Sunday, December 31, 2017

The New Anti-Semitism

As someone who has been accused of being anti-Semitic for wondering out loud why so many young and beautiful Israelis come to Central America, specifically to the Riviera Maya in order to throw such excellent rave parties, I suppose I can sympathise with some of the sentiments expressed in this article.

The "It is possible to be both a Zionist and an anti-Semite" claim is indeed an interesting one. 

Guatemala's recent decision to move its own embassy to Jerusalem has been seen by some commentators as straightforwardly indicative of the kind of shameless sucking up to the Donald that even Theresa May would baulk at. But there is a bit more to it than that.

Jimmy Morales is the front man for a party founded by retired military men of the nationalistic bent, many of whom benefitted from the United States' use of Israel as a proxy at a time when the gringos themselves were not allowed by their own congress to supply military equipment and know-how to the men gaily committing atrocities in this country.

The President is also a Pentacostalist Protestant of the fervent variety, and I have mentioned here before how many evangelical churches in Guatemala fly the flag of Israel either outside, or occasionally even inside behind the preacher's podium. So Zionism has deeper roots in this country than contemporary political expedience or indeed, Guatemala's oft-mentioned role in the formation of the state of Israel.

Yet one is indeed left wondering which particular reading of the New Testament precludes any sort of connection between this rather strange species of non-Jewish Zionism and anti-Semitic sentiment in the broader sense.

But the real essence of Neve Gordon's article here is the notion that one can be anti-Zionist without any concommitant animus towards Jews, one's only offence being a 'passion for justice'. She thus concludes firmly "The equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must first be rejected". 

Sorry, but no. The familiar symbol of Justice is the set of scales i.e. balance, and there is an imbalance here that still needs to be addressed. e.g. Why do certain people of the Left appear to care more about the injustice in that part of the world than in almost any other? 

And why do individuals with almost no natural tribal stake in the situation in the Middle East focus almost all their anti-colonialist angst on the government of Israel?

I cannot claim for sure that there is always a form of anti-semtism lurking behind this apparent geopolitical bias, but the possibility cannot simply be shut down just because we've pinpointed the existence of a bunch of aberrant zionists who might not have the best interests of the Jewish people at heart.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Kafka with Robots

Humanoid android stories belong in the same category as those about vampires and zombies - they examine alternative ways of being in such a way that to a greater or lesser extent throws some light on pressing human existential questions. 

All of these presences reside in what Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori called bukimi no tani, the uncanny valley. (Sean Young’s appearance in Blade Runner 2049 is textbook in this respect!) 

For Phillip K Dick existential questions were always asked with a wide-eyed paranoid gaze. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, described on the jacket of my 1981 copy as ‘Kafka with robots’ features ‘andys’ posing as Soviet agents, and parallel police stations in different parts of town (SF, not LA, perhaps more appropriately) each with its own captain, principal bounty hunter and methodology for tripping up embedded ‘carbons’...yet only one of these can be real

There are also quite a few electric sheep and other synthetic animals, as the biological kind have become scarce on planet Earth and keeping and caring for the needs of an animal is regarded as a sign of empathy, an apparently very human quality around which this society has built an entire religious outlook. 

This being a Phillip K. Dick story it almost goes without saying that profound epistemological unease is never far below the surface and the suggestion that everyone’s memories might be falsely-implanted hangs in the air, so to speak. 

I hope I’m giving a sense of just how much of the novel’s complexity was flushed away by Ridley Scott when he adapted it. Yet that movie is rightly considered a sci-fi classic, in the main because of the original manner in which a partially-apocalyptic future was imagined then realised on celluloid. And also because of a famous valedictory speech at the end ad-libbed by Rutger Hauer. 

And partial apocalypses are a sub-genre that I have a particular enthusiasm for - scenarios containing elements of both utopia and dystopia. In this instance the precise nature of the blend is one of the key questions being posed.

Although only credited as an executive producer, the script for the sequel has the hand of Sir Ridley all over it. As we’ve seen in his ‘development’ of the Alien franchise, the director has some signature concerns about synthetic consciousness that are perhaps not quite as fascinating or philosophically-profound as he surely must imagine they are. He has tended to use the intelligent androids’ own existential jitters to drive his narratives, rather than evoking human concerns about these technological imitations. 

The baton has nevertheless been formally picked this year up by Denis Villeneueve, and even though more than 35 years have elapsed since the original Blade Runner, the Canadian director has given himself permission not to have to re-state that much of the fundamental back-story.  I guess I’m fine with that, but along the way, he went soft on the basic ground-rules, and as with any zombie or vampire franchise, the ground rules are also very important for worlds with robots. 

The three elemental givens that Scott inherited from Dick are as follows:
  • Replicants are manufactured for use off-world (only) as servants for the colonists
  • They have a very limited lifespan compared to humans
  • They appear to be missing one very significant part of the standard human psychological make-up. 
None of these is consistently upheld in Blade Runner 2049 and, as a consequence, it doesn’t really hold up either as a faithful sequel or as a convincing stand-alone premise. 

Here the quest undertaken by the central protagonist is nuanced and ultimately engaging, perhaps less Noirish than Deckard's, but the various antagonists are comparatively under-developed in terms of their motivations. Robin Wright for instance stands in for an entire ‘human’ interest for roughly half the length of the movie and then is rather wastefully thrown away. 

Somewhat optimistically, Villeneuve left enough of these cardboard cut-outs still standing to support further iterations in the future. 

Yes, it's beautiful to look at, and Roger Deakins may finally get his Oscar. But it is cursed with being inconstant with not one, but two 'sacred' texts. These things are always a bit of a hospital pass. I remember how many critics deplored the 'ridiculous' ending of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, yet this is precisely how the Pierre Boule novel concluded. And we all know what happened when Stephen King tried to make his own authentic version of The Shining

Denis Villeneuve has some previous with sources. He quite successfully added his own symbolic whimsy to José Saramago's The Double in Enemy, but he also notably flattened out the heavyweight scientific and philosophical ideas in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, which arrived on screens as Arrival

One more thing. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I found myself wondering some of the time why the andys lacked a factory marker such as blue toe-nails that would make them easier to spot. But then I realised that the author was literally dicking with the suspicion that ultimately there can be no way to tell the difference and that the whole empathy-based worldview might be delusional. 

Nevertheless, Nexus-6 Pris tells the human ‘special’ Isidore that the Chablis he has provided is ‘wasted on her’. So, instead of all that cumbersome Voight-Kamff testing apparatus, a bottle of New World Chardonnay might actually have done the trick...

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Bubbly for Christmas

The Bitcoin phenomenon has reached an interestingly delicate phase. The price inflation over 2017 looks like a bubble, but it isn’t. At least not quite. 

Bubbles like the one that helped re-set expectations of the ‘new media’ age have a number of key characteristics this one probably still lacks. 

Firstly, there is a moment when everyone realises that valuations have parted company with any kind of underlying ‘real’ economic value. Then there is the period that loads of small investors pile in. And finally there is the matter of debt. 

The man who purchased our company in 1998 used in part the shares in his own NASDAQ-quoted enterprise to do so. At the time he was secure in the conviction that these would only ever go up in value, which is possibly why he made the error of electing to pay us out after a certain period with an unfixed quantity of shares up to a an agreed fixed monetary value. Time would unfailingly work in his favour he imagined. 

His optimism was further reflected in the fact that he had been borrowing funds in order to aggressively expose himself to the wider dot com dream. 

Shortly after the deal was done the Ruble defaulted causing the first major market correction of the digital era. With share prices plummeting, our over-enthusiastic acquirer faced margin calls and had to sell his own stock in the company that he had founded simply in order to cover them. 

When the broader investing public took note that the CEO was dumping stock, panic set in quickly and the price tanked. This is how bubbles tend to play out. 

With regards to the Bitcoin situation right now there is still a comparative dearth of smaller-scale, steroid-pumped, American-style speculators in the mix, as most of the cryptocurrency is currently held either by the existing super rich or those who have become so by mining it. As for the potential for disconnect with ‘real’ values, quien sabe?! 

And over-extended debt is yet to become a big issue, though some of the exchanges are now starting to allow leverage. One article I read recently suggested that the 15x leverage on offer at the Tokyo exchange could result in ‘contagion’ - and the full zombie apocalypse is perhaps presaged by the 100x leverage offer that pops up as a sponsored link on Google. 

So the situation right now is highly volatile, but not entirely bubbly. Professor Niall Ferguson suggested recently that potential punters should.. “Think about it this way. The maximum number of bitcoins that can be created is 21m. The number of millionaires in the world, according to Credit Suisse, is 36m. Their total wealth is $128.7 trillion. If millionaires collectively decided to hold just 1% of their wealth as bitcoin, the price would be not $15,000 but north of $60,000. If they raised that to 5%, the right price for bitcoin would be above $300,000."

Maybe, but think about it this way as well. There have to be plenty of state players out there right now considering how handy it would be to propagate the impression that the cryptocurrency has somehow seriously over-reached itself. 

By helping to engineer a significant price correction right now governments in the developed world could achieve a number of significant ends. 

1) Deliver a blow to those members of the global uber-elite who have demonstrated a fairly loose commitment to the ideal of the nation state 
2) Further erode the online influence of techno-libertarians 
3) Shut down the clandestine payments and laundry system that has appeared to be emerging for organised crime, terror groups and other dark-net beneficiaries and 
4) Discredit Bitcoin just enough to permit either the passage of hefty ‘regulation’ or indeed allow for its eventual replacement with more anodyne alternatives. 

They all want to get us hooked on digital money, just not this kind. 

There was a marked dip pre-Xmas, but this may have been a response to the opening of futures markets which have made it easier to bet short, as well as some insider manipulation. Not quite the full debacle that would suit states and big institutions. 

And they really need this to happen before Bitcoin has wheedled its way further into the mainstream and a bursting bubble would inevitably pop the global economy rather more alarmingly. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

La Bodeguita del Medio

This extraneous branch of possibly the most famous drinking hole in Old Havana is situated in a surprisingly non-descript, semi-suburban quarter of the Costa Rican capital. And inauthentically tumbleweed empty at lunchtime.

The original La Bodeguita del Medio opened its doors in 1942 as a local grocery store. Rather like a version of La Antigua's very own 'La Bodegona', but requiring a diminutive.

The proprietor, one Ángel Martínez, then teamed up with a Hungarian called Sepy Dobronyi in 1951 to convert the establishment into something more akin to a bar-restaurant, serving archetypal rural Cuban dishes like ajiaco and popularising the equally quintessential local tipple, the mojito. (It is thought that this cocktail must have more venerable roots than the Daiquiri, which requires more ice.)

These days the Habana Vieja location is ground zero for Hemingway fanboys: one reason I find the Playa del Carmen outlet somewhat preferable, with its lighter Mexi-Cuban fusion grub...even though it is arguably yet more touristy.

'Papa' Hemingway supposedly said 'Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita.' and as a result, the autochthonous venues, both now owned by the island's socialist state, still pack in the punters...though it might be worth noting that for medical reasons Hemingway was not permitted to consume sugar, so Heaven knows what he was actually drinking in these joints. 

Ice may also have been an issue in the aftermath of the Revolution as its production requires copious quantities of electricity.

La Bodeguita uses cane syrup in their mojitos, plus Caribbean spearmint, the imperative ingredient that is replaced with common-all-garden mint in almost all the crappy mojitos one might ever have quaffed.

The American author was notorious for always going 'commando' and farting all persistently, so the bar was possibly not always as filled to the rafters when he was holding court in there. 

And thus this one in San José may not be so inauthentic after all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Individuals with a noted bent towards the irrational often seem to have an aversion to the unthinkable.

The type of person who asks 'ah, but what happened before the Big Bang?' is, as Stephen Hawking once noted, like someone standing on the South Pole wondering which direction is south.

Part of becoming a grown-up intellectual being is the recognition of boundaries.

Nevertheless, the question is not completely invalid. The Big Bang may have been a local event within greater processes, which strain everyday concepts like before and after.

Confronted with grief I have resorted to a more subjective explanation of time, but the truth is that it is rooted in both our conscious and unconscious selves, as biology makes no sense at all without time.


"The consumption of chiles doubled in Europe in the fifteenth century and by 27% in the sixteenth" > Food a Culinary History by Jean-Louis Flandrin et al. 

Hmm. The first part of this statement is at least mathematically accurate. As far as I am aware the first mention of chiles by a European was in a 1493 diary entry by Colombus. This leaves seven years for European chile consumption to double, from 0. And 2x 0 is...

But a 27% increase on zero in the following century? 

As I have noted before, Asian food must have been a little bland before the spread of chiles out of Central America. 

They have only been used in Szechuan cuisine for example since the 19th century....

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

First Fight

We’ve been celebrating this date for 28 years. This cake, which we prepared together last night, is a solid improvement on the soggy ‘Borracho’ I purchased at La Cenicienta in ‘89. I had to walk it uphill to the house in which I was lodging on Chipilapa (now the ITE), and it didn’t arrive in peak condition. 

Waiting in the fridge was a bottle of champagne that I’d had to go all the way to the capital to acquire in a small specialist shop under the Géminis 10 towers. Back then you could not buy champagne in La Antigua for love or money, at least not the authentically Froggy kind with actual grapes involved. It cost me Q125, which sounds cheap enough at today’s rates, but in those days your dollar only bought you just over two quetzales. V was mortified as this was then about half the monthly salary of an office worker. So it’s also the anniversary of our first fight!

Sunday, December 03, 2017


Nietzsche famously said of the French Revolution that it had become thoroughly submerged in its own discourse —  that the underlying ‘text’ had, in effect, become buried beneath all the contemporary critical interpretation.

One of the many unfortunate side effects of the rise of digital media in the past couple of decades is that we appear to have many more French Revolution-type mass chatter-events unfolding around us all the time; the kind where human action is somehow both constrained and amplified by the gabfest.

I seem to recall being straightforwardly opposed to things like BREXIT and the Trump presidency when they first impinged themselves upon my consciousness, yet nowadays have a definite urge to put my fingers in my ears whenever they are mentioned. This, I have to admit, cannot be a good thing.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

What Britain is...

It might be true that there is no longer an agreed narrative, but the one being peddled by this article is neither especially insightful nor that sophisticated.

First off, anyone who can in all seriousness include the phrase 'that other great Anglo-Saxon nation' in an article for the non-gutter press, hardly deserves to see their name in print.

And the disappointment expressed here actually tells you more about America and American attitudes to Britain and its history than it does about the modern UK. (Spare me this nonsense about the once great Royal Navy no longer being able to defend our coast.)

There are indeed a number of systemic sources of instability across the developed world, and if one takes a broader view, the UK is not such an outlier in this respect, no matter how agonising the Brexit bellyache has become.
As in the 30s the trigger for much of the problem was the over-reach of American greed which led to a financial crash with global repercussions - many of these ultimately stemming from longer-term, endemic instabilities in local situations. (e.g. Catalan separatism.)

There is also the matter of partisan intransigency and alternative truths currently being cultivated by social media platforms.

That said, Britain’s reluctance to be a part of closer European political integration has been obvious for all four decades of its involvement with the block. While, at the same time, the need for such integration has been growing more and more acute over the past decade or so.

Brexit was made possible by the sort of mobs and snobs rapprochement that has occurred on several occasions in our history, even though the present one is largely being blamed on the very contemporary phenomenon of globalisation.

This extremely loose 'alliance' of ultra-liberal (in the British sense) and ultra-illiberal (in the American) perspectives has perhaps been our eccentric island's particular contribution to the contemporary kerfuffle, and may be one reason why outsiders are finding it hard to fathom.

The media are not helping by persistent use of only partially relevant metaphors such as 'divorce' and 'club membership'.

No deal would probably be bad for all parties, but as negotiations continue, factions across the spectrum are raising this supposed worst case scenario for markedly different ends. e.g. there are those on the side of the 27 who clearly still suspect that the UK might have its arm twisted to prefer No Brexit to No Deal.

It's not so far fetched and remains, ironically, more likely to happen with May in power than with Corbyn. A leftist Labour Party returning to government as a result of Tory divisions is surely unlikely to risk making more permanent its rift with its traditional base by ignoring the referendum result.

Yet whatever the ideological Brexiteers on the Conservative party's right-wing imagine the risks posed to the 'fabric' of British democracy by such a decision, my suspicion is that the Tories could yet just sever the Gordian Knot and rebuild themselves around a a more coherent position.

The hazards to party and to country might not in the end be as great as many are touting. The fabric of British democracy is parliamentary after all, and the sooner those delusions of more direct decision-making fostered both by social media and unnecessary referendums are put in their place, the better.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Belko Experiment

A seminal study of the actions of a group of left-leaning German cops despatched to Ukraine to take part in the Nazi genocide of its Jewish population revealed something both significant and consistent about human nature: in any reasonably well-defined peer group of ten individuals asked to do something morally repugnant, one will refuse, eight will go along with it, and one will not only go along with it, but instead try to enhance the levels of repugnance as much as possible. This finding has been repeated numerous times in more experimental situations. 

Each of us would like to imagine that in the most telling of circumstances we’d turn out to be the one positive exception, but sadly in my experience of the white collar life, the signs have been that most of us have the potential to be that other one too. The pattern remains unchanged, but the make-up of the individuals corresponding to it can be more flexible. 

In The Belko Experiment the set-up is slightly different: when a group of roughly eighty American office workers is shut inside a Bogotá tower block and encouraged to commence compulsory redundancies in the most brutal of fashions, we find that there is one conscientious objector, one open-minded free-thinker, several stoners, a small group of homicidal maniacs and roughly sixty sheep. Plus one girl who’s just clumsy enough to kill another person by accident given this precise scenario. 

As Robbie Collin pointed out in his 5 Live review, the experimental nature of the methodology is compromised by the fact that the sample all have mini-bombs in their heads which can be exploded as punishment for non-compliance. 

And other than a COO who declares an intention to 'circle back', the designated office perv and the aforementioned spliff-heads, the possibilities for stereotyping are seriously under-explored here. 

Battle Royale for example, might be said to have adequately addressed the various types and tensions that exist in the Japanese education system, satirising to the nth degree the relentless competition therein. 

Here we get a COO stating than he will 'circle back' and someone being clubbed to death with a sellotape holder — the executive equivalent of the staple gun in one of those DIY warehouse melées — but few other nods to the environment and its archetypes. In fact, the people charged with doing the posters seemed to have a bit more fun with the concept. (See below.) 

I was rooting for the open-minded character, especially as she was played by the daughter of the world's most famous Guatemalan, Adria Arjona, but sadly the last hurdle proved tricky for her...though I'd say she met her fate more uncompromised than the eventual 'winner'.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Day I Met El Chapo (2017)

Somewhat coincidentally we've seen a series of movies recently about someone doing something transparently — almost suicidally — dumb and then spending the rest of the running time attempting to survive the consequences. 

There's the aforementioned Jungle and 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain in which Josh Hartnett's character takes a load of class A drugs and then goes snowboarding in the middle of a monster storm. 

Netflix's new three part documentary The Day I Met El Chapo is cut from similar cloth. 

By the end of it Kate del Castillo has played the gender card, the oppressed Mexican citizen card and just about any other card available to her in this quest for 'closure', but viewers are left none the wiser really WTF she actually thought she was going to achieve in meeting Guzmán Loera face-to-face. 

Her friends express their consternation that 'Say-Anne' Penn came equipped with get-out-of-jail letters from Rolling Stone magazine for himself and the other males with him, but not for poor Kate. The trouble is that the previous episode had made it clear that the actress had no idea of Penn's private agenda (an interview) until they were all sitting around the table with the capo and his cronies. If her own intentions had been journalistic, she'd have thought about this, wouldn't she?

Penn clearly concluded that it was already too obvious what a dick he is, so there was no real need for the big Netflix exposé treatment. Without his participation, or that of any of the other men present, this film becomes something of a smokescreen for Del Castillo's already non-transparent decision-making process. A retired DEA-agent called Hector Berrellez (otherwise famed for revealing the role of the CIA in the murder of Kiki Camarena) becomes the loan voice of unqualified censure. 

I warmed to the concluding contribution of producer Epigmenio Ibarra who observed how important it is that this story should be told by Hispanics and not gringos, Kate's version, not the stereotypical Hollywood one, for only that way would all the nuances remain. 

And nuances there are a-plenty. A notable one for me is that Del Castillo seems blissfully unaware just how much she herself is as much an emblem of everything that's cockeyed in Mexican culture as El Chapo himself — the dynastic nature of celebrity, Televisa and its dubious relationship with truth and the consistent casting of hijas de papi from the elite as downtrodden, mixed-race characters from the underclass e.g. La Reina del Sur.

The stand-out character in this tale turned out to be the kingpin's legal counsel Andrés Granados. Now, I am aware of an abogado here in these parts I tend to refer to as the 'Gunboat Lawyer'. 

Not the sort one would retain for everyday tramites, but rather for those slightly more serious litigious niggles where another party is being a bit obstreperous / brincón and could do with the legal equivalent of the Royal Navy showing up just off their shoreline. Like Granados, this man has that ex-cuque, seasoned perpetrator of atrocities aura about him. 

El Chapo's abogado appears arguably scarier in person than his most notorious client. Yet your standard Hollywood mobster-lawyer is usually a bit of a venal slimebag. Consider for example Pablo Escobar's man, Fernando Duque, as portrayed in Narcos

Jungle (2017)

This one belongs to both the not-so-bright thrill-seeker and Amazonian mis-adventure sub-genres.

Far superior examples of the latter being 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent and further back, Werner Herzog’s masterful Fitzcaraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

As for the former category, we saw recently with 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain just how difficult it can be to become fully invested in the survival prospects of an individual that so clearly has himself entirely to blame for his predicament.

I’m also consistently peeved with films supposedly set in South America which have not actually been shot anywhere near their stated locations. (The worst offender of recent times? Snatched.) Jungle for example, was largely filmed in Queensland with a few additional short scenes shot in towns just outside Bogotá i.e. not darkest Bolivia.

The movie opens with the promise of ‘This is a true story’; preferred to the more fingers-crossed-behind-back alternative of ‘Based on true events’. And the thing is that major elements of the story as presented have indeed been fictionalised, or at least carefully, though not always skillfully, distorted.

Radcliffe’s Ghinsberg is depicted as the hapless victim of a scam artist in La Paz, yet according to his Wikipedia bio he was obsessed with Henri Charrière’s Papillon long before arriving in South America and was actively seeking the ‘rainforest immersion experience’.

Still, the film has some poignant moments, mostly courtesy of Joel Jackson as Marcus and in particular of Alex Russell as Kevin. Not Daniel Radcliffe though, whose presence and cod Israeli accent I could generally have done without.

There were some nostalgia-inducing reminders of my own formative rainforest immersion experiences in the late 80s — such as the sense of being in a bit over one’s head and the constant overlay of the actual environment with one’s own fantastical interpretation of it. 

I also recalled that in these sort of expeditions it is very easy to become both manipulated by and manipulative of one's fellow travellers.

Monday, October 16, 2017

American Made

There's definitely a distinctive new genre in Hollywood, 'based on a true story'-type capers featuring loveable all-American rogues who are really not all that loveable, but as played by one of those adorable A-list men, we are given to understand that it is kind of hard to hate on them completely...

First we had Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, then in short order, Di Caprio as Jordan Belfort and Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells. Now we have Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in American Made. 

These men have their black souls cloaked in black comedy, which distracts us from the glaring absence of a moral compass, both personal and systemic.

In this film all the action is shot in a sort of nostalgic vintage instagram filter, suggesting period authenticity, but also disguising Cruise's puffy and wrinkled features (and thus the 25 or so year age gap with his leading lady.)

Anyway, here's one of the gags that may or may not be meta. Seal voices over a map-based explanation of his double-dealing of the cartels and contras and then admits he's mis-identified Nicaragua. 'No, wait a minute...that's El Salvador'. Except it isn't.

Movie Melancholy

We've watched a pair of flicks lately that immersed us in the movie melancholy of might-have-beens. 

First up, Blood Money, a modern B-movie retelling of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre set amidst the forests and 'gnarly' rapids of the State of Georgia. 

This one has an unusual, fairly nasty gender edge to it, that is under-explored, despite some last minute ramping up. 

And only John Cusack seems to sense the potential for dark humour here. The other male characters are weak. Perhaps that's part of the point, but I sense that the makers ducked out of delivering something with real bite. 

Then there's Atomic Blonde, one of those bad movies that contains enough fragments of goodness to set you wondering what a more competent director/screenwriter could have made of such material, not to mention the performance of Charlize Theron. (The presence of James McAvoy however is becoming a token of projects that have gone somewhat awry.) 

The failure to take full advantage of Berlin, a location that is just made for this sort of thing, was especially treasonous.

Misdirected Desire

One of Gregory Norminton's aphorisms goes 'There are few things less desirable than misdirected desire'. 

This is true of both genders I think, but for a host of different reasons it is more likely to be a man doing the misdirecting, at least in modern western society. 

However, the story that is seeping through the cracks of the Weinstein scandal is that of the numerous women who might have elected to sign up for Harvey's Faustian pact, presumably to advance their careers. One of the victims has even been dropping hints on twitter about her fellow actresses. 

Certain individuals take misdirected desire more as opportunity than threat. This is true of both genders, yet for a host of different reasons, I'd offer in this instance that it is more likely to be a woman doing the taking, at least in modern western society.

Both ends of this analysis can of course be explained in part by the prevailing inequalities between the sexes. 

But you have to ask yourself whether the phenomenon itself  and the unevenness I have pinpointed —  would vanish completely if this were removed? 

Personally I think more women would tend to abuse this more even spread of power, just not quite to the same extent that men have done their less even share of it up to now. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Anti-semitic bias on the Left

Back in the 80s I’d have to try to talk down some seriously self-righteous European lefty types who’d adopted such an absurdly high and mighty position on the situation in Ulster that they seemed in danger of getting a nosebleed. 

These same individuals tended to have a perspective on Palestine casted from the same mold. (Jeremy Corbyn’s career has taken in both forms of partisan jaundice, and the Labour leader apparently remains committed to the second it would seem.)

No matter that more people were displaced  and indeed brutally murdered  amidst the formation of nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, Israel is invariably regarded as ground zero for historic injustice by a certain kind of self-consciously progressive person. 

If one steps back however, taking a broader view of the last century and those moments when new states were formed or borders shifted, the fate of the Palestinians — which fell short of an actual genocide (of which there were many in the period) — is not what one might refer to as an outlier. 

So there is a unmistakeable bias  a disproportionate concern for one set of unfortunate circumstances  that any historian would surely want to explain. 

And in my view it will be hard to provide such an explanation for this without addressing the likelihood of anti-semitic prejudice. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Men Apart

These zealots of self-determination always seem to be possessed of a certain nerdishness veering towards creepiness. 

Farage and Salmond had some of it, but Puigdemont is a true poster boy of the phenomenon. 

And in the past, so too the likes of José Martí and Ho Chi Minh.

Ghandi? Let's not go there...

Social Media, The Enemy Within?

Professor Niall Ferguson is rather obviously working this Spectator article into a promo piece for the conceit of his new book — an age-old historical see-sawing between networks and hierarches, the market and the tower.  

Strictly speaking however this particular modern predicament is more about how the ways people are connected online, knowingly and unknowingly, present a threat to the shared fictions that organise their lives when they believe themselves to be 'offline': e.g a variety of inter-network contention. 

A couple of days ago I wrote a post here about the ostensibly Janus-faced nature of 'Brand USA'. Patriotism, combined with the world's greatest military capability, makes the USA an insuperable power in the external, internationally arena. 

Yet the internal divisions or sections that have always existed within American society mean that internally at least, patriotism acts as a rather shrill voice of social control, papering over the cracks. 

And it has been largely successful up to now. But when the Internet was first developed by the country's finest military minds, few would have imagined that it would provide America's enemies with the almost perfect tool for attacking it on the inside

For this is where the true vulnerabilities in the American edifice lie, where the underlying disconnect between the ideal and the actual really matters and is currently only masked by the flimsiest of credos. These divisions were there long before the arrival of more empowered digital networks. 

This is a nation that is peculiarly tribal at the formative level, as anyone who has watched a High School movie can attest. The Internet only facilitates the extension of this playground mentality into the adult sphere. 

I'd suggest that this is one reason why Americans tend to articulate their most cherished positions in such a shrieky fashion  because they intuitively realise that without such a turbo-boost, few of these ideologies can really cope with the reasoned voice of reality. Radicalisation does not require persecution, unless one finds truth oppressive in itself. 

On a slightly separate note I think Ferguson over-eggs the left-leaning tendency of 'Big Tech', which actually tends to lean libertarian. As a historian he should be well aware that the contemporary American association between liberal ideas and socialist ones is largely factitious as almost none of the monolithic socialist regimes of the twentieth century were liberal in any meaningful sense.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Oxymorons in Washington

Most of us who are not-American can intuitively grasp that the USA is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of place. 

Sometimes the doc is in charge, sometimes the plain old mister, but this internal conflict and resulting pattern of periodic political alternation has never really been a permanent put-off. 

For we understand that this nation is rather obviously a hybrid: between Old World and New World conditions and values, not quite a proper First World country like Japan or Germany, nor yet a full-on Third World clusterfuck either. 

In contrast with other notable hybrids — Italy or indeed China, say   to the casual visitor the United States can come across as somewhat neither here nor there, for it lacks the profounder allure of a deeper history. 

It all began rather more recently and oxymoronically as the 'Empire of Liberty', a phrase coined by slave-owning Jefferson, and has continued in much the same vein ever since. 

There are always so many things for outsiders to admire, yet while Americans might think their 'brand' is the ideal, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the manner with which the self-image is often out of step with the actual has always been very much part of the package.  

And this, somewhat counter-intuitively, makes global brand USA relatively immune to the sort of permanent trashing one could imagine it might now be receiving at the hands of the moron in the White House. (Even though it has to be noted that the paired down ideal, as currently expressed by the GOP in particular, is becoming less and less uplifting in the international arena.) 

However, extend what you mean by 'other people' to your internal audience - non-white people for instance  and therein you do have a bit of a problem, for Brand USA is much less able to cope with flagrant off-message hypocrisy when it comes to its own citizens, which is why it imposes the signs, symbols and platitudes of patriotism so rigorously at home. 

Kneeling NFL players do seem have found just the right contemporary spot in this old wound to insert and wriggle the finger. Nevertheless their protest is a mild one compared to some of the stuff witnessed in ante-bellum America: such as the public burning of the Constitution (a 'covenant with death') on July 4 by William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. 

One has to wonder what Vice President Pence would have made of THAT. 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

De-centralisation, aka Anarchy

Post-2008 populist insurgencies have been piggy-backing onto a pre-existing bent in European politics: separatist, anti-establishment sentiment along with the compulsion to push back against globalisation by re-isolating.

In recent times the referendum in Scotland and then in the wider UK when the Conservatives offered a plebiscite over EU membership, the turbo-charging effect of populism has been clear - especially as this form of decision making appears both more popular and more democratic than it actually is.

But England and Scotland were both fully-formed nation states at the start of the modern era. Spain was always going to present a thornier set of problems to an established order confronted by devolving and decentralising tendencies.

This nation has always been more of an amalgamation: of kingdoms, of cultures, of peoples, of languages and dialects, of antiquated legitimacies. Even the modern monarchy sits on a mesh of mutually-reinforcing regional tiles, each with its own form of sovereignty.

The Inquisition and, more recently, the Franco dictatorship provide testimony to just how hard 'conservatives' have had to work to contain Spain's inner contradictions.

Mariano Rajoy was only (barely) able to form a government in Madrid after a second popular consultation. In the form of Podemos the populists are undermining the old status quo from within as well.

I guess I've found Rajoy unpalatable as a politician ever since his abortive attempt to pin the blame for the 2004 atrocities on the Basques - which cost him the premiership and condemned him to looking surly for seven years. In his own mind he is probably a Lincoln-like figure, standing up for the union and the rule of constitutional law, perhaps comforting himself that Abe used a lot more than boots, batons and pepper spray on the secessionist scumbags. If he wins, he might be reckoning, history will give him the same sort of uncomplicated thumbs up, while the would-be breakaways will be remembered as traitors.

For now other EU leaders will support his take on the letter of the Spanish constitution  that sovereignty belong to all — because it rather obviously suits them. But with any further escalation, who knows?

It strikes me that the genre of science fiction reveals that many liberal westerners tend to imagine our collective political future as one of ever larger structures, one of federations, if not empires. For deep down we surely recognise that nationalism is a rather base instinct, and thus anticipate that it will eventually be dissipated by the sort of diversity we witness on the bridge of the starship Enterprise — with only the Klingons literally clinging on to the urges embodied by the likes of Nigel Farage.

Yet let us not forget that Catalunya was the wellspring of the anarchist disposition on the Iberian peninsula prior to the Civil War, and thus one should remember that the alternative utopian path to one big happy human family has always been one of radical de-centralisation.

(A snap I took in Euskadi, 2004)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Vietnam War (Part 1)

Some initial reflections on the introductory episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary. 

I suppose few nations are truly adept at looking at themselves in the mirror, but the USA does seem especially bad at it. 

Last month I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which has an entire building devoted to explaining the course of the war in the Pacific, but the section covering the detonation of two atomic weapons over major urban areas is so tiny as to be completely miss-able.

Having watched just this opener, it does immediately strike to me that the USA is still not ready, culturally, for a no-punches-pulled interpretation of this conflict. The origins bit at least.

Many of the facts here were new to me, and interesting, but the underlying tone of much of the analysis rankled. It was essentially apologetic, at times seemingly determined to deflect as much of the blame from the US as an intelligent audience might bear.

So, we witnessed some archetypally arrogant and perfidious Froggy behaviour (followed by the inevitable capitulation), as well as that of duplicitous native political actors that the Americans ‘didn’t understand’

The French and Japanese presence was put down to a naked compulsion to exploit, whereas the Yanks apparently just wanted to protect freedom and stem the red tide - yet were slowly drawn into conflict against their better, anti-colonial, instincts.

Crucially, we are expected to believe that Eisenhower and his CIA underlings in Indochina were at their most ingenuous in 1954-5, precisely the moment Guatemalans were learning just how cynical and ruthless they could be.

This ‘all men are created equal’ business is the foundational doublethink at the heart of the American project and has led to some extraordinary bouts of hypocrisy over two and a half centuries or so. The irony that it is something Americans broadly share with the French is apparently lost on these film-makers. 

It permits its users an enhanced perception of the failings of others vis-a-vis such a precept, whilst making them almost oblivious to their own.

Before watching episode two I think I shall need to have another go at The Quiet American...

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Plot and Perspective

If I were young again and heading to Film School I think I’d like to write a dissertation on the difference between narrative and camera perspective and why some directors seem a bit oblivious to it. 

Certainly one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, set in 18th century New York. For most of the text I was thinking how long it would take for the story to be adapted for TV or even the big screen; there are plenty of very ‘cinematic’ moments in the drama. But then at the end Spufford delivers something of an apple-cart upsetting reveal, a well-disguised transformation of narrative perspective that ought to make the reader immediately re-consider everything that has occurred before if not actually start to re-read the whole novel from scratch. 

This is one of those ruses of intelligent literature that should, by rights, make this one of those unfilmable books, yet somehow I still think the temptation to tell this tale anyway (and with lavish costumes) will remain. 

Narrative perspective is often crucial to other aspects of a story, such as plot. 

What a lot of otherwise talented directors don’t quite seem to appreciate is that swapping a first or even third person narrative for the apparently more objective showing rather than telling of the camera’s-eye-view can render an effective plot somehow less so. 

Case in point an otherwise excellent Argentinian film we watched this week - El Otro Hermano - based on Carlos Busqued’s novel Bajo Éste Sol Tremendo. The performances, the grotty rural mise-en-scène ...all top notch. But about 80% of the way in the conclusion turned into one of those utterly predictable yet not completely necessary third acts that writers should try to avoid. 

Now, I’ve not read the novel, but I strongly suspect that the narrative perspective was more firmly cinched to Cetarti, the outsider in this contemptible environment. 

The film however established right from the first moment a sense of symmetry between the goings on around Cetarti and those around local would-be capo Duarte. As the last few minutes approached at least one more interesting and appropriate way of concluding the story was suggested to us. 

Now I have to read the bloody book - if only out of curiosity about how the author managed to marry plot and perspective.