Monday, March 31, 2008

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)













Here we go, I thought. Spooky old house, creaking doors, mongoloids in masks, heaps of melodrama and a bothersome derivativeness that had me mentally reviewing the signature techniques of several earlier scary movies (The Shining, Dark Water, Don't Look Now, The Others and everything the producer Guillermo del Toro has done whilst sitting in the director's seat.)

And then after about 30 minutes I realised I was actually terrified. All of these things had cumulatively attacked my subconscious and it no longer mattered at all what I made of it all on an intellectual level. (And Cantabria is to Spain what Scotland is the UK in terms of innate creepiness. The place is full of semi-deserted villages around which you can occasionally detect the furtive movements of strange stunted old people with odd limps.)

Del Toro's creative stamp is clear, because there is a careful interpenetration of the naturalistic and supernaturalistic storylines. I would say however that in this case it would be harder to rationalise away all the spooky-fantastical elements and although children are involved it is a grown up orphan this time who acts as the bridge between the two.

The film won seven Goyas including the awards for best screenplay (Sergio G. Sánchez) and best new director (Juan Antonio Bayona). Belén Rueda was sitting rather prominently in the theatre that night wearing her poshest frock and was taunted a little cruelly by the host after she was overlooked for the best actress Goya. Juan Antonio Bayona is definitely a director to watch out for.

I try to keep this blog spoiler-free, but if you have seen the film there's a great 'condensed review' here.

House Cooling

I threw a house-cooling party on Saturday which featured all the usual tropes including desperate calls from the porter to prompt us to turn the music down (Fish brought his hard-core trance collection), wine on the carpet and overnight crashers.

Gibnut arrived first and was soon focussed on getting some smoke out of my little collection of copal incense. He managed to share this fascination with other guests and once the appropriate container had been located, a decent little plume was achieved.

In the morning I was actually quite glad that the sitting room smelled (mainly) like the interior of a church in Guatemala.


I've read three hardback first editions in the past month and all of them featured either spelling errors or word ommisions. Don't publishers proof-read their authors' manuscripts any more? I've made a mental note to see if these mistakes reappear in the paperback editions. My suspicion is that we 'early adopters' are paying for the privilege of joining a distributed network of amateur copy-checkers.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Overgrazing of the blog commons

As my seven years of working within the UK PR industry draw to a close, I thought it might be appropriate to throw out a few observations on where my particular field appears to be heading. Here's the first of them.

The perhaps rather counter-intuitive notion that the blogosphere is a more finite PR resource than the traditional media doesn't seem to have achieved widespread enough currency to prevent the rather obvious consequences of 'overgrazing'.

For many years interactive expertise was seen as just the kind of higher-value service that would allow agency do-ers to position themselves more consistently as consultancy thinkers.

The rise of social media has upset this model somewhat, because suddenly digital stuff began to look much less esoteric and clever and rather more like what everyone else had been doing all along: media relations. In other words the kind of activity where social skills were deemed vastly more important than 'techie' ones, and agency-type services could earn a tidy premium without anyone having to do the intellectual gym-work needed to move up into the division where the likes of McKinsey ply their trade.

Except of course that building relationships with bloggers is not really agency grunt work at all and whereas PR professionals can usually recover from burning a relationship with a particular publication, the strong association between most blogs with a single individual mean that there's much more to building valuable relationships in the blogosphere than targeting 'lists' of topic commentators.

Capo v Capo

The identity of the Mexican drugs capo who died in the big inter-group shooting session earlier in the week would appear to be Juan ('Juancho') León, "alguien de peso", according to El Periódico .

He was in the habit of moving around with two vehicles and 24 bodyguards. But then it seems, he ran into the equally well-armed men of narcotraficante Joaquín ' el Chapo' Guzmán of the 'Blood Alliance'.

In all the investigating Cacos picked up 16 AR-15 and M-16 rifles (the sort used by the US Army), 14 pistols, several fragmentation grenades and around 500 bullets."Only a group devoted to drug traffic is able to buy those kinds of weapons and carry them with total impunity," notes PNC Deputy Director Henry
López, in the Prensa Libre.

Arnoldo Waldemar León Lara, Juancho's step-brother has immediately stepped in to take over control of the briefly leaderless group of narcos.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Thames Town

Evi sent me this pic of Thames Town in Songjiang near Shanghai today. It's a bizarrely cramped, ersatz version of an English provincial town. It even has pubs "inspired by Birmingham".

There will be 8000 residents, mostly senior academics and factory managers. A three-bedroom villa will set you back around $800,000. Truman Show anyone?

And what would Umberto Eco make of it?

All the Pretty Horses

One man's mythic western might well be another man's telenovela, I had concluded on finishing Cormac McCarthy's most populist novel last year.

Of course most of what counts for literature in the book has been taken out, but Billy Bob Thornton has certainly added some visual poetry of his own. You are still left wondering whether this particular mix of genre-types is a good or a bad thing however.

I was right that Damon and Cruz would be mis-cast, Penélope in particular. (And yet she possibly hasn't looked lovelier in any of her English-language outings.) Their relationship (which had some off-screen substance as well) is oddly undramatic. That they will pair up and then split up is unengagingly predictable and there isn't enough of the extraordinary in Damon to capture the essence of John Grady Cole.

Thornton made a four hour movie and then had it cut back to under two. A good deal of McCarthy's signature riding around has been left out, but so too one senses have some crucial scenes, especially in the penitentiary and beyond. Thornton's Mexico never really seems Mexican enough either.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

No country for old men?

Ten men died in a big shoot out near Teculután (about 60 miles east of Guatemala City) yesterday. Afterwards Guatemalan police captured six heavily armed characters in a vehicle, three of them Mexicans. They also recovered 10 automatic rifles, 10 handguns and two grenades from the crime scene, where they found five abandoned cars, two of which had been set ablaze.

Based on the current murder rate in Guatemala, close to 30,000 will have died violently there since the start of the Iraq war. Compare that to the 46,000 deaths in Baghdad in the same period, much utilised as a shock statistic (or indeed compare it even to the stats often used to make the 30-year civil war in Guatemala sound especially brutal) and you get a better sense of the comparative levels of bloodletting...which contrasts rather strongly with their comparative attractiveness as tourist destinations.

Teculután is said to be a perfect location for growing cantaloupe. Last night V watched a broadcast of the President of Honduras tucking into a big juicy melon grown (apparently) just over the border. This performance was intended as an act of brave defiance against the gringos who have accused Honduras of exporting melons carrying salmonella bacteria.

"I eat this fruit without any fear," Zelaya said with his mouth full. "It's a delicious fruit. Nothing happens to me!"

14 people have been hospitalized in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, claim the FDA.

Er...that's 16 states. "Logically, we believe it is an error"?

Eighties rediscoveries (2)

Nothing much changes...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Eighties rediscoveries (1)

Some of the stuff that survived the move from Artemis Court to Neptune Court won't be making the cut for the transatlantic sea voyage in April. This includes my old collection of 45s. In many cases though I have kept the paper sleeves and in a subset of these I have re-downloaded the tracks from the Net. This was one such:

I used to find Lene Lovich quite scary!

And other great Christian commercial pitches.

The complete boys' and girls' sets were the scariest for me. (From Dark Roasted Blend)


Vilma Zamora and Sandra Leonardo, a pair of lawyers retained by the Casa Quivira adoption agency located at the entrance to Panorama, have now been charged with fraud and human trafficking. The investigation has turned up numerous irregularities, including at least five cases in which birth mothers were allegedly given false identities to avoid having to seek permission from family members and a judge to give up their babies. Eighteen other mothers could not be found under the identities that case files provided, prosecutors have said.

And Guatemala lost on penalties, twice, in the final stages of the CONCACAF pre-Olympic soccer tournament and so won't be going to Beijing after all...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Vantage Point

A number of recent releases have been rather odd hybrids between clever and dumb movies. I'm thinking of The Kingdom, Charlie Wilson's War and now this.

If Charlie Wilson's War was just dumb enough to pack the multiplexes, Vantage Point is just clever enough to the tweak the interest of people that know something of Rashômon and other more cerebral cinematic fare.

There was a very distinct sigh from a few rows behind us when the action rewound to the beginning of the 11 minute period in question for the fourth time, but Surfer and I agreed later that this rather willful structural eccentricity had ultimately failed to forestall the overall levels of tension and excitement, which were higher than either of us had expected. And Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker certainly add a note of quality which would otherwise be absent.

Surfer wasn't too pleased however with the manner in which the baddies were finally thwarted, which I have seen elsewhere described as the moment the film went from Groundhog Day to Scooby Doo ("If it wasn't for those pesky kids...").

He did however note that it was a good thing that the plot never became "too convoluted" yet on reflection I'm wondering whether it was actually convoluted enough. You definitely have the sensation of being spun around an empty core in the manner of the most recent Jason Bourne outing, but here the problem is that you never quite understand what is at stake beyond the danger to the person of a ficitional US President. (Though the fact that the relationships between the 'terror suspects' are only partially revealed through the various vantage points is one way in which the movie did manage to leave me thinking.)

The car chase is definitely edited in the post-Bourne manner, but perhaps this is less a homage to the shaky camera hand of Paul Greengrass than an attempt to disguise the fact that apart from the Plaza Mayor itself, all the exterior urban scenes were shot in Mexico and not in the quiet university town of Salamanca. Spain is portrayed here as the antechamber to a seethingly Islamic North Africa.

Good to see Eduardo Noriega in a mainstream Hollywood flick. The role of his character is however one of the key unresolved mysteries.

Charlie Wilson's War

Starts off well in almost every respect and you think, with a script like this and such energising central performances, this is going to take me somewhere interesting...and then it doesn't.

By the end even the characters played by Hanks and Seymour Hoffman have started to sag, and both Surfer and I thought the inclusion of archive footage of real Russians getting fried in moments intended as light satirical comedy was fairly tasteless.

As a story about opportunistic arms-dealing Lord of War is ultimately more satisfying, largely because it has a story.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

We were trying...honest

After a 0-5 thrashing last Sunday by Canada in the under-23s pre-Olympic qualifying event, Guatemalan fans in San Diego celebrated as if they had won a stunning victory. Their team had already qualified and the result left Mexico needing a victory over Haiti by six clear goals.

In the end they managed only a 5-1 victory and will be missing out on Beijing, which is of course shattering news for the Guatemalans! Hugo Sanchez must be worried about his job as head coach of el Tri. Meanwhile Guatemala will play Honduras in the semis later today. A win will book their ticket for the Games.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


It's passive smoking time again in La Antigua Guatemala...

Uribe on the war path?

A very muddled piece of journalism this from Global Daily Insight yesterday:

"Guatemala's Alvaro Uribe government is facing fresh potential for social protests after a rural demonstrator implicated in the kidnap of four Belgian tourists was injured in the military operation to restore their freedom. Mario Caal was among the residents of Livingston (Izabal province) in Guatemala’s Caribbean area who took four Belgian holiday-makers—Gabriel Van Huysse, Marie Paul Duboise, Eric Stofferis, and Jenny Belaen—hostage last Friday (14 March)....Guatemala’s Human Rights Comptroller General (PDH) has opened a probe into the alleged 'extrajudicial execution' of Caal."

So, was Caal mildly inconvenienced, injured or terminated? And has Uribe now invaded Guatemala as well?!

Arthur C. Clarke

"Adams, Clarke, both gone now," lamented the Professor last night as we chatted about the writers who had perhaps most influenced our boyhood imaginations. A Fall of Moondust and Rendezvous with Rama were particular landmarks for me.

Sadly Anthony Anthony Minghella died too yesterday. I have to say though that I disliked every movie of his that I saw, with the single exception of The Talented Mr Ripley which I'm sure I will always be fond of.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fantastically entertainingly wrong

Jason Isaacs takes on Mark Kermode on his pet subject...

Do I not sound coherent?

For Sport Relief Kermode and Mayo did their weekly film review running around the quad at Eton!

Chupetes Chupetes!

Semana Santa is underway again and already has 113 great pics from the Palm Sunday procession.

Presidential Veto

Colom has vetoed the bill that would have restored the death penalty to Guatemala. Whilst senior figures in the Catholic Church have supported the Guatemalan President's decision, the evangelicals have reacted with some typically befuddled logic: Pastor Jorge H. López of the Christian Brotherhood of Guatemala for instance, notes that "God created us in his image and likeness and, therefore, anyone who destroys His image and likeness deserves the maximum possible punishment."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Belgos y Chinos

The same peasants who recently kidnapped a bunch of police officers near Livingston went a step further this weekend and took four Belgian tourists hostage. They have been protesting at the arrest of local campesino kingpin Ramiro Choc, who may well have been released after the Belgians (aged 59-64) were themselves set free after 40 hours, following what has been described in the media as a 'swap'.

Meanwhile, following a programme on Korean TV which suggested that nationals of that country were being specifically targeted by violent criminals in Guatemala, the Korean embassy has explained that only 24 crimes have been perpetrated against Koreans since 2003 (two kidnappings, three murders and 19 robberies), a drop in the ocean when one considers the total of 5,781 violent deaths over there in 2007 alone.

Rafael Salazar, the Chapin ambassador in Seoul has also helpfully pointed out that Guatemalans can't tell the difference between 'chinos' (Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) and so the suggestion that the Chinese community is left alone because of the way it tends to fight back, is "not true".

Substantial Korean migration to Guatemala from the late 80s, generally with the intention to open small and medium-sized textile factories. Today there are more than 180 Korean-owned garment factories in the country, the largest being Shingwang Textiles. There are approximately 10,000 Korean residents in Guatemala.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


There was another amusing piece in today's Sunday Times about how France's insouciant superstar President is being blung down by aides.

Henceforth Sarko must not 1) take questions from hacks wearing (only?) jogging shorts 2) pick fights with members of the public and 3) fiddle with his Blackberry during meetings with more bottled-up public figures such as Pope Benedict and HM the Queen.


I recall having a bit of a gripe about the totalitarian undertones in the Chinese epic Hero. Here though, the implied politics never really get in the way of what is essentially a masterfully stylised piece of entertainment.

I guess it's a bit like Fox News and Al Jazeera, when the bias is bared fully, abs-n-all, it feels less threatening than the hidden messaging of channels that affect to objectivity.

The Spartans, who famously dominated the ancient political scene after their immortal encounter with the Persians at Thermopylae (yet apparently left little of substance behind for modern scholars and tourists to pour over), have ironically achieved a more covert but still durable legacy: as Western civilisation's inner Fascist.

And this is what makes their culture, such as we know of it, as abidingly fascinating as that of their perhaps equally-flawed long-term adversary, pluralistic Athens.

Still, there's something more Germanic than Hellenic about Zack Snyder's Spartan warriors, whilst back home their domestic political arrangements appear to be a lot more consultative than I'd gathered from my own classical education. Great fun though, and in places absolutely hilarious.

Time then for another viewing of this:

Update: One of the ironies of this movie, seen by some as a jingoistic prognostication on the confrontation between the West and Iran, is that the symbolic roles are easy to invert. Which ancient Greek state was more totalist and Taliban-like than Sparta? Which had a culture that was as obsessed with the good death as it was the good life? And doesn't the Persia of Xerxes look rather like a decadent bully of a superpower trying − and failing − to have its way through sheer military might? (In 300 the Spartans are also depicted as particularly camp homophobes, − also very Talibanesque− but of course in reality pederasty was more or less compulsory in that part of the Peloponnese.)


Nothing like a good North London put-down and AA Gill's review of Market in the Sunday Times today, had an enjoyable one:

"Camden, a little stretch of London’s lower colon that has aspirations of being north Notting Hill, but is really south St Albans. Someone tried to set it on fire a month ago. Fire engines and news crews turned up to watch, but unfortunately, the rain put it out."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Decreto 48-92

Loadsa drugs being burned in Guatemala...

Up until now these incineration operations have been taking place around twenty days after a judge has authorised them.

According to El Periódico the PP are currently trying to push through Decreto 48-92 which would reduce that to a maximum of three.

It would also allow captured drugs to be burned in situ instead of bringing them up to the capital for warehousing, an obvious "temptation" say the PP deputies. The debate continues...

Back in the days

When Spain thought Eurovision was a serious cultural event they got NUL POINTS for this daringly ethnic ditty (1983):

Baila el Chikichiki

Spain's entry into this year's Eurovision Song Contest...a real winner!

Road to Cobán

Another great pic from Scott − this time on the road to Cobán, just past Chicaman and Uspantan, where they are "blowing out a road and bulldozing boulders down into the Rio Negro" (aka Chixoy in Q'eqchi).

Not a journey I'd fancy making on a chicken bus!

A Mighty Heart

The DVD extras include the news interview that the real Mariane Pearl gave in Pakistan before her husband's brutal execution was confirmed. In it she has a bright-eyed appeal, an immediate like-ability, that Angelina Jolie singularly fails to capture in her own version of this moment.

For this film to make sense, one has to feel sympathy with the Pearls and their circle and with the apparently humanistic motivations which brought them to that place at that time. And this is unfortunately where Winterbottom's movie left me cold. In fact, where I imagine he intended me to feel the strength of these characters, I sensed only their presumption. And it is surely off-putting that in such a messed up place the liberal intelligentsia should end up being one of the least appealing factions.

John Orloff's screenplay seems very coy about the murdered journalist's Jewishness (and I suppose Mariane's too − she is shown practicing Buddhism). I find it very hard to believe that a man named Daniel Pearl could have been so naive as to go about his business under the assumption that nobody in Pakistan would know he was Jewish unless he told them, especially as his business involved fixing up dinner dates with known Jihadi kidnapper-murderers.

Still the documentary-style film-making is hightly effective, and features a particularly thought-provoking, restrained treatment of the issue of torture. (I did wonder though why Omar, the most senior Jihadi detained, was apparently treated with more deference.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Scott sent me this great pic from Zona 1 in Guate which he took on the trip he has just returned from.

He also reported that he had heard − from multiple sources − that Guatemala's cops now have to pay for their own bullets.

It is apparently hoped that this will disincentivise them from randomly shooting people, but they are just as likely to avoid using lethal force when perhaps they really ought to...por tacaños!


The credit crunch in the US is starting to affect economies further south in an interesting way: the flow of dollars remitted by Latin Americans to their home countries has begun to weaken.

In Mexico for instance, these remesas represent the second largest source of 'foreign investment' while in Haiti they account for a third of the local economy. The weakness of the Dollar and a slow-down in the US construction industry are aggravating factors.

Yet as the currencies in countries like Mexico and Guatemala largely share the fate of the Dollar, travel writers are starting to sing the praises of such destinations, because their money hasn't lost its purchasing power down there to quite the extent that it has elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bards and Priests

In James Meek's new novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent war correspondent Adam Kellas distinguishes between two types of writer: the Bard and the Priest. The one tells stories while the other sells ideas. Each in some way yearns to be like the other.

I've tended to see this slightly differently.

Many of the writers I admire appear to possess two fundamentally different natures, which I shall call their fictional self and their non-fiction self.

For instance, men like Saramago and
García Márquez are both Marxists of the rabid persuasion in their non-fictional modes, but men of great compassion and multi-dimensional wisdom once they settle down to pen fictional realities.

I can see this in my own blogging persona. Of course one wants to have lots of slightly beserk nose-ascending opinions to deploy electronically every day, but one also has to feed the perspective engine chugging away in the background, because all good writers know that opinions are just a toe-dip into something deeper.

Yet there are some (good) writers I can think of, such as Richard Dawkins and AA Gill where the non-fictional, idea-selling urge dominates to such an extent that their compassionate novelistic side has atrophied.

Asne Seierstad

Is the author of The Bookseller of Kabul and now The Angel of Grozny. I've listened to a couple of BBC radio interviews with her over the past month which left me with mixed impressions. On R5 with Simon Mayo she sounded bubbly, intelligent and fun-to-know. Then on R3's Nightwaves she came across as self-regarding and generally rather insufferable.

Perhaps the very nature of the two programme formats played a role in this, and the fact that the questioning on the supposedly more high-brow broadcast covered more controversial ground, such as her legal falling out with the book-selling subject of her debut publication.

It may also be the case that the latter interview somehow also reawakened some of my semi-enterred prejudices concerning female Scandinavian do-gooders, acquired during my days at the UN (NGO section) in New York in '85 and then over twenty years of experience in Central America.

I've not read The Bookseller of Kabul though, and am feeling suitably intrigued by this exposure to the new book's publicity.

Darkness visible

Guatemala uses around 1,300 megawatts of power daily and could potentially have saved 60 megawatts a day by switching to daylight savings time, as had been planned, but yesterday President Colom announced that this wouldn't be happening after all because it would mean too many people walking into work in the dark, and thus exposing themselves to crime.

My favourite time in Antigua is around first light (say 6am) when the streets start to fill with workers and pupils hurrying to their various destinations. It would indeed be a shame for this spectacle to be plunged into darkness for a measely 60 megawatts!

According to Rajiv Chandrasekaran the US pledged to deliver 6000 megawatts to Iraq when the occupation began but only managed around 4000 during Bremer's term: roughly equivalent to the power generated by Saddam under UN sanctions.

The dictator was smarter than the men that replaced him though because he had concentrated what he had on Baghdad. Beyond ensuring that their own secure area was powered up 24 hours a day, the Americans attempted to distribute electricity more equitably across the regions, which meant that the people immediately outside the Green Zone's walls were highly prone to anger-inducing black-outs.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Perhaps Rajiv Chandrasekaran's key insight in his award-winning non-fiction book is that the dark comedy of Baghdad's Green Zone would in fact be the more lastingly interesting story than the tragic chaos and violence building up outside in the 'Red Zone'.

In other words, while other journalists used the mounting toll of dead bodies to throw into relief the upbeat statements made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) run by 'Viceroy' L.Paul Bremer III, this senior reporter from the Washington Post chose instead to slowly unpick the internal pyschological drivers of America's imperialist folly.

The CPA existed within the the Green Zone life-support system, devised and managed by Halliburton and featuring many things unknown to Baghdad residents on the outside, such as uninterrupted power and water and eat-all-you-can, southern-style buffets. The teams of mostly young administrators working in this environment, by nature "earnest and parochial" were also generally under-resourced and under-qualified and prone to be deluded by their controlled existence in this 'bubble' into embarking on pet initiatives (like anti-smoking legislation) which were not exactly germane to the immediate problem of rebuilding a shattered nation.

After passing legislation on copyright law and genetically-modified organisms, the Neocons' fiscal experimentation included reducing the basic level of taxation on individuals and companies from 45% to 15% and removing all import taxes. As a result of the latter order, 500,000 cars flooded into Iraq from neighbouring countries and soon Iraq's refineries were unable to cope with all this demand for petrol. American soldiers that found themselves stuck in traffic jams in their Humvees weren't too chuffed about it either. But never mind. Soon someone had gone on the Internet and printed out the traffic code from the state of Maryland and important new rules (such as always keeping both hands on the steering wheel) were being imposed on bemused Iraqi motorists.

Chandrasekaran shows how many of the individuals given key posts of responsibility during the life of the CPA (April 2003-June 2004) had been picked because they said the right things about abortion and the 2000 Presidential election in their interviews. Half of them had needed to get their first passport in order to travel to Iraq. And where security was an issue "I used to be a SEAL" was often the magic, door opening phrase.

Now, whilst the Iraqis were indeed eager for American politics (which many associated with being able to do whatever they wanted) they were altogether less keen on American economics, which made a good many of them unemployed during the occupation, particularly former army members and workers in state industries. The Bremer-mandated process of de-BAATHification was also especially damaging as it left many corporations and academic institutions rudderless.

The Neocons were desperate to create a "robust private sector", but had to contend with the small obstacle of the Hague Convention (1899) which sought to deny occupying powers the right to dispose of other countries' assets as they see fit. Still, finding that the state-run banks had $2bn in deposits yet only $1bn in assets, the CPA decided to forgive the inter-company debts of state run enterprises, which had the effect of ruining some of the better ones and delivering a much undeserved windfall to others.

Unintended, unwanted consequences were the result of their efforts in the political sphere as well. The lack of a recent census meant that it was going to be hard to determine the exact regional representation in the planned new democratic congress, so Bremer cut through the problem and promulgated in CPA Order 96 that Iraq would be a single electoral constituency. This disadvantaged smaller local parties and empowered some of the more virulent nutjobby factions operating at national level. Chandrasekaran also reckons that American attempts at social engineering created divisions between ethnic groups which had never been felt so strongly before.

The end result was not the balanced, secular Jeffersonian democracy devoted to liberal economic principles that the Neocons had surely envisaged.

Yee haw is not a foreign policy - British army graffiti in Baghdad.

Western moral superiority?

The Livelink atheist has had a full-on rant about the moral inferiority of Islam compared, in this case, to 'Europe'.

People do tend to forget that only a half century ago homosexuality was illegal in Britain and women were expected to stay at home. (Granted however that we weren't stoning adulterers and chopping people's heads off Saudi-style, as my father pointed out when I last deployed this argument.)

Spain, with its comparatively late destape, is a particular case in point I think:

− 1964: First woman in a bikini appears in movie approved for Spanish viewers
− 1976: First bare nipple visible in print
− 1978: First sex shop opens in Madrid.

Iberian Catholicism has always taken on board the intellectual gunk of bodily mortification discharged from St Paul's somewhat twisted, misogynistic worldview. And while they may have legalised gay marriage in the past four years the Church remains a powerful player in Spanish politics and the state still pays the wages of the priesthood.

Anyway, what is really interesting in these cases is the gap between the producers and consumers of righteousness. In Spain it widened gradually to the point that the vests painted on to the naked torsos of boxers on the sports pages of Spanish newspapers became a public joke. (And Franco's Spain had one of the world's highest pregnancy termination rates: 35%)

However, in other more resiliently traditional societies, the general population and the killjoys often have little to disagree about. And the typical secular reaction to honour killings in the suburbs may perhaps work to harden this consensus.

Richard Dawkins's response to the apparent intellectual backwardness of people with a fundamentalist religious outlook has generally tended to be mockery. He does however admit that this makes him a "bad politician" and that he is probably a recruiter for the other side.

This admission was teased out of him by Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian in their recent debate. Unlike the ranting atheist in the video she feels that disrespecting the minds of the deeply religious is largely unconstructive and a renunciation of our political responsibility of communicating across cultural barriers and seeking out common solutions: a very difficult process of negotiation, she insists.

In the case of British Muslims she notes that "splitting our sides laughing at a minority who are economically very marginalised and very insecure" is almost certainly not going to help.

What Dawkins calls the "inferiority complex" of the religious nutjobs she softens into "a sense of insecurity" which, she adds, is being fed by a traumatic and ultimately humiliating encounter with Western modernity and globalisation.

It's a very interesting clash of views. My natural sympathies lie with the atheists and I agree with the proposition that many of my fellow citizens have been "conditioned to believe that what they should think is more important than what they do think" and that secularists are in some political and cultural danger themselves from the creeping demands of the righteous. However, outright dissing of the non-secular worldview (and personal identity) of the vast majority of people alive on Earth today really isn't the best practical way forward with this crucial issue of our times.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Hortifruti, aw rutti

Mercy Corps, USAID (where my sister-in law works), Wal-Mart (you heard right) and the Guatemalan nonprofit Fundación AGIL announced on Wednesday the launch of a four-way alliance called the Inclusive Market Alliance for Rural Entrepreneurs, described as "a bold solution to Guatemala's persistent rural poverty."

It's backed by financial commitments of $1.1 million from USAID, $600,000 from Wal-Mart, and $500,000 from Mercy Corps.

It's a bold move indeed to try to solve Guatemala's poverty problem with $2.2m, but the general idea is to wean Mayan farmers away from traditional corn and beans towards demand-driven production geared to supply major retailers such as Wal-Mart. The latter's role will be to advise participating small-holders through its local wholesaler Hortifruti, which will be aiming to provide these budding rural risk-takers with a consistent market for their new produce.

"Wal-Mart is committed to the future of Central America, and we are proud to be part of efforts to promote economic growth and improve quality of life in the region," notes Ignacio Perez, CEO of Wal-Mart Centroamerica. "Through this Alliance, we will be able to buy more quality product directly from more small, family-run farms. Farmers' standards of living will increase, and our customers will benefit from access to a wider variety of better products at competitive prices." All very gana-gana, as they say.

Nicaragua has broken off diplomatic relations with Colombia now too...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Early warning system?

Dr Chris Smith, stand-in last week for Dr Karl on R5's up-all-night science phone-in dismissed any suggestion that animals have a knack for detecting earthquakes before we humans feel the earth start to move. He should spend some time in my house in Guatemala, where we have more seismic events annually than there are days in the year and four domestic animal residents.

The Harry Wales antidote

Mike Hume of Spiked: "There is an assumption that, in contrast to the debacle in Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan is Britain and America’s ‘good war’, launched after the 9/11 terror attacks on America. Yet the Afghan War rather well symbolises the incoherence and lack of purpose in the West’s ‘war on terror’. Those pictures of Prince Harry firing his machine gun into the desert brought to my mind once more Conrad’s description, in The Heart of Darkness, of a French warship blindly ‘firing into a Continent’ off the coast of colonial Africa."

The Flat Earth News debate

Last night I went along to a debate about churnalism incited by Nick Davies's Flat Earth News which was hosted by Press Gazette at at the London School of Arts and Communications.

I haven't read the book and its author kicked off by saying he didn't really want to talk about it and the reactions it has caused, but he did seem to be offering a concise summary of its polemical drift: there are fewer, more time-poor journalists around these days and the pressures imposed on them by increasingly commercial owners and editors mean that they are failing to carry out their sacred mission: the distillation of 'truth' from the froth of 'messages'.

In other words, a familiar moan about disintermediation. The PR industry, which was well represented last night, is experiencing similar anxieties about loss of control, but generally has a greater sense of optimism about the opportunities that might arise.

Still, there were people from both sides defending their respective professions po-facedly in the manner of Muslims accused of espousing a violent and backward faith. And another notable feature of the debate was that the more managerial the speaker, the less likely they were to admit to concerns about the greed and laziness of their colleagues! (There was also a particularly tedious sub-debate about the role of the NUJ that really ought to have been farmed out to another room.)

Davies's misgivings about churnalistic tendencies in the media seem to be focused on the so-called quality press in this country. Yet the areas where I have personally found it most disconcerting have been on the pages of free publications like Metro and within programmes such as the BBC's Breakfast, where it is clear that information received from external sources is being pushed out in a largely unmediated fashion. ("A new study suggests...")

The brighter amongst us are surely aware that we 'consumers' of media are increasingly able and willing to assume the task of truth-distillation ourselves (when we are not actually adding to the message pool). Perhaps, as the PRCA representative suggested, the book's propositons do depend on a rather dim view of reader intelligence. But as my post yesterday (on an interview in Sentinel with the founder of Hasbean) mooted, sometimes journalists really can mislead their readers by neglecting to fully inform themselves around the narrative presented to them; in effect a failure to contextualise. I can see why many readers might not think it is their responsibility to undertake this research legwork, even though it has become much less onerous using the Web.

This may after all be an issue of public education. However, the more we move towards a media-model where the majority of published articles are read online and open to moderated public comment, the more I feel that the cracks in the truth left by sloppy churnalists will be filled in by media audiences.

Increasingly FARC'd off

While Venezuela's government insisted yesterday that the Colombian incursion into Ecuador was a "war crime", the Colombians in turn accused Chávez of funding genocidas.

You only have to look at the trade balance between these feuding South American nations to see which one stands to be the big loser if their shared borders remain closed: Colombia.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

NGO mobile

Digital Planet this week featured an interesting piece on the activities of NGO Mobile, which has been running a competition that gives recognition to the best 'grass-roots' uses of mobile/SMS technologies in the developing world.

One of the winners was NETWAS, an organisation that has launched an SMS-based service for rural communities in East Africa which allows them to ask a range of water-based questions on topics such as sanitation, hygiene, water harvesting, and water technologies.

Another winning entry came from the Equilibrium Fund which has been using SMS technologies with women who cultivate the Maya nut in Central America to feed them with information tidbits that make them better able to judge when to water and when to harvest, thereby empowering them (apparently) while helping to reduce the kind of deforestation typically caused by under-informed Mayan agricultores.

FARC'd Off

Surfer has just got back from Colombia, and is glad about it, because ten batallions of Venezuelan tanks have since moved up to the border.

Fortunately, on this occasion there is no worrying alignment between the diplomatic crisis and the World Cup qualifiers fixtures list, so nobody is expecting a full-on military bust-up between Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, but things are getting muy tenso nonetheless.

A couple of VIP dodgies have been taken out in the past seven days and have crucially been survived by their laptops.

First to go was Las FARC's Raúl Reyes, killed by Colombian forces while he was on the Ecuadorian side of the Putumayo river. The Colombians claim to have fired at him from their side, yet somehow they managed to pick up his laptop afterwards, on which were apparently saved records of Hugo Chávez's donations of $300m to the guerrillas and evidence of liaison between them and the government in Quito.

Meanwhile the Venezuelans claim that the hard disk of another laptop found on the dead person of a Caracas narcotraficante will in turn incriminate the Colombian government in some way or another.

Washington, fresh from dumping a load of missiles on a Somali village, came out strongly in support of Álvaro Uribe. It probably helped that the Colombian President has also accused the now defunct FARC No2 of attempting to buy uranium in order to sell it at a profit.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Fairtradier than thou

This morning I read an article about the success of Fairtrade products in UK supermarkets in which a Steve Leighton, founder of online coffee retailer Hasbean, claimed not to stock Fairtrade goods because he believes that they do not offer big enough profit margins for suppliers.

"We build up a long-term relationship with the farmers," Leighton says. "We refuse to sell Fairtrade products because we believe it is the bare minimum for the supplier, and that is not good enough...We have gone from working out of my garage to where we are now because we have got 50 different single estate coffees from all over the world. It makes financial sense for us to pay the supplier well and keep a relationship over a number of years. If the quality dips then we walk away."

He added that he recently paid £2.60 per pound for a shipment of coffee from Bolivia, despite what he describes as a market value of 61p.

Now this is all well and good, but the Sentinel journalist writing up this story appears to have known very little about how the global commerce in coffee and particularly so-called 'Fairtrade' coffee actually works. For instance Leighton might reasonably have been asked which market price he was referring to: that for exchange-traded commodity beans (aka C market coffee) or that for speciality/gourmet coffees, which have been known to trade at up to £75 per pound. (And £2.60 per pound is frankly closer to the average price for exchange-traded beans than 61p.)

Leighton was giving the game away a bit when he used the term 'single-estate coffees,' by which he probably does not mean the kind of small scale cooperatives that are the only organisations certified to produce Fairtrade beans. A recent Mercatus Center report stressed that "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."

Hasbean are in an awkward position. They probably know that countries like Bolivia and Guatemala are better placed to produce higher-grade speciality beans, but must also be aware that many of their target consumers are being systematically trained by often quite cynical marketers to express a shopping preference which inevitably involves a conversion of the premium from improved taste towards improved ethics.

It worries me that the most visible brand of Faitrade instant coffee at my local ASDA supermarket appears to be based on beans from Guatemala, one country in Latin America that would in most cases be better off without the temptation towards mediocrity that this system of certification represents.

I've covered this issue in greater depth before...

Part of the problem?

I am, you are, we all are. That seems to be the implications of the new vulgar value system emerging in Britain's urban middle classes.

Yesterday I watched a video interview given by a director of 'low-impact' fashion firm Howies shot in a very bare looking Cardiff apartment. I suppose, he suggested, that just because we make things, we are part of the problem.

This is the problem as conceived by timid post-Thatcher city dwellers who tend to work in service industries and have generally never grown or made stuff in their lives. Increasingly they are inclined to regard the natural world as the primary source of meaning and value, or worse still, 'spirituality'.

In a world thus conceived, most human beings and most productive human activities are essentially a contaminant.

This philosophy is a bit of a low-carb, organic version of the more intensely felt (and realised) ideas in Puritanism, German Romanticism and other forms of post-Enlightenment irrationalism, such as Facism. And it's only a step away from Bond-baddy think: save the polar bears by eliminating all the surplus, non-elite burger eaters.

1988 and all that

Delving under the bed for stuff to clear out in advance of my forthcoming migration, I came across a travel journal from March 1988: my first visit to Central America.

I chuckled at my rattled account of a first local bus ride in Mexico: "Horrific". The irony is of course that even back then public transport in Mexico was comparatively safe and civilised. Events in Guatemala last weekend however show just how unpleasant it can get.

Still, in spite of all the rookie rants about developing world conditions, my own words from two decades ago still manage to convey the sense of wonder at the human and geographical adventure, something which has never really left me and has somehow always compromised my subjective quality of life back here in London.

Monday, March 03, 2008

But this is America...

"Australia got the convicts, Canada got the French, we got the Puritans...we're stuck with them."

Tony Blair would be a shoe-in for the Antichrist though.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Stats on Sunday

One in every hundred infant Guatemalans becomes an adopted US citizen.
One in every hundred adult US citizens does jail time.