Saturday, December 31, 2011

Relative homicide rates

This year Guatemala had, with the exception of Mexico, a lower relative homicide rate than all its neighbours. Yes, that includes Belize. Honduras, meanwhile, is practically off the scale.

Yet when it comes to media stories about the wave of 'drug-related' violence that threatens to overwhelm civil society south of the border, Mexico and Guatemala are invariably the usual suspects. I don't seem to recall reading any articles in the past 12 months describing the ecotourism destination next door as "ungovernable", with the implication that it is rapidly degenerating into some sort of failed state".

It is also interesting to note that Colombia, which has done a sterling job of PRing its recovery from the maelstrom of lethal violence that swept across it in the 80s (and markets itself to foreigners with the strapline "The only danger is that you want to stay"), is still essentially as dangerous as South Africa.

Friday, December 30, 2011

New year, new novel idea

For the past year or so I have been working on a schema for a novel which has as its central conceit the notion that in the 'not-too-distant-future' Chinese scientists have developed a gene therapy which allows them to selectively offer a significant lifespan extension to individuals deemed valuable to the state.

Now whenever one starts with a high metaphyical concept and then attempts to graft on some sort of story, one finds oneself in a bind. This year, a not-disimilar concept came to my attention in the form of a movie called In Time, and from the critical response, I have gathered that Andrew Niccol has failed to disguise the fact that the underlying idea disappointingly denies any precedence to either plot or character. (Anyway, I hope to be catching that flick early in 2012.)

I was planning to locate my own narrative in Guatemala, a choice which would permit me some geographical and cultural distance from the hard technological core of my MacGuffin, and encourage me, the author, to focus on the familiar and the intimate.

A Chapin location would have also allowed me to explore another key theme: what would happen if the Chinese 'solution' would have negligible (or at least unforseen) consequences for individuals of WASPish ethnicity but, owing to the known affinities between the Mayan and Chinese chromosomes, gave a sudden advantage to one of the western hemisphere's ethnic have-not groups?

I still think this is a story worth writing, but I have struggled to find a way to set it in a fictional universe that is essentially more interesting than expressing it as a mere thought experiment.

Yet, almost inevitably when one considers how human beings would respond to extraordinary longevity, one starts to ponder what will happen once they realise that it wasn't really what they were after in the first place. And so, a parallel narrative idea has sprung to mind: how might we behave if given the chance to live out all of the possibilities that our individual lives offer us? The attraction of this premise (which, you guessed it, would also be tied down to Guatemala via an as yet undisclosable tie-in to Antigua's parque central) is that it would permit me to gratuitously meditate on my own philosophical notions relating to the nature of quantum phenomena and free will, as well as verbalising my gathering apprehensions about ageing and the gradual withering of personal possibility.

I would also be allowed the chance to signal my intellectual debt to the likes of Asturias, Rulfo and Borges and, something I have always wanted to do, couch an otherwise explicitly science fiction tale within the idiom and mood of magical (or to butcher Arthur C. Clarke's famous observation) suficiently technological-realism. It's also a much harder story to write. But then that is what New Year's resolutions are for, isn't it?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dawkins plays Santa

Richard Dawkins has been honoured with the post of guest editor for the Christmas edition of the New Statesman and has been out there this week plugging the magazine via Sam Harris's essay on free will, the essence of which is encapsulated by a sentence one comes across about half way through:

"All of our behaviour can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge."

It bothers me that some rationalists (amongst whose numbers I generally like to consider myself) are unable to perceive the obvious holes in their arguments. Dawkins himself wrote an entire book that affected to dismiss the probability of God by comparing the creator to some giant spaghetti monster in space, a line of argument that completely failed to acknowledge that when men speak of God, as opposed to giant spaghetti monsters, they are talking about first causes, and that when they do so, the whole category of probability becomes moot anyway.

None of Harris's arguments are especially new, but given the nature of the publication, he has attempted to demonstrate how they can be deployed to trump prevailing political discourse, presumably in order to make new enemies as one munches on the Christmas turkey.

It's as if he is saying that we scientists, at least those of us who can face up to unpalatable truths, have a deeper fundamental grasp of the big issues than either liberals or conservatives (in the American sense). Not quite what his chum Dawkins meant when he coined the phrase
Holistier than thou, but certainly a variety of smug superiority that does this little clique of science-led dogmatists few favours.

Harris believes he can dispense entirely with the notion of free will because human consciousness is little more than a package of illusions of acting in the moment, when in fact it is a
"a totality of impersonal events merely propagating their influence." From this premise, he goes on to reach the following conclusion: "If I had been born with the brain, body and experience of Ted Bundy, I would have been Ted Bundy - a serial killer put to death for his crimes. There is no extra part of me that could have resisted taking his path in life."

But hold on, doesn't that word "
experience" muddy things up a bit? What if he had just been born with the brain and body of Bundy? There's no question that there is something innate in this type of psychosis, but the dodgy genetic hand dealt to Bundy had to interact for many years with society via his inherently plastic human mind before he went out to make his first kill.

Minds are never wholly impersonal. Harris has deliberately tied the notion of free will to consciousness, a stream we now know is always playing catch-up with the actual decision-making processes of the human brain, but our on-going mental worlds encompass the past and the future as well as the present, and our behaviour and overall personality is surely forming and re-forming as a result of a feedback loop between our illusion of executive control and those hidden committees of brain function. So while I may not be able to directly influence what I decided to do a millisecond ago, what I do next week must potentially differ depending on how deeply I think about it. Surely the 'totality' must include some more personal events when one steps back a bit from the conscious moment?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed by Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Shriver's novel (which, by the way, I haven't read). It is certainly fascinating, if not entirely gripping, especially after the narrative slips into a groove after the first thirty minutes or so.

Ramsay is using sound and visual imagery in a consciously masterful way here, but at times both can seem a bit meddlesome. The Hillbilly background tracks and the persistent intrusion of redness started to become more salient than my interest in the underlying emotional drama.

There's no question that the latter is inherently more likely to have greater traction with parents than non-parents such as myself, but the notion that a child can take shape as a living embodiment of one's own existential compromises —
and a vengeful one at that — is still an intriguing one, and the trajectory of an author like Michel Houellebecq suggests that there's surely something in it.

Yet I've seen enough kids come off the rails here in Guatemala to have formalised the view that it is almost always the fault of the father, however useless the mother might otherwise appear to be. John C Reilly's doomed alcahuete dad Franklin makes a series of near comic interventions, but the character is inevitably underdeveloped, because Ramsay is trying to fashion a first person narrative from inside his wife's troubled consciousness, something which never seems to quite work in the inevitably third person medium of film.

It's a brave effort, but Tilda Swinton and her various haircuts are a less convincing presence than Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell, who play Kevin between the ages of 6 and 18 in the movie. And while I could see why she might be living in a hell of self-recrimination, it bothered me that apart from one or two suggestions regarding Kevin's line of defence at trial, Ramsay is less specific as to why the community around Eva should choose to project back onto her this sense of inner culpability so forcibly. (And could she not have moved away?) For while troubled teens and even adults may well emerge from misshapen domestic environments, I think we all know that deeper psychoses such as this are both more intrinsic and indwelling.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Cuba Travel Diary - Buena Siesta Social Club

No trouble loading this one, even though the flag behind might have been a bit of a give-away. Perhaps it's because these particular well-ripended socialists seem to lack a certain rica cha in their general demeanour.

The lead singer (maracas) must have something of a sideline going as a ventriloquist...can you spot his lips moving?? And the guy using the green box as percussion is the very picture of punctuated inertia. My own inclusion in the conjunto did little to pep things up.

I was to hear several similarly close to flatlining renditions of Vacilón on my Cuba travels. In the municipal museum in Trinidad there is a small gift shop at each level of the tower. I was amused to observe how the staff turned on a recording of this tune every time a group of tourists emerged from below, and then immediately turned it off as soon as they had passed on upwards.

One Cuban song I must have heard umpteen times on this trip and, unlike several others I could mention, never grew sick of, was Dos Gardenias Para Ti. Many will have heard the Buena Vista Social Club version, but Diego's is still my favourite.

Several non indigenous ditties were also given the Cuban twist on numerous occasions. Besame Mucho of course, but one also came across bolero-isations of tracks like I Just Called To Say I Love You and, more successfully, that super éxito of Italian pop, La Tua Storia Tra Le Dita.

Cuba Travel Diary - No smiling commies please...

After several failed attempts, I realised that I would not be able to upload any of my clips to YouTube with the words Havana or Cuba in the title or tags. This is presumably because placing in the public domain any evidence that socialism can be fun is clearly tantamount to trading with the enemy. Beyond pathetic really.

This would not have been a problem back in the USSR; I am yet to visit a place packed full of more miserable so-and-sos than the Moscow of 1984. But the Cubans are undoubtedly a jolly bunch and this city throbs every night to the sound of their music-making.

Even officialdom can be fun here. As I passed through the final security checks at Jose Martí International, several smiling X-Ray machine operators pointed out a colleague of theirs sitting at a nearby wooden desk and told me that the oil painting I was carrying in a cardboard tube would needed to be reviewed by this representative of 'La Policía del Patrimonio'. As soon as I made my way over to this nonplussed-looking individual, they all cracked up laughing. (Try telling Homeland Security to lighten up a bit and you are just asking for the full cavity search.)

Whatever 'Papa' Hemingway's well known preferences, my favourite watering hole in La Habana Vieja ended up being this one: La Lluvia de Oro on Obispo. And, let's face it, the Floridita, birthplace of the daiquirí, is a pink-walled establishment serving what Anthony Bourdain sagely describes as a girly cocktail so one has to wonder what Ernest saw in it. In short it is not the kind of place any self respecting repressed puritan would normally select for starting a bar fight.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Cuba Photo Essay - Carritos

Cuba is something of a walled garden, a state of affairs which no Mac enthusiast should carp on about too much.

Parts of this garden are well tended, pristine even. Others appear to have gone to seed.

And if you needed a handy visual emblem of this bifurcated condition, you really need look no further than the streets of Havana and the island's other major towns.

I was told that there's a local club for the owners of 'originals'...classic American vehicles with all their own bits still in the right place. Many of these vehicles were treated to Soviet-era refurbs however. My ride up to Guardalavaca from Holguín came courtesy of a 1952 American Jeep, with a Russian-made engine, a BMW steering wheel, no seatbelts and no wing mirrors.