Guatemala's decision to elect a former comedian who had once acted the role of an unlikely yet successful Presidential candidate is looking less flawed — in principle — than it ever has done.
Monday, February 28, 2022
The discipline is prone to relativism of this sort because its emphases appear to be entirely subjective, superficially at least.
Yet if we look at the biological world some of those damn things are clearly more important than others, leading to dramatic, systemic change, be they meteors from outer space or tiny, random mutations. (The former demonstrating their impact in something more like what we call real time.)
We've possibly reached a critical whataboutery juncture in the war in Ukraine. You may have noticed some of its output already. What about Yemen, Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria and so on.
There are already echoes of what I will from now on always refer to as the Whoopi Fallacy — the notion that as a fight between white people it is of necessity less historically important than white people apprently think it is.
History's apparent subjectivity has made it a key raw material in our culture wars. Much of the discipline these days involves the recovery of 'narratives' that have been forgotten or excluded and that is indeed important work, but we mustn't lose sight of the fact that there is a wider universal historical landscape with genuine contours.
And sure, one can focus elsewhere — on the anthills — for that is the free choice all of us westerners have, but one runs the risk of not spotting the approach of the particularly ravenous lump of history coming to take a bite out of us.
Sometimes the act of viewing the present through fashionable historical goggles creates distortions of perspective that can feed into burgeoning conflicts. Post 9-11 the so-called War on Terror has been one damned small incident after another, but in the minds of many of the participants, something vastly more significant in the history of the world.
Current events in Ukraine might be blamed on the delusions and destructive inclinations of one man — which is why the Adolf analogies are filed — but they also have a backstory in westerners perhaps not recognising the BIG history lying camouflaged there in the heart of Europe, like a sniper in the long grass.
We'd grown accustomed to look for our phantasms elsewhere, often enough in that wildest kind of projected history, the imagined future — cyberwars, naval stand-offs in the South China Sea, clashes of civilisations.
And then in walks an old warrior, strangely both familiar and unfamiliar — rather like The Return of Martin Guerre — and we are all a bit flummoxed.
* One can easily demonstrate the difference between short and long term 'historical' perspectives in the present by asking the question “Which has been the stand-out atrocious tactical decision of the past week — sending an army full of incompetent, undermotivated fools into Ukraine or bringing on Kepa for the penalties?”
There is also of course, this perspective...
Friday, February 25, 2022
I have been wrong about how far Putin was prepared to go.
So now I am considering that I may have to avoid being wrong in the future about how far he may be prepared to go.
History provides us with very few useful examples of conquerors that recognised the stop signals. Maybe Julius Caesar after his visits to Britain, but then he went home and started crossing other lines domestically.
Putin needs Ukraine to surrender in order to begin to stabilise his situation at home and abroad. If they don't comply in the short-term he may be drawn into a bigger test of resolve, his and the NATO nations, plus countries like Sweden and Finland who may now be inclined to sign up for the longer term response.
It may seem absurd and profoundly premature to call the start of WWIII, but something has definitely ended — the European security order post-1945. (If the Spanish Civil war was the beta test for WWII, could this be an long overdue V2.0?)
Ukraine is not Syria or Afghanistan. Putin has demonstrated that it is a territory of historical strategic importance to Russia yet in doing so has surely sprung open a greater significance to the whole continent.
The Russian leader made a clear threat to use nuclear weapons against interfering third parties. That changes everything, forever.
Russia's pariah status will be lasting and more profound than no more Grand Prix, UEFA finals, Eurovision etc.
And we should be prepared for things to get markedly worse.
Europe has a Russian gas dependency. Turn off the pipeline and supplies would run dry in six weeks, but if they get a move on now they can reduce the risk significantly and this is one area where Atlantic support remains extremely important.
The key institutions representing 'the West' have been caught out. I'd maintain that there were significant collective — institutional — failures that made this outcome more likely, but that is certainly not an excuse for Putin's actions this month.
We can argue about his motivations: the threat posed by an advancing alliance, the threat to his ambition of imitating Peter the Great and re-establishing 'Greater Russia', but underneath it all the real threat has always been transparent liberal democracy and human rights.
A neutral Ukraine would have been a decent enough idea before, but not any more, especially if Zelensky now signs up for that with a gun against his head.
Boris says the only acceptable result is for Putin's adventure to end in failure. But there are degrees of failure available here and one could argue that a superficially wounded Putin would present the greatest danger of all.
Meanwhile, the task ahead for Ukraine is recorded in the history books from the times when these lands were invaded by French and Germans. Avoid final defeat, retreat from or at least dodge around an advancing superior force, play for time and the seasons, wear them down until they lose track of their objectives and their motivation for conquest sags.
Thursday, February 24, 2022
Oddly out-dated in certain ways as it took place before the Trump presidency, John Mearsheimer's lecture nevertheless serves as a superior backgrounder on some of the deeper causes of the current crisis in Ukraine...
Tuesday, February 22, 2022
Back in 1999-2001 I had the privilege (and the sheer fun) of being responsible for the digital media presence of the Ferrari Formula One team, encompassing the Schumacher broken leg season which almost resulted in Eddy Irvine pipping the German to the Scuderia's first drivers' championship since Jody Scheckter in '79.
There was as yet nothing like the social media of today, so this online activity and associated offline support was centred on what was then a sophisticated web platform funded by key sponsor Shell International.
The Internet Archive's Way Back Machine still hosts it in fragmentary and largely textual form, but the real thing was packed with desirable media.
The annual launch was a major event for the tifosi. Every year we managed the website from 1995 my colleague Simon and then I would receive an email from the patrons of a small bar in Maranello — Ferrari's hometown — expressing their thanks. Not just congratulations, gratitude.
This year Ferrari has revealed a car adapted to the significant shift in technical regulations that carries the designation — the F1-75 — which commemorates the 75th anniversary of Ferrari's first production car, though it is their 68th in the sport. Relative to the rest of the field it is unconventional, and it is gorgeous.
I can't remember the last time I concluded that a race-car was a thing of undeniable beauty. I believe it was one of Mika Häkkinen's McLarens during my tenure at his key rivals.
But this single-seater is cinematic.
Ferrari has been a little off the pace on the racetrack for the past couple of years. I guess they may not even care if the F1-75 runs like a Reliant Robin at the first GP of the new season in Bahrain next month.
The uniqueness of Scuderia Ferrari is twofold. Firstly it is essentially the only Formula One team that is indispensable to the sport. Secondly it is a team that is supported in Italy primarily, but also elsewhere, no matter which pair of drivers are seated in the cars.
The 2022 Merc, reverting to the more familiar and less woke silver livery, and the green Aston Martin are also easy on the eye, but the F1-75 is on another level entirely.
I have a little model of the car in which Schumi went straight on at Stowe corner on lap one at Silverstone in 1999 after a loss of pressure in the F399's rear braking circuit. It's not so lovely.IAt the time i was seated just behind the massed ranks of the bussed in Jordan VIPs and they all cheered the shunt, but clearly felt a bit sheepish almost immediately afterwards when its seriousness became apparent.
Scotland's David Coulthard — V refers to him as 'necky', though in that characteristic he was later surpassed by Alonso — won the race that day in one of these markedly jorobado vehicles.
There are Macbooks I considered nifty twenty years ago that now look like bricks. But every decade or so F1 seems to produce an archetypal implementation for the ages.
Saturday, February 19, 2022
How was your Friday?
Along with hundreds of thousands of others I found myself devoting a considerable part of mine to the BigJet TV live stream from Heathrow in the midst of Storm Eunice.
However entertaining Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood have been during the Half Pipe and the Big Air, surely the Beeb might find room for Jerry Dyer on the team?
Go on...drop it, drop it....
I can't speak for everyone, but in my case at least, the Winter Olympics seem to have fostered a taste for live action with premium peril.
Maybe the jetwatchers have a gnarly argot too?
Kind of fortunate none of those jets executed a backside pretzel followed by a face plant.
Friday, February 18, 2022
The world looks and feels different according to how much one has at stake.
In my line of work this can lead to unhealthy perceptual biases. One can try to train oneself out of them, but they linger, and there isn't really much one can do about that.
Maybe a month ago Vladimir Putin might have eased up on amassing his forces at various points around Ukraine if some sort of strongish commitment to permanently postpone that nation's eligibility to join NATO had been made. But the western alliance played an odd version of hardball and softball at the same time and that surely tempted Vlad to go all in.
He now has the kind of substantial open position that I recognise. He will know what he could potentially gain but he will also have a stop position behind him, and this will not be all the way back to the 2021 status quo and the Minsk Accords. We have surely gone beyond the point where he will simply recall half the Russian army to its barracks.
What might Putin's 'stop' be? He knows this is an important year in the US electoral cycle so making Biden look weak and ineffectual will be a must.* Exposing some serious faultlines in western unity, a nice to have.
I now believe that he will not stand down before the independent status of the breakaway zones like the Donetsk People's Republic has been firmed up. Some permanent new lines on the map.
He may not move directly on Kiev, at least not immediately. The brigades in Belarus are multifunctional, allowing him to split the Ukranian army's attention, implicitly threaten NATO members along the Baltic and keep the idiot in charge of that other ex-Soviet neighbour in line.
When Putin was just two years old the US sponsored a coup here in Guatemala which removed a legitimate democratically-elected government. Two years later the USSR sent tanks into Budapest. This was the world the Russian President grew up in and which he appears reluctant to consign to the history books. Being the last man stuck in that milieu possibly comes with some advantages.
World leaders would appear to be playing a game of 3D chess where not all the key players are moving their pieces on the same levels of the board.
Putin, for better or worse, has access to the most multi-dimensional perspective, encompassing the present strategic realities, history, myth, economic channels, comfy retirement, ethnic demarcations and so on.
He knows that whilst westerners will don their retro WWII or Cold War specs at a moment's notice, in general they are now more comfortable arguing over pronouns and more localised controversies than actually responding to the global threats to their more essential interests in the manner of their grandparents.
On a slightly, but not entirely separate note. I am no trained economist, but when the inflation first started to bite in the early part of last year even I could see clearly that it wasn't going to be 'transitory'. So when I heard the Fed making all those reassurances I concluded that either they are lying or they are incompetent.
However, the mendacity option has a small caveat. Back in June 2021 we had emerged from the winter surge of covid in the north, but Delta was threatening and the central bankers were all probably aware that it might be too soon to tighten up fiscally. In the US the Fed kept up with the bond purchases and stimulating the economy, presumably in the hope that they'd have a chance to dampen inflation in 2022 when the covid threat had eased.
In effect they had been staring at the same charts for so long and gambled that the pandemic would relent favourably rather than being topped off by a rapidly-escalating geopolitical predicament.
Along came Omicron which created a small dent in the recovery. It also demonstrated that 'soaring' inflation really had to be a supply-side issue. And this raises the question — which again, even I could see coming — of whether hiking interest rates is really going to help all that much. Down here in Latin America, it hasn't.
Back to Putin. He's been listening to Biden saying that the Americans won't respond militarily to any invasion of Ukraine, but instead come at Vlad and gang all guns blazing economically, and he must have had indulged in a chuckle or two.
High levels of inflation and indebtedness (and wobbly corporate asset markets) mean that this could be precisely the wrong moment to pull a few levers to see what happens.
* A subset of British analysts seem to think Putin can possibly achieve this by doing nothing — making POTUS cry wolf multiple times and then mock him when nothing actually happens.
This would be a variant of something I long ago suspected the CIA were doing in the early days of the mainstream Web and USENET: seeding the digital media with stories that sounded like obvious conspiracy bunk in order to camouflage the outrageous stuff that was really happening in parallel areas.
By inciting Biden to constantly declare the imminence of his invasion, Vlad could be hoping to make it harder for the West and its media to respond as vehemently and coherently as they might when it finally does occur.
Thursday, February 17, 2022
The Winter Olympics, aka Mil Maneras de Morir, is an ever more elaborate collection of ways for athletes to potentially do themselves serious physical harm combining gravity and ice...and Curling.
We found ourselves with a small interlude of nothing else to watch than the latter sport last night — which sometimes feels like a real life reenactment of an electronic game, "except, more boring", adds V — right after the Men's Freeski Slopestyle final, and this perhaps encouraged us to contemplate the hidden perils that might lurk within the discipline.
The best we could come up with involved a snapped broomstick.
A common enough hazard here in Guatemala at least.
Sunday, February 13, 2022
This ended up being a bit like a philosophical true crime docuseries exploring some of the greyer areas of our notions of free will.
As ever with this sort of thing, I wasn't entirely sure how deliberately the key questions were being asked by the film-makers. And whether some of the stuff which had been rather obviously left out, had also been omitted in a calculated manner.
Two extended cases of puppeteering by a man called Robert Hendy-Freeguard are detailed, in two distinct timelines, one in the early nineties and the other a couple of decades later in 2011-13.
In the first a crime is very definitely committed and then somewhat less definitely so, and the open-endedness is even more conspicuous in the second.
How much psychological coercion is required for the law to be broken?
I think most of us will watch this and understand the ethical lines that were crossed, but will also understand why it is hard for the legal system to pinpoint exactly when a person has been deprived of liberty without obvious physical constraints. This conundrum has after all lain at the heart of our British notions of freedom ever since Hobbes penned Leviathan.
The really cunning part of Freeguard's plan here was that he somehow prevented his victims from appreciating how they had been co-opted into acting as his accomplices by persuading them that they were accomplices in some other grand, fabricated conspiracy. Yet were they after all, accomplices?
I doubt I am alone in thinking that of all the complex psychologies on display here, it was this man's that became the most fascinating and ultimately entertaining across the three episodes.
I have come across a handful of conmen over the course of my life and there has always been something almost coarsely obvious about them.
Many of their sort seem to acquire followers who appear to be knowingly along for the ride, in effect conning the conner into believing they've been conned.
The first I came across was a man who went by the name of Perry Shah who wined and dined my parents in Marbella in the early 80s, claiming to be a close descendent of the King of Afghanistan. From day one my father confided to me that this would lead inevitably to a request for money in a hurry once we had returned to London. Which, of course, it did.
I have also come across a related species — the snake oil salesmen — who are perhaps distinguished by their tendency to end up at least partially self-bamboozled by the fantasy world they build around themselves.
Well below the threshold for legal intervention in our modern commercial world are those who would market a product that only really exists in fully-completed, functional form inside their own heads. One might posit that our global economy has come to depend on them.
Saturday, February 12, 2022
Seven days into Beijing 2022 and there are questions...
Friday, February 11, 2022
I have a theory — which President Biden is doing his best to disprove — that the older one is the less likely one is to assume that any dispute between Russia and Ukraine is something the rest of us ought to be forcibly sticking our noses into.
To me, with my background in visits to the USSR before the fall of the wall and possibly even more relevantly, of study (in a high alcove of the CU Library) of the expansion of the Russian empire in the nineteenth century, this looks much more like a complicated civil war than any straightforward clash of east-west worldviews. On some levels a bit England-Scotlandy.
Perhaps Biden is old enough to have some version of those never-updated 1930s goggles on.
Yet during the Cold War everyone seemed happy to agree the neutrality of Austria, a nation that arguably was more naturally aligned westwards. Why not repeat the trick?
As opposed to say, repeating Khrushchev's Cuban gambit.
And why not accede to Putin's most basic demand — never to offer Ukraine membership of the competing club. Does NATO really want to assume that level of premium risk anyway?
There are, I suppose, some strategic considerations given the present state of global geopolitics. John Lewis Gaddis, a recognised authority on such matters, has a handful of historical strategic moments for us to usefully ponder here.
For example, he flags up the relatively advanced age of Pericles on the eve of the Peloponnesian War as a key factor in his apparent intransigence — or stubbornness.
The Athenian leader took a number of steps which alarmed the Spartans, who made their revocation a key condition for avoiding war.
Right to the end the Spartans tried to continue the jaw jaw, but in the end Pericles refused to even receive their emissaries. Gaddis sees this as the end product of the flexible younger Pericles — a fox — maturing into a hedgehog incapable of relenting.
"Pericles at first steered with flows — a strategy of persuasion. When not all were persuaded, though, he began steering against flows — a strategy of confrontation." (On Grand Strategy.)
In 431 the Spartans invaded and two years later Pericles was dead of plague, leaving his fellow Athenians to the ignominy of defeat.
Gaddis draws parallels between the uncompromising Megarian Decree issued by Pericles with the US response to the invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. Truman understood this as a formal test of American resolve, one which dismantled the existing walls separating vital from peripheral interests.
"The heat of emotions requires only an instant to melt abstractions drawn from years of cool reflection. Decades devoid of reflection may follow." (On Grand Strategy)
And Korea was undoubtedly on the path to Vietnam.
Biden's own line in the sand appears to have been strong enough to provoke the Bear, but surely not strong enough to make any difference to the fate of Ukraine should Putin press ahead.
As Boris suggests...
Wednesday, February 09, 2022
This marks the start of an occasional series on the musical compositions that today deliver for me the most combustive thwaaaack of nostalgia.
Sometimes I may explain the urge to pine, but I won't feel obliged to. They might not be the greatest pieces of music ever composed, but they surely speak for themselves.
Friday, February 04, 2022
This espionage 'thriller' is so utterly formulaic it verges on parody. Though unaccompanied by any underlying sense of humour.
Paris, France; London, England; Shanghai, China...
Lupita Nyong'go is the best of the international spy quintet here. I thought Chastain was also going to be good in a kick-ass role, but then she went to Morocco dressed like one of those ludicrous Americans one sees around here suitably atired for a rowing regatta on the African savannah.
Before leaving Paris Penelope Cruz (no longer encumbered by her wobbly attempt at a Colombian accent) clearly had time to stop on the Rue Saint-Honoré to refresh her wardrobe. She was handed the most 'I never signed up for this' part, and visibly struggles with it, though in fairness has been almost no assistance by the screenplay.
There's a predictability to almost every scene once the plot gets rolling, at least until the final act which first acquires an uncomfortably dark and nasty edge and then fizzles out rather bizarrely.
It all kicks off with a drug deal that isn't a drug deal, right outside Bogotá, which still goes wrong, of course times two, and then we are off to a series of gratuitous proper city locations as our (initially) four female agency employees team up on an off-the-books chase after a 'drive' that can do every imaginable nasty thing to all of our connected stuff.
They are of course forced to go 'rogue', simultaneously tasked with saving the world and clearing their own names. I then started counting the number of times during the Craig years that 007 lost or surrendered his official status. In spy movies this is becoming a bit 'hand me your gun and badge'.
The title is derived from Agent 355, the codename of a female spy for the Patriots during the American Revolution. We learn this basically irrelevant piece of information just before the end credits roll.