Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Snatch Wars

Thanks to Surfer for this gem!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Balacera footage

Note how the PNC team arriving on scene rush to help their wounded colleague as he keels over...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Si esto se trata de salir a pasear...

The 15th of September Grand Tikal Futura gunfight is generating juicy new speculations almost by the hour.

Rather belatedly, the PNC have offered up their 'the bad guys started shooting each other first' hypothesis, most probably as a posterior-covering exercise, but unfortunately for them, Colom still seems to be sticking to the 'failed operation' paradigm.

The army have meanwhile denied any involvement in the stake-out, insisting that their presence at the scene on Wednesday resulted from a spontaneous desire to give their colleagues in the PNC a helping hand.

V has her own theory: that the whole showdown was staged by Ramírez Barrios in order to get rid of his wife. He does seem to have an unusually mingin' other half for a would-be drug lord. She looks like a lavandera, opines V, albeit a lavandera de dosh!

Picked up in a clothes shop, Ramírez Barrios's missus later claimed in court that she no longer lives with the San Marcos kingpin, so it must be just a rather unpleasant coincidence that she was in the Tikal Futura when her 'ex' and his guardaespaldas got themselves into a bit of bother in the basement.

She was however caught on CCTV disembarking with her children and some wide-shouldered escorts from the soon-to-be-perforated Land Rover, and her bulging personal bank accounts have now been frozen.

Her public indignant denials of complicity and complaints about inconveniences imposed produced this seriously comic line: "Si esto se trata de salir a pasear, ya nunca más lo vuelvo a hacer" — a sentiment that V agrees with wholeheartedly.

The tiroteo has claimed a second mortal victim, an evangelical pastor who was apparently a guest at the hotel, and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time according to his brother, but who, like the injured agente was carrying quite a lot of cash on him, and in spite of the counterclaim that this was 'una ofrenda por ser tan buen pastor' the authorities have already been preemptively linking him to the narcs.

Presumably the cop had been walking around with five thousand Euros por ser tan buen policía!

The Karate Kid / The Kung Fu Kid (2010)

American woman with primary school kid elects to relocate to Beijing without much of the kind of preparation more judicious migrants might undertake, such as learning Chinese or at least making sure her little boy has a grounding in the language before setting off. Result, kid gets beaten up by local peer group.

Solution? Kid turns to Jackie Chan for lessons. Not Chinese lessons, which might have got to the root of the problem, but Kung Fu lessons, and is thus soon equipped to kick some Chinky butt, albeit in an admirably non-aggressive fashion.

Along the way said kid learns that it is bad to throw one's jacket on the floor upon entering one's house. He does also end up with a smattering of Mandarin, which enables him to win a Chinese sweetheart from under the protective arms of her parents...but anyway, she, them and almost everyone else over there, seems to speak perfect English (even janitor Jackie Chan), so this is just the icing on the cake really.

I actually really enjoyed this remake. I like anything with Jackie Chan: it's not hard to see why he still has more Facebook fans than Lionel Messi. In spite of everything I said above, the movie is pretty smart, well-observed and has a winning central performace from Will Smith's son Jaden.

The somewhat cynical synopsis above owes its origin in fact to some typically whingey ex-pat blog commentary recently showcased by Mr sludge-tinted spectacles himself.

Truth is that I still struggle to fully empathise with anyone who attempts to make a permanent home here without bothering to equip their family with conversational Spanish well in advance of all the pre-departure and post-arrival bureaucracy. Kids, in particular learn fast. In five weeks most should be capable of attending lessons in Spanish, which is surely the best way to adapt to a promising young life in Guatemala.

Colegio Boston meanwhile, belongs to a class of clip joints which are perfectly primed to take advantage of people with more money than sense, and there are many such parents amongst the indigenes without the need for the predictable influx of monoglot foreigners. It started off rather like Quesos y Vino, a small and 'exclusive' establishment which grew popular and as a result relocated to ever more spacious premises with progressive slips in quality, but no real let up on the 'exclusive' classification.

One should tend to be suspicious of schools advertising themselves as 'bilingual' here in Guatemala. All this label tends to mean is that they employ a few professional wasters from abroad who couldn't even get a gig with the Peace Corps. It pleases better-off Chapines that their little darlings are the acolytes of such worthy gringo masters, but truth is that the likes of the Colegio Colonial Bilingue in Panorama are the local equivalent of the shoddy, overpriced English schools one finds in London's Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street.

A better way to research local educational opportunities in Antigua might even be to stand and watch all the bandas circulating the Parque Central every September 15. Well organised and well-presented colegios like La Salle and el Tridentino look a safer bet superficially at least, than schools which can't even be bothered to kit their pupils out in uniforms which fit.

Grade: B+

Thursday, September 16, 2010

'Third World' Airports

For the first time a serving Pontiff is making a state visit to the UK, and Papa Razzi has kicked off his attempt to woo the locals by declaring that the UK is a 'force for good', if a little too secular and multicultural for his taste. He also praised us Brits for standing up to Hitler and his 'atheist extremism'. He did not however say what we are supposed to do about Richard Dawkins.

Not at his side was Father Walter Kasper, a close aide who spared himself the aggro of the arrivals process at London's busiest airport by earlier stating in an interview that "When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country." (Though officially at least, health reasons, prevented him from accompanying the Pope on this occasion.)

It's not clear whether his drift was that the place is full of insalubrious wogs, or whether it's just the dumpiest major hub on the planet. Or indeed whether he was speaking synechdochially about the parlous state of our nation as a whole.

Anyway, I suppose he's right about Heathrow and we wish him a speedy recovery from Vatican mouth. I live in a proper Third World country but the airport here thankfully makes Terminal 3 look like a dirt strip in Kandahar.

Still, my recent round-the-world journey did incorporate one major international aiport that provides a marginally worse passenger experience: JFK.

As for the rest, here's my personal league table:

1. Hong Kong International: in a city which often feels like one big duty free lounge they were going to have to come up with something special and who can argue when this mini-metropolis claims to be the world's greatest airport?

2. Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok: could not be further from the shithole that appeared in all those movies where naive young western girls are detained by sweaty, mosca-encircled immigration officials for carrying dope that some low-life had planted in their suitcase. Filled with seemingly pointless rolling electric walkways and an entire floor full of top notch Asian eateries.

3. Narita, Tokyo: much like Hong Kong, but somehow not quite as swanky.

4. YVR, Vancouver International: smartened up and 'greened' in advance of the Winter Olympics, the gate areas feature massive glass windows and high ceilings and pleasingly soft-toned upholstery.

5. Changi, Singapore: the trouble here is that while T3 is as smart and shiny as Asia's other leading terminals, T1 rivals its equivalent at Heathrow for all-round outmoded skankiness. The food on offer in the departure lounge is more along the lines of generic international soggy croissant than what you would expect from a foodie's paradise like Singapore.

6. La Guardia, New York: some might quibble about the runway sticking out into the Hudson, but the terminal facilities are nicely compact and the staff remarkably friendly and helpful for denizens of this city.

7. Aurora International, Guatemala City: the old set-up had its charms, but I suppose this new glass and metal make-over with its American-style dirty blue departure lounge seats is a better advertisement for Guatemala's desire to be modern. The old ways are most visibly preserved in the form of unnecessarily long queues for check-in and the payment of a departure tax that only bank employees can be trusted to handle.

8. Miami International (MIA): my unlucky aiport, scene of two emergency landings and other major inconveniences, which this time included being told by an automatic check-in machine that my flight was cancelled and by the nearest AA employee that customer service was in Dallas. Father Kasper should give it a whirl some time.

9. Heathrow, London: They're doing their best by attempting to tart up the original sixties terminals. The brand new T5 looks like a failed British attempt to recreate the experience of those Asian glass palaces, which went wrong the moment they decided to pack it with the same tat that clutters up the other four terminals.

10. JFK, New York: Rather than create a proper airport, the designers of JFK sought to build an airport of parts, where all the facilities you might need are strung out in a circle of wide circumference and linked by slow-moving driverless trains which circulate in only one direction. Authentic blue-collar New Yorkers of the stereotypically coarse and dismissive kind operate in force here.

Bicentenary balacera

This morning V had been having revisionist thoughts about her favourite parking spot underneath the Tikal Futura.

It has always seemed the logical place to leave the car whenever we head over to Miraflores to catch a movie, but sight of a Land Rover "hecho colador" on the news bulletins last night has been somewhat discouraging.

As ever no-one is quite sure what went down in the hotel's basement just before midday yesterday, but the shoot-out appears to have kicked off when a major police surveillance operation "failed in the tactical aspect" according to local security analyst Mario Mérida.

The PNC were tracking one Mauro Salomón Ramírez Barrios and his bodyguards and must have got themselves made in the underground parqueo. The ensuing fifteen minute exchange of fire resulted in one dead cop and four captured narco-henchmen, but not it seems, the 35-year-old Ramírez Barrios himself.*

Police immediately suspected the detained goons of being secret Mexicans because they spoke funny and could not answer 'simple' questions like 'when is independence day in Guatemala?'.

Now bear in mind that Guatemala and Mexico celebrate their independence on the same date, September 15th, so we're dealing with some really dumb Mexicans because a) they could so easily have hazarded a guess and b) you'd think they might have spotted all the flags in the shop windows on the day they chose to shoot up the mall.

Pictures in the local newspapers (such as the one above) show members of a SWAT team pointing automatic weapons at shopworkers and customers spreadeagled on the floor in front of them with outstretched arms...a measure apparently designed to reduce panic and facilitate an orderly evacuation.

I had considered heading north across the border this week to experience the Mexican bicentenary first hand, but in the end decided to watch the mega-desfile at home on telly, having been put off by the flooding in Chiapas, Tabasco and Oaxaca. I will instead head in the opposite direction for my forthcoming mini-break. (UPDATE: the highway up to Tapachula has now been completely sundered, which is probably why those Mexicans were stopping at Bullock's to get some fresh boxers!)

We turned on Foro TV around nine and caught the mid-section of a massive parade featuring elaborate andas, colourful costumes, an enormous inflatable Kukulkan and numerous elements evincing a healthy degree of national self-parody. (There were also some acrobatic displays in central paved area which were a bit too Cirque du Soleil for my liking.)

Meanwhile light effects were projected onto the cathedral, the best of which involved a series of off-set images of the same facade which made it appear that the whole building was dancing to a tropical beat.

The procession over, seven tons of gunpowder then exploded in the Zócalo, fortunately in the form of a spectacular fireworks display. A 20m high 'colossus' was then lifted into place. This weird plaster-based (?) statue supposedly represents a generic historical Mexican male, and by the time he had been set on his plinth, his sword had been broken and a big chunk had been knocked out of his left boot.

Just before 11pm local time the Mexican flag was delivered into the hands of Felipe Calderón by a truly impressive little squad of goose-stepping soldiers in nineteenth century uniforms and, having literally snatched it from them, he emerged with his family onto the balcony of the Presidential Palace and rang the bell above using a long tassled cord, which then swung back and slapped him on the right cheek.

The Presidente's wife was at his side on the as he thrice shouted "Viva Mexicoooo!" , encouraging the masses below to respond. Out of his direct line of vision, she herself managed one half-hearted "viva..." but at the second opportunity merely rolled her eyes a bit and then grimaced slightly when he repeated the exortation a third time.

The crowds across Mexico were massive, no doubt in part because the country's most senior prelate had declared it would be a sin of ommission for his countrymen not to festejar this landmark date. We'll have to wait another eleven years to see what Guatemala's own eminent theologians have to say on this matter.

*UPDATE: It now appears that this was at least a three-way pelea, as journalists believe that a group of sicarios was simultaneously trying to dispose of the San Marcos gang as the cops closed in. Some also speculate whether elements of the PNC were in fact batting for the other side in this encounter, as one of the injured policemen was found to be carrying a significant chunk of change in Dollars, Euros and Pesos, and unlike many of his colleagues who later arrived on scene, was well armed and armoured from the outset.

Wat Pho...to Essay

Known officially as Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn, Bangkok's Wat Pho is revered as the birthplace of Thai Massage. (Since 1962 the grounds have incorporated a school of traditional medicine and massage.) It is also home to the 46m long statue of the reclining Buddha.

Again I effectively had the place to myself as the army was still behaving in ways unconducive to tourism. There are plenty of monks around though, unlike Wat Phra Keaw.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Joneses (2009)

As just about anyone knows, the surest way to infuriate one's new American friends is to be deliberately vague about the source and extent of one's income. So perhaps the falsest note struck in this smart satire on guerrilla marketing's domestic front is the moment when David Duchovny's Steve Jones is allowed to fob the neighbours off with "a bit of this and a bit of that".

This occurs just before the scene where Steve's daughter Jenn attempts to seduce him, thus bringing to a head audience suspicions that there's something not quite right about this perfect American family. They are, it turns out, suburban implants, paid by a marketing company to sell all sorts of shit to their supposedly affluent vecinos via the example of their oh-so-admirable lifestyle.

"That sweater's nice..." volunteered V spontaneously* around the halfway mark. Writer-director Derrick Borte used to work in advertising and is thus unlikely to be a stranger to the ironies involved in his concept: a send up of stealth marketing that is itself a consummate example of the technique.

This has prompted certain critics to accuse The Joneses of trying to have its cake and eat it. Others have insisted that it ought to have been more 'biting', perhaps thinking back to older, less forgiving takes on corporate amorality such as Swimming with Sharks.

I'm not sure that I would necessarily have appreciated The Joneses more if it had been darker. What more do they want? Should it have been more complex, or did it need a bit more blood on the floor? **

The latter would certainly have been appropriate had the movie been set in Guatemala, where keeping up with los Jones often seems to involve an actual war, and where the worst thing that can happen tends towards homicide over suicide.

But in this context the disconcerting proximity of the real and and the fake is itself a matter of interest. (The superb...) Demi Moore and her family 'unit' may be walking placements, but can't help but can't resist the lure of authentic emotion. Left-leaning hacks may find this annoyingly sentimental, but anyone who has actually worked in advertising and PR will recognise the strange bonds that form between people who come together to push products.

I also think the screenplay has taken into account the compromised relationship the vast majority of westerners have with consumerism. We know and admire 'connectors' of one sort or another and usually aspire to being one ourselves within an attainable niche. It's also clear to me that people who take a public stand on the rejection of all forms of consumerism are often as guilty of the psych-crime of narcissism as those who embrace it a little too wholeheartedly.

Would it really have been less jarring to witness Hollywood stars who wear designer gear for free on Oscars night lecturing us on the dangers of looking up to people who prostitute themselves for materialism? (Or in the case of Tito on
Nuestro Mundo, for Kelloggs Cornflakes.)

* She's also interested in sourcing some of those self-making beds they appear to possess. The Jones family has two fake teenage kids but no fake maid. But then how could the household servant have been truly bogus?

**Steve's quip that 'the last one left alive is the one with the most toys' sounds like a strapline for just such a horror-consumer marketing crossover!

Grade: A-

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Burning Plain (2008)

The backlash against Guillermo Arriaga and his chronological chirmoles gathered steam after the release of Babel, his (apparently) final collaboration with Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Up until then the Mexican writer's signature style had appeared desirably different, but critics baulked at the way he apparently connected up four stand-alone narratives using a wayward hunting rifle. I detected deeper thematic links in Babel, but I can still see why many saw this as a gratuitous exercise in worthiness.

Here, in his directorial debut, Arriaga gives us three more interdependent storylets, strung between two timelines and two locations (Portland Oregon and New Mexico) and effectively requests viewer involvement in plotting out the seams between them.

We both found this process strangely engaging and successfully guessed the major who's whos, what's whats and when's whens in advance of Arriaga's scripted reveal. Crucially we also anticipated the role of one of the characters in the central event of the umbrella plot, and this made the last third of the movie perhaps a little less absorbing, as it clearly wishes to stop some way short of a sentimental, redemptive conclusion, but has really nowhere else to go.

The more serious charge against Arriaga would seem to be that he has taken a fairly standard, soapy melodrama and infused it with false profundity by jumbling up its sequences. Roger Ebert goes so far as to suggest that it would have made a far better story if Arriaga had not so willfully followed Jean-Luc Goddard's famous dictum that a film needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Personally, I don't mind stylistic tics in scribblers. All the best writers have them. And in this instance I do think Arriaga is after something more than structural effect, for when chronology flows as we expect it to, we tend to perceive the wood of story in advance of the trees of the moment and its own poetic truth.

Arriaga also knows that we get to know the stories behind the people we know in a less than strictly sequential fashion. Others may get irked when his characters stare into the middle distance contemplating events which we may only learn about later, if at all, but I'm yet to be seriously bothered by it, and in the case of The Burning Plain, the stimulus to curiosity was for the most part highly involving.

PS: The version we saw had Spanish subtitles that had clearly been compiled by someone with a sock stuffed in each ear. At one point 'That's Mexico...' was rendered as 'That's my school...', a line that made absolutely no sense given the expanse of empty borderland being indicated at the time, but the translator clearly pressed ahead with this unlikely hunch anyway.

Grade: B++

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Robin Hood (2010)

This movie is almost as unfair on the French as Mel Gibson's The Patriot was on the Brits, and no less entertaining for it. I'd like to think our cross-channel cousins were aware of this and hence picked Robin Hood to open Cannes this year out of bonhomie.

The script was famously much toyed with before Ridley Scott started shooting a modernised tale of derring-do and justifyable outlawlessness, that is a sort of prequel to the legend we know, and yet shifted forward to the cusp of the twelfth century when bad Prince John is about to become bad King John.

Spotting England's weakness, Phillip Augustus prepares for invasion while a squadron of Frenchie fifth columnists are rampaging around the north in an attempt to shore up old Softsword's reputation for taxation without representation ...with a certain ammount of rape and pillage thrown in for good measure.

Cate Blanchett gives us a feisty Marion, one brief tryst short of being a true maid. Meanwhile however, two of the Middle Ages's more interesting (and more historical) female characters, John's consort Isabella of Angoulême and his mother Eleanor of Acquitaine, are disappointingly underplayed. (Another of the great figures of the Plantagenet era, William the Marshal, aka Guillaume le Maréchal, is played as an enlightened, liberal-establishment aristocrat by William Hurt.)

Now (most) English schoolboys these days will know that good King Richard was a French (only)-speaking bisexual thug who hardly ever put in an appearance in his kingdom during his decade-long reign. Danny Huston (and this alone should tell us something) gives us a subtly revisionist caricature of the Lionheart as a vain, cruel and somewhat doped-up war leader who can't help but sack one last French castle on his way home, and duly falls to a well-aimed crossbow bolt.*

John's subsequent reign, disasterous on so many levels, not only involved important steps in the evolution of limited government, it also led to the loss of Normandy, a significant step in the de-Frenchifying of the ruling class, so that two centuries later the knights of Henry V really could speak English (and thus crucially really could refuse to speak French with their enemies' ambassadors.)

But as we saw with Gladiator, Ridley Scott is another of those men more interested in messages than historical facts, and relishes every opportunity he gets to demonstrate his mastery of the hack and chop battle scene. What we get here is a veritable reverse D-Day with Phillip's enormous host landing beneath the white cliffs in medieval-style landing craft. Like everything in this movie this we'll-fight-them-on-the-beaches climax is as entertaining as it is ludicrous.

Incidentally, the end titles feature an animated sequence which concludes with a shimmering Christian cross in front of which a knight decapitates a Muslim warrior. Not sure what the relevance of this is to the rest of the plot, but maybe an earlier revision of the screenplay had some reverse 9-11 action too.

Grade: B+

*The Wikipedia account of this mischance serves up a more interesting tale than the version here filmed:

"In the early evening of 25 March 1199, Richard was walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail, investigating the progress of sappers on the castle walls. Arrows were occasionally shot from the castle walls, but these were given little attention. One defender in particular amused the king greatly—a man standing on the walls, crossbow in one hand, the other clutching a frying pan which he had been using all day as a shield to beat off missiles. He deliberately aimed an arrow at the king, which the king applauded. However, another arrow then struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck. He tried to pull this out in the privacy of his tent but failed; a surgeon, called a 'butcher' by Hoveden, removed it, 'carelessly mangling' the King's arm in the process. The wound swiftly became gangrenous. Accordingly, Richard asked to have the crossbowman brought before him; called alternatively Peter Basile, John Sabroz, Dudo,[95][96] and Bertrand de Gurdon (from the town of Gourdon) by chroniclers, the man turned out (according to some sources, but not all) to be a boy. This boy claimed that Richard had killed the boy's father and two brothers, and that he had killed Richard in revenge. The boy expected to be executed; Richard, as a last act of mercy, forgave the boy of his crime, saying, 'Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day'"

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Lord Sacks v Stephen Hawking

In his latest book The Grand Design, Professor Stephen Hawking, who had been wont to use the term 'God' in much the same way that Einstein did, has apparently taken a more public stance against first causes, asserting that it is now unnecessary to "invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going".

There's a small irony in this, because Hawking was instrumental in undermining the 'steady-state universe' paradigm of his early Cambridge years and in easing into mainstream secular consciousness the notion that the cosmos had a moment of conception.*

Taking issue with Hawking, last week the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (pictured above) referred to this more radical stance as "an elementary fallacy of logic", adding that whereas science is about explanation, religion is about interpretation. (Thus echoing the views of our local Sunday morning casuist Jorge Loring. )

Sacks went on to say that the mutual hostility of science and religion is one of the "curses of our age". Science, he notes "cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science."

This is not an unreasonable position, but one can still sympathise with scientists for wanting a degree of payback for all those centuries where religion did consider itself a system of explanation. And one of the reasons that scientists like Richard Dawkins have ended up so insufferably dogmatic is surely their fear that the achievements of the Enlightenment might somehow be undone in years to come by the West's most powerful nation, where anti-intellectual horrors like the Creation Museum have recently taken root.

Less militant atheists and agnostics could also be forgiven for thinking that all this talk of separate 'domains' for science and religion smacks of a last ditch attempt by religion to define a cultural space for itself from which scientific intrusions are excluded per se. After such a long retreat, it's time to stand and fight to defend the Fatherland!

However, what bothers me about this cosy bilaterality is that it would appear to suit both sides to avoid assigning a role to philosophy. To get an idea what gets lost when this is set up as a two-horse race, ask yourself one of the questions that consistently split believers and unbelievers: i.e. how could something have come of nothing?

Scientists have recently come up with an answer for this one. Down at the quantum scale the difference between something and nothing blurs and there is an underlying potentiality that means energy can flicker into existence out of the 'pregnant void'. (I haven't read Hawking's exposition of this process, but the insight is already common in cosmology.)

There you have it, a solution which will satisfy scientists but leave the religious rigidly unassuaged. Voices from out of the two domains may sound as if they are asking the same question, but they aren't — and this is where philosophy has a role to play, because it helps us to understand the assumptions that underly the big questions that we are bound to ask of existence.

People rightly want to know why there is something and not nothing. Yet this is a philosophical question and thus a more open one than the Book of Genesis and other creation myths allow for. If you insist that there must have been absolutely nothing (except for the Creator himself who must have always existed) followed by something, you are making two assumptions more than most true philosophers will permit themselves. Scientists meanwhile assume the 'ah, but who created the creator?' retort is enough to see this one off. But it isn't.

Anyway, the issue in the current Hawking v Lord Sacks controversy is actually a little more complicated than a straightforward explanation v interpretation dichotomy: it is really about the limits of knowledge.

In one of his more militant moments Professor Dawkins might insist that it would be wrong to set any artificial limits to what humanity can discover about its situation using the scientific method. But even if we agree with this, we also know that science is highly unlikely to come up with all the answers in our own lifetimes. There thus remains a profound mystery, and there are aspects of it which we may have to admit will never be solveable by reason alone.

The Selfish Gene has been widely misunderstood as a treatise justifying human selfishness. Not so, Dawkins contends. We might have all these calculating little robots inside of us, but the wonder of humanity is its ability to transcend them with genuine altruism. Nevertheless, while science can explain why we are kitted up for making moral choices, purely practical explanations for why it is best to be good seem inherently inadequate.

Across the globe and throughout history religious teachings have stepped into this breach, instructing people how they ought to behave, and one can examine each of the main traditions and quickly comprehend how successful they have been as guardians of moral rectitude. It's not hard to find numerous examples of how simultaneously oppressive and hypocritical they have tended to be, and yet within each, one can also trace individuals who have somehow escaped the worst excesses and distortions of the movement as a whole.

Anyway, on a personal level, I find that I am capable of living with an explanatory gap in my life — 'the mystery' — and can proceed with the rest of my life (and death) without needing to know how much of this gap will ultimately be filled by science or indeed by 'spirituality', while finding a good deal of solace in asking reasoned philosophical questions of this lacuna.

It is unquestionably the most startling fact of our existence, a truly significant something which exists, and which conceivably might not have. Just imagine that you had been born into a world where none of the fundamentals were open to question. Believers don't need to of course...which is one of my greatest objections to religion. If you deny yourself the urge to confront the greatest provocation for any conscious mind, you are in a real sense not really living. (Or at least attempting to live like the beasts, when you really don't have to!)

The assumption that out of nothing something cannot come is one I let go of some time ago. Philosophy teaches me to probe beyond such sticking points. And my academic background as a historian also taught me that denial is never the best response to new factual information which poses logical challenges to my pre-existing beliefs.

*The notion that the Big Bang was the absolute beginning of everything has become widespread in mainstream culture, but it is not something that can be backed up with any empirical evidence and is thus not something you will find eminent scientists asserting in print.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Museum Pieces #4

Sir Thomas Lawrence's painting of The Calmady Children (1823) can be found in New York's Metropolitan Museum. Emily (1818-1906) and Laura Anne (1820-1894) were the daughters of Charles Calmady of Langdon Court in Devonshire.

Lawrence described the painting as "my best picture...one of the few I should wish hereafter to be known by."

When exhibited at the RA it was engraved under the title of Nature.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

I suppose it's not that hard to see why this turned out to be a bit of a summer flop for Jerry Bruckheimer, though the movie is ultimately not as mediocre as it's first act suggests. Its two main leads are likeable and spirited, but a comic turn from Alfred Molina isn't enough to dispel the sense that Mike Newell (he of Four Weddings and a Funeral) has had to play this too straight.

It might be 'from the producers of Pirates of the Caribbean' but it lacks the tongue in cheek pleasures of that franchise and at times reminded me of historically-contortionist 80s fantasy fare such as The Sword and the Sorcerer. Critically it seems to lack the required elements to properly thrill kids, adults or even adolescents, though there's certainly a little something in there for all these audiences.

I like Gemma Arteton and am looking forward to seeing her in The Disappearance of Alice Creed and Tamara Drewe. Her Kentish intonation however, whilst ideal for Tess of the D'urbervilles, is for my taste at least, a bit too Betty from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em to project the sensuality and exoticism of an ancient near-eastern princess.

Grade: B


This morning on Canal 3 we watched a Spanish Catholic priest by the name of Jorge Loring, author of a fat tome titled Para Salvarte, ably demonstrating the tortuous and somewhat tortured reconciliation the Universal church has made with Darwin.

Only men have tools and honour their dead, Loring preaches, so their spiritual status is completely distinct from animals. (He doesn't mention what we are to make of the spiritual status of Neanderthals who lived in his own native land some 30,000 years ago. They certainly made tools, and evidence exists that they also honoured their dead. They also had bigger brains than modern humans, with whom they briefly coexisted in Europe. Were they just walking matter like 'los monos'? Where did they fit in God's plan?)

The Bible, he also informs us, does not have to 'make history'. It is a collection of messages not of facts. So when it tells us that God made Adam from clay, what it might mean is that God made Adam from the body of a monkey, which like mud, is just a lump of matter.
In this sense the Catholic church has 'no problem' with what Loring calls Evolutionism. What really matters then is the 'jump' made from the animal to the spiritual plane.

Ironically, this reasoning itself derives from an an interesting historical fact, for we know that the originators of scripture had in mind an ontologically-distinct kind of textual experiences for its readers, something altogether more complex than a simple distinction between facts and messages can encompass.

And while the Bible may not itself make history it is in fact made of history, something churchmen usually seem less ready to discuss with the faithful. We know for example when, where (and in some crucial instances like Genesis, why) its various components were put together. The minimum insight we can glean from this is that the Bible was not 'composed' in the order in which it is usually presented, and that the myth of creation it contains was not the earliest formative myth of the middle eastern peoples within whose culture and history it emerged. But context it seems, is best left to trained theologians, for when it comes to the ordinary faithful, it might rightly be considered a substrate for doubt.

Anyway, in spite of all this, Loring then advises us in altogether more stentorian tones that evolution remains 'discutible' and opens the pages of his own book in order to quote from the 'numerous' scientists who consider Darwin to be in error. One of these has been cited before in this blog, but Loring fails to distinguish between a reasoned scientific opposition to natural selection as the sole mechanism of evolution and a principled but ill-reasoned objection to evolution in toto.

Don't worry then, Loring concludes, Catholics have no reason to feel obliged to reject Evolutionism, but they also have no reason to feel obliged to accept it. And in this he's right of course. It's not obligatory to believe that the Earth revolves around the sun, that men landed on the moon, that Princess Diana's death was an accident etc. Reason, unlike religion, doesn't function through obligation. And scientific knowledge (as well as historical knowledge) is acquired though the piecemeal synthesis of facts and hypotheses, where truth is always provisional rather than absolute...but never so relative that it's OK to believe anything you want if the empirical evidence starts to line up against it.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Comfort foods

With the weather this stinky our thoughts turn ever more readily to the comforts of the kitchen.

Thanks to a tip off from Rudy, who has researched the matter exhaustively, we are now properly acquainted with Pollo Frito Pinulito, whose patented recipe for fried chicken is by some way the best in Antigua. (We used to patronise Alina's, but they started roasting lower quality birds and at the same time put their prices up.)

Rudy and I met up again recently for another agreeable lunch at Ubi's. We both road-tested the Sopa de Curry con Mariscos, which was delicious. The recipe is based on a Thai red curry paste, diluted to just the right consistency and piquancy to function as a soup. Jeremías is a very competent Asian chef. If I could alter one thing at his restaurant it might have to be the presentation: I'd have preferred a bit of crockery to the plastic bowl my soup was served in.

The pargo in the pic above was a leftover from one of Felipe's weekend festines. We pan-fried it and prepared separately a Malaysian-style fish sauce with red chiles, shallots, coriander, cumin, tamarind, a dollop of honey, y un toquecito de chipilín!

V's sister Silvia is a very different kind of cook. Whereas V can hardly ever bring herself to make the same dish twice, Silvia delights in re-creating the staples Guatemalan cuisine. A couple of Sundays ago she prepared one of the largest ollas I have ever seen of pepián de 3 carnes (costilla, lomito de res and gallina) for a family gathering. It was really delicious; her chiles rellenos are scrumptious too.

If nothing else the elotera metiche seems to have convinced a number of the locals in Panorama that there's money to be made from selling grub to transients and construction workers. This week one of our neighbours opened up a little cafe in their garage selling 'delicious lunches'. I'm looking forward to trying their atoles, especially the arroz con leche.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The A-Team (2010)

After Inception and to a lesser extent Salt, the sheer frenetic brainlessness of The A-Team actually made us sit up and pay attention!

The plot is juvenile and a bit of a mess; deliberately so, I think. There is very much no Plan B here.

I was never a fan of the original series in the eighties. I found those chaotic close-quarters tiroteos where nobody ever ended up shot utterly absurd. People do fall over here, but you need to be concentrating very hard to pick up any of the individual micro-events within any given action sequence.

It's not unentertaining and there are several eye-catching, unlikely stunts (such as the flying tank), but the CGI often has little intention of remaining undetectable.

Grade: B (-)