Wednesday, July 27, 2022

All dressed up and nowhere to go...

In a surrender—nobody’s sure why—the loser is always more elegant than the victor, to obtain better conditions, maybe, or maybe when you have nothing left you realize that appearances are at least something > Gianfranco Calligarich, Last Summer In the City

This phenomenon was possibly never more apparent than at the end of the American Civil War. That even an Italian should be aware of the overdressing tendencies of losers is possibly significant. I've noticed something similar amongst the obviously guilty at the Juzgado in La Antigua lately. 

This brings me on to a parallel topic. A Quora query-poster recently asked what things to look for that immediately identify us as British tourists? I shared this with my Brazilian friend TC and she had her own substantial, well-observed list, which nevertheless concluded "mostly the Panama hat (the female version being the ill-fitting, oversized, flowers-print summer dress paired with havaianas)."

The funny thing is that these sartorial items are no longer quite the British, middle-class peculiarities they once were. I tend to blame Instagram. Millennials on tour the world over no longer seem to dress for the climate or topography, but for the photo. 

Those ludicrous summer dresses or long, heavy skirts, even the Panama, have become considerably more universal. In the sweltering heat of Cartagena last March I was a little bemused by some of the outfits sported by couples that were either Cololmbian or regional in origin. 

Social media has been engendering far narrower idioms and contexts across our culture and fashion is not immune to this condensation.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Sherwood (BBC)

I really enjoyed this series. Though if truth be told, my enjoyment probably peaked someway between the middle of the third of six episodes and the same part of the next one.

The best British detective shows tend to have a great sense of place and an earnest kind of soapiness, but this was almost next level, aiming at a sort of national therapy session and catharsis. 

The plotting at first seemed intricate and then perhaps a little messy, but now that a second season has been commissioned some of this unresolved stuff can perhaps be threaded into the new pattern. 

I was left wanting to know a bit more about what had pissed off Andy so much, so suddenly.  Though this reaction was apparently a reworking of the seemingly motiveless (or motive undiscoverable) 2004 murder of Chanel Taylor by her father Terry Rodgers, who had walked her down the aisle just seven week earlier. 

Terry found himself hiding in Sherwood Forest alongside former UDM miner Robert Boyer, guilty of killing and chopping up former NUM miner Keith "Froggy" Frogson with a sword. 

Investigators initially believed the crime had something to do with the two men having taken opposing positions during the miners' strike twenty years earlier, but it turned out to be a bit more random. 

Writer James Graham, decided to add the missing layer of meaning to these events in the neighbourhood of his own youth, serving us up with something more engaging than a mere procedural. 

He has taken this story of the country's largest manhunt and added some ready-to-hand evocations of the Robin Hood myth, a hidden state-level conspiracy and a proper squall of emotionally-resonant dramatic tensions via a plethora of well-drawn characters — plus the real and perceived connections between them, both now and during the death throws of the local mining industry. 

One's enjoyment will tend to peak as this slightly improbable concoction comes to the boil. As I mentioned at the start, around an episode and a half from the end. 

The atmosphere is superb throughout though, and the characters feel real — due in no small part from the excellent performances — yet many of the situations they are placed in feel contrived. (The stand out amongst these being Lindsay Duncan's expositional cameo at Lord Byron's ancestral pad.) 

I'm certain that Brits over 45 will get more out of this than almost any other audience members. Like Live Aid the following year, the unburied hatchets here are one of the key landmarks in our lived historical experience. 

I picked up on a remark made right at the end, that Nottinghamshire is a kind of county in limbo, neither southern nor properly of the north. It made me reflect on how the English tend to comprehend their own geography, social and physical, and it occurs to me that while we are liable to absorb our impressions of rural England through literature, it is football that places the pins on the urban map. 

In the lead up to 1984, when the miners were on strike (or indeed weren't), Nottingham possessed not only one of the more successful teams in the country, but also in Europe, yet ever since the fate of this club has reflected the relatively forgotten status of the city and its environs. So alongside this tale of hesitant coincidences we can slot the fact of the re-arrival this very year of "Notts Forest" in the Premier League.*

I won't discuss the aforementioned state-level conspiracy too much as this would involve spoilers, except to say that spy cops were real, though I was previously only aware of their insertion into more marginal insurgent communities like animal rights activists and Greenpeace-style eco-warriors. 

I found Lindsay Duncan's analysis of the underlying role of Thatcher's government in all this was rather childishly condensed — made to sound serious because it came out of the mouth of a posh lawyer rather than a chippy old union comrade. 

* Graham took some serious flak for this usage, out of the mouth of old-timer Gary no less. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Heat Apocalypse

 This is possibly how London sees itself right now...

(James Francis Danby, The Houses of Parliament from the River, 1864)

There is a persistent note of hysteria in the collective British response to rising temperatures these days. When it is excessively cold, anyone who moans is reminded not to confuse weather with climate. This is unlikely to happen in summertime ever again. 

The news item on SKY which most struck me today was the closure of a recreational boating service on the Thames, owing to 'dangerous' levels of heat. 

Yet these same people too afraid to frolick on the water will happily fly over here and frolick away down at sea level where 38 degrees is about average for many months of the year. 

And the airport runways don't melt. 

It's hard not to conclude that we Brits fear climate change as somehow particularly threatening to our national character — as if a few more degrees of heat will turn us into Italians, Spaniards or, God forbid, Greeks. Ater all, we have some quite ingrained prejudices about people who live in hot countries. 

The Spanish of course are no lazier than us, and have evolved a pattern of life that suits their summer climate. It may well suit us to do the same. It could be done more easily and quickly than reaching Net zero, but it seems we will still prefer to moan about the changing climate rather than adapt to it in any practical manner.

Previous generations tended to respond to collective crises with individual solutions (buy an ice lolly, jump in the fountain etc.). But millennials appear far more likely to relentlessly convert collective difficulties into cosmic calamities. "Phew, what a scorcha!" has become "Behold, the heat apocalypse". 

The pandemic hasn't helped. We might as well rename the House of Commons the House of Cobra.

That said, the tendency for the entire country to fall apart every time some unusual conditions emerge is hardly something which has developed overnight. 

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

During his retirement years, which would amass to 24, my father embarked on a process of subtraction of stuff, activities, people etc. This was initially unsettling for me, but later on, as I moved deeper into middle age, I began to appreciate how our interactions with depletion tend to become ever more mindful, as the promise of progress that we moderns all tend to grow up with is debased by those progressively gusty draughts of decay. 

And then there have been these past few years when, even without the deep personal losses — I have been prompted to contemplate just how much of the world it is possible to live without. I offer these reflections as an introduction to Yoko Ogawa's extraordinary early fable, about an island where things — along with their emotional associations — are steadily vanishing, and the subsequent requirement to fully delete them from memory is being ruthlessly enforced by the authoritarian body of the title.

There is a disconcerting ambiguity to the phenomenon. Nature is at least partially complicit (birds just fly away), yet so too are the population when they burn all their own novels. Early in the story there are some stunning set piece open air vanishings, but later on the author shifts the perspective to circumstances that are more cramped and personal, with an emphasis on the withering of whatever it is that each of us possesses as an essence. 

Disappearances are at first sudden, then start arriving in the wake of disquieting premonitions. 

Magical Realism — rather like Woke — is a term that can be deployed in both a complimentary and a derogatory fashion, and for broadly the same reasons: its practitioners can go about their business in an authentic manner with both flair and intellectual rigour or the espousal of the position can in itself signal a descent into phoniness and flummery. 

Japanese literature generally takes the right path at this intersection, and I suspect that this is because the Japanese themselves have certain fairly stringent notions about the ways in which the everyday and the fantastical must interact. 

Ogawa's speculative island regime with its conspiracy of both conscious and semi-conscious deletion of concrete things and their meanings served up a significant memory of my own — of a standout example of the cinematic expression of Magical Realism from Argentina: Eliseo Subiela's Últimas Imágenes del Naufragio (1989), in which we encounter a reclusive character named Claudio, dedicated to removing a single word from his personal lexicon with each dawning day. 

Claudio was played by the late Hugo Soto who had previously been paired up with the more recently late Lorenzo Quinteros in the same director's Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste, a concept which was shamelessly ripped off by Hollywood without the merest credit as K-Pax, surely now even more forgettable, as Soto's role was re-enacted by Kevin Spacey. 

Former resident of La Antigua Gore Vidal suggested that Magical Realism is something we have 'done', like a place one turns up once and gets the t-shirt, while Vikas Swarup has made it known how he has no time for an unrealistic realism where birds talk. 

In this novel the birds talk with their feet, and depart, no small problem for the narrator's father, an ornithologist. 

I suppose writing fantastical literature is a bit like preparing a soufflé — do it well, or not at all, and back in '94 Ogawa did it rather well. I can also recommend her dark, interlinked story collection, Revenge.

Where will the deficit fall, this time?

In the first televised Tory leadership debate Kemi Badenoch noted — admirably, and yet for such a junior minister, a little patronisingly — that all decisions made by government involve trade offs, such that every gain is achieved at the cost of a deficit somewhere else.

Something similar occurs of course with the decisions made by those tasked with choosing the representatives by whom they wish to be governed. 

The context in which Badenoch brought this to our attention is illuminating, for every member of the audience — and perhaps more importantly the actual electorate of Tory MPs and then members — will have been pondering how to settle on another pair of proportions, that between the aspirations and the capabilities of each of the candidates. 

Some sound better than the others, some seem more capable. This same electorate erred rather drastically on the side of hot air last time and may be liable to compromise somewhere closer to the other end of the spectrum now.

Friday, July 08, 2022

Peaks and Troughs

My reading of this new research is that we are doomed to a pattern of recurring covid waves because our current preventative behaviours — strict during the peaks and then lax during the troughs — is in effect part of the impetus behind the pattern.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but we have to be at our most vigilant and regulation-heavy when the pandemic appears to be idling.

The pandemic is definitely no longer idling here in Guatemala as the BA.5 variant breezes through a population that had only recently relaxed its guard. 

There seems to be no clear consensus as to how pathogenic these new sepas are likely to be. They are clearly no respecters of vaccination or even fairly recent infection with earlier versions of Omicron. Vaccination levels in Guatemala are lower than in the developed world, so any sort of compound immunity in the population will be less pronounced. 

There was a fairly recent research report suggested that Omicron does not in fact produce less severe disease than Alpha or Delta, it only appears to do so because of the growing prevalence of antibodies, but even in countries like the US and the UK, take-up of jab number 4 has been lowish, leading to a possible waning of overall protection. 

My own (anecdotal) experience is that these latest airborne nasties are liable to cause really quite serious disease in individuals that have been triple or quadruple-vaxed, even those with recent prior brushes with Omicron, yet are less likely to result in fatal outcomes. 

Before we celebrate, the symptoms brought by each new variant appear to be worsening again. Around one in ten people are likely to end up with chronic issues lasting a long time, both physical and cognitive. 

The gap between infections is narrowing and it is now being reported that those that are infected on multiple occasions are more likely to experience longer-term health issues. 

Covid can damage the lungs, heart, brain, liver and kidneys and any infection is said to increase the risk of heart attack (by 72%), stroke (by 52%) and diabetes (by 40%). 

Let's face it, Guatemala is a nation relatively resigned to cases of premature death. Yet what must be most troubling the authorities here now is the prospect of debilitated thousands in the workforce requiring long-term treatment and/or management of complaints which could then feature as co-morbidities in any future waves.

And this in a country where underlying chronic conditions like hypertension is already poorly managed.

Even though the collective will almost everywhere for lockdowns and curfews appears to have evaporated, some sort of severe economic impact, nationally and globally is almost unavoidable.

Developed world governments may have over-responded in 2020 to the initial economic challenges and are now comparatively indebted and moving in the opposite direction to fiscal easing. The assumption that inflation was largely a temporary glitch generated by a surge in "post-pandemic" demand has ceded to the realisation that supply-side disruptions could be around for far longer than anticipated, potentially leading to stagflation. 

"Team zero covid", China in particular, seem set for a very difficult twelve months or so and that will exacerbate existing supply chain snafus.

The war in Ukraine shows little sign of abating any time soon.

With our defences now appearing redundant and BA.2.75 aka 'Centaurus' on its way, we can expect covid to render many workspaces temporarily inert, with governments regulating in a patchier fashion to control the numbers gathering in indoor environments. 

Arch pessimist Nouriel Roubini believes central banks will "wimp out' of their determination to control inflation with rate rises as evidence of a slowdown emerges, adding that...

The next crisis will not be like its predecessors. In the 1970s, we had stagflation but no massive debt crises, because debt levels were low. After 2008, we had a debt crisis followed by low inflation or deflation, because the credit crunch had generated a negative demand shock.

Today, we face supply shocks in a context of much higher debt levels, implying that we are heading for a combination of 1970s-style stagflation and 2008-style debt crises—that is, a stagflationary debt crisis







Monday, July 04, 2022

Men (2022)

Fans of horror and thriller genres will be familiar with the split narrative problem: movies with two distinct parts separated by a clear reveal. "What's going on?" driving the entertainment value for the first period, followed by an all-too-frequent "Oh, so that was it" in the run up to the end credits. 

Here instead, we get "what's going on?" followed — after the blowing of some seeds — by "what the actual fuck is going on?"

In fairness, this trumps disappointment, yet one still feels vaguely let down, as if the two halves of the process are both somehow incomplete. 

Why is every bloke in the village being played by the same actor (Rory Kinnear) — a sort of one-man patriarchy — other than as a result of this appearing like a very practical format during covid lockdown? 

It's like when we ask why Catholic priests are supposed to be celibate. Is it because the medieval church made a lasting move to protect itself from secular inheritance law, or because of all the other bells and smells stuff?

Your guess is as good as mine, suggests Alex Garland, and that seems to be the underlying ruse — or creative conceit — here. 

Provided one doesn't have too many issues with icky body horror this is a very enjoyable visual experience. In Buckley and Kinnear, two fine actors, a gorgeous Gloucestershire gaff and plentiful reminders why there are few more beautiful and mysterious places in the world than the English countryside in spring. 

There's an allegory at work somewhere. Garland's determination not to be explicit will surely appeal to fans of Lynch and Cronenberg, yet his strikingly unusual film can also be enjoyed as an exercise in dark, very British cinematic mythicism, with echoes of Hammer. 

Friday, July 01, 2022

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022)

The multiverse a big thing that we extrapolate from observations of the weird behaviours of the smallest things — a single photon of light passing through two slits at the same time. 

How big, how complex, how messy, (how much of a threat to narrative) it becomes is in a sense up to us. You can, for example presume that every photon passes through every possible slit, and who am I to disagree, but anyway, I am still inclined to. 

For me the big things that make up material reality are a the result of an interaction between the potential and the actual, always a process, rather like life. Possibilities take shape, while others are left behind. So even when the possibilities are close to infinite as a starting condition, actualities may form into a far more limited set of clusters. 

Anyway, part of the trouble with this film is that it refuses to make up its mind which version of the theoretical multiverse lies behind the drama. The characters even squabble about whether they are going too far or not far enough, and that is precisely the problem. 

There are some good visual gags — such as a outlier universe where everyone has hotdogs for hands — but these only drag the scenario towards the messy side of the complexity spectrum as they undermine any attempt the viewer might be making to ground themselves in the underlying concepts. 

This may of course be deliberate: a ploy to distract us with an impressive swirl, because hardly anyone has ever made a movie about the multiverse (or indeed time travel) that isn't to some extent weighed down by its contradictions. Whereas in EEAAT, there's not much to have an argument with. 

It occurred to me that 'Daniels' may be aiming for the effect of one of those dreams that seem awfully profound in real time and then kind of evaporate from one's mental workspace the moment they conclude. 

Overall, there is simply too much going on for the viewer to really care about any of the characters. And there were moments when it felt a bit of a chore to digest. 

The antagonist character voices a commonly-perceived problem with reality as explained by physicists: "Everything is just a random rearrangement of particles vibrating in a random superimposition". The screenplay seems to want to push back against this apparent hazard — that the big picture is inherently, depressingly, infinitely dull  — but it doesn't have much to offer as an alternative other than "be nice". 

My attention was first drawn to the real possibility of mutiple universes by OU's famed theoretician David Deutsch. He still appears to harbour a preference for a deeper, more intellectual form of optimism in the face of it. 

Our every action need not get washed away by a pitiless ocean consisting of infinite other possibilities, because our very existence as a sentient form of matter is perhaps atypical, at least from the perspective of the possible, and thus the multiverse may be set up to foster the exceptional rather than the mediocre after all. 

This movie does seem to want to lead us to the place that matters beyond "all this noise", but we never really get anywhere near it.  

The soundtrack is superb and some of the memorable comic turns had me wondering what happened to the directorial career of Stephen Chow. Turns out that Kung Fu Hustle 2 is in the pipeline and he has agreed with Netflix to produce an animated version of The Monkey King

I think I will skip Dr Strange's outing into Marvel's extended multiverse.