Thursday, December 27, 2007

Silent Night revisited

Que alguien me explique...why Christmas in England is soooo boring. I've been reduced to nostalgic viewings of my videos from December 24th last year.(V's scream right at the end always makes me laugh.)

Que alguien me explique...


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Virgin birth

I'm with Hitchens on this one. I found the answers given by most of the believers depressing, but Ann Widdecombe's, revealing her inner sophist, made me smile.

Ten favourite non-fiction books of 2006/7

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell
The Rebel Sell - Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
The Seven Basic Plots - Christopher Booker
What Good are the Arts? - John Carey
Terror and Liberalism - Paul Berman
The Islamist - Ed Husain
God Is Not Great - Christopher Hitchens
The Curtain - Milan Kundera
The Never Ending Days of Being Dead - Marcus Chown
Parallel Worlds - Michio Kaku

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mano Dura?

Fabio Capello, an Italian with a confessed admiration for the 'order' that Francisco Franco brought to Spain, has today been appointed as the next England manager. A bit of goose-stepping is so often the required medicine for chronic national humiliation.

Soho Square remains full of opportunistic hacks, plus a bloke in a John Bull get-up protesting the foreign appointment.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Adoption law passed

It took a while, but Guatemala finally has a brand new law on adoptions which will come into effect with the new year. It was passed by the congress with 109 votes in favour and only one against. (He/she must be feeling a bit politically isolated right now.)

There will no longer be any adopciones notariales as the only lawyers that can get involved from now on have to be employed by the state. Article 12 of the new statute ensures that adopted chirices can retain dual nationality even after exportation. The Hague Convention is followed to the extent that birth mothers have to spend six weeks with their babies while the paperwork is sorted out.

Humans still evolving?

This pretty shameless story was covered by a number of leading UK broadsheets yesterday. So called 'journalists' at each of these publications had clearly all received the same press-release (or wire feed) and none apparently felt the need to question the agenda behind this research from the University of Wisconsin. You don't have to be a genius to figure it out though:

If human evolution is speeding up thanks to "the tendency to start families later in life" then you would have to presume that people in the small number of well-off nations where this is generally the case will somehow become more evolved than all those darkies in Africa.

Which should of course come as a surprise to anyone that knows the first thing about human evolution because a) Africa is and has always been the main factory of human evolution b) it has the most genetically-diverse human populations on Earth and c) there needs to be some fundamental agent of selection for evolution to work at all. Where in the world are you most likely to die before getting the chance to pass on your genes? Not in countries where women have children through artificial insemination at the age of 45 methinks.

"The study also suggests that human races in different parts of the world are becoming more genetically distinct", Ian Sample, scientific correspondent of the Guardian reports. Now this is a tricky one, because the consensus, like it or not, is that race is "biologically meaningless". (You'd have thought Sample might have mentioned this.)

To quote Wikipedia: "The 0.1% genetic difference that differentiates any two random humans is still the subject of much debate. The discovery that only 8% of this difference separates the major races led some scientists to proclaim that race is biologically meaningless. They argue that since genetic distance increases in a continuous manner any threshold or definitions would be arbitrary. Any two neighboring villages or towns will show some genetic differentiation from each other and thus could be defined as a race. Thus any attempt to classify races would be imposing an artificial discontinuity on what is otherwise a naturally occurring continuous phenomenon."

So at the very least the scientists at Wisconsin are 'bravely' trying to re-open this issue.

Having said all this, one thing I would add is that I have often paused on the platform of Leicester Square tube station to consider the near perfect colour match between the little mice that scurry around the tracks and the grimy concrete of their environment. What might the selection pressure be? Surely they don't have a substantial predator population down there?

'Carlos Peña para Presidente!'

Hay varios grupos de Facebook dedicados al Presidente-electo de Guatemala, Álvaro Colom!

Hugo Chávez ha dicho que tiene previsto viajar a Guatemala para asistir el próximo 14 de enero a la toma de posesión de Colom:

"El presidente (electo) de Guatemala me ha invitado. Me dijo: 'no puede usted faltar a mi toma de posesión'. Le dije: 'no, no no voy a faltar. Dios mediante yo voy a estar, yo quiero mucho a Guatemala'"

Bonito y Sabroso

Seeking out that golden oldie from Beny Moré I found this:


Off to hear Händel's Messiah in St Paul's tonight. Surfer and Baksheesh were in the Colet Court choir together and performed several times on nights like these in the cathedral. So, it will be a trip down memory lane for the pair of them. And a welcome bit of 'kultcha' as Surfer puts it. Miseryguts may also be coming, plus a gang of knee-slapping Germans that Surfer is responsible for.

Baksheesh has meanwhile been filling me in on the secret escape routes beneath Sr Paul's: "When we were in the choir, we used to go into a building nearly and practise and dump our coats etc. and then enter the cathedral through an underground tunnel and ascend through the crypt."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

UK suspends Guatemalan adoptions

Last Friday the UK officially suspended all adoptions from Guatemala. V told me this morning that she watched some colocha on local TV arguing that her adoption ring provided a kind of public service as many indigenous people were having too many children and would otherwise be dumping them in barrancos.

Announcing the ban, Kevin Brennan, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families, stated that:

"I am now introducing a suspension of adoptions in response to new evidence which demonstrates that: there are insufficient safeguards in the Guatemalan adoption system to prevent children being adopted without proper consents being given and improper financial gain being made by individuals in the adoption process. In particular that: there is a trade in babies being sold for overseas adoption; and mothers are being paid, or otherwise encouraged, to give up children for adoption."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ten favourite novels of 2007

This has been hard, but here in rough order of personal appreciation, are my favourite ten novels of the year:

Travesuras De La Niña Mala by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Broken April by Ismail Kadare
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Time Machine by HG Wells
Terrorist by John Updike
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Whatever by Michel Houllebecq

Overrated book of the year: The Secret History by Donna Tartt. (Thanks to Palindrome for telling me to re-read it.)

And because I didn't do this exercise twelve months ago, here's my 2006 list:

Sunday at the Pool at Kigali by Gil Coutemanche
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Platform by Michel Houellebecq
Mañana en La Batalla Piensa En Mi by Javier Marías
The Outsider by Albert Camus
Disgrace by JM Coetzee
The Eagle's Throne by Carlos Fuentes
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Overrated book of the year: La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

The Producer Society

Diego Luna's advice to people starting in the film business as either thesps or directors is to start making their own stuff: "If you are an actor you to have to become a producer. Otherwise you are going to be leading a very shitty life."

What is interesting about this is the recognition that the barriers to entry to independent production have come down considerably over the past decade, and that for more and more people, even those a some considerable remove from the entertainment industry, the time spent producing homemade material (blogs, videos etc) has seriously started to eat away at their overall media consumption time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

La Quema de los Cachivaches

Today is the day Guatemalans are supposed to burn small effigies of the Devil in the road outside their homes, along with piles of household rubbish. (Recently piñatas representing Chupacabras have become a popular alternative.)

Now, as you can imagine, environmentalists can be a bit boring about all this acute indendiary activity, especially as modern Chapin trash includes a lot of stuff that gives off noxious fumes.

As V reported this morning, La Quema del Diablo has become something of a day of license, with households able to create monster pyres with their 'colchones viejos' and 'almohadas pulgientas', with flames often rising so high that it is not uncommon for telephone and electricity wires to melt. Many people choose to go about on foot this evening because of the danger that their vehicles might unexpectedly explode.

Meanwhile, with the second cachinflin-free Christmas beckoning, the grinchudos are out in force raiding factories in various townships around the capital with a view to stifling the last remaining local resistance to the ban on these hand-thrown fireworks that was ordered last year.

Pissing into the wind

The complex nature of Islam, at once both a religious and a political system (and in the UK at least, also a marker for a minority cultural identity) presents some serious challenges to its would-be critics.

Here in the West we have lately tendered a respect for other people's nutty religious opinions significantly in excess of that on offer for wayward political doctrines
especially those that appear to violate the tolerant, pluralistic principles at the heart of our democracy.

Unlike Islam, Christianity was far from fully theocratic at birth. It might have possessed a certain puffed-up righteousness, but it took the merger with the failing Roman state facilitated by Emperor Constantine to give it the monopoly of lethal power that Mohammed always intended for his seventh century upgrade.

Islamism, the world-view that most fully embraces this vision, has accelerated the flourishing of a newly self-assertive kind of atheism in the West, which clearly feels more comfortable about using Muslim fundamentalists as a punching bag than home-grown nutjobs like the Mormons (see below). In effect, the apparent obnxiousness of Islam's political and social pretensions to the liberal-minded, has driven them to overcome the taboo that has discouraged obnoxiousness on matters of private conviction.

And once they start having a go at Islam's obvious lack of consideration for Man's lawmaking capabilities, it has been deeply tempting for western infidels to widen their critique into the overall silliness of Islamic dogma, even that part of it with no obvious political ramifications. Like the hair-trigger defenders of the Prophet, they also often give the impression of being uncertain whether they are comfortable with the creeping racial overtones within this debate.

Islamophobia isn't racism
per se, but there can be no argument that it is often fed by an underlying racist sensibility. I'm personally acquainted with a couple of quite virulent Islamophobes, who I'd have to say show all the signs of this. (I know another who is perhaps more like Christopher Hitchens, the discriminatory type.)

However, it remains my view that it
should be permissable to stand up and criticise Islam − in effect to express a reasoned hostility to a particular flavour of otherness − without running the risk of being silenced as a bigot and a racist, simply because, as Ronan Bennet insists, Islam is not "only about faith but also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white."

Racism as I understand it, and as it was understood by the architects of the Holocaust for sure, means despising someone for their biological nature, and thereby desiring their extermination (or at least removal from anywhere near your job, home etc.). There is a qualitative difference between having your identity dissed and being pushed into a gas chamber, and the recent readiness of some Muslims to draw facile comparisons between their current situation and that of Jews in Hitler's Germany is to be deplored.

You could argue that the majority of the Spaniards that turned up in Central America at the start of the sixteenth century were racists in the sense I have suggested (in spite of the fact that a good number immediately jumped into the sack with the natives). Importantly however, regardless of their views about the innate fitness of the indigenous people to participate in civilisation, their criticisms of the local religious practices − which involved ripping people's hearts out, eating their limbs and wearing their skins − remain valid on an ethical scale that we can and should keep up today.

So, it should also be permissable to draw distinctions based on cultural value-judgments. And we shouldn't forget that while some aliens come in peace, others want to tickle our earlobes with their forked tongues before biting our heads off. Respect for otherness should always be tempered with caution.

And so to the thought that originally prompted this post.

The God of most educated monotheistic believers is a combination of the deity described by their co-religionists across history and the personal one that they have, in a sense, discovered on their own. Religious texts and nutty dogmas are really not much more than the ultimately discardable scaffolding they have used to construct their own private set of consolations. So the ever proselytising Mssrs Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens are never likely to win a substantial number of educated converts to their brand of unbelief, whilst the uneducated are unlikely to even be aware of their polemics. They are, I'm afraid, pissing into the wind.

Anyway, for your viewing entertainment, a fine example of internecine, inter-nutjob in-fighting from the American presidential campaign:


Has featured regularly in the British papers this week, and the story of forgetful canoeist Mr Darwin has now found its way back to the Central American media.

Aside from that little number, the most southerly stop on the isthmus also makes me think of retired local musician El General, these days widely considered the father of reggaetón:

I wanted to post El Huehuecho which ends with a little Christmas ditty, but unfortunately couldn't find it on YouTube. Anyway, here's another:

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Greaseball Rally

The Inter-American Development Bank sponsors an annual race called the Greaseball Challenge in which cars modified to run on biofuels set off southwards from Washington DC in the general direction of Costa Rica. I wonder how many make it all the way to San José? It probably helps that the vehicles are supposed to be a bit beaten up to start with.

The rules are clear about pit stops:

"Greaseballers will source their fuel from a number of greasestops on the road: biodiesel producers, diners, fast-food outlets, supermarkets, factories, and farms. The possibilities are endless, and rather daunting. It’s a challenge."

Here's an interview with one of this year's partcipants, Suzanne Ward.

There's a movie in here somewhere...

Marching powder

According to Siglo XXI today, one of the sons of Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela (capo of the now defunct Cártel de Cali) is alleging that his father entered into talks with Osama Bin Laden about the possibility of sending cocaine laced with anthrax to the US.

The irony is that the Cali cartel was the beneficiary of some US government laxity in the 80s and when selling arms to the Contras seemed like a neat idea and Daddeh Bush was trying to confuse everyone over the real agenda behind the 'war on drugs' by demonising Pablo Escobar, kingpin of the rival
Medellín cartel.

SF in SF

Thanks to the writers's trike Heroes suddenly sprung a load of cliffhangers and wound up 'volume two' prematurely on Monday night. Even creator Tim Kring has admitted that, barring one or two ey-catching incidents, the second season has underwhelmed. It has become a soap with superpowers. Some of the tricks of LOST's writers have been imported (allowing most of the key characters to drift towards moral ambiguity, chronological leapfrogging etc.) but not that show's ability to regularly tease viewers with the ineffable presence of profundity.

And so I turn to Journeyman, essentially an update on Quantum Leap with some of LOST's sense of grand conspiracy. It stars Scottish actor Kevin McKidd, last not seen dying as Lucius Vorenus at the conclusion of Rome (and now rumoured to have been cast as Thor.)

I've only watched the first two episodes, but so far so good. I'm not minding all that much that this sort of premise goes against everything that I personally believe about the nature of Time: that instead of being an objective linear pathway it is a subjective labyrinth; one reason I feel that Borges was probably the greatest Sci-Fi writer of the last century!

Maybe this is why the logic of plotlines based on linear time don't do my head in so much!

The show's hero Dan Vasser has a favoured method of tell whether he has shifted backwards in San Francisco time: checking his iPhone for a signal! This gives Apple two of three placements per episode. Dexter has been whipping out his iPhone quite a bit lately too. I still think that is the best of the US serials that I currently follow, for whilst it may lack some of the postmodern trickery of the others, it outpaces them in terms of characterisation and dialogue.

November eruption

Chapin traveller Aldo Bonilla has just published this great image of the Volcán de Fuego seen erupting last month from a high vantage point in Guatemala City. (La Antigua is behind the two-humped hill in the centre of the picture.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Las Cruces, Poblado Próximo

I'm still not sure if this was an attempt to dramatise real historical memories, perhaps someone can fill me in. It struck me as odd that the events depicted were set in 1986 when Guatemala was already a democracy of sorts under Vinicio Cerezo.

The model for this situation would seem to me to be the Ixcán massacres of 1982, so admirably reported by Ricardo Falla. This pitiless scorched earth campaign is usually attributed to Ríos Montt, I suppose because people both inside and outside the country feel the need to pin the blame on a Pinochet-equivalent, but the reality is that it started before his coup and experienced a rather interesting hiatus immediately after it.

Anyway, this isn't as bad a movie as I suspected it might be when it kicked off. With so many non and semi-professional actors and a shamefully idealised view of the guerrillas (whose jungle fatigues are annoyingly perma-clean) I had my doubts, but the scriptwriters ended up constructing a situation that was both tense and moving. They achieved this by representing the enemy, the Kaibiles, as an elementally unpleasant force, and by skillfully handling the dissent within both the Mayan village community and the supposedly tight-knit group of seven revolutionaries.

But as a fictional (?) statement it falls short of say The Magnificent Seven, because the destinies of those that elect to stay and fight for the 'innocent' villagers are resolved rather unsatisfactorily. Still, given that Rafael Rosal's (and Casa Comal's) film seemed to have a smaller budget than the poblado in question it is a more than valiant effort to represent the horror of this period in Guatemalan history. And it ended up moving me to tears.

Giacomo Buonafina
, who plays Comandante Camilo, was the sound engineer for both this movie and Looking for Palladin, the American independent production shot in La Antigua earlier this year.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A nutjob is a nutjob

One of the most infuriating arguments that have been deployed against the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens goes like this: OK, religion has been behind a great deal of murder and mayhem, but what about atheism, just look at Stalin...

Now lets get this one straight. A dialectical nutjob is really not much different from a religious one. Anyone that subscribes to an ism is part of the problem, not the solution. For the moment you start to believe that no matter how many individual destinies inhabit this planet there is only one true path, you are buying shares in mass murder regardless of your own personal affinity with deadly weapons.

Atheism worth the name is a state of mind that involves a default position of scepticism towards beliefs that position themselves outside the normal conditions for establishing proof.

It doesn't matter whether Stalin really believed the ideas in whose name he committed mass murder. The same applies to Osama.

'Worse than going to a funeral'

Diego Luna claims to suffer from watching himself on the silver screen:

It's a pity that I didn't stay too long at Gaucho that evening. I wanted to say to him that the ''commentary" on the DVD of Y tu Mamá También where he and his buddy Gael García Bernal chatter through the entire movie in character is, to some extent, even better than the original!

Incidentally, I should have mentioned before that all the proceeds from the Discovering Latin America Film Festival this year went to Task Brazil , the abandoned street kids of Brazil trust, who were represented at the screening of Soñar no Cuesta Nada by a nicely-brought up English girl with the delightfully Shakespearean name of Portia. (Here we see her gamely pledging a fiver to her own charity.)

One of the eyebrow-raising charitable activities depicted on their DVD was an agricultural camp in the rainforest where they have relocated a number of 'abandoned' teenage boys which offers accommodation to paying visitors!

Flight 438

The Consumerist reports discrepancies between a FAA report about what happened to this Southwest Airlines flight and the testimony of passengers:

"We all thought we were going to die! We said our goodbyes. There was an explosion and holes in the right engine with something sharp still sticking out of the engine. The plane started shaking so bad. The flight attendant was crying and one was getting oxygen because she was hyperventilating."

Interesting. A few years ago when I was on an American Airlines flight out of Miami which experienced an engine fire on take-off the stewardess started blubbing too. Stressful it certainly was, but you'd think they had been trained to be more useful in an emergency.

Just two kinds of people

...and those who haven't had much work since Waterworld!

They were right about the two kinds of people...but must have hoped for a better ratio.

The dog's expression says it all. Either you walk me or you ride your effing bike or you use your sodding Apple...make your mind up mate!

Mister Lonely

Diego Luna reckons his most challenging role to date was in this yet-to-be-released feature about a "shitty" Michael Jackson impersonator that hooks up with Marilyn Monroe's double in a Scottish lookalike commune.

More than my nutjob's worth

...did appear to be our Foreign Office's response to calls for them to show a bit more gumption in the Sudan, but behind the scenes at least they have been working tirelessly as they say, to achieve what is in the end a reasonable result.

Yesterday V was at the home of one of La Antigua's more upstanding citizens who was soon at pains to warn her that children born as a result of cloning, artificial insemination and other such abominable scientific practices have no soul or spirit, and as a result of the world filling up with such 'out of the game' beings, God would soon have no choice but to 'exterminate' us all.

This is of course just as moronic as having a hissy fit because someone decided to name a teddy Mohammed. And the irony of course is that it is today the religious nutjobs of the world that most closely resemble soul-stripped automata.

Whilst on face value it seems to me that devout, dogmatic Christian belief is a more barking mad state of mind than by-the-book Islam − Mohammed having stripped out a lot of the nonsense in his quest for a purer form of monotheistic piety − it is also the case that it currently presents far fewer dangers as a global political force. (George Bush notwithstanding).

This is because Christianity in the West had its theocratic sting taken out over three hundred years of major cultural reforms between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. You might not know it today, but when they drafted the US Constitution, men like James Madison were determined to establish a lasting separation of church and state in their piece of America, going so far as to suggest the banishment of chaplains from the military.

Reverses there have been (generations of over-heated revolutionary nutjob types have surely given atheism a bad name) but, extremist rhetoric aside, modern Christians are surely entirely less likely to take up the cross than many Muslims are to sign up for the lesser Jihad.

In Orhan Pamuk's Snow, the protagonist Ka visits the border city of Kars where there has recently been a sharp rise in the number of young women taking their own lives. Some clearly feel oppressed by their religion and the patriarchal society it underpins, but others are committing suicide because they can no wear their headscarves in Turkey's secular schools. Perhaps the important lesson from this is the poison doesn't so much ooze out from what many feel are our 'inherent' spiritual urges, so much as from the wounds occasioned by an unconstrained clash of values and its effect on impressionable minds.

Given the unlikelihood that we will find a new planet for the Islamicist nutjobs to re-locate to any time soon, we are going to have to find a way to neutralise them ideologically. A tough ask, given that most of the ways we have tried so far have served only to exacerbate their frenzy.

Part of the problem we face is that with the disarray experienced by the socialist opponents of capitalism since the early nineties, religious nutjobism has become the natural home of western society's malcontents. This, coupled with the impact of globalisation, means that the confrontation is also essentially one between modernity and archaic cultural forms, which has helped to breed virulent hybrids like Islamism.

So I would stop short of agreeing with Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she states that all Islamic observance inevitably tends towards Islamism, because recent historical contact with our own western currents of extremism does seem to have been a necessary factor in enabling the innately political tendencies within Islam to flourish to such deadly effect.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Directors are lonely superheroes

According to Diego Luna, who was speaking at the Gala opening of the DLA film festival on November 22.

Diego Luna on Guillermo Arriaga

Diego Luna explains the gestation of El Búfalo de la Noche, Mexican novelist Guillermo Arriaga's first film since his split with Alejandro González Iñárritu. Following the success of Babel, a letter addressed to Arriaga appeared in Chilango:

"It's a shame that in your unjustified obsession to claim sole responsibility for the film, you seem not to recognize that movies are an art of deep collaboration," it read, and was signed by, among others, González Iñárritu, Diego Luna's best mate Gael García Bernal and Gustavo Santaolalla.

Arriaga maintains that he is a noveslist and that screenwriting is just his day job.

The interviewer that evening in the Odeon Covent Garden looked quite keen to learn more about all his dirty stuff.