketing industry dominated by Hello and Heat readers (though not necessarily of the same sex or sexual orientation) I have often wondered whether capitalism has managed to keep itself going by appealing to the increasingly assertive demographic that just loves to be pampered. (Why else would we have the likes of organic avocado shampoo?)

Anyway, world stupidity is in many ways a bigger problem than say world poverty, and as with consciousness-grabbing crises like global warming, it may be becoming more dangerous with every passing day.

Many of the things that Europe's intellectual elites like to moan on about − media gossip, over-keen believers, teenage pregnancies, Yanks, street crime, soap operas, gameshows, poor people, rich people etc. are surely just white horses on the great wave of stupidity that threatens to submerge our way of life. (And Big Brother shows us that stupid people can actually provide worthwhile entertainment for non-dummies: a deeply worrying phenomenon as it gives the thick-pound some serious commercial clout.)

Remember, because they generally breed earlier and in greater numbers, over time the mass in things like mass media and mass hysteria inevitably includes a greater proportion of thickies. The chart that Al Gore uses to show the dramatic rise in human populations worldwide would be that much more terrifying if we could see within it the irresistible rise of the dumb-ass.

Is it already too late to reverse this worrying process of global dumbing down? Well, we probably won't be able to educate ourselves out of this particular tight corner. The trouble is that stupid people are immune to the didactive warfare waged against them, because they are of course inherently incapable of rationally assessing the consequences of their actions. Out in Guatemala you can get a real feel for how the "better education" delusion is applied (and thwarted) in practice, on issues like contraception and safe-sex in particular.

Yet just as trivial-mindedness is surely not limited to the fairer-sex, stupidity itself is not the sole preserve of the underprivileged. Indeed recent research has clearly shown that clever people are not disproportionately represented in the ranks of the affluent and powerful. And if Hillary Clinton is elected as the first female President of the US, she will take the helm of an institution steered by a couple of really notable dimwits in recent history. (She appears not to be the soap opera type herself.)

It is interesting to note that whilst essentially democrats at heart, many of the men that drafted the first American Constitution were presciently aware of the distorting effect that rising stupidity was likely to have over all "free" societies. And so they did their best to set up durable safeguards, but rather like the Thames Barrier, these will not hold back the tide forever!