Friday, August 31, 2007

Prom 62: Beethoven's 9th

This pic of bomb damage to Bank Underground station in 1944 − the Central Line ticket office took a direct hit killing 58 people− was to have gone into tonight's programme in the section about Honneger's 3rd Symphony, but someone apparently thought it might offend the krouts, so it was pulled. The krouts in question, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were there to give their rendition of Beethoven's 9th symphony, which was performed earlier in the season by the BBC Symphony.

This double whammy of the one absolutely non-negotiable item on the Proms programme was arranged in compensation for the 9th-less season of 2006, a situation whi
ch resulted after a concert was cancelled at short notice last year following a small fire which set off the sprinkler system which in turn shorted some of the electrics in the Royal Albert Hall. There were no casualties and no krouts were made to feel responsible, however indirectly.

Mariss Jansons conducted, on what looked like his own personal podium from IKEA. Michael Volle (bass) was the best of the soloists.

There were several people asleep around us during the Adagio. It is possibly in anticipation of this phenomenon that Beethoven elected to kick off his Recitative with such Waaaake up you f**kers detonation.

Dead Man's Hat sent TC a text message during the concert: "I hope you switched off your mobile!" She hadn't.

This was my final Prom. It's been fun and I haven't exactly been missing out on the long, hot summer evenings.

Prom 59: Tchaikovski and Prokofiev

My father finally discovered how to navigate through to BBC4 on SKY Digital and reported being most impressed with the dynamism of chubby little Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze, who came on to play Prokofiev's 2nd Piano Concerto. His enthusiasm was infectious and he leaped from his seat at the end of the Finale before the orchestra under Valery Gergiev (whose hair strands were surely the second most dynamic element of this performance) had played their final note.

When I saw the 1st Piano Concerto performed earlier in the season the orchestra tended to muffle both the lyricism and percussive aplomb of Prokofiev's music, but Toradze is very much in the tradition of unsparing Russian piano-bashers. I'm still convinced that BBC4 viewers were probably better able to appreciate the piece as the sound of the piano was no doubt more to the foreground, and they could witness the blur of Toradze's fingers across the keyboard.

The RAH was more packed than I had seen it all summer, yet judging by some of the chatter I could make out around me, some of the audience seemed oddly unenthusiastic for this particular programme. "Even Tchaikovsky didn't rate his Hamlet Fantasia Overture," muttered someone behind me during the cough break. Whilst I can appreciate Tchaikovski's music in the context of ballet and opera, but have never really been overjoyed by it in the concert hall.

The Romeo and Juliet Fantasia Overture was probably the main draw tonight for the middlebrows, but that was over and done with after the first thirty minutes and some fidgeting ensued during Prokofiev's 7th Symphony.The most bizarre aspect of this performance though was Gergiev's loud vocalisations during the andante expressivo. When they first started I couldn't see his face and had started to look around the orchestra for the hidden extra soloist. If I had started to hum like that the redcoats would have promptly ejected me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Extra day off

Presidente Oscar Berger has declared Monday September 10 this year as a one-off public holiday to compensate Guatemalans for traveling back to their place of electoral registration, for the Presidential and legislative elections the day before.

Presumably they won't get a second break just after what looks like an increasingly-likely second round of voting in November.

Net stats for Guatemala

As of this month Guatemala has 1,320,000 Internet users, 10.1% of the country's population of 13.1m according to ITU.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Thank You For Smoking

The issue of how the need to pay the mortgage can warp the ethical lenses of people in the communications business is certainly one that is worth exploring in mainstream art, but here there is a layer of rather flippant satire that will actually prevent audiences from grasping most of the deeper ironies.

Still, it's a funny and well written movie as far as the dialogue goes, it's just a pity that the characters are really no better constructed than those in far goofier comedies.


It will be clear to anyone reading this novel that in writing it Updike set about finding solutions to two key problems. Firstly, what would the inside of the mind of a young, American-born shahid (martyr/suicide terrorist) be like and secondly, would it be possible to generate and maintain sufficient reader sympthy with such a character even as he prepares to participate in a major atrocity.

Whilst the resulting story is un uncertain compromise between the imperatives of plot and character, Updike has provided credible answers to his self-proposed conundra and with a stylistic verve that no novelist on this side of the pond seems capable of.

But it was not this that made me almost gasp in admiration only thirty or so pages into the novel. Instead it was my sudden appreciation of the way that the writer who had dismissed the most recent work of Michel Houellebecq as "an interminable blog from nowhere" was able here to repeatedly adjust his narrative voice to fit the perspective of the particular disillusioned character in the foregound of the action (be it Ahmad the young Islamist or Jack Levy the weary old Jewish unbeliever) and thereby deliver one of the most stunning critiques of contemporary American society, of the kind that would surely have fallen foul of the PC police had it been realised in any other way. This, for me at least, is therefore a work of masterful cunning.

One big coffee shop

This was, regretably, my impression of the recent fate of the historic core of Cambridge when I visited over the bank holiday weekend. Still, in a little back lane where no Costas or Neros are to be found, I spotted in the window of a traditional University photographer this marvellously over-posed image in which the seated girl in the foreground chatting on her mobile struck me as inspired.

Tom Conti had just whizzed past me on his bicycle. He's currently appearing in Romantic Comedy at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Prom 55: Wagner and Debussy

Bernard Haitink's encore piece was, appropriately enough, The Flying Dutchman overture.

"Scruffy" is an adjective that has cropped up with some frequency on the BBC Proms comments page this season, but unless the presenters let the side down again, I'm sure nobody will have flipped open their laptops on this occasion to gripe about the way the Royal Concertgebouw and their conductor laureate were turned out. The sartorial propriety of the orchestra was topped off with Haitink's supreme economy and elegance of gesture.

Along with Wagners' most soul-stirring concert pieces, the Parsifal prelude and Good Friday music and the prelude and 'liebestod' from Tristan und Isolde, they played Debussy's Nocturnes and Six épigraphes antiques (orchestrated by Rudolf Escher). The hall was humid with human perspiration and there was a quite scandalous amount of coughing and spluttering going on, even during Isolde's transfiguration. I myself had watery eyes, and not from holding back an untimely expectoration.

Afterwards I went to find Surfer at the Havelock Arms in Brook Green. He was with James Hart Dyke and a friend of his from art college, a pretty and sophisticated Polish girl. James was recently in Afghanistan with his sketchbook and the experience has put him off adventurous landscapes for a while, he noted rather ruefully. In Helmand Provice he had been hanging out with the Grenadier Guards whose officers apparently like to feed the rodents in camp with Fortnum's finest chocolates.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Terror Camp

On a visit to Afghanistan in 2002 Thomas Dworzak discovered this striking collection of Taliban passport pics:

"Not choirboys"

Ross Kemp went to El Salvador to investigate the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13. He describes El the country as the "most dangerous" in Central America, though I do believe that statistically-speaking, Guatemala still deserves that particular accolade.

It was very brave of him to go into that MS-13 prison where, it was said, someone had thoughtfully provided the misunderstood homies with the severed head of a rival gang member to play football with!

The programme suggests that the big boys are allowing the indigent clicas to soak up the blame for the cocaine traffic through El Salvador. "In other words," suggests Kemp, "the biggest gang in the country is the government".

"After the revolution..." Which one was that Ross?

Full video here.

Fiesta en America

At the very first party I attended in Guatemala this tune was playing...over and over again. The dance sequence is a bit Attack of the Leg Warmer Zombies!

Sandwich art

Superb collection of yummy looking creatures.

Here comes trouble...

If The Bourne Ultimatum was lacking something, it was a scene like this:

(Tony Jaa in The Protector, and it is one long take, as in Russian Ark)

Aie...aie...and aie

La Negra Tomasa performed by the late great Compay Segundo:

And the version I remember from the 80s(very) by the Caifanes.

And then, this completely OTT rendition at the Rose Bowl by Juan Gabriel:

Up periscope

The Daily Telegraph reports today how a semi-submersible craft, loaded with an estimated five metric tons of cocaine (worth more than £175m) was intercepted by US Customs and Border Patrol agents off the Pacific coast of Guatemala (themselves somewhat lejos from their own borders). The four-man crew scuttled their 'sub' as soon as they saw the gringos approaching, sending four metric tons of cocaine to the bottom, but some 11 bales were later picked out of the water.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Casa Luna raided

Casa Luna in Jardines de Antigua was raided earlier today in connection with the on-going Casa Quivira illegal adoptions investigation.

Surf's up in Cancún

For those that didn't run to the airport, there were some unusually good surfing conditions this week in the northern Yucatán.

Although Dean struck near Chetumal at Category 5 strength no deaths have yet been reported in Mexico, and around the town itself the damage seems to have been limited to broken trees and windows. A low-lying part of the city did however experience 2m-high flood waters.

When I passed through Chetumal last December I was impressed by how much it had grown since I first went there in '88. From the bus I spotted a fairly typical trucker's puti-cantina on the road in called Bar La Bella Mentira!

Anyway, there are a few eye-catching Dean images turning up on Flickr. Here's a selection:

The Hurricane Dean survival kit

Hated structure survives

Dean's gone, come n eat

Aqui te espero

According to the Miami Herald, Dean 'ravaged' a bunch of Mennonites on its second visit to Mexico yesterday.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Prom 47: Fiesta Latina

This might have been the first Prom ever without a printed programme, for acclaimed violinist Maxim Vengerov had pulled out with a suspected something better to do, leaving the Beeb to scuttle round looking for a replacement set of artists and Latin American-themed compositions.

There are four distinctive cover designs for the 2007 Proms programmes, because the BBC deliver in batches four days in advance to the RAH, and the staff there have been known to get a bit confused by simple numbers and dates in the past.

For the first half of the concert we were in the hands of the LSO, whose chef d'orchestre for the evening was François-Xavier Roth. They kicked off with Copland's El Salón México inspired by a visit the composer made to a popular old dance hall in DF in 1932 and concluded their set with the Hoe-down from Rodeo. (Surfer thought the latter piece sounded rather Scottish, and it does in fact contain snatches of McLeod's Reel within the Bonypart square dance tune.)

In between they tackled dour Argie-modernism in the form of Piazzolla's Tangazo and the John Adams-arranged pieces La Mufa and Todo Buenos Aires. These last two featured a violin solo by Alina Ibragimova, who in my opinion was regretably drowned out by an orchestra that was just too big for this sort of music.

We were surrounded by the sort of earnest South American youth that frequent the Autumn film festivals, and some of these made the mistake of leaving during the 'short break' that the recently blow-dried programmes were at pains to advertise as 'not an interval'. They were therefore not permitted to return to their seats for the main draw: the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble (conducted by the intriguingly-named Thomas Clamor) who delighted the crowd with some solid fanfares interspersed with party pieces like Zequinha de Abreu's Tico Tico and Gershwin's I Got Rhythm, during which a good deal of booty was shaken by the musicians. They carried on until after midnight and the audience stamped and hooted their appreciation of every piece. One can only presume that the CD pictured above is well worth buying.

Whilst the LSO's listless-looking scratch board operative had seemed off-cue, the percussion section of this ensemble was everything you would expect from the land of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías.

I was supposed to go to see Prom 48 the next day, but had myself to pull out with a suspected mid-afternoon hangover. However TC and I watched most of this on BBC4. Shostakovich's insistent tenth was played competently by the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by the flamboyantly self-effacing Gustavo Dudamel, and to my eye at least, incorporating several star members of the aforementioned percussion section from Prom 47.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Ambient Antigua

Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing has posted a 10 minute chunk of ambient audio from La Antigua. Chatter, churchbells, intermittent explosions and heavy vehicles pummeling the cobbles.

Bag lady?

There appears to be some confusion surrounding reports that the Menchurian Candidate was shown the salida at the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach hotel in Cancún. It seems that the only people forcibly evicted were in fact reporters from Enfoque Radio who later made up the story.

The origins of California Hass

Rudy of La Antigua Daily Photo has followed up on the rumour I heard from my brother-in-law and has located the plaque which credits local producers with having seeded the Californian avocado industry in the first half of the last century: "A healthy growing child salutes a generous parent."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Ireland suspends Guatemalan adoptions

The Adoption Authority of Ireland has this week suspended applications to adopt children from Guatemala.

Interestingly Ireland itself has signed but not yet ratified the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption practices which the Guatemalan government has only just signed-up to itself. About 75 children from Guatemala have been adopted by Irish parents within the last five years and Ireland has a comparatively high rate of foreign adoptions (Around 500 a year compared to around 250 here in the UK.)

Someone purporting to represent Casa Quivira left an interesting plea for help the other day as a comment on one of my earlier posts: "The police are not allowing our babies to have needed supplies without a court order. They need formula and the police are only giving them whole milk, which is not adequate for children under 12 mnths. The Dr has not been able to visit since Sat and some of these babies need constant care. We feel our hands are tied and just want everyone to know everything is false reported in the initial media reports."

This situation was subsequently reported by the BBC on Friday

Of course we sympathise with the plight of these kids. However, V spoke to a journalist called Le Clerc on site the other morning and he reported that he had ventured into the suspect adoption home and had spotted a frankly surprising amount of very expensive equipment inside, including rows of incubators (Matrix-style!).

Whether or not this operation is technically legal under current Guatemalan law, there seems to be substantial investment behind it, which leads me to suspect that it represents a violation of the spirit of the Hague Convention which requires that inter-country adoptions may take place only where it is in the best interests of the child and where no profit is made.

Earlier in the week adoptive parent Katherine from Michigan told the BBC that "one of the reasons we picked Guatemala specifically is that the country has no social welfare system, there are no public orphanages, there is no other place for these babies to go." I wonder where she picked up that particular bit of misinformation? We have seen how the good folk behind Casa Quivira are pushing the ludicrous statistic that 1 in 3 Guatemalan kids die in early infancy. Katherine and her like should remind themselves that most of these 'orphans' for sale have parents.

The civilising effect of downward mobility

Dr Gregory Clark of the University of California has come up with an eye-catching explantion for British industrialisation after 1800. Unlike most other historians − who tend to suspect that the role of institutional factors was crucial, but can't prove it − Clark reckons that it was in fact downward mobility that, through means of either genetic or cultural transmission, permitted a repertoir of skills and dispositions (the middle class mentality no less ) to spread through the population.

Up until around 1800 the Malthusian trap prevented anything like real affluence. Even the wealthiest members of early-modern society consumed about the same daily quantity of calories in their diet as primitive hunter-gatherers.This was because all gains in productive capacity through technological progress were offset by the population growth they encouraged. (See my recent post on Fair Trade for how the global market for coffee is locked in the same sort of feedback loop).

Clark has trawled through the records and found that during the few centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution the rich had many more surviving children than the poor. "The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages," he therefore concludes.

So, the people that had found the behavioural path to riches − an inclination to hard work, literacy and deferred consumption plus a disinclination to resolve disputes with violence − bequeathed these dispositions to the general population as their offspring slid down the social ladder to fill the gaps in the ranks of the lower orders.

When Clark checked the birth records in countries like Japan and China that notably failed to industrialise at this time, he discovered a comparative lack of fertility in their social elites.

This theory does of course have all sorts of striking non-PC implications that the NYT article I discovered it in neglected to expand on. i.e. can we not then blame the increase in laziness, violence, ignorance and undeferred consumption to the upward mobility experienced by meritocratic societies driven by liberal economic policies? And what happens when the industrialised world accepts mass immigration from developing nations where midde-class values are typically surrounded by hostile forces like Custer at Little Big Horn? etc.

The theory is however probably falsifiable on several levels that could be explored even by those historians not wedded to purely institutional explanations. For instance, we know that the Black Death took out approximately 50% of the English population. Surely this event reversed the flow of social mobilty, as we know for certain that it dramatically readjusted economic relations in our country in favour of the labourer.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

"Listen up people, we have a situation here...assets are green...this is a code 10 abort.."

Whilst on the entertainment level it's close to being the perfect modern spy thriller, its essential shallowness means that this particular threequel also comes mighty close to self-parody.

In the last two films Jason Bourne's fellow black ops assets have resembled sexually ambiguous European male models, but here they look rather more like Middle-Eastern terrorists. A job with Langley may after all be the ideal place for such men to avoid being accidentally taken out as collateral damage as the rest of the agency chases its own tail so furiously. (Watching the London section of this 111 minute chase scene, it was hard not to think of poor old Jean Charles de Menezes.)

If Bourne's peers have subtly changed, his (miss)-handlers are all basically carbon copies of the ones that checked out at the end of the two previous installments.

The cinema was so packed that I found myself in the second row from the screen and knowing Paul Greengrass's shaky camera style, I was fully prepared to be frothing at the mouth before Bourne had even started to sprint. There were times when I instinctively fumbled for the remote and its << button, but generally I managed to mentally track the action, and I kind of enjoyed it when the Moroccan families whose living rooms Bourne comes crashing through are glimpsed only as a blur.

I always figured he'd eventually get it on with Julia Stiles's character, but their relationship here ends up being the most understated part of the movie. "I remember everything," Bourne tells a relieved audience at the end...but does he remember her? I do like Stiles. I must find time to watch her in Edmond. I'm glad I avoided the temptation of watching that bootleg Spanish version, as this was certainly the first decent cinema film since early May. It's not just sunshine that has been in short supply this summer.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The argument from infinite regress

As a practicing atheist there is one argument against the existence of God, very much favoured by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, that has never really impressed me: Who created the creator?

It has always struck me that the question Why is there something and not nothing? is fully reversible. If you look closely at the structure of the cosmos, nothing is actually harder to explain than something.

In Spinoza's metaphysics God is literally everything. And that essentially answers the question.

I suppose the most fundamental difference between my kind of atheism and Richard Dawkins's kind is my recognition that any credible cosmology ultimately has to take a transparent view on the balance between physics and metaphysics.

It also strikes me as interesting that neither Dawkins or Hitchens give any real consideration in their respective polemics to the putative role of the Devil; and it is a significant ommission because both implicity blame the monotheist's God for all the evil in the world.


Dicky Dawkins is back on our TV screens this week. The man who preaches that religion is "like sucking a dummy" and should at best only be "practiced by consenting adults in private" had, it's fair to say, a mixed critical response to his attempt to dispense entirely with academic theology (but still sold a million copies), yet he returns now to bashing what are clearly his more natural foes: the rank and file of popular irrationalists: the superstitious masses.

So bring on the astrologers, tarot-readers, homeopaths, spirit mediums and dowsers...and Deepak Chopra. All The Enemies of Reason and worthy of the famously withering Dawkins scorn. ( See here the appropriate facial expression)

Dawkins thinks it is an utter disgrace that 25% of the British public believe in astrology, apparently more than any single established religion. Of Scientology he says “It’s purely made-up. It just taps into some ‘gullibiligy’. They find some film star or somebody like Tom Cruise or whatever his name is who’s thick as two short planks and he becomes a sort of advertisement.” And as for homeopathy...

“I say to doctors who use homeopathy: if you can identify this you’d have discovered a whole new force in physics. Either there is no effect, in which case you shouldn’t be charging people money, or there is an effect, in which case you should prove it and win the Nobel prize.”

Two views of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

First up the tough guys with all the hardware. Then the plucky local loons with "a strong will".

Their respective choices of soundtrack should give a clear enough indication of which side you would generally expect to win. My money certainly wouldn't be on the men driving around in armoured vehicles listening to Metallica on their iPods.

Closed for business

I passed the boarded up former Iraqi Embassy at 21 Queen's Gate on Sunday afternoon. Renamed the 'Iraqi Interests Section' after the first Gulf War it was finally abandoned in February 2003. Saddam's flag still flies at roughly half mast above the portico.

A new ambassador for the changed regime finally turned up in late 2004 and found that the building had been extensively burgled. Even some of the antique fireplaces had been carried off.

The thieves had left the safes alone so the new team brought in some professional safe-crackers and in one safe that was located in the second floor office where the Iraqi security service had been based, they discovered a cache of weapons including several Uzis and Kalashnikovs and ten handguns, some of which were fitted with silencers. Elsewhere they found some electric cattle prods, telescopic cameras and various bugging devices.

The Bulgarian embassy and that of Oman are opposite. One imagines that these kind of stashes are not entirely uncommon in the diplomatic community. The Bulgarian embassy used to operate a Duty Free shop where you could buy very cheap bottles of Becks and other goodies. You had to take a friendly Bulgar along with you as your membership card.

Anyway, two years ago the BBC reported that the Iraqi government had decided to rennovate this basically derelict building. Yet here we are in August 2007 and it appears to be in the same state of rennovation as Iraq itself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Flamenco Fusion

I've always thought that Ojos de Brujo were, like their home town Barcelona, a bit overrated. But this is a good track and the animation in the video is impressive:

I reckon that Chambao are more consistently likeable:

Segundo Impacto

V spotted herself in the crowd on Univision's Ultima Hora coverage last night of the alleged illegal adoption ring in La Antigua.

She'd spent most of the day outside the Casa Quivira fraternising with the assembled media teams, including one from Algeria. She also chatted with a man who'd come to see if his five-month old daughter (stolen in Guatemala City recently) was amongst the
chirizal found there last weekend.

The house's owner
Clifford Phillips is reportedly "shocked" by the raid and claims that his organisation has been officially approved for adoptions since 1994. Yet it seems that V's earlier speculation that his use of non-Guatemalan builders was highly suspect may have been on the money, as it was being reported yesterday that the police have detected a highly unusual double wall in the structure. (Certainly not a feature that the local climate necessitates.)

Whatever the legalities of this operation, I find the whole adoption trade in Guatemala thoroughly distasteful. It's big business locally and rarely have I left the country on a flight that hasn't been packed with couples clutching export babies. Most had only spent a day or so in Guatemala and in a hotel set up by the agency. Casa Quivira and other organisations like it are , in the words of a friend "
the human equivalent of a puppy mill."

A site I came across yesterday, Embrace the Children (which mentions a visit by Clifford and Sandra Phillips) misuses statistical information to give the impression that somehow poor Mayan families don't deserve their own children:
"Thirty percent of Guatemala’s children die before the age of 5 because there is no resource for birth mothers to get affordable and reliable medical attention. The children do not die from Polio or Aids, they die from malnutrition, dehydration and poor water sources."

This kind of exploitation posing as charity has
helped to create a mood in the countryside where visiting American tourists that stop to offer sweets to kids in the street run the risk of being lynched.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mel and the Maya

It seems that Mad Mel isn't done with the Maya just yet. Yesterday he did lunch with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger in order to discuss plans to make a movie or documentary in an as yet unnamed Mayan archaeological site in the Petén, though probably El Mirador, which the actor/director visited over the weekend. Berger also gave Gibson a tour of the National Palace and its murals depicting Maya life.

Jorge Reyes

Native of Uruapan, Michoacán, Jorge Reyes studied classical music and jazz in Germany and then went to India to absorb the Hindu and Tibetan tradtions. He brings all these influences (plus a host of unusual instruments) to bear on his idiosyncratic evocations of the Mesoamerican soundscape.

His concerts generally last an hour and a half uninterrupted and are designed to be experienced as mythic-ritual ceremonies, complete with redolent clouds of copal incense and drone-like gargling. Never been to one, but looks like fun!

And the slightly scary Danza Azteca...

Day of the Dead Kite Festival

Every first of November crowds gather in Santiago Sacatepéquez in Guatemala for the annual flying of gynormous barriletes (kites).

I'm not sure about the exact significance, but as the festival takes place on All Souls Day when most Guatemalans have the day off in order to visit their dearly departed, I think it safe to assume that it has something to do with communion with the dead and solace for the living. It is nevertheless a Maya tradition and may pre-date the arrival of the Spanish and their crucified God.

Buried Mirror
has some nice footage of last year's event. Scott was there, and was much impressed with the outfits worn by the three Reinas you can see in the second clip.


There has been a low-level media frenzy in our immediate neighbourhood in Antigua, as it turns out that the alleged baby-snatchers' secret base was the Casa Quivira, a new building which sits at the entrance to San Pedro el Panorama, and a few minutes' stroll from our front door.

The lawyer and notary of the dodgy foster home's owners (Clifford Phillips of Florida and his Guatemalan wife, Sandra González, both currently out of the country) were detained and subsequently admitted to hospital, as they had suddenly developed health problems. Meanwhile the 46 'rescued' children have been sent into care by a judge.

V took Jin for a walk up past the suspect property and told me rather excitedly this morning that she had been chatting to los cuques and had spotted the crew from Primer Impacto.

She claims that she found the couple's use of gringo builders in the construction of
Casa Quivira more than a bit suspicious at the time, and given the fact that the police currently appear to lack any concrete evidence of illegal practices, surmises that there might be a hidden room or compartment in there where all the incriminating documents are stashed!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Prom 39: Götterdämmerung

" the only woman that Siegfried has ever come across who hasn't been his aunt."

I prepared myself for this 265 minute marathon by listening to Anna Russell's hilarious comedy synopsis of the Ring Cycle.

In the end I needn't have fretted so much as the six hours really seemed to whizz by. Given that it was a concert performance with no actual on-stage action, this is a testament to the tidal impetus of Wagner's music-drama. Sir John Tomlinson was particularly engrossing as bitter und twisted backstäbber Hagen.

You could sense the frisson of heightened attention around the hall when, midway through Act III, the famous funeral procession got under way. (The girl in front of me actually stuck her elbow into her boyfriend's ribs, just to make sure.) The combustion of Valhalla was later intimated by strobing some red lights at the acoustic diffusing disks high up in the dome.

This is I suppose the thinking person's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It's also an attempt to represent through myth the end of the rule of law. And like many libertarian radicals before and after him, Wagner hesiated to define the society that was to follow, but as cop-outs go, this one is magnificent.

There was a box-full of serious professional pseuds right behind me, quoting passages of Wagner's libretto with exaggerated teutonic trilling. "Hallair, who's playing Woe-tarn tonight?" asked one particularly badly-briefed pseud at the start of Act I.

The first interval lasted an hour: just long enough for me to find a pub within reasonable walking distance of the RAH...and to lose my wallet. Said pub, the Queen's Arms, (pictured below) was full of members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra with their tell-tale black suits and ties, which allowed me to time my return to my own seat to perfection.

Stash of stolen kids unearthed in Antigua

46 children, including several new-borns, were rescued this weekend from an illegal foster home in Antigua, apparently run by one Clifford Phillips from Florida. Neighbours called the police after observing a succession of foreigners turn up and then leave with children.

Guatemala has the highest per capita adoption rate in the world and earlier this year, under pressure from Washington, ratified the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. The US government also recently announced it would require two DNA tests on babies being adopted in the country before visas can be issued.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

British humour at its best...

Si tu no vuelves

There is a video of sorts for this duet now...


By Chilean group Los Mono. Nice animation.
Their main site is

Is Fair Trade really fair?

Anyone that has ever soothed their social conscience through the purchase of Fair Trade coffee as an act of charitable consumption would do well to read this report from the Mercatus Center entitled Does Fair Trade Help the Poor? Evidence from Costa Rica and Guatemala.

First, some general facts about the world trade in coffee:

− Coffee is the world's most widely consumed pyschoactive drug and its second most traded commodity

− Of those, 18% drink speciality or gourmet coffee, which accounts for around half of the overall value of the US market

− The US purchased and imported around 22% of the 2005-6 global coffee harvest

− There are in effect two markets for coffee: exchange-traded commodity beans known as C market coffee which retails for approx. $5 per pound and privately-negotiated speciality coffees which can go for as much as $150 per pound

− So-called Fair Trade coffee falls into the speciality market, though is often not much better quality than the exchange-traded variety

− The markets for coffee are characterised by notoriously volatile cycles. A frost in Brazil can push the world price up and this incentivises newcomers to start cultivating. Around 5 years later the predictable surplus that results causes a crash in the price.

− Fair Trade certification is handled by a set of organisations acting under the umbrella of the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO). The basic idea, making affluent consumers pay a bit extra for a decrease in downside risk to the producer through the mechanism of a price floor used to have a less conscience-tickling name: the International Commodity Agreement (ICA) which was set up by JFK in 1962 as an interventionist economic tool for keeping the commies out of America's backyard. This system for stabilising the market lapsed at the end of the Cold War.

Its 21st century replacement, FLO, has a number of structural characteristics that limit its ability to deliver on its key promise to producers:

− The additional costs of certification can be very high and can include the costs of adapting operations to a cooperative structure and the alteration of accounting practices

− Fair Trade tends to fix prices at a level that is artificially high for the quality of the beans which creates a surplus on the market for which there is no buyer

− The number of gullible consumers identifying themselves to supermarkets as price insensitive through their purchases of Fair Trade products is certainly on the up, but still lags behind supply

− No coffee plantation which employs even ONE person as a full-time employee is eligible for Fair Trade status and individual farmers must sell to a certified cooperative

− "No matter how well run or benevolent a non-cooperative private organisation is, or how well it pays and treats its employees, it cannot obtain Fair Trade Certification," the report admits; which explains why the system has few fans in countries like Costa Rica where many private plantations are run on more socially-minded basis

− Coffee growers outside the Fair Trade system (in Guatemala they account for over 97% of production) can end up poorer as a result of the over-production encouraged by the small price rises that the incentive structure creates

− Consumers that purchase Fair Trade coffee are swapping the premium paid for extra taste for one that derives from extra ethical satisfaction. The system could never become universal without creating a strong incentive for producers to lower quality relative to the fixed price they are paid, so the majority of coffee on our supermarket shelves necessarily has to remain un-Fair for the system to work at all!

Fair Trade advocates tend to compare the price paid to producers for Fair Trade coffee with exchange-grade coffee, but this comparison is artificial (in Guatemala at least), as the crucial differential is really that with the market for gourmet beans. This is often quite negligible, and as Guatemalan farmers are aware that the price they ultimately get is a function of quality, to maximise their income they will tend to sell their lowest grade beans at the fixed Fair Trade price, and the rest on the open (speciality) market! So, in the words of the Mercatus report "Fair Trade inadvertently encourages mediocrity in production." It may also encourage the employment of scarce resources in high-cost/low-quality growing areas that could actually be better used for cultivating alternative crops.

Multinational corporations hedge risk by buying and selling contracts on the futures and forwards markets. Small cooperatives would need to hire at least one highly-educated employee before exposing themselves to the global financial markets...and the moment they do that they lose their Fair Trade status. And so it seems that to poor coffee farmers in Guatemala, the main benefit of the Fair Trade system is as a cheap, unsophisticated method of hedging against market downturns, which is of much less value to them during the upward curve of the cycle.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In a Spinoza

For the past week or so Scott Adams has been winding up the atheist community with his posts about Pascal's Wager and unbelief. The cartoonist offers the following challenge to the self-professed atheist:
  • You are either 100% certain there is no God, in which case you are irrational OR
  • You think it most unlikely, in which case you are an agnostic with a political agenda.
I recently switched from atheist to infidel on my Facebook profile. None of these labels for unbelief have ever really felt comfortable to me.

  • Atheist: too many associations with the Communist atheism of the twentieth century and the Protestant atheism of men like Richard Dawkins, both of which are tainted by materialism.
  • Agnostic: More than a hint of limp-minded passivity...or worse still, proactive relativism.
  • Humanist: includes men like John Colet, the founder of my school, and Erasmus, clearly both believers.
Scott Adams, a self-declared 'moist robot' appears to lean towards the apparent pantheism of Baruch Spinoza, whose conception of God as Nature appears highly compatible with a modern liberal-agnostic outlook. Perhaps Adams has read some Spinoza, perhaps not, but in truth the philosophical notions of this unfortunate exile and apostate look back towards the mystic traditions of Judaism and the wider currents of mysticism in medieval thinking (including Sufism and Neoplatonism) as much as they do towards the tenets of modern scientism.

Spinoza's God has both thought (mind) and extension (body), so to conceive of Him you do need to add something to the natural world as explored by Science − as we currently understand it at least. This divinity also has an important duality at the heart of his own being, which Spinoza labelled Natura Naturans, the unchanging aspect of God and Naturata which is the transient side. The more 'natural' if you like.

Compare for example Buddhism which seems to reject the idea that there is an eternal divine substance out there. (Meanwhile Spinoza's God has an infinite number of attributes and is really the only thing that can properly be said to exist.)

By all accounts Spinoza had a pretty crappy life, which is why some find it difficult to understand how he managed to draw so much solace from such an impersonal conception of God. It would appear though that thinking about this transcendent, mother-of-all dimensions where right and wrong and all other particular perspectives are compehensively reconciled, somehow allowed him to see his own tribulations as essentially trivial.

We tend to think of the Middle Ages as a long, dark epoch of unquestioned Faith replaced rather suddenly at some stage at the end of the fifteenth century by an embrionic form of the modern outlook. They were indeed a series of centuries when monotheism established its stranglehold on the Mediterranean world and beyond, but this was also a period where the pretensions of Faith and theology were in fact challenged on many different levels. (It was easier for our second Norman king William II 'Rufus' (1087-1100) to carry on like a practicing atheist and homosexual than it would be for any potential candidate for the US Presidency today.)

Science and Secularism ultimately became the most successful of these confrontations with Belief and they led the way to the industrialised West of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, they were so successful that a degree of idea-diversity was sacrificed along the way leaving our culture as vulnerable as a species with a contracted gene pool. And then, without that much help from religion, the rational-secular outlook tripped over its own feet at the start of the twentieth century, and has never really recovered its poise since.

Things are unquestionably worse now than they were when I was born in the late 60s. Then we grew up with a vision of the future (mostly rockets, moonbases and alien encounters, plus plenty of new gadgets like 3D TVs) which was fed by Hollywood and the wider entertainment industry. These days the only 'visionary' sci-fi on our screens consists of adaptations of Phillip K. Dick novels written twenty or thirty years ago under the influence of mind-mangling drugs. We have in effect collectively given up on progress, be it social or technological. You are born, try to become rich and/or famous, and die.

Many fragile cultural experiments emerged during the medieval period and regretably most were broken down one way or the other by the centralising powers of Church and State. Islands of comparative tolerance such as Moorish Spain eventually found themselves clamped between the theological extremes of militant Islam and Catholicism; Norman Sicily was assimilated, the sensual southern ways of the Languedoc brutally crushed. Nevertheless, the ascendancy of Church and State was finally curtailed by a new way of thinking that evolved from within these monolithic structures.

Spinoza's thinking reminds me of that lost learned diversity: those ideas from the medieval margins of Church and State that never quite made it. Our failure to extract him from his historical context in order to align him with secular scientific thinking can be explained in part by the tangled roots that ground him firmly in the medieval intellectual garden.

If looking forwards is no longer such an attractive option, and with all sorts of fundamentalisms already looking backwards gleefully, perhaps we infidels should at least consider the option of getting with the programme, and start to look around the edges of the supposed age of rigid faith for some discarded intellectual weapons with which to confront the crazies that are currently threatening our culturally-stalled modernity.


Blogs represent a hybrid between traditional one-to-many communications and networked many-to-many communications and offer some, but certainly not all, of the benefits of both.

Just how this compromise works out in practice depends much on the blogger's style and the balance between monologue and conversational communication in the posts (and comments).

I tried to capture the nature of this apparent fudge at the heart of the medium in the title of my own blog. Oddly though, few commentators on matters 2.0 pick up on it, prefering to emphasise the 'social' aspects of the new platforms over their perhaps less obvious solipsistic aspects.

'Forces within the administration'

In God is Not Great iconoclastic author Christofer Hitchens is very scathing about the "forces within the adminstration" that would prevent the planned roll-out of Gardasil, the vaccine against HPV, known to be a primary cause of cervical cancer.

"To accept the spread of cervical cancer in the name of God is no different morally or intellectually from sacrificing these women on a stone altar and thanking the deity for giving us the sexual impulse and then condemning it."

(PS: A fun New Yorker cartoon)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Prom 29: Jay Kernis, Prokofiev and Shostakovich

"And he was so cold he stuck an axe in his foot and didn't notice."

Just another snippet of conversation overheard in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday night. There were certainly times during the second movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony (the Leningrad) that you could have stuck an axe in the head of some of the people sitting around me and I doubt they would have noticed much either.

Up until the conclusion of the first movement of that most stodgily socialist-realist of listening experiences, the mood had been one of exuberance, as the band on the dais that night was the 160-strong National Youth Orchestra and the first two pieces had been the notably zippy New Era Dance by Aaron Jay Kernis and Prokofiev's first piano concerto, a real favourite of mine. (Apparently those vigorous first four notes of the concerto were indeed later nicknamed po cherepoo: 'hit on the head')

At the start the conductor Mark Elder read from American composer Jay Kernis's own introduction to the New Era Dance, composed in 1992 as an evocation of the city of New York and "in anticipation of the new millennium to come in the year 2000, in hope for a time of imperative political and social change in this country." This drew some sniggers from the crowd.

The programme notes for the piece contained this classic line: "Please note: pistol shots will be fired during this performance." Looking to our own social issues, there weren't that many dark faces in this massive youth orchestra.

Shostakovich's dour 75-minute encomium to a city undone by enemies from both home and abroad took me back to the compulsory trip we made during our 1984 USSR tour to the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery outside Leningrad, where 420,000 civilian casualties of the 'Great Patriotic War' are buried. However po-faced Americans get about Pearl Harbour and 9-11, this solemn mass-crypt out in the suburbs of St Petersburg really does seem to be ground zero for an incomparable sense of historical anguish and affront.

Middle England People's Revolutionary Front?

Any ideas what flag that is draped across a box at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday?

World Trade Center

The collapse of the concourse and the shadow of the AA 11 plane passing against a billboard on its way into Tower One are the standout moments in what feels very much like a made-for-tv movie. The build up to the last hour where the buried PAPD cops lie trapped in darkness telling each other, and presumably the audience too, to stay awake, is a lot duller than it ought to be. You learn more about the sense of unreality on the day and blue collar heroism from Jules and Gedeon Naudet's 9-11 documentary than anything Oliver Stone serves up here. And Karnes, the policemen's rescuer whose final line is "We need some good men out there to avenge this" reminds me of that unhinged cadet Tackleberry from Police Academy.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Under construction

V, Sandra and Luis Fernando examing the state of work in the new bathroom area in the top floor studio. This pic was taken about a month ago; the work is now very close to completion.

Some other pics of the house here.

Buenos Aires

I had a delicious brunch with Xtofer yesterday at Buenos Aires, a nicely hidden cafe-delicatessen on Royal Hill in Greenwich.

We ate some ham with their delicious fresh bread and a selection of Argie-style empanadas. It's owned by an long-term exile from BA and his British wife and can only be recommended.

A certain Brazilian friend has consistently assured me that Quilmes tastes like piss, and I have to say that he is not wrong...but then Brahma isn't really that much better!

I have created a Flickr set of recent pics from Greenwich here.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Singapore Wave

Joel and Che Yok invited me to a screening of 7 short films from Singapore last night at the Candid Arts Trust in Islington. Che Yok is a founding member of the Singapore Creative Network_UK, a non-profit that serves as a platform for creative people in the Singaporean community to network and exchange ideas. (They have a Facebook group too.)

This anthology of emerging Singaporean talent had two halves, the first marginally better than the second, separated by an interval with alcoholic beverages that only the Europeans in the audience seemed especially keen to queue up for.

When I arrived there was a slim Singaporean girl hesitating at the top of the narrow wooden staircase leading down to the basement. There was a paper sign on the wall with an arrow pointing downwards beneath the words 'Life drawing classes'. If she'd arrived ten minutes later she may never have followed my lead down there, because the first film, Bedroom Dancing, kicked off with the loudly amplified sounds of a couple striving frantically for sexual ecstasy.

This piece fictionalises the true story of a man fined $6500 for masturbating in his own flat. We see how this occurs every morning when his girlfriend fails to stir on time for round two. We also see a joyless and lonely yuppy woman crouched down below her net curtains, almost too horrified to see what might be going on in the apartment in front. We are to assume that she is the perpetrator of the police report. This turned out to be the most satisfactory of the films on show, but personally I would have either not shown the accuser at all, or created a bit more doubt as to which of the overlooking neighbours had found this free show all too much to bear.

Innocent was an uncomfortably intrusive documentary about a young family recently deprived of their mother as she had committed suicide following a police interview. A baby-minder, the woman had initially misreported the circumstances of an accident that occurred to one of her charges. Racked with shame and perhaps also determined to demonstrate her innocence, the woman lept to her death from the 22nd floor of an apartment block. (It's bizarre how that one floor now has a grille across the balcony, as if jumping from the 21st floor instead wouldn't occur to the would-be suicide.) It is not just the fact that my uncle ended his life this same way that made this a depressing experience. The family's powerlessness was palpable, and it obviously also played a role in facilitating the film-maker's ability to zoom in a bit too close on the grieving children, one of whom was encouraged to describe the state of her mother's splattered brain matter.

G23 was a nicely shot mood piece about a run-down old cinema whose regular patrons are all, in the manner of Argie movies, eccentric characters. For example there's the sad old man that still buys an extra ticket for this dead wife etc. The lingering moments between the aloof, smoking 'middle-aged woman' and the 'ticket tearer' are highly reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love.

There was also a fairly pointless (and dialogue-less) film about a rentboy appropriately called Untitled and a piss-take of Memoirs of a Geisha that would probably get three stars on YouTube. Hock Hiap Long was a nostalgic piece about a 55-year old coffee shop on Singapore's Armenian Street that has had to make way for urban development. Halfway through it explodes into a cha cha cha dance sequence with twirling multicoloured umbrellas. Before that it featured some evocative shots of the coffee shop's store of ingredients and its long-term inmates.

The final film was in Spanish, oddly enough, but directed by Singaporean Boo Junfeng: Un Retrato de Familia, a subtly observed short story that kicks off when a little girl asks her brother "what does sex mean?"

The Wild Palms

Speaking at the Purcell Room early last year, Carlos Fuentes reiterated the well-established notion that for him and countless other writers of the great Latin American Boom, it was Faulkner that showed them the way.

And so I have occasionally dipped into his texts, albeit with little enthusiasm. I think the problem always was the the world of the USA's deep south just didn't appeal to me that much as a millieux. Then last year I 'discovered' Cormac McCarthy and my reticence for all things howdeedoodee started to recede.

Reading The Wild Palms (aka If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) the debt that McCarthy owes to Faulkner is clear, but what of all those magical realists? (It actually took this superb short story, A Rose for Emily, emailed to me by Scott, for me to see without any shadow of a doubt the tensile hilito attached to the big toe of Gabriel García Márquez.)

Flicking through the pages of this novel now I find I have marked out passage after passage for its exceptional vividness or wit. Yet much of the narrative is also as awkward as the two male characters whose very maladroitness drives the pair of alternating storylines.

One is the tale of a luckless med-school grad called Wilbourne who absconds with a wealthy man's wife and appears to do everything possible to worsen his (and her) fortune, while the other tells of an inept train robber who somewhat accidentally escapes from prison when the levees break flooding the countryside, and duly finds himself drifting in a boat with a pregnant woman whose presence he can barely tolerate.

One little rule I have with fiction is that if dialogue is so obtuse that I am unsure of what the characters are trying to say even after re-reading an exchange of words several times, then how were they themselves supposed to have kept hold of the right end of the stick?

And where the dialogue is intelligible it is just a little too grandiose. In the central conversation between Wilbourne and McCord (apparently based on Hemingway) Wilbourne ends his diatribe on the horrors of respectability thus: "it was the mausoleum of love, it was the stinking catafalque of the dead corpse borne between the olfactoryless walking shapes of the immortal unsentient demanding ancient meat." Whatever doubts I might have about a relationship, somehow I don't think I'd express them quite like that to a drinking buddy!

There's another literary guideline that I suspected was being violated here: that the reader must feel that the decisions that the characters take are inevitable...under the circumstances. "I have made a bust of that part of my life which I threw away," Wilbourne ruefully muses towards the end, but I still couldn't help feeling that this bust had lacked the proper determination of tragedy.

Yet Faulkner's wry, omniscient narrator keeps coming up with magesterial flourishes, including some descriptions of landscape and atmospheric conditions that must leave even the likes of McCarthy drooling with awe. I have lived beside the Thames for 17 years and have always imagined how I might put this phenomenon into words:

"It was full dark now. That is, night had completely come, the gray dissolving sky had vanished, yet as though in perverse ratio surface visibility had sharpened, as though the light which the rain of the afternoon had washed out of the air had gathered upon the water as the rain itself had done, so that the yellow flood spread before him now with a quality almost phosphorescent, right up to the instant where vision ceased."

He even does southern lawmen better than McCarthy!

" with the indelible mark of ten thousand southern deputy sheriffs, urban and suburban − the snapped hat-brim, the sadist's eyes, the slightly and unmistakably bulged coat, the air not swaggering exactly but of a formally pre-absolved brutality."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Prom 17: Delius, Tippett and Vaughan Williams

Just finished listening to the second half of this concert again on the R3 site.

Vaughan Williams's response to WWII was clearly very different to certain contemporaries like Shostakovich. Out went dissonance and turmoil and in came rousing, affirmative lyricism.

This singularly serene symphony − his fifth − was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall at a Prom on June 24, 1943. Perhaps my father was up in the gallery watching. He wouldn't remember now, but he's a fan of the composer.

There was however one significantly dissonant note during the performance last Thursday evening: someone had seen fit to bring their bronchitic child along and the poor little thing was the object of some gorgon stares from the rows behind.

English music from the twentieth century appeals to me on a level way down below the intellectual. Having spent all my life living in a central London flat before I went up to Cambridge, I took with me a rather canned sense of the flow of my country's seasons. The change I then experienced could be compared to the discovery of CDs by someone only accustomed to listening to classical music on scratchy old mono 78s.

In my final year I had a room at the far end of my college overlooking a field which contained rare-breeds of sheep. This belated HD exposure to pastoral phase changes occurred at a time when I came into close contact with the most nocturnal of the college cliques − the music students. And they too were all huge fans of these twentieth century Brits and their immediate artistic descendents.

So there is a complex set of associations at work here when I listen to one of their works − cycling through butterflies in a field of rape, and drink-fuelled debate back in the long-passed period of life when one stayed up all night for the sheer pleasure of it.

A Song of Summer by Delius was also composed using elements of an earlier discarded work. (A Poem of Love and Life) It was to be the composer's final orchestral score and as he was already blind and paralysed from tertiary syphilis, it was partially dictated to his collaborator Eric Fenby. The BBC Symphony Orchestra's Conductor Laureate Andrew Davis was on hand last week to make sure that the strings were up to delivering the trademark Delius tremulousness.

Michael Tippett's radiant Triple Concerto is the kind of piece you can play over and over with little fear of quickly running out of new things to listen out for. Its movements − linked by interludes of what the composer liked to call non-music − track the life cycle: be it that of our whole span or a single rapturous switch from day to night and back again.

The final movement betrays the influence of Balinese gamelan, but it is the mid-section that I keep returning to, as it plucks my consciousness right back to any number of dreamy, balmy mid-summer twilights. (Though to one or two in particular, again during that Cambridge period when my own life's second movement had just got going.)

The field with the sheep is now a car park.

Candle man

A nice little video someone has put together of their stay in La Antigua Guatemala, clearly centred on the Casa Santo Domingo.

They have an employee there whose sole responsibility is to make sure the hundreds of candles around the corridors and grounds are lit...and stay lit!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sleeper Cell

Having raced through to the finale of series one of Dexter I am yet again in need of another US series to fixate on before the others all renew in the Autumn.

Dexter just got better and better. I was reminded of Milan Kundera's remarks in The Curtain to the effect that the best kind of novelist is usually one that has suppressed his or her (though as far as Kundera is concerned definitely his) soul, for in this series we witness how the 'empty' sociopath has privileged access to a certain kind of truth, and in the case of Dexter Morgan, a heightened sense of the redemptive possibilities of love. It's a theme that crops up again, though more bleakly, in the novels of Michel Houellebecq.

And so I have started to watch Showtime's other hit series Sleeper Cell. It's just a pity that I happen to be reading Updike's excellent Terrorist at the same time, because it is serving to sharpen the stabs of intellectual pain caused by the lack of real insight in this series, though it is undoubtedly entertaining enough. In the place of such insight we have an attempt to impress viewers with simple expectations by confounding the more obvious stereotypes. Not only is it a poor guide to the make-up and motivations of would-be Islamists operating in mainland USA, if that was really how the security services intend to combat the threat, then thousands of Americans could probably kiss their asses goodbye.

Another cam chat with V

I think the cam on the Telgua corner may be a Panasonic (Lumix) as it has the same tendency to translate the force of direct sunlight on the sensor into an electric pink tear down the middle of the image.

She's wearing the little red mochila that the Shell Ferrari team gave me at the British GP in 2000.

Tunnel vision on Panorama

Whilst less shameful than their recent programme about the mind-mangling electronic smog seeping out of our wireless routers, this week's Panorama wasn't exactly falling over itself to set the bar at a new high in terms of objective investigation and informed analysis.

It was the second serious attack the BBC news division has launched on Liveleak this summer and far be it from me to question their editorial motives...

The way they dissed the community moderation of YouTube would no doubt have given Andrew Keen cause to re-adjust his seating position.

Meanwhile Confused of Calcutta's fascinating posts this week on Facebook and the Enterprise have clearly restated the principle by which we should judge all attempts to curb those technologies that, at the extreme end at least, appear to have run ahead of law and common propriety: "We should not assume that irresponsible behaviour by a few justifies punishment of the many."

The Birds Poised to Fly

I read a great little short story with that title by Patricia Highsmith yesterday.

A man called Don has written to his lover in Europe to propose marriage and checks his mailbox with mounting distress each morning to see if she has replied. This situation impairs his reason just enough to drive the flawed decision-making that ensues. It is a perfect marriage of concept and story. Unlike say The Beach.

At the gallery last night TC suggested playfully that Borges might have made a better go of that particular conceit. And then we moved on to try to think of other novels or movies where the concept is truly superb, but begins to lose effectiveness rapidly as more and more 'story' (and pyschology) is added. We could only think of The Matrix...

Anybody have any other suggestions?