Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Amazon with Pruce Parry

In scenes reminiscent of a northern English town after closing time on Friday night, part two saw Parry joining the Achuar Indians of the Peruvian Amazon in one of their regular communal vomiting sessions. (Non-UK readers may instead recall the puking puppet in Team America.)

V joked that these 'vomitindios' were probably all drinking sweet papaya juice while the poor unwanted gringo was made to down four litres of the 'piss one chango' recipe for Ayahuasca...para que no le quedan ganas de regresar!

While the programme is revealing of the potential impact of globalised business - legal and illegal - on Amazonian communities, it also attests to a somewhat hypocritical streak of prejudice against modern life in general. Parry, making use of planes, choppers and all sorts of outboard motors on his journey 'from source to sea', at one stage describes a puddle of crude oil oozing from a drilling facility as "really not great stuff". 

Nor, once he had come down off the Andes, did we get to see much of the extraordinarily diverse wildlife that Parry has periodically mentioned - in fact in this week's episode, the only evidence of the great river's fauna were a barbecued monkey and some hapless catfish that the Achuar extract from the river by deoxygenating it using local leaves. This poisoning of the river is impermanent and fully sustainable Parry reassured us, unlike of course, the over-keen harvesting activities of the outsiders. 

And this perhaps is the problem I have with this kind of British TV  documentary - when a white American man dances with a snake, he is a figure of ridicule, but when it's a member of one of these museum communities, a rather phoney reverence for tribal superstitions of all kinds kicks in. 

I like my travellers to be a bit more judgmental, with a sense of what they could teach as well as learn. Parry however follows the mold of other affable BBC nomads like Michael Palin and Louis Theroux - though of course the irony with the latter's films is that he affects his own brand of receptive relativism, convincing his hosts of his fascination for their sub-cultures while discreetly holding them up to the most acrid and knowing kind of mockery. 

Passing another Achuar township further down Parry noted that this lot had been less wary of commercial intrusion and thus now benefitted from jobs, electricity and TV. "But what had they lost..?" Don't you just hate it when presenters toss that little rhetorical question into the mix and then make little effort to answer it.  

Nobody really wants an L-Dopa-style of development for these indigenous peoples - the kind familiar from the history of the United Fruit Company elsewhere in the hemisphere - bonanza followed by devastating burn-out. Nevertheless, who are we to say that the Achuar would be wrong to aspire to a life with more to it than war, wife-beating, fish suffocation and serial chundering? Some sort of long-term exposure to the globalised world and its values is surely inevitable and in a sense desirable. It should however be based on an exchange which emulates intercourse not violation - consensual sex rather than rape. 

Monday, September 29, 2008

Half Nelson

Ryan Gosling fully deserved an Oscar nomination for his remarkably truthful portrayal of Dan Dunne, a crack-addicted white history teacher circling the plughole in a Brooklyn public school.

As a character study Half Nelson is entirely convincing - Dunne could easily have been fodder for another of those Alexander Payne movies...yet unlike Miles in Sideways or Mr McAllister in Election, his story hasn't been furnished with the kind of plot structure that would make this particular tour of loser-dom meaningful beyond these particular circumstances.

Instead what we get are a set of variably memorable incidents, most of which emerge out of his relationship with 13-year-old Drey, one of his students and an all-too-classic case of latchkey kid. This kind of cross-generational, complementary loneliness which plays out against a rather listless narrative will be familiar to anyone who wholeheartedly enjoyed Lost in Translation....myself not included. Still, an interesting movie. 

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I have a bracelet too...

My guess is that many amongst the 'undecided' will have found the first televised debate between McCain and Obama rather inconclusive.

The pronounced contrast in styles can shoulder some of the blame, but then I think McCain set out to stylistically ambush his opponent, adopting a chummier persona whilst addressing the audience more obviously than he did Obama ("HE doesn't understand..."). The latter had a cold start but soon looked the more eager to turn this discussion into an actual debate, and I grew quite weary of McCain's homeliness which started to bring back memories of Reagan. (And who cares how many political dinosaurs McCain can count amongst his most intimate compadres?) 

Both appeared to have a very simplistic grasp of the state of Iraq, though only Obama could possibly have been deliberately dumbing down. On the other hand his babble about Russia and Georgia didn't offer me any more insight than I could have gleaned from a quality newspaper. He also admonished Venezuela for acting like a rogue state, before backing up his enthusiasm for the Bin Laden chase in Afghanistan with some dubious contentions about Al Qaeda expansionism in America's back yard. 

In a proper debate however, Obama would have been allowed to make more of his key insight that US behaviour in Iraq has contributed to the rabidisation of Iran.  Neither was forced to address the issue of how much of a long-term ally a Shia-led Iraq will be unless America can patch things up a bit with the nutters next door. 

McCain struggled with the name of the new president of Pakistan, but then Obama called McCain 'Jim'...and anything has to be better than "General". 

Both duly trotted out their over-familiar back-stories: POW / Scion of bright-eyed Kenyan student, though Obama cleverly allowed McCain to take the lead on all the corny stuff. 

Palin v Biden should be much more entertaining. 

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tropic Thunder

There are various types of humour at work here, some sophisticated others pretty basic, so I guess enough kinds of people will find this movie utterly hilarious in enough patches to turn it into one of those runaway word-of-mouth successes.

The script for what is part movie spoof part Hollywood satire is the work of Ben Stiller, along with Ethan Cohn and Justin Theroux. I personally found the talkier parts of the movie funnier, but it also has to be said that some of the biggest laughs derive from gesture - such as the way Stiller unloads his gun into the jungle, or the manner that the pigmentally-adjusted Robert Downey JR complements his "Chicken George shit" with appropriately comical movements.

There has been some controversy surrounding some of the gags here, but as Senator Barack Obama should know by now, when you are at least partly targeting the lowest common-denominator, someone is bound to get offended when you start coming over all clever and ironic.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


For twenty minutes or so this was little more than a diverting juvenile fantasy, most likely I presumed to have been dreamed up by men around my own age who had spent the best part of the 90s sitting in their cubicles after work playing Unreal Tournament, Half Life and Doom, pausing only to tell each other how awesome The Matrix was.

In fact it's the same 3-man team of hardware festishists that brought us other enjoyable examples of dumb fun like 2Fast 2Furious. But in this flick the dumb fun quickly becomes significantly less harmless, drifting into distastefully amoral territory, before trying less than successfully to return to dubiously sympathetic ground as the plot is doubled back on itself.

"Six months ago I was ordinary and pathetic, just like you," muses our 'hero' Wesley Allan Gibson on his lifestyle change. As if possession of a firearm and a remit to shoot strangers is the true path to a meaningful existence.  A decade or so or go this kind of scurrilous nonsense could have featured desperate C-list talent - or maybe even Jean-Claude Van Damme - but now, mysteriously, major thesps are drawn to it. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jungle Capitalists (1)

Historians can be just as guilty of churnalism as journos. Us bloggers on the other hand can surely be forgiven our predeliction for apocrypha.

One of those stories I've seen 'churned' out in various forms by more serious commentators than I will ever profess to be is that of the collaboration between the CIA and the United Fruit Company in bringing about the 1954 coup that curtailed democracy in Guatemala for three decades.

I was however encouraged to discover that Peter Chapman, author of Jungle Capitalists, had knocked up a thesis about UFC whilst studying at Sussex University and was therefore more likely to be au fait with the more primary kind of material available on this subject.

What I found especially interesting was his account of the role of some of the pioneers of the American PR industry in this seminal piece of regime change.

United Fruit had long been making use of the services of Edward Bernays - 'the father of spin' - a nephew of Sigmund Freud whose magnum opus Propaganda spoke of the 'group mind' and 'invisible government' whilst establishing his own profession as the 'unseen mechanism of society'.

Bernays had famously repositioned cigarettes as 'lights of freedom' in a 1929 campaign targeted at women, so it is unsurprising that United Fruit would contract him to re-brand Central America as Middle America (and to help them set up the 'Middle American Information Bureau'.)

The soon-to-be-displaced government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala was causing offence to all lovers of Carmen Miranda and Señorita Chiquita Banana with his land redistribution policies, which involved handing over UFC's fallow estates to poor Indians and then paying the company compensation at book value, and in bonds withal.

The brother of United Fruit's former CEO was in charge of Latin American affairs at the State Department and duly sent the Guatemalan goverment an invoice for what the US thought was a more appropriate valuation: $16m.

Langley plotting against Guatemalan democracy had started under Truman but didn't really get going until John Foster Dulles was handed the State Department by Eisenhower.

CIA agent Howard Hunt, who went on to do great things at the Bay of Pigs and the Watergate Hotel, was instructed by Director Allen Dulles to build a case that Árbenz was intellectually challenged and under the control of his wife, Maria Cristina Villanova, a progressive-leaning lady from one of the '14' families of El Salvador. (One could see something similar going on in the local media when Colom was standing for election last year)

Hunt created a phony radio station called the Voice of Liberation and hired an actor to anchor it. He then recruited exiled General and part-time furniture salesman Carlos Castillo Armas to fulfill the role of liberator personified.

Meanwhile Bernays had helped el pulpo to produce a 20 minute film entitled Journey to Banana Land which was widely shown in American schools during the crisis year of 1954. He was also organising a series of notorious press junkets to Guatemala involving mocked-up disturbances designed to convince editors that the country was a hotbed of communist agitation.

Another PR called John Clements produced a 'Report on Guatemala' which advised Eisenhower's government that the ultimate aim of la Señora Árbenz and her commie compadres was nothing less than the seizure of the Panama Canal no less.

As Castillo Armas and his rather compact army of liberation approached Guatemala City, Hunt made sure that the roads behind him were littered with dead mules, suggestive of heavy fighting - which was backed up by reports on The Voice of Liberation. Pictures were shown to US newsmen of bodies, reportedly the result of government atrocities but more likely, Thomas McCann later admitted, to be archive images of earthquake victims.

CIA planes then dropped a few bombs on the capital's slums along with a letter signed by the Archbishop declaring Árbenz to be a godless communist.

Che Guevara, in Guatemala because he'd failed to get a post at a United Fruit hospital, urged Árbenz to 'take to the hills' but instead the President fled the country and the long nightmare of successive dictatorships and civil war began. Che meanwhile headed for sanctuary at the Argentinian embassy. Hunt later claimed to have briefly captured the future guerrilla leader and to have made the glaring error of sparing his life.

More on this fascinating book later...

One of our SOBs?

When repeatedly pressed by a Spanish hack to reveal if he would invite President Zapatero to the white house, John McCain found himself in a bit of a geo-political tangle recently.

"I will meet with any leader who has the same principles and philosophy as us in terms of human rights, democracy, and freedom and I will stand up to those who do not." was his eventual answer, after a brief digression about US-Mexican relations and the general balance of friends and enemies in the Latin world.

No indication if dinner would be included.

Perhaps the Spanish leader sounded a bit like one of those bolshie types down south that have recently developed the annoying habit of ejecting their US ambassadors.

Idiomatic Chapin (2)

Contribuir - verb: Paga (casi) todo burro.

Idiomatic Chapin (1)

Colaborar - verb: Paga todo burro.

John Lloyd Stephens (1)

Back in 1839, on his first trip to Central America, President Van Buren's special envoy John Lloyd Stephens found himself on the Carretera Atlántico which links the capital with the Caribbean entry points:

"This is the great high road to the city of Guatemala, which has always been a place of distinction in Spanish America. Almost all the travel and merchandise from Europe passes over it; and our guide said that the reason it was so bad was because it was traversed by so many mules. In some countries this would be a reason for making it better; but it was pleasant to find that the people to whom I was accredited were relieved from one of the sources of contention at home, and did not trouble themselves with the complicated questions attendant upon internal improvements."

Similar thoughts traversed my mind the last time I found myself jolting around on the road that leads from the Belizean border to Santa Elena and Flores, gateway to Tikal. In other countries such an important tourist artery would be well maintained...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When you're a Jet...

There are two gangs in this house. One consists of two adult humans, two dogs and one white cat and the other consists of the other seven cats, including two adults, two adolescents and a couple of recent additions whose long-term loyalties are yet to be decided.

Actually Osli - the cat in our gang - is one of those flexible types that thinks he can move smoothly across social frontiers without causing major ructions.

The architecture has a lot to do with this. Like many Oxbridge colleges, Guatemalan homes are not big on corridors. Five of the cats in the other gang were born in the internal patio and have no reason to suspect that this area of the house might actually belong to us humans (and dogs) in any way.

Whenever we cross over from our indoor space into their outdoor space - to do some gardening for example - they collectively assume expressions of profound vexation. They themselves will only slink into our zone when it appears to be otherwise unoccupied...whereas you can't hold a door open for more than four seconds without Osli trying to dart through it one way or another.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Who do you think you are?

Given that the two biggest skeletons in the cupboard of Western civilisation are slavery and the Holocaust respectively, it's perhaps not surprising that the BBC signs up a disproportionate number of celebrities of Afro-Caribbean and Jewish ancestry for this popular ancestor-tracking series.

Last week TV chef Ainsley Harriot went back five generations and found a young black slave girl, a free negress - who may have been a prostitute - a poor white slave overseer and a wealthy slave-owner: one Mr Harriot. (The overseer had apparently been paid by his employer to increase the slave-stock by natural means.)

Ainsley expressed some distate about the assumed mental make-up of his white forebears, yet declared himself "proud" of a mulatto NCO from Barbados one generation nearer, who had distinguished himself by killing his brother Africans in Sierra Leone as part of a British-led regiment.

The balance on this programme between the historical-didactic elements and the journey of personal discovery is a fine one. Personally I felt that I learned nothing particularly surprising from Ainsley's investigation, but Jerry Springer's was another matter. He knew for instance that both of his maternal grandmothers had been murdered by the Nazis and that his own parents made it to Britain just a few days before the outbreak of war would close that particular exit route, but the precise details of their terrible fate provided material for a singularly moving and disturbing slant on what has become something of a familiar story.


Today is Independence Day in Mexico and we were a bit surprised to see a Mexican TV news reporter awaiting the military parade in DF this morning wearing a flak jacket.

Last night in Morelia (Michoacán), at the very moment when the state Governor Leonel Godoy rang the bell and everyone filled their lungs ready to shout "Viva Mexico!" two grenades went off in the crowd, killing 7 and wounding over 80. As bodies fell and innocents writhed in agony, a firework display started and mariachis played.

Michoacán is not only the base of President Vicente Calderón, it is also the heart of what is now being desacribed as "disorganised crime" in Mexico - run by a new breed of narcos that care less about their social base (building schools etc.) and operate according to a far more random and brutal set of principles.

The crowd here in Antigua last night was less deadly but also significantly disorganised. Part of the problem was that the 15th fell on a Monday this year, creating a long weekend and encouraging an influx of outsiders. The fragile state of the Palace of the Captains General also meant that the marching bands were not permitted to fully circulate the park. The combined effect of more people and less space was therefore "una molotera," according to one woman we overheard fleeing up the 4a Calle Oriente. She was soon followed by one of the school bands, which broke away from the procession after their jefe called out "let's go, we aint never gonna to make it to the cathedral".

And up that road we soon drifted ourselves...and I was to make the interesting discovery that the sliced wholemeal bread made at Doña Luisa Xicotencatl is not only yummier than the Bimbo crap sold at the Bodegona, it's cheaper too. (However, one of the viejas who serves in the shop has been there about twenty years and makes your typical Parisian shopkeeper seem postively welcoming in comparison.)

UPDATE: This shockingly nihilistic intentado in the plaza of Morelia last night barely merited a mention on the BBC news, TV and Web. One has to suppose that editors over there couldn't find a way to relate it to the prevailing narrative of global terror.

"Lift your hand if you are one of the priority wounded," called out an ambulance worker at the scene...not a strategem that would work especially well even outside Central America.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Independence Day

Today is Independence Day here in Guatemala, the pivotal date in what ends up running to over a week of constant celebrations.

Guatemala claimed its independence on September 15, 1821, when Brigadier General Gabino Gainza, taking note of what had already happened up north in Mexico, called a special meeting of notables to sort out their own formal emancipation.

The country then briefly became part of the Mexican Empire (not something you'd think people here would want to celebrate) before forming part of the United Provinces of Central America.

Here in Antigua groups of people from outlying towns and villages come to the Parque Central to collect a diesel burning torch - the independence antorcha - before running back home with it. It's all a bit like a deregulated Olympic torch run, without the Chinese heavies and screaming Tibetans. Torches are carried around on a national level too, with at least one going all the way to Costa Rica.

All of the nations of Central America celebrate their freedom from Spain on this day, with the exception of Panama which was later carved out of Colombia by the gringos for rather obvious reasons.

If anyone knows how, why, when this tradition got started I'm all ears.

This was the spectacular fireworks display in Antigua last night:

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Our favourite Hispanic TV programme these days is Boulangerie with Bruno Gillot and Olivier Hanocq, two fantastically incomprehensible Frenchmen who own a Buenos Aires bread-shop with an 'artesanal' wood-fire oven dating back to 1911 - L'Epi.

Last Sunday they showed us how to make a ham sandwich with a leisurely nine hours preparation time! (Pain Faluche and a home-cooked leg of ham.)

Here's a clip someone has uploaded to YouTube. They're speaking Spanish, though you'd hardly know it. (That they learned it in Argentina just adds to the fun.)

There would appear to be a whole gang of these Gallic exiles in BA...clearly a global mecca for people with silly accents. (see also...)

Saturday, September 13, 2008


You should know you have problems when the moral centre of your story is a PR executive.

Indeed it's not hard to see why this script floated around Hollywood for a decade before finding a willing producer. One of its main premises has a great deal of potential, but there are also quite a few built-in flaws, which would have been very apparent to any backer...right up to the moment when Will Smith stepped up to take the lead!

Hancock's problem is ultimately a lack of decent antagonists. Having seen off his own asshole self in the promising satirical-comedy opening, the rest of the film sees him not really confronting his former other half and not really confronting a non-descript gang of roughneck crims. Along the way the writers lost the will to be funny, yet in spite of its rather half-baked halves, Hancock does, just about, manage to remain an entertaining way to spend an evening.

Guns n Geezers

When Mark Kermode says "I went in with an open mind" you just know that the movie in question isn't going to come out all that well. And so it was with Rocknrolla, Guy Ritchie's latest, described by the Good Doctor as The Long Good Friday as performed by Chas and Dave. 

Shame it's not on YouTube yet. 

Time to share the joy...

I think we may already have enough cats.

It's beginning to feel a bit like Gremlins HQ around here. 

Cherry seems to think so too...

La hora de antojo

Doña Mari, our local tortillera, sells her tortillas at four for one Quetzal at lunchtime. 

Prices elsewhere have risen in 2008, but there has been a recent influx of competition here coupled with a surge in demand thanks to the various construction projects going on in the neighbourhood.

Come the evening she pushes her comal outside her front gate and fries up pupusas in pig fat - these are essentially the same tortillas with some added cheese, but now costing five Quetzales each. Both the competition and the daytime demand have by this time abated...but this is also the hora de antojo (the hour of whims) so she does a decent enough trade. 

Fresh tortillas are great, but once they have been in the fridge for a day or so V likes to treat them to a quick spin in the microwave before frying them briefly in olive oil. The result is crispy and very delicious. 

Friday, September 12, 2008

Queso de Capas

And here is my personal favourite of the doorbell-ringing vendors - the cheese man. This poor old chap is dispatched every other Friday by some distant finca to sell their dairy produce here on the outskirts of Antigua.

His name is Andres Castro and this morning he remembered that V had made a special order last time for some queso de capas - 'layered' cheese - produced by gradually supplementing the harder base with additional layers as the cheese matures in order to cultivate a more rubbery texture. (The commoner milk-cheese here is saltier, creamier and crumblier.)

Alcoholic Honey

Over the years V has taught me how to pick-out the best papayas, 'chinitas', long and thin with a marked scarcity of pips - like these ones.

I used to think that eating papaya was a probable cause of the way that the weight just falls off me here in Guatemala - this time I've lost two stone since my arrival - but in the end it must be the altitude and the less sedentary lifestyle, because for various reasons I've eaten less of the fruit over the past month or so.

This pair, plus some incredibly succulent pink grapefruit, were sold to us by the fruit and veggie man who passes our street in his battered picop every Wednesday.

A less frequently-appearing vendor sold us three rum-bottles of locally-made honey last week, at least one of which tastes like they forgot to pour out all the rum first! This transparent, less viscous variety has proved an excellent additive for coffee, mosh and granola, fried plantains, French bean salads and those watermelon and vodka cocktails that V likes to knock up occasionally.

For one of our cats, Wizzy, there is no greater delicacy than the flesh and the skin of the papaya. The others weren't so sure at first, but are starting to follow her lead.

Another way to tell if a papaya is one of those class-act pipless ones is to pick it up and shake it. If it doesn't rattle it's probably a goody. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008

La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon)

Being such a Derbez fanboy, I had to see this, though I ended up with mixed feelings about his performance in a straight role. Perhaps I was expecting him to say 'preguuuuntale' at any moment! 

Writers on both sides of the border seem unable to tackle a tale of wetback hardship without over-sentimentalising their characters. The makers of this film didn't even try to avoid this pitfall and the result is mostly hackneyed, though there are one or two surprisingly affective moments. 

It is essentially an odyssey - that of young Carlitos who makes his way northwards in undocumented fashion in order to reunite himself with his mother Rosario, who has been working illegally in LA for four years. It is the death of his abuela that prompts this journey, with the moment of opportunity arriving in the form of America Ferrera and her brother, two ingles-only chicano students who are offering to carry young children into the US by hiding them underneath the back-seat of their van. 

From then on the moments of crisis mount up for little Carlos, but it helps that he - unlike his mother - can handle himself in near perfect English and is not at all prone to culture shock! Derbez's character Enrique is at his side, reluctantly at first, during the mid-portion of the narrative and I would much have prefered that his fate should have been left more open-ended than it was, as I think it would have been more intellectually satisfying to imagine Enrique wandering on, indocumentado, somewhere in the north of America. 


Soccer-minded individuals in the UK would perhaps be green with envy after learning how much free football one can indulge in on TV over here. 

While England fans back home had to fork out extra cash to watch the 4-1 drubbing of Croatia on Setanta, here it was one of several European qualifiers shown live on ESPN at no extra cost.

Other local channels showed the crucial CONCACAF games (Guatemala also thrashed Cuba 4-1) and some of the earlier South American fixtures. 

This Saturday - as is usual - nearly all the Premiership matches will also be shown live across ESPN, Fox Sports and Planeta Futbol. 

Meanwhile, I'm beginning to wonder what the effects of long-term insect repellant use might be.  I stopped using Autan liquid for fear I'd soon be looking like this chap in the picture, swicthing instead to Off! a creamier Argie brew which purports to contain some Aloe Vera...and doesn't feel as if it goes about mellting the epidermis in quite the same way. 

This Shrek doll was given as a present to a little Cakchiquel girl called Ruth whose parents maintain this mixed field of corn and guiskil just around the corner. She deemed it so hideous that she immediately donated it to her father for use as an espantapajaros.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

I'm not sure what it is - age probably - but I have trouble staying awake these days in films where the action is as relentless as this and the deeper stuff like complex character interaction is almost wholly absent. (V in turn hasn't made it past the half hour mark in any of the more recent Star Wars outings.)

Roger Ebert thinks this is the best of the Mummy movies, but whereas the first one, for all its silliness, is the kind of light action-entertainment I can happily watch again whenever it appears on the box, I had trouble even making it through a single sitting of this third installment from Rob Cohen.

It's a testament to the kind of movie this is that with such fine acting talent like Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li, Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello on screen, the most watchable characters are the Yeti. Apart from them, the prologue is another mini-gem like the one in the original film, and is probably already available to watch 'stand-alone' on the Web somewhere.

Talking of great movie prologues, this one is a class act, not like some of those scummy ones you find on YouTube.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sudáfrica 2010 (1)

Haiti lost 0-5 to El Salvador yesterday. They're on a bit of a roll at the moment.

Meanwhile, their penultimate tormentor Hurricane Hanna brought Saturday's tennis at Flushing Meadow to an abrupt close, forcing me to watch England's un-emphatic 2-0 victory against Andorra in the Olympic stadium in Barcelona.

Guatemala remains in third place in CONCACAF Group A, their hopes for the Mundial in 2010 just about alive after a 92nd minute equaliser by defender Gallardo in Trinidad. Group leaders USA beat Cuba 1-0.

Today's Belgian GP was a classic...but why are the 2008 F1 cars such mingers?

Celebrity Big Brother

BB may have come to an end along with the English summer, but over here the fun is just starting. Who can have installed all those little cameras and microphones in the Casa Presidencial? Colom is now speaking of "mysterious entities" and his dawning realisation about the extent of information leakage...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hellboys 1 and 2

I followed the good doctor's advice and sat myself down to watch a Hellboy double-bill this week.

While the froth of fun and visual invention never really subsided in the first film, at times it felt a little bit like a pilot for an expensive new television series.

The same can't be said for the latest installment however, which is not only the best of the summer's super-hero flicks, it's also possibly one of the most creatively effervescent movies of the last couple of decades.

There's a clear debt to Star Wars, George Lucas's now creatively-moribun franchise, especially in the central Troll Market scene, which the studio apparently pressured Guillermo del Toro to drop. He was right to resist as it is probably the scene that serves to raise this movie up to classic status - though the final fight between Ron Perlman and Luke Goss on the moving cogs is pretty astounding as well (...and how great are those tooth fairies?)

If I have any criticism to make, it would be that Del Toro has left the character of Liz Sherman a little under-written, choosing instead to extract maximum comic potential from the other significant relationship in Anung un Rama's life, that with his pesco-mammal sidekick Abe Sapien.

Friday, September 05, 2008

An irreversible energy crisis?

Michael Klare explains in the LRB how conventional oil production has already peaked, and why this surely means that the current energy crisis can only get worse:
  • In 1995 the world was consuming 69.5m barrels a day. Last year that figure had risen to 82.5m barrels a day.

  • Nearly half of this intake comes from 116 massive fields. All but 4 were discovered over 25 years ago and many are already in irreversible decline. (Mexico's largest, Cantarell, has declined by 40% since 2006. Mature fields are declining overall at 5.2% p.a. up from 4% p.a. in 2007, so 3.5m extra barrels will need to be produced elsewhere to keep production levels steady. By 2013 the industry will need to produce 24.7m extra barrels per day to reach the predicted requirement of 94.1m barrels a day.

  • China alone will account for a third of increase over next 5 years. In 1990 China manufactured just 42,000 cars. By 2002 it was making 1m, 2m a year after that. The number of privately-owned cars in China is predicted to rise from 27m in 2004 to 400m in 2030. Until '93 China consumed less oil than the other great powers and mainly satisfied its needs from domestic production. (2.9m per day compared to 17.2m in the US and 5.5m in Japan.) Yet in 2008 China's domestic production remains just above 90s levels - 3.7m per day - and its government continues to build roads and to hold local prices below market rates.

  • Today the US accounts for just 9.6% of output, while the Middle East produces 30.1%, Africa 12.5% and Latin America 12.4%. Non-OECD countries now supply 3/4 of world's oil, and these are nations that are generally more susceptible to violent struggles for regional autonomy/secession, rebellion and ethnic strife, all of which tend to be exacerbated by the presence of energy wealth. Price spikes result from temporary reductions in global supplies and the major producers no longer have the significant reserves, like those the Saudis deployed in 1990.

  • Klare describes the intent behind the Bush/Cheney's National Energy Policy of May 2001 as "the perpetuation of the Petroleum Age by any means at any cost." US consumption has risen by 1m barrels a day through the Bush Presidency whilst output of the country's domestic fields declined by roughly the same amount. Meanwhile the US is taking, shall we say, a more active role in securing access to foreign energy reserves.

Lining up...

Deber haber...

"Algún traidor hijo de la gran...hijue su madre," noted Guatemala's President Álvaro Colom sagely at a press conference this afternoon following the discovery of seven small telephone bugs and video recorders in the Casa Presidencial. He immediately fired his long-term security chief Carlos Quintanilla. (Video Link)

Meanwhile, on Tuesday it was revealed that the cell-phone blocking system installed last year around Guatemala's more populous jails at a cost of around $3m is still not functioning.

Colom has also decided to increased the size of the army by 9000 soldiers - a significant augmentation as there are currently some 13,000 employed by that branch of the armed forces.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


The plot for Boyd's Costa Award-winning novel has been spun out of the little-known history of British manipulation of American public opinion before Pearl Harbour.

There were perhaps some 3000 British 'BSC' agents in the US at the time (amongst whose number was Roald Dahl it seems) focussing their activities on bringing this isolationist nation into the European war. HQ'd at the Rokerfeller Center, they took over radio stations and news wires and fed anti-German stories and miscellaneous misinformation into the American media. A BSC document unearthed in the 1990s explained why Britain believed that their allies-to-be were ripe for such covert persuasion:

"The simple truth is the United States is inhabited by people of many conflicting races, interests and creeds. These people, though fully conscious of their wealth and power in the aggregate, are still unsure of themselves individually, still basically on the defensive."

Boyd alternates between the third-person narrative of Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian émigrée recruited to a unit on the fringes of BSC in Paris before the war, and the first person narrative of her daughter Ruth, a junior academic and English-teacher living in Oxford in 1976.

As the novel progresses Ruth's story becomes something you have to get through to reach the next installment of Eva's. Neither strand contains particularly beautiful prose or well-developed characters, but the overall thrust of the story remains fully gripping until the rather lacklustre finale where they are combined and wound up.

I suppose I'd have to say I was ultimately somewhat disappointed with Restless. I'd read Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon when I was in my 20s and remembered having enjoyed both of these earlier novels. There's a good deal of interesting detail about the British spy networks of the day, but very little in terms of detailed exploration of the intentions and emotions of the 'crows' themselves. In a tale where betrayal plays such a significant role you just need to feel the action a bit more.

Anyway, William Boyd has himself written an article in the Guardian describing some of the fun and games perpetrated by our secret services across the pond:

"BSC invented a game called "Vik", described as "a fascinating new pastime for lovers of democracy". Printed booklets described up to 500 ways of harassing and annoying Nazi sympathisers. Players of Vik were encouraged to ring up their targets at all hours of the night and hang up. Dead rats could be put in water tanks, air could be let out of the subject's car tyres, anonymous deliveries could be made to his house and so on. In the summer of 1941, BSC sent a sham Hungarian astrologer to the US called Louis de Wohl. At a press conference De Wohl said he had been studying Hitler's astrological chart and could see nothing but disaster ahead for the German dictator. De Wohl became a minor celebrity and went on tour through the US, issuing similar dire prognostications about Hitler and his allies. De Wohl's wholly bogus predictions were widely published."

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

America at War...with the weather

Fox News talked up Gustav as much as they could, but by around 8am local time yesterday it was clear that we weren't going to have the pleasure of seeing Geraldo up to his neck in water in the French Quarter. Still, Hanna, Ike and Josephine are queueing up in the Caribbean...

Coverage of the US Open from Flushing Meadow seems to feature a lot of that patriotic music so beloved of the producers at Fox. Roger Federer may be No2 in the tennis world now, but the Argentinian commentators on ESPN still want to have his babies.


(With thanks to 'Damn Cool Pics')

La Nave de los Monstruos

What a discovery!

I flicked over to De Pelicula last weekend and bumped into this insane Mexican flick from 1959, described on the IMDB as a science-fiction/horror comedy, singing cowboy musical."

It features a block-like robot which looks like it was put together on Blue Peter that makes whirring noises and delivers lines like"Ay mamacita".

Here's a couple of clips:

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Britishness problem

In case anyone had been unduly cheered up by our recent 'great haul of China' up pops Chancellor Alistair Darling last week (just as the British summer was grinding to an already inauspicious end it might be added) to remind us all that the UK is still basically screwed, as the country now faces what he described as the worst downturn in sixty years.

The irony is that although the mess the world is currently in is - on many different levels - largely the fault of the Yanks, they may already be showing early signs of lifting themselves out of recession. Britain on the other hand has too many of its economic eggs in the financial services sector and its general population are comparatively over-exposed to the housing market.

None of this of course leads me to regret my decision to ex-patriate myself earlier this year.

Last week I watched Panorama's somewhat jocular take on the Labour government's suggestion that the August bank holiday should be upgraded to a regular jamboree when we collectively celebrate our Britishness. The programme included an interview with the BNP's Nick Griffin, a politician who says he would 'restore' Britain to the whites and other 'assimilable' groups.

As a recent immigrant myself in a foreign land I was led to reflect on what I might have to do to assimilate myself more in Guatemala. Ignore more red lights, turn up late for more meetings...eat more Tortrix?

If you are wondering what kind of place a BNP-restored type of GB would be, take a trip to somewhere like Playa las Americas in Tenerife. There the chain-smoking, chip-eating, beer-swilling, Bingo-playing, white working classes - themselves the world's worst migrants - have created a prototype monocultural paradise in their own image. Ask the Canary Islanders how assimilable this lot are! (Or indeed how yummy their food is...)

The members of Scotland's chattering classes interviewed by Panorama of course poured scorn on the idea of a Britishness day. Scottishness is all they really need it seems; the English are the only members of the Union with a void at the heart of their sense of national identity, they cackled. Nobody seemed to ask how many of Scotland's substantial Asian Muslim community are amongst those waving the flags of St Andrew so obsessively at Murrayfield. I'm sure they'd all have been choking on their haggis if they'd seen how the Mexicans referred to Team GB as 'Inglaterra' throughout the Beijing Olympics.

It's hardly clear to me anyway why American-style patriotism is the solution to all our problems - for it makes it all too easy for individual citizens to associate their own interests with those of monolithic military and economic power.

The issue of England-Britain and its team spirit probably needs a more nuanced solution than New Labour are capable of coming up with. The uniqueness of the situation is that of an empire that has collapsed in on itself just as the world has been expanded by the forces of globalisation.

How much of a mess the country seems probably depends on how long a memory you have. I've been concerned of late about how long mine has been growing, and certainly sensed the national entropy for some years before I decided to depart.

Part of the problem is the sheer quantity of migrants of a lower cultural level who are no more interested in participating in so-called British values than the ex-pat residents of the Spanish costas are in attending bull-fights and sitting down to dinner after 10pm. They just want to live in their own little ghettos of bloody-minded crapness.

One also wonders whether the lack of a guiding recipe behind the British melting pot is one of the things that makes all these different ingredients want to jump in. It's going to be hard to re-provincialise a nation that has become one of the most convenient generic access points for the globalised economy.

Anyway, roll-on 2012. Let's see if they can come up with something better than Beckham, buses and umbrellas to represent two millennia of shared cultural history.