Friday, June 29, 2007

Pure Dead Brilliant

Is the rather bizarre slogan belonging to Prestwick Airport.

Wikipedia describes this as "a phrase peculiar to the people of Glasgow," yet to me it sounds a bit like the verbal equivalent of the London 2012 logo.

Anyway, it's a fitting description for my weekend in one of the UK's most remote and idyllic spots: Saddell, on the scrotum-facing side of the Kintyre Peninsula. (The Mull of which is a car park made famous by Paul McCartney and Wings, the Professor explained to us.)

In the end there were eight of us in the castle: myself, a professor of physics, a musician, a senior British diplomat, a cardiac surgeon with a macabre sense of humour, an early-modern historian, a foreign office official, and, if the logbook is to be believed, a spectral hand. (The latter generally kept a low profile, though I could have used the extra wrist-power in my ping pong duels with JBH.) All but me and the hand remarkable overachievers and one-time members of Oxford University.

On the night of our beach fogata our company was also joined by a lone seal whose snout rose briefly above the surface every four minutes or so. We were providing ample marine-mammal curiosity fodder that evening as we collectively launched a bunch of oriental Glo-Lanterns that the Professor had purchased online.

Once alight the flame fills the white, condom-esque sheath with shifty molecules and the increasingly tumescent lantern begins to ascend, at first gracefully, but upon catching a stream of air at a seagull sort of altitude, moves up and away at remarkable pace.

These things are immense fun, but the prevalence of tall buildings and low airliners around my flat in London means that I won't be able to re-live the thrill of watching them soar away from Saddell's battlements without attracting substantial liabilities.

"Keep children away from the launch area," the leaflet in the pack counselled. There was nothing about very drunk people however, nor about the dangers of attaching the lanterns to fishing line in an attempt to turn them into attractively luminescent kites. (V likes to recount how she and her schoolmates used to capture fireflies and attach a piece of string to them....)

We had imagined we'd see the burned out carcasses of sheep in the fields around Campbeltown airport the following day, but it was one of our own that came closest to a charring experience. Once honoured by the Queen for his diplomatic services to our nation during the war in Sierra Leone, Nick very nearly became a random victim of one of our Glo-Lantern/Kite hybrid prototypes.

Campbeltown's tiny airport has the longest runway in Europe (3049m) It is certificated to accept the Space-Shuttle should it need to make an unplanned landfall in Europe, and used to be home to a squadron of B52 bombers. (Here we are coming in to land in the BA Twin Otter.)

In '94 an RAF Chinook crashed nearby killing all 29 passengers and crew, including senior RUC officials and some intelligence personnel.

The hobgoblin of little minds

I have lately been embroiled in a debate about whether there is a time-frame within which it is permissable for bloggers to make substantive changes to their posts or indeed, whether they should always explain (and make visible) any corrections they might make after first clicking on publish.

Clearly the guidelines for those that blog in the name of a brand need to be more prescriptive, but for personal blogs I see no reason to impose any restrictions, especially as it is the very nature of the electronic media to foster the kind of textually non-definitive pronoucements that book-haters like Socrates would surely have approved of.

Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera's views are pretty clear on this:
"What an author creates doesn't belong to his papa, his mama, his
nation, or to mankind; it belongs to no one but himself; he can publish it when he wants and if he wants; he can change it, revise it, lengthen it, shorten it, throw it in the toilet and flush it down without the slightest obligation to explain himself to anybody at all."
(The context of this remark was an anecdote about how Stravinski fell out with his conductor friend Ernest Ansermet over edits made by Stravinski himself (and later by Ansermet) to a couple of the composer's pieces.)

Kundera also makes the point that it is much easier to laugh off an earlier romantic attachment to some awful person than an attachment to say Nazism or some other awful political system. People will chuckle with you when you say "how could I have fallen in love with such a ridiculous person?" but not when you say "how could I have fallen in love with such a ridiculous mass-murderer?" Tintin's creator Hergé spent most of his latter years trying to live down his flirtation with fascism in the 30s.

Voters can change their political allegiances every time an election comes round, but party activists are expected to be more persistent with their dogmas. Oddly enough, ideology is something we are supposed to be comparatively consistent about. And even when we are not, we are duly suspected of it. I'm with Huxley on this one: "Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead."

Some people use blogs to broadcast their certainties. Others, myself included, use them to muse about the problematic stuff. Sometimes, and not always visibly, the act of publishing online fosters an exchange of views and/or a re-formulation of the problem. There's then a time-frame (which for me is several days) when that is more likely to lead to a revision of the original post than the crafting of a new one.

Under most circumstances I no more want the readers of particular versions of my blog posts to witness my corrections than Stravinski would have wanted an orchestra to use a score where all his revisions were printed.

The living dead of consistency and dogma are always going to try to nibble away at your sense of ownership of your own words. The moment that you utter them, they want to archive them so they can be used against you at a future date. And in the information age the freedom to be non-definitive and inconsistent is being paid for with the un-freedom of the electronic footprint.

Good bad movies

Was chatting to Joel yesterday about Hostel and how it reminded me a bit of John Woo's Van Damme vehicle (or was it Van Damme's John Woo vehicle?) Hard Target from 1993.

In the three year period between 1991 and 1994 Van Damme featured in a sequence of some of the better bad movies ever made, of which Universal Soldier is probably the stand-out piece of work (though Timecop has its merits too).

A Guatemala-based sequel to Hostel (Hostal? Jungle Lodge?) would be fun. It would have to involve some retired colonels, Kaibil-assisted would-be murderer-torturers and a substantial backpacker/eco-tourist victim-pool!

Instant censorship

My online experiences this week has convinced me that it would be useful to incorporate a simple function into both Web browsers and RSS readers whereby one could pre-filter out a whole load of crap simply by defining your unwanted keywords. Maybe Frode could build something like that into the next version of Hyperwords?! Single-click on a word - such as iPhone - in order to blacklist it, and hey presto you'd never have to view a page with that word on it again.

Another thought. I studied revolutions for a year at Cambridge and reached the conclusion that most so-called revolutions were in fact bifurcations. Something for all those self-proclaimed agents of transformative technological change to bear in mind. I'm feeling a bit bifurcated about social networks right now...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

After Dark

"Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can't fight it."

Words spoken here by a jazz club owner that those in the know will interpret as a cameo appearance by Haruki Murakami himself in this, his most-recently translated novel.

I read somewhere that someone thinks this is the closest Murakami has got to creating a tone poem. It may also be the closest he's got to his two great influences, Twin Peaks and The Catcher in the Rye. As ever the very ordinary and the exceedingly uncanny are made to stumble into one another and the author makes full use of his now familiar symbolic vocabulary (cats, points of intersection with otherworlds etc.)

There's a sense of incompleteness about it. Not just unfinished characters and plots, but also an overall mood of sketchiness. I can't make up my mind whether this story about one night in Tokyo (each chapter is preceded by a timestamp and a clockface to make sure we get the point) is all surface or not. The Millions has little doubt about its insubstantiality, attesting that Japan's most renowned novelist "has ceased to care whether what he cares to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting."

The underlying poetics reminded me of Edward Hopper's paintings, and one in particular, Automat, reproduced below. (Murakami's books apparently often start with characters sitting around rather listlessly in cafes because that is usually the author's own situation when he starts to craft the opening scenes of a new novel.)

It's also notable for the way it attempts to represent the action through the words of a somewhat disembodied first person plural narrator.

There's a Tokyo love hotel (what the Guatemalans call an OMNI) in the story named Alphaville, apparently a reference to the movie by Jean-Luc Goddard but which in fact made me think of that 80s pop smash by the group of that name: Big in Japan! (see video) A child of the 60s, my cultural references were irrevocably set during the Thatcher years!

The title of the book also references a great jazz piece by trombonist Curtis Fuller, Five Spot After Dark, which is now in my iTunes library thanks to Murakami.


This movie reminded me of Baksheesh's now abandoned plan to established an elite bear-hunting lodge in Romania!

The idea apparently came to Eli Roth after he 'found' a Thai website advertising murder vacations in which you could pay $10,000 for the thrill of torturing and killing someone. Roth intended to make a documentary about this phenomenon, but ended up making a fictional movie with some help from Quentin Tarantino instead. Hence the "inspired by true events" tag.

It's a rather adolescent take on material that had the potential to result in an altogether more tense and terrifying experience, and yet Hostel remains one of the better bad movies I've seen in a while. For all its faults it's extremely memorable.

Roth apparently made a big deal about apologising formally to the Icelandic government for having protrayed their citizens as drunked sex maniacs. I haven't been able to discover if he ever tried to apologise to the good folk of Slovakia. You could write whole essays about what this movie tells us about prevailing New Europe phobias. I laughed when one character explained why there were so many available girls in Bratislava and so few blokes keeping an eye on them:"Because of the war..."

White powder, white flag

Rick Rockwell writes about the appearance of Guatemala's Ambassador to the US José Guillermo Castillo Villacorta before the House of Representatives on Tuesday this week. It seems that Castillo wound up admitting that the Guatemalan state is essentially incapable of resisting organised crime and other clandestine groups in the country.

A poll published yesterday by the newspaper Siglo XXI shows that 60% of Guatemalans surveyed support "social cleansing" as a solution to their weak justice system problem.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cam on the corner

V, her brother Felipe, and his two boys Luis Fernando and Luis Felipe waving to me earlier this evening from the webcam attached to the Telgua building at the corner of La Antigua's Parque Central. (They'd come into town for various mandados such as paying the water bill at the Ayuntamiento.)

The man on the step-ladder seemed oblivious to the fact that his every move was observable around the globe.

Thanks to Scott for the suggestion! He also told me yesterday that high-res satellite images of La Antigua Guatemala have at long last been incorporated into Google Earth.

Murder Map

Guatemala looking a little bloated here on this map-metric which shows the global rates of homicide.

In spite of the many articles claiming that the stories of children abducted and trafficked for 'parts' in Guatemala are all part of an urban myth, the appearance of the body of an eight-year-old girl recently, missing both heart and lungs, is a bit of a dead giveaway really.

On a more positive note, Guatemala's international aiport Aurora has been upgraded to category 1 status by the FAA and its aviation industry is also now said to meet international standards.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


On Johnny's recommendation I passed one of the several hours I spent yesterday in Glasgow tucking into a plate of Dover sole goujons at the bar at Rogano.

This is a rather wonderful local institution reputedly put together using left over Art Nouveau bits following the completion of the Queen Mary on the Clyde in 1935.

I'd commend it to any visitors to this disarmingly pleasant urban centre. (It's a big place with a city population of around 580,000 compared to say Miami, which has a population of 390,000. Johnny told me that about a third of all Scots live in and around Glasgow.)

Afterwards I made my way to the Professor's flat on Douglas Styreet and there browsed through his copy of The Landmark Trust handbook, where I found this charming little restored property called St Winifred's Well. It can be hired out by a party as small as two.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Saddelled up

I'm off up to Saddell Castle in East Kintyre tomorrow for the Professor's fortieth birthday party. There will be seven of us up there for three nights on that sombre coast.

Given that it's the sort of place that is more likely to feature disembodied spirits than wireless internet, so I may be offline until the middle of next week.

Looking forward to seeing the trap-door next to the main entrance. Must be a great way of dealing with those TV License inspectors.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Islamist

"We take up the sword to take the sword out of madmen's hands. Today the sword is once again in the hands of the madmen." (Ed Husain)

Long before Salman Rushdie got his knighthood, the honour was bestowed on Sir Iqbal Sacranie a leader of the Muslim Council of Britain who had enthusiastically supported the Ayatollah's fatwah against the annoying author for reasons other than literary. Sacranie also supports a number of Islamist organisations that operate in the UK and came out publicly against the proposal to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the group that represented the final stage of Ed Husain's journey towards ever-more extreme, politicised interpretations of Muslim duty. (Husain reports that at the MCB bookshop you can still buy a paperback version of Sayeed Qutb's Milestones with an article in the appendices titled The Virtues of Killing a non-Believer.)

Husain's insider account of Islamic radicalism in Britain is very interesting indeed. There can be few better ways of gaining an understanding of what is at stake in Britain today, and how and why young people come to form confrontational public identities that dehumanise the whole of the rest of humanity (and Jews in particular).

Mohamm-Ed Husain is the British-born son of Bangladeshi immigrants in London's East End and during his late teens he was sucked into ever more radicalised versions of his parents' religion. Yet he had an adolescent grounding in the more mystical, devout forms of Islam, and it was to these that he later returned when confronted with the violent, street-level consequences of his extremist ideology.

I found it rather scary to think about Husain and his fellow students at the Tower Hamlets college (right on my own doorstep) dreaming of a new world order answerable only to God, harassing their Jewish, gay or "confidently secular" teaching staff and putting up posters with the words Islam the Final Solution...and all this many years before September 11, 2001.

"We were talking of crusades long before George W. Bush," he recalls.

Husain began to fall in with this crowd shortly after his transfer to an all-boys (all Muslim boys that is) school in East London. There he was presented with a textbook, Islam: Beliefs and Teachings by Gulam Sarwar, which taught him that religion and politics are one and the same. He and his peers rejected immigrant culture, with its nostalgia for Bangladeshi villages and adoration of Bollywood actresses, for they were now inclined to believe that members of the Muslim ummah have no nationality, for there is no sovereignty but that of Allah.

He compares some of the essentialist ideas he became exposed to as "like the Amish, but without the humility". Both he and several of his Muslim reviewers have also compared the various flavours of modern British Islamism to the strands of radical thinking in Russia before the revolution: Bolshevik, Menshevik, Trostskite etc. However, none seem willing to make the other obvious comparison: Like the Nazis but without the nationalism.

Having first become a part of organised Islamism at the East London mosque (his more traditional parents belonged to the Brick Lane mosque) he wound up in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organisation that preaches to its followers that fostering the Islamic state is wajib: a religious duty like daily prayer.

Even after he drifted away from the Hizb Husain still felt he was "carrying" the ideas inside of him, like a little alien waiting to pop out. A 'free thinker', in private at least, he was still not entirely committed to the notion of Islam as a purely spiritual pursuit. He reckons there are tens of thousands of similarly "confrontational" Muslims in Britain today, sleeper Islamists, that are not actively involved in the movement (but who can be activated whenever knighthoods are conferred on over-rated blasphemous novelists).

He eventually turned to Sufism, something that caught my interest at school too, back in the days when any set of ideas that flourished in the twelfth century was bound to fascinate me. "For me God was beyond gender, limitation even conceptualisation," he now realised. "God was a human construct, a human projection. God had been belittled by organised religion, particularly by literalist extremists of all persuasions."

He now saw that the notion of an Islamic state is a modern invention, that the West and the Ummah are equally myhological, and that the Christian folk of Britain were not kafirs but masihiyyeen, people of the Messiah. Out in the Middle East he was pleased to note too that Arab Christians refer to their God as Allah and that one did not have to wear ethnic clothes to appear modest.

According to Husain, Islamism in Britain today is a bubbling mix of austere Wahhabi literalism and the politicised faith of Qutb and the other Islamist ideologies. He has some especially harsh words for the Wahhabi bigots that run the show in Saudi Arabia, providing many examples of how the use of the veil results in all the negative social effects of pervasive sexual frustration. The West is no more decadent than the East, he concludes. "The difference is that in the west we are open about these issues."

He reports how devotees of the cult of Abd al-Wahhab run the Haj at Mecca and are especially harsh towards pilgrims that appear to want to express their love for the Prophet: idolatry in the eyes of the Wahhabis. And he offers this further telling condemnation of Saudi society:

"How is it that Britain, my home, had given refuge to thousands of black Africans from Somalia and Sudan: I had seen them in their droves in Whitechapel. They prayed, had their own mosques, were free, and were given government housing. How could it be that Saudi Arabia had condemned African Muslims to misery and squalor."

Husain recognises that young Muslim's face difficult choices in Britain. "When the centre of social life in Britain is the local pub, where do Muslims fit in?" Yet his message to his co-religionists is this: reclaim our faith and reject the monolithic approach to life.

He is adamant that the Hizb should now be banned because it uses the UK for media access and continues to find fertile recruiting grounds here. Blair's government proposed doing this, then back-tracked.

The God Delusion (yet again)

The issue of how convincing Richard Dawkins's arguments are came up again in conversation yesterday, so I thought I would quickly summarise my own views on where he goes most astray.

1) The God Delusion although ostensibly an attack on the belief side of religion is also an attack on philosophy by omission, because Dawkins is trying to convince us that the explanatory scope of his own 'scientific' approach is all-encompassing. He doesn't want to address the issue of whether there might after all be limits to what the empirical method can tell us about our cosmological situation.

2) The intergalactic teapot is an improbable material thing. Ditto the spaghetti monster. The reason for everything, whether or not one tends to refer to this as God, isn't.

You could of course plausibly argue that there is no reason for everything, but you would have to do better than Dawkins's stab at it: that science hasn't found one yet and probably won't.

3) Probability in the sense that Dawkins uses the term is a macro phenomenon like you and me. So it's not the ideal conceptual tool for explaining why you and me are here. At the micro/quantum level probability is a different beast altogether and arguably also at the very macro level, given that many physicists today believe that the meta-verse is technically infinite. There may be giant teapots and spaghetti monsters floating around out there in some other universe. Indeed, others may have gardens that have fairies at the bottom of them. So Dawkins's statement that "there is no reason to regard God as immune from consideration along the spectrum of probabilities," is misleading to say the least.

4) Dawkins has one foot stuck in the old clockwork universe model. He has an oversimplified reductionist perspective on the how and why of everything. His Selfish Gene theory for example is indicative of how he seems incapable of understanding how different organisational principles can be operating at the same time. This week's front page article in the Economist on RNA shows how the world of experimental biology is gradually leaving his model behind.

5) Religious belief is a mind virus but it's OK to read the Bible. So, how do you catch it?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Had a terribly stressful afternoon and evening yesterday. When I spoke to V around 4pm my time someone had just stolen Jin. She had left him attached to the window bars outside her sister's house while she went inside with the oranges she had just bought. When she came out he was gone and an old woman scuttled over to deliver the news that a man on a motorbike had stopped, untied the lead and then driven off dragging poor Jin behind him.

She managed to find a friend with a bike and together they scoured the neighbourhood. She then heard from the Agua Salvavidas delivery team that a German Shepherd was on the loose on the carretera to Ciudad Vieja, but this turned out to be a false sighting. After four fruitless hours of searching, V was feeling utterly desolate. ('Desperrada' quipped her brother later).

It was 8pm here in the UK and we were speaking on the phone as she walked disconsolately home from a search around the southern districts of Antigua. Suddenly she spotted Jin sitting in the passenger seat of a car passing her. She called out and the frantic response of the dog (he leaped over the steering wheel) brought the car to a screeching hault and she then had a very heated exchange with the driver, which I was able to overhear.

That she recognised him (the brother of her niece's best friend) and the fact that she had a witness, albeit thousands of miles away, gave her a small advantage, but people accused of being a thief to their faces are known to respond with lethal force in Guatemala. Somehow she convinced him that his actions earlier had been witnessed by others and that he himself had been identified.

"Take this piece of shit," he said, then pushed Jin out the door and roared off. V discovered that he had taken the dog to the vet to get him some injections and this small investment following the impulse crime no doubt rankled with the heartless dognapper.

Clearly exhausted from his ordeal Jin went upstairs and was allowed the special privilege of crashing out on V's bed rather than his usual alcove in the room next door.

Having Antigua's main police station right in front of our house seems to provide no special advantages when it comes to security. However, since they moved in V has had water at full pressure 24-hrs a day, so there are a few perks.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No-one)

From the start this one had the vibe of one of those knotty Euro-thrillers that you need to see several times just to locate all those secret plot points.

But what was rather Swimming Pool for the first hour or so became all very Inspector Morse at the end, and in spite of some enjoyable chase scenes (described by Kermode as "The French Connection à pied") the long drawn out wrapping up process was enough to put anyone off a second viewing. It leaves you yearning for the durable ambiguity of a Caché. (You get the feeling that François Cluzet must have been understudying for Daniel Auteuil for most of his professional life.)

The film handles its underclasses more deftly and with greater originality than it does its upper classes, perhaps in part because the source novel was written by an American (Harlan Coben).

The moral here seems to be that its OK to murder kiddy-fiddlers, especially overprivileged equestrian ones.

Why do French detectives always come in the same basic pairing of the young, headstrong one and his boss the canny old scruff?

You can Barack me tonight!

The Cult of the Amateur at its semi-professional best.

More on 'Obama girl' here in The Times.

Mob justice

Three women, believed to be go-betweens for Guatemala's famously enterprising adoption agencies were attacked in the township of Muyurco on Friday by locals convinced they had kidnapped a nine-year-old girl (later found dead). One was hanged in the square, one had petrol poured over her and was set alight (yet survived) and the other was badly beaten and later ended up in jail, though authorities remain unsure about how the mob made the connection between the women and the disappearance of the girl.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Miami Vice

I enjoyed this. I never had time to get too distressed about the plot. From start to finish Michael Mann keeps the excitement level one step ahead of the encroaching bafflement.

He decided not to take his updated Miami Dade vice cops back to the eighties, but it looks like Colin Farrell tried on his own anyway, and overshot by about ten years. What's with that Lech Wałęsa tash? You'd think being called Sonny Crockett was a bad enough social handicap.

Gong Li, more than ten years Farrell's senior, but stunning as ever, somehow has to behave as if she finds him attractive. Between them there exists the kind of lack of chemistry normally associated with the first few moments after the Big Bang.

But hey, Mann gives us plenty of cool go-fast boats on their way to Havana (for a mojito) and gorgeous planes in the clouds shots, and the narcos are just that little bit more sinister than any we have encountered before. (Non-Islamic locations like Haiti and Ciudad del Este get the durka durka music treatment, because every shithole is full of people that hate the American way of life in the same psychotic way now isn't it?)

Who would want to be a narco's goon in Miami? What with Horatio Caine and his colleagues and now this lot, the use of lethal force without so much as a "you have the right to remain.." seems to be the standard MO in the sunshine state.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Save the cheerleader!

Ah the joys of narrative complexity! Heroes is a hoot because it plays the game according to the new rules laid down by Lost.

Flashbacks, flash-forwards, precognition and visually-rich dream sequences are all encouraged, as are whole epsodes where the main plane of plot development is either abandoned or bent back on itself.

Evil is elusive, rarely represented by a single antagonistic individual or force. And some of the forces of antagonism may not be malign as such.

Meanwhile some of the good guys are themselves morally compromised and others acquire personal objectives that may conflict with their pals.

Sometimes the viewer knows something that some or all of the characters don't, but there is nearly always a big fat mystery (and several little ones) present in every scene. Peculiar circumstances are allowed to remain unexplained for many weeks.

It is safe to assume that there is, at any one time, at least one really significant fact about each character that the scriptwriters have withheld from the viewer.

Some characters die properly, others don't.

I thought Invasion was a fun series, but perhaps one of the reasons it failed to appeal to the Lost audience was that it didn't always show the convert's zeal for these new commandments.

All told it's practically a new art form, suitable primarily for long-session small screen viewing. When cinema directors try to adopt this narrative style, the results are often confusing to anyone that doesn't watch enough television.

The Passion of the Christ

This little map shows pretty clearly how attuned America's Latins are to the suffering side of their faith. Indeed my Brazilian friend TC described to me yesterday how she "never really found the love" in her local version of baroque Catholicism.

Due to an earlier misunderstanding fostered by an exchange of emails, I had thought that her valued assessment of this movie was "very beautiful" when in fact she hasn't even seen it and the only very beautiful thing about it is Monica Belluci. She laughed at the idea of me sitting watching it, my forehead deeply lined as I strained to discover the aesthetic majesty of mad Mel's vision of the crucifiction!

For me at least, the pathos in this story is compromised the moment I started to consider the notion that 'the Christ' was something more than an ordinary man. (There are also times when the levels of blood and gore are intense enough to transform pathos into bathos.) I also couldn't help feeling that Gibson has unwittingly emphasised how local this event was, in both historical and geographical terms, which undermines the claims of what we witness to universal significance.

V's cousin Ileana is a school teacher in Guatemala, the sort for whom the smell of sandalwood incense is like an early warning that 'Jesusito' is loitering in the vicinity, and during the course of Semana Santa in Antigua this year, she described to me how she had gathered a little group of like-minded middle-aged ladies to watch the DVD of The Passion of the Christ at home. It does intrigue me how this film seems to appeal strongly to the kind of individuals that would normally think it sinful to see a horror movie.


The BBC's Newsnight programme has given some overdue mainstream attention to the role of LiveLeak in the way that people, especially young people, are informing themselves about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The results range from the banal to the chilling via the utterly childish," Liz McKean reports. She missed out moving.

Yes, there's plenty of "I'm going to blow up your mosque"- type material, but there is also a good deal of the kind of 'reality' that ironically we usually only consume through the medium of fiction.

Interesting that the Beeb don't mention the home-movies of our own armed forces on LiveLeak. And what of the Canadians? My cousin Philip couldn't quite believe this clip of the Canucks raiding a Taleban compound "in the Stan". At one stage they are so gung-ho they can't even be bothered to lay down covering fire.

When YOU is a soldier on a real battlefield, the results of Web 2.0 are far from trivial. If Andrew Keen had wanted to write a serious book about what happens when traditional editorial controls break down, this British-based site ought to have been his starting point.

Newsnight asks what drives soldiers to post such "compromising" material on the Web. The answer surely is that they want their already compromised everyday world to be on record, and for the rest of us to see how different it is from the way these conflicts are being represented to us by politicians and the media. And to both celebrate and validate their shared experience.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tremor time

At 13:29 yesterday a powerful tremor shook Guatemala, the 269th seismic event this year, and a peculiarly long-lasting one: 49.1 seconds.

The media seem to have finally agreed that it was a 5.4, though many had earlier reported it as anything between 6 and 7 on the Richter scale.

V was on the second floor of our house and bizarrely decided to run UP to the third floor terrace, figuring that if the whole thing gave way she'd rather be on top of the collapsing structure not underneath it. She ran straight into our builder Don Victor who had screamed "Terremotoooooo" before activating his exit strategy from the third floor studio. His momentum carried her down and out. She had time to spot the pila sloshing water everywhere.

When things finally settled down, they all felt "mareados" (seasick), she reported.

My sister-in-law Sandra was on the sixth floor of an office block in Guatemala City and was quite shaken by the way it swayed. From the window she could see other towers swaying in the heavy rain.

The regional summit of First Ladies taking place in Antigua Guatemala this week was also shaken up a bit.

Update: Guatemalan authorities have been moaning that CNN exacerbated the panic by immediately reporting this tremor as a significant earthquake.

I had been struggling to understand why so many people failed to evacuate the wobbly office blocks in Guatemala City "because it was raining outside", but my Brazilian friend TC has now adequately explained to me why having your hair and make-up ruined is far worse way to start the day than being crushed under a collapsing building!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur (2)

"Let's not go down in history as that infamous generation who, intoxicated by the ideal of democratisation, killed professional mainstream media. Let's not be remembered for replacing movies, music, and books with YOU!" (Andrew Keen)

This is one of those books like The Celestine Prophecy that saves its loopiest logic for the last few chapters, starting with chapter 6, 'Moral Disorder'.

It's the old be very scared critique of Internet technologies:

"From hypersexed teenagers, to identity thieves, to compulsive gamblers and addicts of all stripes, the moral fabric of our society is being unraveled by Web 2.0. It seduces us into acting on our most deviant instincts and allows us to succumb to our most destructive vices. And it is corroding and corrupting the values we share as a nation."

Amen. Keen obviously finished the final draft too soon to include radiation poisoning from wireless routers.

He quotes Baroness Susan Greenfield as stating that children of the Web 2.0 generation "will be more prone to real-world violence, less able to compromise or negotiate, apt to be poor learners and lacking in empathy."

The authors of The Rebel Sell compare the views of Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud on the problems of human social organisation. Freud apparently believed that all efforts at civilisation would end up being undermined by our baser instincts. Hobbes however, thought the problem was a question of trust relationships. If the right ones are established everyone would start behaving themselves. Potter and Heath seem to think that this comparison alone swings it for Hobbes, yet both sets of ideas form part of that much bigger political/philosophical debate often referred to as the perfectibility of man. (One of the best summaries I have read was in Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue.)

Keen on the other hand positions himself as the kind of pessimistic commentator who instinctively regards all technological uptake as a Faustian bargain, and he clearly thinks we are all going to hell much sooner than we might have imagined. Some of us cookie-tagged sleaze-addicts may already be there. Second Life, he observes, is "a channel for all kinds of social and ethical vices" and anyone that spends any amount of time in there is likely to cease to be a functioning member of society.

Interestingly, he is a self-styled apostate, a Silicon Valley digital media entrepreneur that almost made it big with Web 1.0. Like his bête noir Kevin Kelly, Keen references The Total Library by Jorge Luis Borges. Both make use of the Library of Babel as a metaphor for the modern Web, yet I suspect Borges originally intended it to symbolise the cosmos; which surely makes Keen's commentary on it that much more apt:

"It is a place where there is no concrete reality, no right and wrong, no governing moral code. It is a place where truth is selective and constantly subject to change."

Poll on evolution

No real surprises here in Gallup's new American poll tracking the correlation between irrational belief and church attendance...and membership of the Republican party.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur (1)

For a book that purports to warn us about the dangers of networked ignorance, Andrew Keen's polemic against Web 2.0 is itself quite badly mired in ignorant suppositions.

Its subtitle is How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy. I'll come to Keen's cultural critique in a moment, but firstly let's quickly dispose of one of his economic arguments. He advises us that when Frit-o-Lay forked out just $50,000 to five competition finalists to make an amateur ad for their Super Bowl slot, rather than paying an agency the $381,000 that a professonally-made commercial would normally have cost, $331,000 was thus "sucked out of the economy". How so? Did a wormhole open up in the fabric of space-time? Did the Frit-O-Lay executives take the cash out and bury it under concrete in their company car park?

He is right that the 'culture industries' are experiencing a significant reconfiguration and perhaps also that techno-idealists have generally only considered the impact of all this from the point of view of the end-user. Yet he is still failing to convince me that the next generation of genuinely talented writers, artists and musicians is on course for creative liquidation.

I have about a third of the book still to read. Thus far I have found myself wanting to take issue with Keen at the end of almost every paragraph. He's not always talking nonsense, but the arguments are frustratingly loose and invariably powered by self-evident exaggerations. Many new technologies are indeed open to abuse, but Keen's rhetoric compells us to consider that in the case of Web 2.0 abuse is the norm (...that every Wikipedia editor is a lobotomised gimp etc.)

Yet how is it that we all found out about Edelman's manipulation of the blogosphere? Is the medium really as filter-free as Keen would have us believe?

I think of myself as a bit of a professional amateur and have sometimes considered with regret the passing of the great dilettantes from previous, less-specialised eras. It is of course so often the dabblers that will spot the connections between the various monolithic fields of study. Sometimes 2+2 really does = 5 and you need an ecclectic mind to point this out. (Let us not forget that Einstein came up with General Relativity whilst working at the Swiss Patent Office.)

Back in the heady days of Web 1.0 my agency consisted of half a dozen gifted amateurs. We had a go at everything, we made things up as we went along. Soon we were displaced by specialist coders, designers, marketeers etc. Did we starve? No, because the march of technology ensures that the horizon of wisdom-obsolescence is constantly shifting and the amateur can always survive by shuffling along after it.

"It's ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule...on steroids," squeals Keen of the socialised media. Of course this kind of anti-democratic rant is as old as political theory itself, and was probably best pitched by Plato in The Republic. Cultural elites are always going to lean towards the notion that society should be run by the experts and not by the idiots. A hundred years ago intellectuals like Keen were moaning about the very mass-market media whose demise is now said to represent the end of civilisation as we know it.

The downsides of democratisation have consistently revealed themselves the moment the masses turn up, and the altruistic anarchists have their party spoiled by a combination of the the banal and the malign. Yet by then the technofiles are usually already starting to move on somewhere else.

It is the job of the journalist to inform us not to converse with us, Keen himself informs us rather pompously. Real journalists take on the big institutions and run the risk of prosecution and jail. They have the training, the contacts, the influence... Without them, he suggests, the "pajama army" would have nothing to reference as all the former journalists and movie directors will be cleaning toilets, and the barren remnants of our culture will consist only of the facts that bloggers will have to make up to fill this appalling gap.

Yet today it was YouTube not the hallowed mainstream media that showed the French public how their newly-elected President rocked up late for a G8 press conference un peu éméché after what must have been some fairly liquid negotiations with Vladimir Putin.

Keen has systematically characterised the process in question as one of flattening and fragmentation when my own experience of it has also been of new dimensions and new connections. There must be a better response to the concept of the wisdom of the crowd than pointing out that the crowd has a track record of coming up with unwise ideas like slavery and Britney Spears.

And there's surely more to the recession of high culture and informed civic debate than the empowerment of the mediocre and the moronic by convergent technologies, but if this book has the answer then it's saving it for the last sixty pages.

More later perhaps, if I can tear myself away from that "corrupting and confusing...long commercial break dressed up as democratised media".

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Richard Rorty 1931-2007

'Incorrigible' Richard Rorty, one of America's great contemporary philosophers, died from pancreatic cancer on Friday.

Rorty was a progressive humanist and a pragmatist, the sort of thinker who believes that the quest for certainty through religion (or indeed philosophy) is little more than an attempt to escape from the world: "We should give up the idea that knowledge is an attempt to represent reality. Rather we should view inquiry as a way of using reality."

Utility not truth should thus be the aim of all our intellectual endeavours, he suggested, because there is no 'way things are', no way to fit justice and ultimate reality snugly together, and rather than aligning ourselves to one or other view of the nature of objective truth, we would be best advised to try to maximise the amount of intersubjective agreement in the world.

"To say that a belief is, as far as we know, true, is to say that no alternative belief is, as far as we know, a better habit of acting."

Rorty opposed essentialism with what he called panrelationism. Instead of turtles all the way down, he was convinced that it's "relations all the way down, all the way up, and all the way out in every direction." In this worldview all possible descriptions of reality are equally extrinsic and relational. Reality is thus a complex nexus and our involvement with it should be about creating ourselves, and not about knowing ourselves.

"The need to be God is just one more human need. Or to put the point less invidiously, the project of seeing all our needs from the point of view of someone without any such needs is just one more human project."

I suspect that Rorty probably had little time for Richard Dawkins's standard pitch about the role of science in our society, given that he regularly dissed the kind of investigation which aims to penetrate appearances incrementally in order to 'reach' the reality behind them. For him this kind of science is just another attempt to assume a God's eye view − not useful and perhaps not even moral. Instead, the object of scientific inquiry should be the kind of accurate predictions that make it easier to gratify human desires. (It's not for nothing that he was called a pragmatist!)

I found Rorty's views on morality − morality without principles − particularly interesting.

"People can be very intelligent without wide sympathies. It is neither irrational nor unintelligent to draw the limits of one's moral community at a national, or racial or gender border. But it is undesirable − morally undesirable. So it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and cannot aim at moral perfection but you can aim at taking more people's needs into account than you did previously."

Notions which might, in a European mind, have led to the not-especially-useful sort of relativism, instead led Rorty to assert that it is wrong to believe things for which there is no evidence. "For believing is inherently a public project. We all have a responsibility to each other not to believe anything which cannot be justified to the rest of us."

Intersubjectivity therefore replaces both "objectivity as fidelity to something non-human," and the laxer kind of pluralism, yet ought be pursued he felt, within a society dedicated to fostering the widest possible diversity.

Rorty preferred to regard Christianity as a force working for human decency rather than as a claim to knowledge: "We should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on Earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debate concerning the existence or nature of another world." He noted though that "we have been waiting a long time for prosperous Christians to behave more decently than prosperous pagans."

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Rip offs

The image on the last post (coupled with my readings of Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist) have stimulated memories of V's most persistent moan about London life: if there is one aspect of it that she is more likely to describe as a "rip off" than any other it is the price of eating out.

Her instinct is that menu prices should somehow reflect the underlying costs of the ingredients and the wage-bill. But here in London restaurant bills instead tend to reflect two varieties of scarcity. Firstly the scarcity of location (i.e the underlying rent) and secondly the scarcity that the restauranteur himself wishes to enforce by setting prices that generate the extra value of exclusivity and deter the inherently less profitable budget-conscious class of diners.

This kind of exclusivity is likely to result in higher profits for the owner simply because the patrons that remain undeterred are likely to be the less price-sensitive sort. Once seated at their tables everyone pays the same price for their food...which is why the wine list is there, and why the wines on it are so expensive compared to their wholesale cost. It is the scaled price of alcoholic drinks that allows the even less price-sensitive of diners to self-select, thereby allowing restauranteurs to squeeze the maximum profit from their positions of scarcity by taking more money off people who are freer with their income.

V will tend to regard city life staples such as the Starbucks latte as a total rip-off because she assumes that she is being asked to pay for the coffee and that the high price of even a regular cup means that the chain must be making excessive profits. (Comparing London prices to those in Guatemala will often adds to her sense of outrage!) In fact the beans themselves are a tiny part of the cost that the customer pays for.

Starbucks also charges considerably more for products that involve very small incremental cost increases for exactly the same reason that restaurants offer a wine list with a scale of prices: to allow those people who can't help but throw their money around to step forward and do their thing.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Hasta logo?

If nothing else the now global furore surrounding London 2012's branding exercise has revealed the key fault lines in contemporary communications culture, specifically that between (expensive) professional branding and its consumer-hijacked alternatives.

A marque designed to be relevant in five years' time has served to show us just how relevant it might have been to come good right now on the promise of a "people's Olympics" and to cop-opt up front the distributed popular creativity which has emerged so furiously across the grid this week.

Coe and co have made things that much worse for themselves by kitting themselves up with a brand designed to be edgy and "of the street". And they even had a pre-loading blogger-relations campaign designed to encourage socialised webizens to "feel free to spread the word". Oh deary dear...

(There's one too many zeros in the logo above; the designer could have stuck to the rings in their usual configuration.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Tintin and the Secret of Literature

An odd little essay piece this, at times informative, at others bloody irritating. McCarthy throws a lot of big fat frogs at Hergé's oeuvre: la crème of France's nineteenth century novelists and their bastard offspring, the structuralists and post-structuralists, and reports back to us on which ones appear to be sticking.

His account of Hergé's political drift from the far-right and de-facto collaboration with the Nazis towards the late-century ideals of the progressive left is fascinating. His suggestion that Castafiore's emerald is actually her clitoris is downright silly.

The Tintin books, McCarthy advises us, are journalistic-detective fictions covered in layers of hermeneutic complexity. "Wrapped up in a simple medium for children is a mastery of plot and symbol, theme and sub-text far superior to that displayed by most 'real' novelists." (I have McCarthy's own somewhat acclaimed novel Remainder in my pile!)

He deconstructs for us some of the cartoon stories' recurrent obsessions: crypts and cryptonyms, the friendship fetish, duplication, counterfeit and inauthenticity, "looking for noon at two o'clock" (that one from Baudelaire), tripping over, host-guest politics and the denial of inheritance. (The latter theme is said to derive from a persistent notion within Hergé's family that his father might well have been the illegitimate son of the Belgian King.)

Apparently Hergé met with Spielberg before his death and the two men discussed the making of a Tintin film, but the American apparently made copyright demands that the Belgian found unacceptable, so Spielberg went off an made Raiders of the Lost Ark "with all its scenes of penetrated tombs and cursed death-giving fetishes," McCarthy adds judiciously.

I've blown the dust off my collection and installed them in the loo for future reappraisal.

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End

This turned out to be more hahaaargh than aaaaaaaarrg...vastly exceeding my expectations.

Master and Commander it most certainly isn't, but while naval history purists will dive despairingly from the decks, there's enough to keep art-house enthusiasts on much so that the film is showing this week at the Curzon-run Chelsea Cinema! (Surfer and I saw it however in our usual D18 and D19 seats at the now doomed Kensington Odeon.) There's a delightful Terry Gilliam-lite sequence featuring Johnny Depp and his 9 CGI-generated parallel selves camping it up on the bleached out landscape of Utah's Bonneville salt flats, here standing in for 'Davy Jones's Locker'.

The moaners fail to credit Verbinski with fashioning a credible and entertaining no-brow fantasy cycle which doesn't need to lean on an underlying text like LOTR or half-baked countercultural politics like The Matrix trilogy or even the Star Wars films.

The night before I had tried to catch up by watching Dead Man's Chest and it was this that had led me to believe that, like The Matrix trilogy, the dramatically becalmed middle section would be followed by a maelstrom of unbounded awfulness. At World's End might sail perilously close to this particular wind, but it comes through in the end very much un-sunk.

Yes it's overlong and overdone. Yes it has accumulated too many characters to manage coherently within a single plotline. Yes, pirates the like of Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner don't so much have peg-legs as peg-personalities. Nevertheless I quickly realised what this film has that the previous one lacked: Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa. Arrrrrgh. In Dead Man's Chest they all seemed to have forgotten that hammy pirates are what we all keep coming back for.

Keith Richards sways in for his knowing cameo as Captain William Teague a.k.a. Blackbeard. Acting is even more beyond him than it is for Keira Knightley so the scriptwriters give him a nice little visual gag for us to remember him by.

Dare one ask what happened to the Kraken? Actually, as noted above there was already too many dramatis personae clambering all over the rigging here, but if there is to be a fourth outing several repeating members of the supporting cast will no longer be with us. Though death does seem to lack finality in this world.

(So, I find myself strongly disagreeing with Mark Kermode's Radio 5 rant about this movie. It is highly entertaining though, especially the bit about Keira the Pirate Queen.)

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Fountain

"What if you could live forever?" the poster asks us. Well, I for one might be more inclined to see more films like this. But life is rather short...

OK, metaphysical cinema is rather hard to pull off. Even the more successful examples such as Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours:Red have a lingering whiff of pretension about them. (Pseudo-deep can be a bit borderline too. Take for instance The Matrix trilogy and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was actually at his most successfully metaphysical when he wasn't really trying that hard: Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining).

In fact good metaphysical narratives of any kind are a rare treat outside of Childrens' fiction. Jorge Luis Borges is surely the all-time master, with the likes of Paul Auster among the more competent modern exponents.

In this game of unlikely parallels and strange coincidences the trick is to give the impression that you might actually be onto something. I believe the correct term for what these stories require is a vanishing point: a super-dense point of profundity towards which all meanings within the narrative are orientated, which itself remains just beyond the field of comprehension.

Aronofsky's unusual tale of time-staggered quests for the source of the undying life came highly recommended to me by a colleague. Yet I'd also seen Philip French's review in the Guardian in which he quipped "This movie truly puts the 'awe' into awful" and it was towards this latter critique that I found myself leaning.

The Mayan cosmovision and Spanish history get very short shrift from Aronofsky, a director who openly admits a penchant for lifting ideas out of their native soil before splicing them and re-planting them in a mixed-bed of creative shoots that he imagines will look rather good together.

Yet what this mystical mélange ultimately fails to deliver is anything like a fresh twist on any of our age-old intimations about life, death and our place in the cosmos. Its vanishing point dematerialises prematurely without yanking any significant meaning or emotional insight out of the situation(s) confronting the couple played by Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman.

According to the IMDB, some of the exteriors were shot in Guatemala, but judging by the results, they hardly seem to have been worth the trip.

At one point Jackman's conquistador is seen praying in front of a replica of the ceiling of the bath-house in the Alhambra, one of the decorative features of the Moorish palace that most impressed V when we visited a couple of years ago.