Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Otto Rambo and Álvaro Creeper

Not sure how Rambo fits into the Halloween pantheon!

In an interview with El Periódico the Menchurian ex-candidate has described the current elections as 'illegitimate', heaping scorn on the role of the TSE and indulging in a general whinge about the clientism in Guatemalan politics.

The SKY interface

I haven't had much of a chance to play with SKY+ as our building hasn't been wired up for it and so I got myself an Archos instead as a way of making scheduled recordings.

So it is the original SKY box interface that I have to live with, and it continues to be a source of frustration. I was discussing with my cousin last night over dinner ways in which micro-content could be better aggregated and browsed and much of the same principles apply to the multiplicity of channels now available from SKY.

SKY does allow you to designate 'favourite' channels which can then be flicked through using the blue button. At first you were allowed only 15 but this number was doubled (?) a year or so ago.

It's still not the best way to navigate favoured areas of the content. One gripe and several suggestions follow:
  • The absence of a BACK button that will return you to the time-location of the last menu you were on is a major annoyance
  • You should be able to press one button during a programme that will set up an alert for that specific programme or series regardless of the particular channel or time
  • You should be able to view a menu with just your favourite channels and be able to use that to browse through their programming over the next few days in the usual manner
  • That same menu should enable you to view a series of alerts for the day. You would be able to select and click which of these you wanted to watch and, overlaps permitting, SKY could then transmit these to you as a continuous custom channel.
Obviously tagging would also add a great deal to the digital TV experience. What fun it would be to use tags to create your own news stream. I'm thinking too of how they might be usefully deployed to block certain types of trivial story or programme ("Britney", "McCann" etc.)

My cousin thinks there's definitely a niche for a new kind of blog content aggregator. It would learn from your reading habits ('More of this..' etc.) and could, I suggest, present content in more than one dimension. In other words similar articles might be presented as stacks rather than lists (as you currently see in and its like) which could then be opened up if the reader wished to drill down in that dimension.

I reiterated my view that blog platforms need to wise up about printable layouts and give readers more scope for visualising lateral links, trackbacks and comments. It would also be useful to be able to quickly access a custom page showing all or some of the contributions by a given commenter, or indeed to see where else in the blogosphere certain bloggers have themselves contributed.

iPod Touch

I love the iPod Touch. I hesitate to call it my iPod Touch because I bought it for V to replace her broken Mini, but when the time comes to hand it over... I suspect that my hand may be trembling.

Still, there are a couple of minor irritations. The battery on my 80GB 5th generation iPod never seemed to run out, but the larger touch screen of the new device is clearly rather power hungry.

And when you are in the middle of a playlist and turn the Touch on its side to activate cover view, the artworks displayed come from the general album list not just the ones that are germane to the playlist you are actually in. Maybe there is a way to toggle between views, but I haven't found it yet.

There are one too many extra finger movements involved in daily use too. To skip a song you generally need to activate the screen and then unlock the device. The playlist option is hidden one level further down than on an iPod Classic, so you have to press down on the More... option first to access that rather essential menu.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I still don't quite believe it, but Álvaro Colom would appear to have pulled ahead into a narrow lead in the final week before the presidential election. With UNE on 39.4% and PP on 35.1% it's still a technical empate, but Colom has done well to improve his polling in the capital, where both candidates trailed to Giammattei in round one.

Unlucky Chapin

Scott sent me this update on the story of Guatemalan illegal immigrant Pedro Zepeta who somehow amassed $62,000 working as a dish washer in the US but had most of it confiscated by the TSA meanies at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International as he tried to re-migrate home.

According to Scott "the guy most likely had taxes deducted from his paycheck, like many illegals, and certainly paid into social services he never received. And at his pay level he would have gotten refunds if he had filed."


Every bit as tuneful, funny and poignant and as I expected it to be, but also somehow borderline annoying.

It just felt a little bit smug about its Sunday afternoon scruffiness, about its amateurish camerawork, about its awkwardly unconsummated romance between 'Guy' and 'Girl'.

The performance from the 17-year old Markéta Irglová is impressive, but I couldn't help wondering whether a more experienced professional actress would have left me with a better idea why such an otherwise forthright individual would keep veering away from snatching up this one chance to get it on "with the right person". Did she not fancy him? Or did she have other hanky panky issues? You just couldn't tell.

Still, I wish I hadn't known in advance that their friendship would remain platonic (at least for the duration of the on-screen action). Kermode's interview with the leads spoiled that part of the concept for me.

The songs have been composed to order, the better of them by The Frames lead-singer Glen Hansard, who plays the lonely busker. Some seem to go on a bit longer than strictly necessary, but I can see why several critics have been impressed with the way writer-director John Carneyhas made them integral to the story. Indeed, without them Once would seem a bit too much like real life!

Still, a great little indie-flick; I can see why it won the audience award at Sundance.

Books we can't read

Spiked has published a semi-courageous piece on the Five books on terrorism you aren't allowed to read which, at a time when the Saudi monarch is in our midst here in the UK, strongly implies that the totalitarian enemies of freedom understand our libel laws better than many of our authors and publishers do, and can therefore conduct medieval-style book-cremations via a more modern kind of proxy.

The Saudi 'billionaire' in question could well be none other than Central America's favourite creative accountant, Khalid bin Mahfouz.

King Abdullah apparently thinks we're being slack in addressing the threat posed by the Salafist nutjobs that have been his country's second most significant export. (If there was a 'good bit' to The Kingdom it was the opening title sequence which did its best to explain the foundations of Abdullah's power and reminded Americans how many of the 9-11 terrorists had been his subjects.)

How many times can you recall an RPG fired in the direction of the (apparent) good guys that actually frags someone in a recent Hollywood movie? The Kingdom added to the body of explosive near-misses committed to film. I think some FBI guys might have taken a hit in Clear and Present Danger...?

The part of the Spiked article that made me sit up and think was Michael Griffin's assertion that his pre-9-11 account of the Taliban 'whirlwind' was somehow innocent, because subsequently "everything has been shovelled into a ditch of what the West wants everybody to believe about Islam, terror, the Taliban al-Qaeda and so on. You can no longer find books that deal with the pure, unadulterated information about history." Hmmm....all pure information becomes marketable content in its own special way surely.

Rob Lyons, the deputy editor of Spiked was on Breakfast this morning claiming that recycling is generally neither necessary or helpful. Their business plan seems to be to work out what the current groupthink is and then concoct a bendy but not entirely flimsy counterpoint.

Apparently it's still illegal to watch David Kronenberg's Crash in Westminster.

A notebook someone might read

Umberto Eco says he writes articles simply to get his thoughts in order; in effect, to work out what he actually thinks about a given topic.

Blogger Rohan Maitzen of Novel Readings also noted last week that the value of blogging for him was "sorting out my thoughts more carefully than I sometimes do in a notebook...because of the chance that someone else will read them."

Interestingly though, he goes on to question the value of the blogosphere as a medium for dialogue and exchange. I've always thought that it has been a bit oversold in this respect. Comments are very much a secondary element of the experience, especially for those that get their blog fix through RSS readers. (Strangely, some basic changes to the standard blog interface would I think improve our ability to browse and collate comments and of course print out those posts which do feature a long trail of reader addenda.)

Maitzen thinks that the tensions between specialist and generalist content within the same blog may work to reduce the volume of discussion there, and adds that where there is a level of chatter, it is often"dominated by a fairly small number of contributors, most of whom seem to know each other well and thus to be engaged in their own special game of point-counterpoint."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dolphins v Giants

I'm sure if the two NFL teams facing up to each other at Wembley yesterday had played it like the guys in this amusing clip (forward passes notwithstanding, perhaps not entirely unlike that pub rugby team alluded to by Lawrence Dallaglio in his forthcoming memoirs) then more of the locals watching might have really got into the game!

Oddly though, this 'laterals' lark seems more popular in American college football than in the major league.

Anyway, I think I actually understand American Football better than Rugby, even though the latter was compulsory at my school. I've followed Gridiron on and off since Superbowl IXX which matched up the two greatest quaterbacks of that era, the Dolphins' Dan Marino and the 49-ers' Joe Montana. My uncle lived in Florida and was a Dolphins fan so I kind of inherited the affiliation.

The Dolphins lost comprehensively in '85, and it's something they have been doing a great deal of this year too, with yesterday's encounter, nominally a home game for them, offering no relief. (The 49-ers also got stuffed later on, courtesy of New Orleans.)

Surfer was always a Giants fan. They scored their touchdown yesterday thanks apparently to the muddy and broken up conditions of the Wembley turf, under which a defensive linebacker 'had the turning circle of a transatlantic liner.

Virgin Maries

Having made four transatlantic trips with Virgin Atlantic over the past couple of months (and signed up for their Flight Club) this comes as unwelcome news.

Many years ago when Surfer and I were Miami bound, we had to stay overnight in a hotel near Gatwick because of a transport strike, and that evening we ran into a bunch of American aircrew getting shitfaced in the bar.

"Ah cun drink until ah puke all over muhself" I distinctly recall one of them informing us. We looked out for him the next morning on our flight.

'Er indoors

This business of extending political dynasties through spouses and siblings seems to be catching on.

I was listening to a radio station called Tango 2x4 last night as the results from the Argie election came in. Cristina Kirchner, wife of the incumbent, who earlier this year mysteriously stepped aside in her favour, appeared to have it in the bag already after only one round of voting.

What are Guatemalan Presidential candidates doing to ensure that when their allotted time in office is up, they can hand over to their significant others? Not a lot. Colom in particular can have little expectation of ever making use of this constitutional loophole. Mrs Pérez Molina crops up in the video below. Somehow I don't think she will be pulling on the Presidential sash any time soon either. (La señora Arzú has some potential though.)

The clip presents Pérez Molina as 'El General de la Paz'. However, two members of V's family (both of whom I had down as hard handers) have forwarded to me this week a PowePoint presentation that invites more nuanced consideration of his military record.

The General has claimed in an interview that he never actually killed anyone during the Civil War, a not-inconsiderable achievement given the number of people that did end up dead in the Nebaj region where he supposedly operated. The presentation includes testimony from a woman who claims that 'Commandante Tito' pistol-whipped her then shot her in the face. Ok, she didn't actually die per se...

The Dresden Codex

An exact replica of the Dresden Codex has gone on display this week in Guatemala.

The Maya codex, one of only three in existence thanks to the pyrotechnic tendencies of early Spanish missionaries, was acquired by Royal Library of the court of Saxony in 1739.

It contains astronomical predictions of startling accuracy as well as texts on sickness and medicine. 12 of its 74 pages were damaged as a result of the Dresden bombing raid in 1945. (The hieroglyphs in the upper lefthand corners of the pages were erased.)

I've not seen it, but five years ago I did get a chance to view the Madrid Codex in its somewhat hidden location at the wonderful Museo de América.


Swimming Pool, that somewhat subtle Gallic piss-take of the English, may actually have been retaliation for this, a not-so-subtle dig at the French. I mean...Eric Cantona as his excellency the French ambassador!

Anyway, it has tee'd me up nicely for the sequel which is out next week, and for Vince Cassel's newest OTT pantomime performance in Eastern Promises, which Xtofer saw on Saturday and recommends highly.

The use of body art by these Russian gangs to establish personal histories and trust relationships would appear to be similar to the tattoo culture of the maras in Central America.

On the back of watching this film on Four on Saturday I decided to view episode one of The Tudors. Oh dear. It's like Rome with tons more sex and a generally less conscientious attempt at narrative history.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sedona and the San Francisco peaks

I suppose I can see why so many people come to Sedona to catch a cosmic tan. Even flying over on the way up to the Grand Canyon one could pick up the buzz that seems to emanate from its ruddy sandstone strata.

And to some extent it is still with me. If I do return to the Southwest next year, it's one place I'd like to make the overland trip to. That and Flagstaff.

Impressive from several thousand feet up too were the San Francisco peaks, a field of perky miniature volcanoes just beyond San Francisco mountain. Up until that point in the journey I had been finding it hard to attune my senses of scale and distance, so empty of human constructions were the ponderosa pine-covered hills to the north of Phoenix.

Grand though the Grand Canyon itself undoubtedly is, it somehow doesn't seem to deliver the same out-of-history experience that you can get from smaller scale European locations. "It seems a bit dead," Gaylene observed of its eerie quietness as we wandered around its sheer edges. (Of the places I have visited in the last couple of years, the Pont Du Gard near Nîmes is the one that springs to mind as a prime example of the sort of place where the sense of deepened temporal perspective is almost immediate.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007


For the first since her accident V has this week reported an improvement in the condition of her leg. This she puts down to the regular rubbings with the extract of savila (aloe vera) that she has dedicated herself to.

We're fortunate that there is a densely packed plantation of these little miracle workers close to our house in La Antigua. We even have a couple in our garden...and in London there's one sitting in a pot next to my laptop right now.

The results of the X-ray she had this week confirmed a horizontal crack in the bone. The doc says she must continue to rest for four more weeks, so she would have missed her flight on November nine. Fortunately she called up the airline and re-booked for December. They didn't seem to mind that her ticket was technically no longer valid. Phew.

Timon Altwegg's concert on Sunday was great, V tells me. However, if the tendency of classical musicians to keep going off an coming back on at the end when the audience is applauding is bad enough at big venues like the Barbican, it is especially "wanky" at more intimately-located recitals such as this, she reported.

Altwegg has been married various times to women from Latin America and made a point of inviting a small group of xx chromosome admirers back to his suite at the lovely Posada de los Leones after his it seems the whole recital thing may after all be a bit of a pick-up routine.

The Walker

Perez Hilton was moaning the other day that there haven't been any good gay male leads since Brokeback Mountain. Doesn't this count? (OK, it was largely filmed on the Isle of Man.)

To like this movie I think you have to be able to appreciate the rather unexpected dignity of the character that Woody Harrelson plays.

Like all the other protagonists in Paul Schrader's movies (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper) it features what he describes as a 'night worker'.

Carter Page III spends his evenings as an escort for the Washington wives of permanently absent congressmen. "I'm not naive, I'm superficial," he boasts early on. Yet we learn that this character, based in part on Vidal and Capote, has leaned to superficiality as a response to the fraudulence bordering on evil that he has detected in his immediate family background and in the world he inhabits as a well-informed hanger on.

Carter Pages I and II were men that commerced in slaves, tobacco and votes. His father might have been judged a high-achiever by his peers in high-end politics, but he was, according to Carter, a 'crook', the kind of man whose rejection of his homosexual son could be repaid with a complex if incomplete rejection of his own.

In addition to Harrelson, the female cast which includes Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily Tomlin is superb. What Schrader's film gives us is not only the standard Hollywood take on DC dastardliness, but the extra level of the displaced other-halves, and then there's Carter Page, the outsider at the canasta table, struggling to belong and not belong in his own remunerative way.

The plot ultimately revolves around the murder of a lobbyist which sees the walker placed under suspicion and ultimately abandoned by his clientele. "Never stand between your friend and a firing squad," Lauren Bacall advises him early on before the firing squad has swiveled round to point in his direction. A true whore, Page is the most honourable individual we see in this story, the only one capable of genuinely struggling with the choice between dishonesty and disloyalty.

As a take on modern politics it reminded me somewhat of Carlos Fuentes' The Eagle's Throne.

And another...

There are a few videos on YouTube which show the reality of the Madrid Metro too.

Carries you within

A lovely little ad for the Madrid Metro that uses Alberto Iglesias's music from Medem's
Lucía y el Sexo. (Specifically Me Voy a Morir de Tanto Amor.)

I can't imagine Red Ken getting away with anything like this for the London Underground.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

When fusion leads to meltdown

Many years ago I bought V a dress in Marbella that she has never really forgiven me for. Her favourite prop whenever it is time for one of those general remonstrations, she likes to whip it out from wherever she currently has it stashed. Fortunately I haven't seen it for a while though, and on Sunday I rather fancied that it had found a new owner in the person of the lead singer of LaXula, support band for the Bajofondo bunch.

Nothing I can say about this little ensemble will beat the blurb on their fliers:

"LaXula leads audiences on a journey of wonder and decadence. A plaintive fiesta of influences from Flamenco to Arabic, Tango to Roma, laced with indie-rock psychedelia...Deeply routed [sic] in an ancient feminine spirit, this travelling band of captivating musicians and alluring performers present sensuous and bewitching music, with a remarkable stage presence that brings together burleseque glamour and gypsy defiance. Take notice now!"

A further list of influences are cited on the band's MySpace page along with their 'herstory'. We had bands like this in Britain back the 80s, but they were more fun.

Bajofondo Tango Club (4)

The last and possibly best little medley of video excerpts from last Sunday's concert.

I also took a set of pics that night which capture what was going on in the shadows behind the crowd that had pushed up to the stage!

Bajofondo Tango Club (3)

Argie-rapper must have been off the day they were dishing out gangsta-chic!

Bajofondo Tango Club (2)

The Bajofondo Tango Club collective is led by double Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla, who on Sunday at the Roundhouse performed his De Usuahia a la Quiaca live. This was the most memorable track from his score for Diarios de Motocicleta (sniff sniff).

Santaolalla also composed much of the music for Guillermo Arriaga's movies Babel and 21 Grams and worked with Ang Lee on Brokeback Mountain.

He doesn't look much like an Argie....but he used to.

Largely unrelated comment: The boludo en apuros mentioned in this BBC News story is Shakira's future father-in-law.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bajofondo Tango Club (1)

Does anyone know what to call this violin thingie with built in gramophone?

For someone that had mixed caipirinhas with Kronenbourg my camera hand was quite steady don't you think?

Santa Monica, CA

Pretty girls skateboarding their prettier pooches; under-occupied men coming together around picnic-chess tables; bag ladies shunting their lives' possessions in matching plastic carriers up and down the edge of the ocean.

There's something oddly neat about even the indigents here, and I found the whole town unexpectedly under-exploited.

The seagulls are the same as the big capuccino-coloured bastards that feature so heavily in Galicia.

A fuller selection of images below.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The new media beast and its long tail

The concept of The Long Tail entered our professional lingo when Wired editor Chris Anderson revealed in a 2004 article that makes more money selling the books you would have a hard time locating in any conventional high street bookstore. They still sell all the bestsellers of course, but freed from the physical limitations of shelf-space they have been able to tap into the market for more niche publications, and this has evolved into the more substantial part of their business.

The economics of the long tail are different when it comes to media. Here the bestsellers are still collectively more wealthy than all the little guys with their blogs and MySpace pages, but in terms of influence (on both propensity to purchase and on brand reputation) there has lately been a remarkable shift down the curve which has intersected with a longer-term transformation in the patterns of trust and authority in our society.

Look more closely at the micro-channels strung along the long tail of media and you can begin to see why their impact has run on ahead of the money. They are generally more connected and conversational than the established mainstream alternatives and as a result a number of important network effects come into play, which are particularly amenable to the transmission and amplification of information by word-of-mouth.

The barriers to entry for the creation of quite sophisticated content have also come down, which means that, as a group, they are just as likely to respond well to the communicators that facilitate their ability to create and control their own content, as they are to the those that continue to pump their messages down to them.

This situation presents two main problems for PR professionals. Firstly, the majority of us are still stuck in the bestseller mindset. "Who are the most influential bloggers in such and such sector?" is a question my colleagues throw at me quite regularly. Amidst all these insignificant navel-examiners, there surely must be a few stars, they surmise. Well yes there are, but the notion that a post written by a blogger with just one subscriber can still end up being extremely influential is apparently quite hard for many to grasp. (i.e. It doesn't really matter if you are Johnny One-Mate as long as that chum is separated from someone like Kevin Bacon by only a couple of degrees.)

Equally stuck in the old ways are the major search engines which use a ranking system for organising and displaying their results. Consequently, it remains comparatively difficult to track communications in the long tail of media, where hierarchy is less important than the dynamics of the network.

On a separate note, one of the reasons that I remain Facebook-sceptical is that it looks suspiciously like an attempt to surgically remove the tail from the rest of the new media beast...

Venice Beach, CA

These guys were the highlight of a lunchtime stroll along Venice Beach last Tuesday.

Before air guitar dude turned up there was just the drummer under the shade and his programme had kicked off rather gently with Lovely Day by Bill Withers. As the outside tables at the nearby Delizia cafe filled up, the percussion became considerably more pronounced and the pair went on to give rousing renditions of Bamboleo and Van Halen's Hot for Teacher. Eventually a nettled-looking waitress leaned over the rail and asked them to keep it down. Air guitar dude then went into one about the local residents and their "be-bop shit".

I ended up eating some delicious empanadas from a little cafe run by an ex-pat Argie, with whom I discussed the impression that the Pumas have made at the Rugby World Cup. He seemed to belong to the limited group of small business owners on this stretch of the California coast who aren't trying to monetise a lost plot.

A selection of my pictures from Venice:

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Punches Mexicanos

'El negrito de Izabal' sure knows how to celebrate his golazos.

Timon Altwegg and Tango Bajofondo

V will be hobbling over to the beautiful Posada de los Leones this evening to see a performance by the Swiss classical pianist Timon Altwegg, who recently gave a concert in Iraq and will be playing a piece called the Fantasy of Agnes Bashir in Antigua tonight, along with others by the likes of Alkan and Ponce.

Meanwhile, I should be going to see the Bajofondo Tango Club tomorrow at the Roundhouse with TC and Surfer plus a gaggle of Brazilians.

They recently collaborated with Calle 13 on El Tango del Pecado, but are usually more of a Gotan Project clone.

El que arrastra y el que pega

I watched Ross Kemp on the trail of the supposedly demobilised grupos de autodefensa in Medellín last night. These programmes continue to surprise me because I start off thinking that a non-journalist like Kemp will only come to a superficial understanding of the situation on the ground in these countries, but as with his encounter with the Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador, he appears to properly understand the Spanish that is spoken to him and ends up making a number of very insightful observations.

In Colombia he certainly picked up on the curious relationship the sicarios have with their religion, which was one of the main themes of Rosario Tijeras. His main contact in Medellín was a man called Andreas who goes around in an Aston Villa shirt with the name Angel on the back and speaks in a troubled murmur of the vertigo of taking so much life. I liked the way the Colombian government have insisted that all motorcyclists have to have their vehicle registration number printed on the back of their helmets!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Controlled Chaos

Gaylene remarked yesterday that you can always tell the difference between a journalist blogger and a "normal" blogger. And then Brendan left that comment on this post about "controlled chaos".

For me, the best bloggers − the ones that typify the medium and its unique form of exposition − are more than just 'air guitar journalists'. Two of my own literary heroes, Samuel Pepys (OP) and the more recently late Jean Baudrillard in their own ways both pointed towards to a new style of writing that consciously moves out towards the edge of discussion (or the long tail if you must) often adopting "controlled chaos" as the chosen idiom.

Pepys in particular was perhaps the first commentator in this language to so successfully run his opinions on matters of wider import through the prism of his own introspection. Baudrillard's America is a critique constructed from fragments of observation that could only have come from the pen of a man who regarded the delivery of opinion as a kind of performance art. In terms of both style and content, mainstream journalists and academics tend to be repelled by 'edgy' writing like this because they have been trained to move towards and assume control of the centre of the topic they are addressing.

Similarly, many people in the PR industry are perhaps more naturally inclined to the mass market side of communications rather than the long tail. They'd rather be a hub than a node, which is why as a group they tend to waste so much time on Facebook and why, in spite of an apparent knack for the construction of narratives, they have thus far met with mixed success in the new medium.

It's a highly competitive workplace and the bestseller mentality, wanting to be one, and to work with others in that same category, may be preventing PRs from fully grasping the transformations in their industry.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Friendly in LA

Guatemala somehow managed to beat Mexico 3-2 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last night in front of a crowd of 42,349. As you would expect in a match up between these two friendly nations, two players from each team were sent off as well as Guatemala's Colombian head coach Hernán Darío Gómez and one of his assistants!

"Punches and more punches," was the match verdict of Mexican sports paper Esto.

Usability studies

Does anyone know why the toilet seats in the US don't complete the circle, so to speak?

This just one of several changes of interface I noticed on this trip. Like the way none of the restrooms seem to have cold water.

This was the case even in our LA offices, which made brushing my teeth a tad unpleasant, though it was great for shaving. Ok, I was the only vagrant in there that day, but I can't be alone in occasionally liking to brush my teeth at work.

Still, I do like the way that crossing pedestrians in LA get a count down before the lights change and red hand appears.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Movies on the move

I've been watching a lot of movies on the move over the past month or so and not had the time to write up my little reviews, so here, Kermode-style are some quick-fire critiques:

Shooter: A bit of a guilty pleasure this one, though I don't think Mark Wahlberg did quite enough to score himself a franchise.

Live Free or Die Hard (4.0): More guilty, less pleasure. This formula is certainly dying hard.

Exiled (Fong Juk): Johnny To has certainly taken the Asian action flick to a new place with this noodle western in terms of both sublimity and ridiculousness. Also in terms of location. Some of the street scenes in Macao reminded me very much of Latin America.

The Kingdom: I fell asleep in the mid-section, only to wake up at the moment the FBI appeared to have declared all-out war on the raggies in a preposterous extended action sequence that is very much Jason Bourne meets Black Hawk Down.

Breach: Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe are both superb in this tale about America's worst ever security breach and the curious pyschology of the man behind it. There's an air of sadness and ethical enigma about it, because the traitor has to be well and truly betrayed himself.

The Night of the Sunflowers (La Noche de los Girasoles) : Quite simply the best movie I have seen all year. I'll need to watch it again on a bigger LCD screen and write up a proper review later on. It's a gem thanks to its telling observations of Spanish ways. You could take the plot and the character outlines and remake it in the US and you'd most likely have a turkey on your hands.

Zodiac: seen in three parts on three different aeroplanes as it goes on forever and we kept having to land. As per Girasoles above, loved it, and will have to watch again properly some time.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Digipalooza reflected on

If I could find a way to summarise last week's conference with a short pair of sentences they might be...Thank heavens for the Canadians and The Chinese are coming.

Oh, and now that WWW has stepped down as our global practice head it looks like 'Katy' from Helsinki is the new Queen of the irreducibly complex process diagram.

Everyone worked hard to contribute, but a special mention has to go to Julie and her team for organising the first of several practice gatherings over the years that really felt as if it should lead to the formation of new dendrites between our isolated local consultants.

It was good to see old, relocated acquaintances from the London office again like Nicola and Nina. It was also good for me to jabber away in Spanish with Christian from the Latin American regional marketing team and Iñigo from Madrid. (Why do Guatemalans and Mexicans hate each other so much, Christian asked me!)

And thanks to HS for taking us on a wallet-sapping mall cruise and then helping us celebrate our purchases and the end of the conference by ordering that unforgetable Stag's Leap Napa Valley Cabernet and the Four Graces Oregon Pinot Noir.

There were times in Phoenix when my sardonic European soul was weighing rather heavily on me, especially when I was sitting amongst a group of (very) young American Mavens on their send-off dinner. I found the freshness of one or two individuals in particular rather humbling.

Having said that, sorry to any of the locals that we might have offended over the course of the trip, but both Gaylene and I are used to bitching away openly in another language with our spouses and it's a mighty dificult habit to break.

It's the little things...

Alison at the Consulate made me a delicious cup of tea and the American security guards there were all charming. They are all forgiven for leaving me stranded for three days in Phoenix!

No more loitering

I'm now sitting comfortably at the very smart offices of H&K on Cloverfield Avenue, Santa Monica, about 24 blocks back from the Ocean and right next door to the Yahoo! Centre.

I'm glad they put me in a quiet corner because I suspect I might not be smelling my best, though I'm surely not as malodorous as the interior of that Greyhound bus last night.
I'd had to blag my way onto it because the presentation of photo ID is usually mandatory. (I was eventually waved ahead with a polite "don't do it again!")

I've made some epic bus journeys across Mexico and Central America but this was one of the roughest I can recall. If parts of the US have felt like one big amusement park, I had a strong feeling last night that I had strayed outside of Mickey Mouse's Kingdom. When I decided to ask one woman about the seating arrangements, opening with the least hostile sounding "excuse me.." I could manage, she looked as if I had pulled a gun on her.

The driver (a dead ringer for MC Hammer in Men in Black garb) kept pulling over and opening up the bonnet to check out his engine. Getting stuck in the middle of the Sonoran desert seria el colmo I thought, but we struggled on to the outskirts of LA where we spent a couple of hours gridlocked in drizzle.

When I did finally get a cab from the bus station towards the British Consulate on Wilshire I rejoined the traffic jam and spent another hour or so on the freeway, but the cabbie was a Mexican and we chatted about el Tri's 2-2 draw last night with Nigeria and their forthcoming match up against Guatemala on Wednesday.

I'd left messages with the Consulate since Thursday morning but as luck would have it this was the moment they decided to call me back and better still, Alison − the Scottish consular official that I spoke to − promised to sort me out a one-year temporary passport today.

In the end she never even asked for ID, but I had already been on the phone to my bank in London and they had promised to dig my passport facsimile out of their archives in Fleet Street first thing tomorrow: looks like that won't be needed any more now. The people here at the LA office may still get that copy tomorrow, along with another from Atlanta.

We made a couple of stops on the way from Phoenix. First at a roadside McDonalds at a place called Quartzite, famed for its rock shops. There was a sign saying 'No Loitering' outside but I didn't really need to be told. Then we made an extra stop at San Bernadino where some people planned to change for a bus to San Diego, but the terminal was darkened and locked up and as nobody had the courage to get down, we drove on.

At one point the driver asked for a show of hands from the passengers to determine whether we were feeling over-chilled. We were. He then chastised us for not having made this clear when he delivered his detailed list of instructions with appended dos and don'ts as we pulled out of the station in Phoenix. "Like I said, I got ma own air up here."

Unlike the Galgos down south, the driver on these beaten-up American buses sits behind a sealed barrier that prevents passengers from coming up and making idle conversation. (In Guatemala it has struck me that this often helps keep the driver awake and out of the barrancos.)

I didn't get much sleep at all on what turned out to be an eight and a half hour ride, so I caught up with two weeks' worth of Mark Kermode's podcasts. Apparently the sub-title of Black Sheep is 'The Violence of the Lambs'. Haha.

Mallrat's diary

In the evenings downtown Scottsdale has the ambience of the inside of a hummer stretch limo.

It would certainly be a fun place to hang out if your idea of entertainment is dressing up like the latest victim on CSI:Miami and getting plastered in loud and dark restaurants.

For anyone else monontonous becomes a universal adjective, suitable for describing anything from the weather to the pink-beige Pueblo-style architecture and on to the food on the menus. (Not forgetting the follow-me muzak at the FireSky.)

I'm feeling the need to vary (and downsize) my diet. Last night in The Pink Taco we shared some cute little mini-tamales with strawberry sauce as our starter, but then these were followed by a burrito the size of a rolled-up bath towel. The other evening we celebrated the end of Digipalooza at a premium eatery called the City Hall Steak House where our 'petite filets' were accompanied by mashed potatoes and spinach soaked with so much full-fat cream that they reeked like the inside of the dairy at the Finca Carmona.

Today a cab driver (the only one I have came across who wasn't Somali) was telling me how real estate was actually quite affordable in the Valley until around five years ago when prices surged, peaking out in 2005. There's something of a slump right now and another local let on that these days you can get a four-bedroom suburban house with a pool in the area for around $280,000; which may explain why people have so much disposable income to blow on the bizarre mix of terribly tasteful and terribly tasteless goods on sale in the city's strikingly elegant malls. (A special mention here for the Cornelia Park store which today at least best epitomised this strange hit and miss American design juxtaposition for me.)

Luxuries do somehow seem more desirable here however. Today I bought V an iPod Touch at the Biltmore Town and Country shopping centre: a device recently described by Niall as "pointless". I also went to Borders and bought a copy of All the Pretty Horses which seemed like the right thing to be reading on this unexpected extension of my stay in the Wild West.

There are some seriously loaded people around here, but it's not really clear to me whether they made their money in Arizona or in more temperate states. There do seem to be rather a lot of banks in town. Yet in spite of this highly visible affluence there are also plenty of poor folk in Phoenix. The local high schools have a 30% drop-out rate and my world-weary cab driver described his hometown as "one of the speed capitals of the USA."

Noting that this is the hottest place in the country outside of Death Valley, he also told me that the last few months had been the most unbearable during his eight year residence in Phoenix. This was because it went up to 110 degrees and pretty much stayed there all summer. And after only four days here the ever-present aircon has left me with parched lips and bleeding sinuses.

The stress of the last couple of days has been amplified by my knowledge that V hasn't been making an ideal recovery following her accident a couple of weeks ago. She was fortunate not to break any bones (especially her skull considering that she landed head first), but the medics at casualty told her that it looked like she had bust every vein in her right leg, and over the past week the foot attached to that limb has been discolouring.

Worried about the threat of gangrene she went back to a specialist and has been told to self-inject a third generation liquid antibiotic called Ceftriaxone mixed with a local anaesthetic called Lidocain. I'm feeling particularly foolish and helpless to be this much closer to Guatemala and yet fairly well stuck in the US for the time being.

Leaving aside my colleague's trip to the airport, today was fairly relaxing. We'd swapped the relentless chill-out of FireSky for the reverberations of merengue-hip hop and reggeton at the Inn at Pima, for when we checked in last night there was a Fiesta de Quinceañera in full swing there, but luckily the sound of it didn't carry to my block. The corridors might have had that three star smell about them, but the chichi-free comforts of this condo-hotel were refreshing.

I would have had a my first full night's sleep here last night had Christofer not rung me on my mobile at 4am to pass on the news from the Rugby World Cup. This sudden and most unusual interest in sporting activity on his part was largely due to its convergence with his longer-term interest in unfortunate things happening to French people.


Gaylene managed to miss her US Airlines flight back to LA this afternoon, largely because she thought she was on a United flight, and the slowness of the latter carrier's check-in service contributed to the mishap.

In the end it may have been a blessing in disguise, because it seems that her original flight was seriously delayed and she ended up leaving Phoenix before it did. Although she will miss her LA connection, there's a later one, so it should work out OK.

Meanwhile we saw Lisa from Canada at Terminal 2 with the now familiar wild-eyed look of someone who has recently misplaced their passport. So perhaps I wasn't the only loskop at the conference after all!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A la Gran...


Flying back from the north of the state today I suddenly remembered that my broker in Atlanta should have a copy of my passport on file: a bombilla moment according to V, when I told her. If I can get them to fax it to me in LA on Monday I will be in far better shape when I turn up at the Consulate.

There's no escape the chill-out music at FireSky. On the first night it occurred to me that it might still be playing when I picked up the phone.

Celeb alert! We have just spotted Michelle Williams, Heath Ledger's ex. It looks like she's here for a wedding that is about to get under way. They politely asked us to shift from the little circle of seats around the outdoor log fire so that they could take some photos of the family there. I warned them that the sprinklers tend to come on rather suddenly around here; yesterday one of our delegates took a direct hit in the back during our lunch break at that particular spot.

Right now, some very hospitable member of the hotel staff keeps refilling my glass with a sweet Californian Merlot called Little Black Dress, which features a discarded pair of red, high-heeled shoes on the label. Nothing like the wines that HS ordered last night. I guess I'd be feeling a whole lot better today if I hadn't cleaned my palate between the Cabernet and the Pinot Noir with that Margarita.

There seems to be a lot of PT Cruisers in something from Chevrolet which looks like a bad Chinese knock-off of the Chrysler. (Made south of the border so they don't have to come far.)

Surprisingly though, it's hard to get a decent Mexican beer (Bohemia, Dos Equis etc.) at the FireSky. But there is an interesting local brew called 8th Street Ale from the Four Peaks Brewery. They're generally not too great at pronouncing Spanish words in this part of old Mexico either. (Cabeeza de Varca, press one for Espannol etc.)

Anyway, we're going out for Mexinosh tonight...The Pink Taco no less. (A review here from Chowhound). If it's authentic it will be the only thing in the southern part of the state that is.

I'd have to say that Phoenix is generally a rather dull, affluent place, in a low key kind of way. Fun if you like cafe-au-lait brunettes in tiny (but very smart) dresses; indeed, the young people in this town dress far more slickly than in towns like Houston. Much of the domestic architecture in Scottsdale is a bit 'low chaparral' and quite impersonal compared to say the suburban buildings of LA.

As for the resort hotels, it's like some over-indulgent interior designer has been let loose on the environment.

Pictures of the Grand Canyon

Pictures from the journey up there...which in many ways was just as impressive

Perdido en el corazón de la grande Babylon...

Today I begin my new life as an itinerant indocumentado in south-western USA. I will be getting the Greyhound bus service to LA tomorrow night. With no passport it will be hard for me even to book a room when I get there...though presumably I could get a job as a nanny in Beverly Hills.

Manu Chao incidentally has one of the best live acts I've ever seen. This clip from Lollapalooza; though he'd have been a welcome addition to our own Digipalooza this week.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Shit happens:

Our crisis comms expert Brendan is relating the sad tale of Continental Airlines Flight 1669Y, where a citizen journalist was on hand to file the story of "poop running down the aisles."

Most bad news gets onto social media sites now before the mainstream media get their act together, Brendan notes, and it will usually be updated far more regularly there too and of course, has the potential to remain available for viewing for a much longer period.

And yet it remains the case that "the reputation of the media is made during crises," so the way journalists interact with so-called gotcha stories emerging online is very relevant to us.

I was once a Continental Flight with a bust bog too. The steward eventually solved the problem by pouring about twenty coffee jugs-worth of water down the hole. Fortunately, no cerotes became mobile.

The day's programme is almost done and I have survived the challenge posed by that big tray of chocolate brownies. It's a real shame we missed the presentation from author David M. Scott during our airport excursion, but he has kindly given a copy of his book on The New Rules of PR to every delegate and Niall blogged about it on Collective Conversation.

Consumer Marketing meets Web 2-dotology

Right now I'm trying to eat a little plate of nachos without making high decibel munchy noises. Some of the tostadas are red! I've seen black corn, but red...

Gaylene and I had a dash to the aiport at lunchtime to report the loss of our passports to the United Express baggage handling office run by a pair of Mary-Sue types with low concentration levels, who might even have been endearing in a situation other than this. Gaylene's had been handed in; mine hadn't. There's probably some Chicano at Heathrow's Terminal 3 this evening: "Orale compadres! Me llamo Gooi Oward, dejenme entrar porfa!"

Deportation may be my best option for getting out of the US within a week now as the GB Consulate isn't answering its emergency line (even citizens reporting deaths need to leave voicemail and wait by their stiff). Just getting back to LA will present difficulties as I have no other government-issued ID with me.

Anyway, there are a lot more bullet points in this afternoon's presentations. I'm feeling a bit acribillado already. Right now a colleague from the LA office (also a history graduate/major) is talking about the attitudes and behaviours we all need to adopt in order to fully integrate digital communications into the offering. In a slide headed Web 2-dotology she recommends that, where relevant, we harness some of the structured understandings gathered by other disciplines such as sociology and pyschology.

Aha, another amusing video to watch. This one from Windward Reports:

Social Media 101

My colleague Niall has been live-blogging the conference all morning, but now it's his turn to stand up (along with James Gregson and Peter Imbres) and give us all an update on our collectively-agreed social media principles, which have now been approved without changes by our legal counsel. Thanks largely to his approach to this matter, H&K is recognised as a leader in the field.

The use of social media within the organisation remains a fundamentally political issue and it is my own view that any set of collective principles should, as far as possible, permit the basic polarities to survive, just as within our democracies we allow lefties and righties to sit in the same chamber, provided that they continue to pay heed to some fundamental code of conduct.

Niall went on to explain how we, as paid communications professionals, ought to approach perceived inaccuracies on Wikipedia. Rather than immediately proceeding to make edits ourselves, we should try instead to interact with the article-in-question's editors, pointing them to references which back up our complaint, and maybe also suggesting a time-frame for them to make changes to the article. After this we might feel we had permission to make the edits, but he added that one of the problems that we still face is that the guidelines on article mods published by Wikipedia are themselves subject to community-based editing.

Niall pinpointed the three most common, and invariably tricky, questions that our clients ask us about blogs:
  • Should our CEO write one?
  • Who are the most influential bloggers on topic X?
  • One of these blogger people has said something negative about us; how should we respond?
Our own presentation tomorrow will return to the clearly recurring topic of why engaging with bloggers is fundamentally different to traditional media relations. Paul Gillin mentioned the less predictable motivations of bloggers this morning. Niall has just added that bloggers are far more likely than mainstream journalists to tell the world when you misjudge your pitch to them. The key learning here is that, on a campaign by campaign basis, communications professionals need to invest the time to establish whether a particular blogger is an appropriate subject for outreach.

Paul Taaffe

In the first afternoon session our global CEO challenged us to think about the ways that Digital communications could take our profession to entirely new places. One could think of the practice of public relations as broadly about managing the interface between the different publics within a society, yet even in some of the most developed nations it has often really involved little more than media relations, leaving the advertising industry to take the overall lead in terms of creative initiative and content generation. Digital, Taaffe argued, gives us a real opportunity to snatch this initiative back.

After all, where there is real communication - a relationship rather than a set of discreet transactions - our approach should be more effective in the long run. As David Muir told us this morning, a lot of the negativity online seems to stem from the fact that the trust-based conversations between consumers and the people that sell them stuff are not taking place to the extent that the technology would now appear to allow.

Over lunch Niall had also made the point that advertising has always been about buying into things, and that their approach to social media properties is little different. We on the other hand, really do have to change our ways.

Paul Gillin

Author of The New Influencers and a blogger since June '05.

Spoke about how social networks have harnessed the power of personal publishing, transforming me comms into us comms and how innovation in this sphere has been galvanised by cheaper open source software.

A few other factlets and interesting observations from his speech:
  • 65% of Facebook users need a daily fix
  • The average age of US network evening news viewers is now 60
  • It is now cheaper to keep information than to delete it
  • Influencers "dwell at all levels" as blog authority becomes more diffuse
  • The economics of mainstream media is rooted in a dying form of scarcity: "the economic model of newspapers is unsustainable" (discuss..?)
  • Negativity has the greatest impact when it amplifies a common problem
  • Bloggers respond to different motivations and often actively seek out engagement
  • Peer trust is now crucial, but some peers are more equal than others!
There are many different ways to measure the impact of social media on the market, he concluded, yet "what's the ROI?" isn't always the right first question to ask.

He finished up with a Kodak moment...

This was one of those internal productions that 'somehow got out'.

The new marketing environment (2)

A few more points from David Muir's preso which I didn't blog about at the time:
  • There is still a major misalignment between media usage and ad-spend (in favour of traditional media of course)
  • Broadcast skills will become more important as the barriers to entry to providing TV-like services come crashing. In this environment more and more firms (such as Boeing) are experimenting with formal co-creation schemes.
  • People's online behaviours have changed significantly with broadband, but regulators have also played an active role in fostering the rise of social (and controllable) media.

The new marketing environment

Our first keynote speaker is David Muir is CEO of The Channel, one of WPP's knowledge centres.

He made the telling point that customer rage online is more often than not driven by a sense that organisations simply aren't listening...when the technology for doing so is seemingly at its most prevalent ever.

Here are some great YouTube clips that he showed us in illustration of the permanent changes sweeping the comms industry:

See the selection of remixes for this last one!


Unas fotos del hotel en Scottsdale...que ayer en la noche se parecia a un poco a un sim en Second Life. Ayer estuvo mas de 90 grados aqui, pero parece que se quita el calor bastante en la noche. La conferencia empieza en 15. Voy a tratar de escribir el blog en vivo...

Hay mucho Mexicano aqui. Orale!

Arrival in Arizona

Have arrived, exhausted, in Arizona. 21 hours door to door. Here are some pics from the windows of both flights.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

White Noise

In The World According to Clarkson there's a piece in which he laments the way that certain "high-brow" authors (as opposed to the writers that he himself reads; Tom Clancy et al.) tend to waste all their beautiful prose on rather formless narratives.

Having just finished the latest offering from Phillip Roth, Clarkson quips that "It's almost as though Roth rang the publishers and asked 'How long would you like my next novel to be?' And when they said 250 pages, he said 'Oh good, I've finished'."

DeLillo does seem to wind up White Noise at the point at which he reckons he's said all he has to say...though there is a somewhat manufactured confrontation in the place of the final act.

This prescient novel from 1984 is not so much about amusing ourselves to death as amusing ourselves from death. (Neil Postman's book was published a year later.)

Its central proposition, that technology and the culture of consumerism that it underpins, serves largely to fixate us with a kind of pervasive replenishment which thereby diverts our attention from the decay around and within us, is one that always resonates with me when I have recently returned from Central America.

The book takes us into the daily life of Jack Gladney, described by a colleague as "a big harmless, ageing, indistinct sort of guy." Jack is America's leading expert on all things Hitlerish. In today's world he would work for the History Channel, but as the story finds him at the dawn of the cable era, he has instead carved an academic niche for himself at a university in a provincial east coast town.

Jack has a history of marrying and divorcing women that are connected to the so-called 'intelligence community', including one who reviews new fiction for the CIA. But most importantly, Jack is afraid of death. Very afraid. During the course of the narrative his own demise becomes more directly calculable when he is exposed to a massive cloud of toxic gunk, a misadventure that occurs at around the same time that he discovers that his wife Babette shares his hidden terror to such an extent that she has prostituted herself with a pharmaceutical company executive in order to be able to participate in an illicit trial of a new drug called Dylar, said to cure the human mind of this most corrosive of anxieties.

"Terrifying data is now an industry in itself,
" Jack muses."Different firms compete to see how badly they can scare us." And yet fear itself, his kind of fear, doesn't seem to be news.

The best explorations of these kind of themes in the novel come whenever Jack interacts with his friend and colleague Murray, quite literally "
a visiting lecturer". Together they pinpoint that the whole point of technology is that "it creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other," and that "it's what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies."

Look at any grey-haired man in London and you have to remind yourself that he wasn't always so; that all of us are in motion and it isn't, strictly speaking, forward motion.
In much the same way that one notices the seasons much more when one swaps the city for the countryside, distance from the intense modernity of the First World provides more transparent access to the human life cycles in motion. Away from the constant agitation of newness, there's a more multidimensional panorama, more cruel and outrageous, and therefore more natural.

The first thing I always notice in Guate is that the under-30s and their preferences are far less dominant within the society. I think DeLillo might agree with the proposition that the ever greater extension of youth in our culture is a form of repression. In effect the market seeks to prolong the period before which people generally become 'estranged from the goods they consume'. Right, I'm off to the Apple Phoenix.

Orgullosos de ser Chapín

(Thanks to Blog de mi Guatemala for this one.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Cafe La Escudilla and Riki's Bar

When we were building the house we used to eat here almost every other day, taking advantage of the convenience of its fresh, low cost mix of local and international dishes and its tranquilising patio ambience. OK, the service was always surly and slow, but it didn't seem to be a deal-killer...until a couple of weeks ago that is.

We were enjoying a pleasant evening here in September with a guest and when we came to pay the bill we found that the waitress had charged V twice for her main course; on purpose. With minimum embarrassment she came over and explained that in fact she clearly recalled that V had been part of a large group that had dined in Cafe La Escudilla a month or so before and that the monies left with respect to la cuenta had come up short, so now they were making up the defecit. Gracias.

As the only non-Latin at the table it might be thought strange that it was I alone that went red in the face with anger at this particular moment. V and our guest were perhaps too stunned to react. I at least had the certainty that I wasn't even in the country when this extra dish that I was being asked (actually told) to pay for was reportedly consumed.

V had indeed been part of that big group, gathered by a long-term German resident of Antigua. She had departed before most of the others at the table and had left sufficient quetzales with her friend to cover the cost of her own meal. Our guest on that evening, himself a restauranteur and a close relative of an important local politician had, needless to say, not been part of this particular group of under-paying diners, but this did not prevent the manager of La Escudilla from coming over and accusing him to his face of being a liar and a cheat.

This new manager, clearly a prize idiot, is also a gutless specimen, because he refused to come up to the table to interact directly with my consternation. Instead he hovered at a safe distance and proceeded to call over the security guards from the entrance and dramatically instructed them not to permit such 'gente sin verguenza' to return to his restaurant. He needn't have bothered as his attitude and behaviour had already done the trick. I have never been treated with such shameless disrespect in any restaurant anywhere in the world.

Why wait until we'd finished our meal to spring this on us? And why would this fool risk the reputation of his employers for the price of one plato fuerte ordered weeks earlier? My strong suspicion is that the sum in question had been discounted from the salary of the waitress and that she had therefore instigated this fracas. The gente sin verguenza are surely those that manage their staff in this way.

I did of course refuse to pay for the extra meal and when the bill came the waitress had written on it " pagó la milanesa', and then asked for a tip!

For a decade Riki's/La Escudilla was by far and away the busiest evening venue in La Antigua, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. The Rough Guide still speaks of queues, but in truth both the gilded youth of Guate and the trendier foreigners have moved on, and thanks to this kind of kamikaze management it's starting to look like it did in the early nineties when it was a funeral parlour. We'll be going to the Rainbow Cafe instead from now on. (Rudy likes the breakfast there and we enjoy their open mike evenings. Their fajitas may not sizzle, but they're a delicious and very affordable dish nontheless.)

New poll

Mano Dura's radio ads now openly refer to the opposition as 'Mano Aguada'.

Things are looking up a bit for Mano Aguada though. According to the latest poll from CID Gallup 44.7% would vote for Colom, compared to the 42.1% that apparently intend to vote for Mano Dura; 13.2 % remain undecided.

Both candidates have said they want to increase the education budget; not a bad thing as 100m Quetzales (approx. $13m) were recently diverted from this by Oscar Berger's government towards the refurbisment of the airport.

It has to be said that this project has been carried out pretty well, on the inside at least. Getting in and out of Aurora International is, if anything, a more chaotic experience since it became 'the most modern airport in Central America'...thanks in part to the selfless sacrifice made by a generation of Guatemalan schoolkids.

Literature into Film

Yesterday I went along to see two films set in nineteenth century Rio; both part of the Barbican's season of Brazilian movies which have scripts adapted from literature.

The first of these was Memórias Póstumas (2001) taken from The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, the classic novel by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, which most Brazilians get to read at school.

The second was O Xangô de Baker Street (also made in 2001 and translated as A Samba for Sherlock), a rather silly caper that originated as a novel by Brazilian talk-show host Jô Soares. In it a rather bumbling Sherlock Holmes, played by Joaquim de Almeida is invited to Rio to help solve a crime that involves a missing Stradivarius and an increasing number of carved-up females. He may not uncover the murderer's identity but he does appear to start a fashion for light linen suits and along the way invents the caipirinha.

The scenes involving substances that are banned today and Dr Watson being possessed by a female orixa are very drôle. "Is he effeminate?" the shaman asks Holmes. "No, he's English," the detective responds. ("And you thought Swimming Pool was a piss-take of the English," TC chuckled afterwards.)

Memórias Póstumas begins with a dead man proposing to take his audience back through the significant moments of his 'full' life. We then see how Bras Cubas has pursued rogueish mediocrity as a lifestyle choice, but was obsessing about finally making a contribution to mankind when an unfortunate gust of wind laid him low with terminal pneumonia at the age of 65.

He has lived and died in a country which has many of the forms, but hardly any of the substance of elite European culture. In this context we see that Bras Cubas' approach to life is as good as any of the others we see around him. "At least I didn't have children," is his bleak final observation.

Afterwards the director André Klotzel fielded questions from the audience. One man, a rather obvious Latin America groupie, couldn't quite understand why such a notoriously hedonistic nation would include a work of such bitter irony in its standard formation. TC reminded me afterwards however. that an appreciation of the essential crapness of life is of course a necessary component of Latin joie-de-vivre.

She told Klotzel that she was impressed with the way he used nineteenth century artworks as an alternative to expensive period-scenes in the streets of Rio. Personally, I enjoyed the way the sex scene (above) was handled, with the couple cavorting out of focus with the embarrassed-looking ghost of Bras Cubas loitering in the foreground. Klotzel says his next movie will be about the secret life of a food blender.

I'm pretty fond of the Barbican nowadays. I always used to jest that I could only find it when I wasn't trying, but for the past couple of years I have only ever lost my bearings on the inside. TC says that the architecture evokes urban desolation for her. Maybe I was in a good mood yesterday, but instead I perceive the drama of romantic ruin within its brute early 70s, futuristic forms.

The Conservatory, with its two giant bourgainvillea, bizarre Brazilian ficuses and florifundia (plus the carp that appear too fat to even swim) takes me straight back to Silent Running. All that's missing are the rings of Saturn.