Thursday, January 31, 2008

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Hijos de Babel was back to its worst last night on TVe. Jimmy sung her way out of the competition with a performance that probably would have had the stars falling out of the sky...and Karen Carpenter turning in her grave:

This was unquestionably more painful than last week's rendition of Killing me Softly which scored just one point with the judges, but as it was her birthday this time round, they gave her one more point.

Monday, January 28, 2008


The tale of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 which crashed in the Andes in October 1972 was first related to me by V. Some time later we watched the movie version, Alive, and then I read the book by Piers Paul Read who, like many of the survivors, interpreted their extraordinary experiences through the prism of Catholic faith.

This weeked however, whilst channel surfing, we caught possibly the most revealing account of all: the BBC4 Storyville documentary entitled Stranded! Mediated only through the editing process, this was a collection of interviews with the survivors, family and the men involved in the search and rescue operation, some of which were filmed as they returned to the site of the crash (En el Valle de las Lagrimas).

The most striking thing about these testimonies is how as individuals they felt they had fallen off the edge of civilisation, but how their beliefs and, in the case of most of the survivors, their shared membership of the Old Christians rugby team, helped them to engage in decisive collective action at the moment they realised that the search for the wreckage had been called off.

This news reached them on a small transistor radio, and I was touched by Canessa's account of how he tuned into news of the coming summer down in the world they had become so utterly detached from, where young girls were reported to be coming out in short skirts to buy ice cream, while he was busy munching grissle cut from a frozen corpse.

The incident has an official website in Uruguay. (Turn off your speakers if you don't want to hear Aaron Neville singing Ave Maria.)

Little Miss Sunshine

I had trouble getting into this the first time I tried, on a transatlantic flight last year. This time I found it much more engrossing though I could see V's attention wandering. It's essentially a feel-good take on a set of feel-bad situations.

It's well enough scripted but falls short of the quality of Sideways, and some will be left feeling cheated of real pain, as the film's satirical bite is consistently playful rather than penetrative.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Left overs

Colom's plans to achieve 6% growth in 2008 have already hit a roadblock, as his staff have apparently unearthed a massive unreported debt left behind by the previous government which will impact on Guatemala's macroeconomic figures. In a statement yesterday he said:

“I promised transparency, I said I would show figures and each ministry is reporting to me, but I can already advance that the debt of the Ministry of Communications is over 2 billion Quetzales (US $265 million), when we had been told it was under US $40 million.”

Meanwhile, controversial journalist Hugo Arce − no friend of the Coloms − was found dead in a hotel room yesterday, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart. The police have chalked this up as a suicide because the door was bolted from inside and they reckon it would be nearly impossible for anyone to have exited the room via the windows. Arce had been accused by the then Presidential candidate of defaming him in return for cash from GANA. But the dead columnist had also recently made an enemy of the PP's Diputada Baldetti, her of the nice new gaff in Juan Gaviota.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mira quien entra

Endemol has teamed up with RTVe to produce one of the most extraordinary talent contests I have ever witnessed. The Spanish national broadcaster has come up with some fairly out-there TV formats in the past (Ankara for example), but Hijos de Babel (Children of Babel) is something else altogether.

The twist here is that each of the aspiring singing stars has to be an immigrant. Now, when I first heard about this I thought it was quite a clever idea, but I wasn't quite expecting it to result in X Factor meets Big Brother meets Eurovision meets some dodgy political theatre.

None of the contestants performing on the show's opening night appeared to be unusually talented in the singing department and none of them were exactly what you would call lookers. This was surprising because on the last series of Gente de Primera I was genuinely amazed how much more talented the Spanish pool of wannabees had been than their Ango-Irish or even American counterparts.

No, here the most important thing seems to be the relative quality of the sob story. "I left Colombia because of the violence....I've been living rough on the streets of Bilbao....I haven't seen my father in Cuba for years" etc. Whilst these were recited a particularly ikky little piano tune was played in the background. Believe it or not, the tradtional journey home VT for the X Factor hopefuls goes easier on the saccharin. I wouldn't be surprised if they were handing out tissues in the audience.

With public sympathies now swelling, each tuneful immigrant then has to ritually lick the Spanish culo. "Spain is truly the land of opportunity... 'glacias a toros' for letting me live in this utterly wonderful country...ésta es la madre patria" etc.

The pool of finalists contains a Colombian chola with plenty of attitude and hand gestures, a pair of intense Arabs, some cheeky-chappy Cubans and the token arrogant Argie (who expressed concern that her level has deteriorated since she came to Spain.)

An Indonesian girl with a perma-smile who sang Kirring me Softry in a way that had me wishing myself quickly dead, might have blown her chances by admitting that almost every € she has earned in Spain has been remitted to her homeland to help repair her family's roof. (Conditions which must have been normal in Indonesia for generations were also then described as absolutely unbearable.) There was also a girl from Ecuador who reminded me how people who break into song in social situations using heavy vibrato really ought to be randomly tased.

During their individual performances each act also had to contend with some of the most horrendous choreography and stage effects I have ever seen in my life.

It being Spanish prime time this live production kicked off at 10pm and finished at 1:45am. On a Tuesday. Don't these people have jobs? By 12:30 UK time the presenter looked as if he had had several cafe solos and a line of coke to keep himself going through all this grotesqueness.

He ended up by reading out a phone number which other new citizens who think they have a special talent could ring and leave their personal information. You have to wonder whether la migra will be listening in to that line.

Pret's new anti-Third World policy

This is just mad of course, as basil leaves can easily be grown on my balcony in the UK, whilst there are all kinds of exotic things that the sandwich chain might want to put in its recipes that tend to do better in tropical climes...whilst at the same time providing a living for poor people.

As Perry de Havilland from Samizdata notes:
"From a business point of view I can see their thinking as a much higher percentage of their clientele are likely to be middle class Guardian readers with an eco-fetish than impoverished Kenyan farmers desperately trying to get the European trading system to let them sell their damn products and really not needing a meme infecting the private sector that makes it even harder for them than it already is."

Ruta Guatemala in Madrid

A guide to all things Chapin in the Spanish capital, including mariachis and Pollo Campero.

Note the Starbucks employee bs-ing them about the coffee. It can't all be from Antigua as it's what the chain calls 'Guatemala Antigua'...and sells in much greater quantity than the entire annual cosecha of that fairly small region.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Last week's tour of the Tates served as a reminder of just how much drama and psychological engagement an top artists can project from a static two-dimensional canvas.

Paintings with multiple 'actors' often implicitly invite the viewer into the scene in such a way that we are compelled to look into the thoughts and motivations of its frozen participants.

Most film directors rely so heavily on the lines of plot, character and dialogue drawn across the whole narrative that they tend to forget about the drama of the moment.

Crialese's Respiro (2002) on the other hand, is an entire movie made up of such moments.

As I noted whilst dissing Notes on a Scandal recently, there is one scene in Respiro where the volatile Grazia is held down by various members of her family intent on delivering a sedative via a long needle where one has a vivid sense of engagement with the minds in play, calling forth a mood mixed from both violent compulsion and sensuality.

This combination of myth-making and evocative incident makes this movie a rather pleasing oddity. It's also a fine work of landscape art, with its very alluring presentation of the island of Lampedusa.


Sociologists from UCLA are using Facebook to study the relationship-forming habits of a whole year at another university over on the east coast. The students don't know this is happening, but their university does...

Stirring it up

He might have shelved his plan to prosecute the perpetrators of genocide in the Guatemalan civil war, but Judge Santiago Pedraz from Spain has now asked the media in seven countries to publish his quest for more information. (Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the United States.)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Berg's piano sonata

A one-movement sonata composed 1907-8 when the composer was just establishing his own style. Apparently it is roughly symmetrical and "a study in the use of chromatically 'altered' suspensions and passing-note chords." (Carner). I like it.

The Art of Political Murder (3)

Goldman has had a jolly good go at camping up most of Guatemala's recent history with his book.

Take for instance his descriptions of Major Francisco Escobar Blas, a man 'famous' with his troops for walking around with the severed heads of dead guerrillas; one in each hand. A man whose basilisk-like stare was so cold and intense that people imagined her was wearing eyeliner.

He also tries to effectively throw the defence's claim that the death of Bishop Gerardi was a lio de homosexuales back in its face, by late on asserting that two of the EMP officers previously mentioned in the book had been found in bed together and that the Limas and Diego
Arzú (the former President's apparently sexually-ambiguous offspring) were somehow connected with an up-market gay casa de citas in Zona 2, run by mysetrious femme fatale Martha Jane Melville Novella (who was also some kind of patron to Father Mario Orantes.)

Goldman also makes passing mention of the 1991 murder in Guatemala of Financial Times journalist Anson Ng, who had been investigating BCCI and its security agents, reportedly involved in a string of violent crimes and cover-ups in the US and elsewhere. Goldman doesn't go there, but Ng's demise has in the past been tied into the mother of all countercultural conspiracy theories known as The Octopus.

The Globe's gate

Before last weekend V had only ever visited the Globe Theatre in Second Life.

Having gained considerable experience with wrought iron decorations and other structures over in Antigua (mostly when we were building our house), what most impressed her with the actual exterior of the theatre last Sunday was its iron gate.

This features a whole array of mini-sculptures representing human and animal figures from the plays.

Guatemala accused of "discrediting" human rights

Judge Santiago Pedraz of Spain's National Court had a bit of a hissy fit this week when he finally had to abandon plans to prosecute eight Guatemalan nationals, including Efraín Ríos Montt and Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, for their supposed involvement in 'genocide' during the civil war years. He has found himself prevented from interviewing witnesses by the Guatemalan judiciary.

I can't help thinking that the recently-deceased Romeo Lucas García has got off rather lightly here. He certainly has a smaller Wikipedia entry than Ríos Montt.

And as I have noted before, it's odd that this persistent hounding of Guatemala's military should originate from one of the few countries where some individuals still think it's OK to hang a picture of Adolf Hitler above their fireplace.

Meanwhile, Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the five Guatemalan high court justices who threw out warrants for the arrest of the former military officials. "The magistrates ruled in a way that was both biased and discriminatory," Menchú said at a news conference, adding in a supporting document that the ruling "was based on biased idological considerations and probably even racist feelings ... and is a grave offense to our dignity."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

Many people, at least those not prone to blame the Government or the Yanks for the problem, are scratching their heads now wondering how the directors of the Northern Rock could have thought it prudent to operate under a business plan that was inherently vulnerable to a credit squeeze − around 70% of the bank's funding came from the wholesale markets i.e. international credit markets.

This means it was lending long term while borrowing short-term to keep itself afloat, so the moment last summer when the banks stopped lending to each other (not apparently a particularly rare occurrence) the game was up for Northern Rock, even though the its underlying assets (UK mortgages) were still sound.

Yet much the same kind of liquidity-dependence, albeit to a lesser extent, applies to UK PLC in general.

The City of London earns 19% of our GDP and in 2006 paid itself £19bn in bonuses. These sort of rewards have encouraged City types to squeeze more risk − and hence more opportunity − out of the system and they appear to have done this by fashioning an ever more complex, multi-dimensional game of pass the parcel... the debt parcel that is.

In this way the worldwide value of derivatives has approached twice the size of the global economy, and instead of taking their punts with other people's money, City financiers have in effect been taking them with other people's debt: every time someone signs up to a mortgage they package this debt up into some new kind of financial instrument that usually entails contrasting degrees of risk and transparency. And as the money from all this lovely leverage rolls in, their unfathomable incomes then force up the cost of homes wherever they decide to set up a pad. A cycle clearly, but not an endless one.

Now, your impractical cure for the world's ills might be buying organic produce grown in relative proximity to your residence. I'm afraid I tend to regard this plan as little more than well-intentioned snobbery, but I would have to admit that there's more than a whiff of exclusivity about my own.

I've been fortunate enough to have avoided ever becoming a net borrower and I would like others − especially those more in a position to do so − to consider this as a perfectly valid lifestyle choice.

It strikes me that a significant number of net borrowers are a danger to both themselves and society in general. You might say that they are deluding themselves into a form of debt-slavery by the attractions of a coach class version of capitalism, when the real action is going on down in the Square Mile. And as the bankers drive up the price of property, the mortgage-owners start to kid themselves that they are getting rich too, feeding their consumption habit with even more borrowing.

The soundtrack to this game of pass the parcel is now starting to slow down. The banks were the first to realise that the package itself was starting to feel fairly heavy. They might have thought it was pretty neat idea to use the very foundations of middle-class existence to fund their own more exclusive lifestyles, but given the way that the derivatives market can consistently outpace mere production, it is hard to be sure now just how wide the crater this debt crash leaves will be.

The Moral Instinct

Steven Pinker's New York Times article of that name is definitely worth a read.

In it he argues that the universal human tendency to moralise has five main, culturally-variable drivers: Authority, Purity, Community, Fairness and Harm. In the west for example we tend to prioritise fairness over community in our commercial dealings, but this is not the case in other societies where nepotism and cronyism are more prevalent. He also looks at the ways that some things in our culture have become moralised (food, smoking) whilst others are effectively downgraded into lifestyle choices (divorce, homosexuality etc.).

Interestingly, he suspects that "there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviours are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it."

The article is also replete with fascinating thought experiments.

Colom receives bastón

The wooden rod given to Colom by the Mayan elders symbolises his status as "President of a people, not of a group". I liked the way a personal dig against Serrano Elías was worked into the oath. (Thanks to Scott for the link.)

Famous Sunglasses

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A significant first

As part of his inauguration, Álvaro Colom has become the first Guatemalan President to take an oath before the Consejo of Mayan elders (400 of them in fact - somehow I don't think Pérez Molina would have fancied those odds!)

Notes on a Scandal

Depressingly British if Richard Curtis suddenly decided to do sinister for a change.

The Academy was right though: amidst all of the cringey stuff, Dame Judy Dench's realisation of the character of Barbara Covett is remarkable.

But the rest of the set-up is dire and Patrick Marber's script is predictably self-aware and theatrical.

Tellingly, we had watched the bizarre but stirring Euro-flick Respiro the night before, and V was to joke that there was more sensuality in the scene where Grazia's family pin her down in order to stick a needle in her backside than in any of those where Blanchett's bohemian frolicks with her oiky fifteen-year-old.

But it would be so un-British to play (and write) this as anything other than simply a device to set Barbara's machinations in motion.


Buried Mirror posted this video of Flores today. It certainly does seems a lot less skanky than when I first arrived on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá in 1988. It was actually the first proper town I saw in Guatemala (if you exclude Santa Elena across the causeway).

Las Flores is also the name of the location of our other terreno near Antigua, and our joint New Year's resolution this year has been to build a house on it, inspired in part by the volcanic rock constructions we saw in Lanzarote a couple of weeks ago.


Some doris from Colombia has been attacking the concrete floor of the Tate Modern's turbine hall with a pneumatic drill. Why?

"For Salcedo the crack reveals a colonial and imperial history that has been disregarded...the history of racism, running parallel to the history of modernity. Digging beneath the surface, Salcedo reconnects the building to...colonial and postclassical histories, to the operations of power and the ideological creation of artificial notions of difference and otherness."

This complete bollocks aside, Salcedo's Shibboleth fault line is a strangely fascinating piece of public art experience.

V and I stared down at other people (mainly children, who probably didn't understand the full socio-cultural implications) contemplating the gouging.

We were taking advantage of our river roamer ticket before Masthouse Pier closed for ten weeks yeterday. This enabled us to spend some time at the Tate Modern before dashing across to Tate Britain, a building I hadn't visited since it housed the whole collection, pre-Millennium. We were both stopped in our tracks by the captivating luminosity of John Singer Sargeant's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, pretty much the first canvas that grabs you as you wander into the historical section.

V was also fascinated by the eighteenth century contributions, noting that life was pretty awful back then because you clearly couldn't just throw on an old pair of jeans and head outdoors without a great deal of personal we ourselves had done that Sunday morning.

Update: TC has reliably informed me that this crack in the ground cost $600,000 to produce, which is effectively twice the average price of a two-bedroomed house with a pool over in the states (though also roughly equivalent to the cost of Diputada Baldetti's new gaff in Juan Gaviota).

Another update: How many times have I heard the anchors on TVe announcing something like 'Jorsse Boos left Wassington to go fissing'. It's odd that Bush should be such a sibbolett for Iberian espanish espeakers. Western-hemisphere Latins generally don't struggle with the SH sound in English. I can't actually think of any to plague V with, but she will occasionally hit me with something like "El perro paró para comer la pera".

In the wrong business

Just a day before EMI announced that they will have to shed up to 2000 jobs, the FT reported that the same firm spends up to $50m each year disposing of unsold CDs.

Bubble, what bubble?

The Beeb's Digital Planet team met some optimistic seed-funders from Silicon Valley in Oxford last week. One such, Paul Graham, came out with some choice remarks which made me laugh out loud:

"The venture capital funds are swollen right now; it's not a problem of lack of money it's a problem of lack of ideas."

And on Bubble 2.0:

"We haven't seen any sign of it yet, in fact if anything, it's getting easier and easier for start-ups to raise money."

Well, Duh!

Monday, January 14, 2008


If Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens are not entirely to your taste, there's always the late Shaikh Ahmed Deedat, whose version of 'comparative religion' was an altogether different kind of Bible bashing. (I first came across him on the Peace TV. Well, they weren't going to call it Jihad TV, were they?)

On a separate note, I was listening to a very interesting interview with entomologist and sociobiologist E.O.Wilson this weekend. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, he has deliberately sought to ally himself with religious believers in his campaign to promote biodiversity, because he believes they are much less likely to harbour venal motives than their secular counterparts. Wilson's new environmentalist tract is rather pointedly called Creation.

A bit more Deedat here.

New Presidente

Today Guatemala gets a new man in the top job and the pollsters have been out asking citizens what they think of the nation's prospects.

47 percent believe it will soon be better off, about 29 percent think it will stay the same, while 17 percent expect life to be worse.

Four years ago, when Oscar Berger took office, only 39 percent of Guatemalans polled in the same newspaper (El Periódico) expected the country to be better managed, while 21 percent thought things would get worse. (The pessimists were generally right that time, though the economy has been fairly robust.)

Amongst the invited dignitaries to Colom's inauguration are Felipe, Príncipe de Asturias. Presumably his dad is doing a bunk because advisors didn't fancy him renewing his slanging match with Hugo Chávez, one of 15 heads of state also attending.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian is turning up in an effort to fend off China's attempts to lure away the island's diplomatic allies across Central America. Colom has already said that he expects to forge stronger ties with China.

Friday, January 11, 2008

This is my home...and it's not so bad

There's an interesting article by Gary Mason in Canada's Globe and Mail about a Mara 18 leader known as Abuelo in Guatemala's Centro Preventivo.

The Art of Political Murder (2)

Commenting on my last post on Goldman's book, 'Gucchi' observes that the 'well-intentioned' have been pleased to see any military men convicted for the bishop's murder, regardless of whether they were in fact the actual perpetrators.

Now there is a degree of truth in this. In a country where no soldier had in recent memory stood trial for a political crime, just getting the Limas, father and son, into the courtroom was something many might well have been inclined to celebrate as an end in itself. Especially when one goes on to consider how little the penitentiary system in Guatemala resembles what outsiders might regard as the implementation of justice. (Captain Lima seemed for a while to be better off inside where he was deriving a substantial monthly income in US Dollars from phone card sales and from renting out the seats used by prisoners with visitors ...amongst other things.)

It certainly doesn't escape my well-intentioned eye that the Limas (plus Villanueva and Father Mario) were ultimately convicted without a jury, on the basis of evidence provided, in the main, by people who were in some way compromised by having been part of the military apparatus themselves, and not obviously inclined to full disclosure.

In Goldman's account Father Mario comes across as somewhat unlikeable, but his three co-defendants would grace any maximum security jail even if they were ultimately found to have had no part in this particular killing.

That several potential witnesses were murdered and many more threatened (even the judge was wearing a bullet-proof vest in court) must also contribute to the sense that one isn't dealing here with a classic case of miscarried justice. My favourite piece of intimidation was the trick of getting all the office and mobile phones of the prosecution team to ring at the same time, a moment which Goldman likens to a scene from a Japanese horror movie!

There are times though when Goldman does seem to show signs of sympathy for Captain Lima, who was perhaps only obeink orderz in the time-honoured fashion and appears to have sacrificed a promising career in return for protecting his superiors.

Goldman's book appeals to me for its essentially novelistic nature. As such it can really be enjoyed by anyone with only a passing interest in Guatemala and the gruesome murder of one its clergymen. Indeed, Goldman appears to have latched onto Guatemala's 'crime of the century' as a device for sucking every lurid tale he's ever heard about the country into a single narrative. It really is, as a former boss of mine used to say, the full ball of wax.

More on Sergeant Major Obdulio Villanueva in another post...

Monday, January 07, 2008

Credit crunch

Spiked is featuring an interesting essay by Phil Mullan on the credit crunch. He notes that unlike the downturns of the early twentieth century the current cycle isn't rooted in fundamental production problems. Instead the overheating of the upward credit spiral has been exacerbated on this occasion by the banks' misguided attempt to transfer risk through derivatives which spread the subprime debt through the system in such a way that nobody can now be sure who will be left holding the parcel when the music stops.

And Mullan suspects that the UK economy could be amongst the worst hit by this 'contamination' because of its relative dependance on the tie between inflating house prices and credit-fuelled consumerism plus the disproportionate dimensions of its financial services sector.

The Art of Political Murder (1)

The early part of this year ('Y28' apparently) will see me pass the anniversary of twenty years of visits to Guatemala.

Two decades of familiarity with the country and its colourful local political scene had led me to believe that there was little left that could genuinely shock me about it, but Francisco Goldman's account of the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi and its aftermath had my jaw on the floor on numerous occasions. Such as when I learned that recruits to elite units in the Guatemalan armed forces have to slit the throats of puppies given to them when they sign up, and that G-2 (military intelligence) trainees are sometimes sent out to commit random homicides in the skankier zones of the capital as part of their initiation.

Men that I had hitherto admired like Álvaro Arzú and Mario Vargas Llosa also come out of this caper with damaged reputations.

Rather than review the book in detail today, I will publish several posts over the next week or so that address its main findings/allegations.

In essence however, Goldman presents the slaying of the bishop as an extrajudicial killing planned for months by the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP) and other leading figures in the military. Three men apparently present when the concrete slab was swung into the Monsignor's face did finally end up in jail, breaking Guatemala's long tradition of impunity for these kind of political crimes. One of these men, Father Mario Orantes was the parish priest at the church where the murder took place.

Another was the son of a Colonel fingered by the REHMI report, and possibly the only member of the senior planning team to be prosecuted thus far. Goldman likens the powerful men in the state (and parallel state) who had some kind of 'dominion' over this crime − they had it in their power to prevent it − to a 'ring of tigers' formed as each animal clamps the tail of the next one in its jaws.

Failed Presidential candidate and former head of both the EMP and G-2 General Otto Pérez Molina may not have been directly involved, but crops up in later witness testimony as one of several high ranking officers that felt the need to be in the area on the night of April 26, 1998 in order to bear official witness to the execution of Gerardi.