Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10s of 2008: New release films

- In Bruges (UK/USA)
- Juno (USA)
- El Orfanato (Spain)
- Gone Baby Gone (USA)
- Changeling (USA)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France)
- Hellboy 2 (USA)
- La Zona (Mexico/Spain)
- Persepolis (France/USA)
- Gomorra (Italy)

Quote of the Day

"In fact, "we" did not borrow recklessly. Many financiers speculated with borrowed money to get very rich, and the financial economy is now unraveling as their assets turn out to be worthless. The Bush administration plunged the Treasury deeper into debt so that millionaires could pay lower taxes and a needless war could be waged. The entire economy borrowed from foreign central banks to finance purchases of products that the U.S. economy no longer made at home because of a perverse trade policy. And yes, consumer borrowing increased to make up for wages that were stagnant or declining. But that is not an undifferentiated "we" in the sense of thee and me. Mainly, it is a "we" made up of the rich, the powerful, their political enablers and their perverse policies."
Robert Kuttner responds to yesterday's quote from Martin N. Baily.

Top Tens of 2008: Non-Fiction

- Imperial Life in the Emerald City - Rajiv Chandrasekaran
- Vivir Para Contarla - Gabriel García Márquez
- The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman
- Forgotten Continent, The Battle for Latin America's Soul by Michael Reid
- Jungle Capitalists by Peter Chapman
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
- The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende
- Vive La Revolution by Mark Steel
- The Bible, The Biography by Karen Armstrong
- The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

Occasional Chiste

¿Cómo se convierte un burro en burra?
Se mete el burro en una habitación oscura y se espera hasta que se aburra...

Top Tens of 2008: Fiction

- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
- The Stories of Paul Bowles
- Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
- Cocaine Nights by JG Ballard
- Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
- We Are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek
- The Dedalus Book of Spanish Fantasy
- Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
- Serious Things by Gregory Normington

No particular order, but the three in bold were outstanding.

[I don't often read more than 12-15 novels each year, so a 'Top 10' list is a little artificial, but then I'm reasonably strict about pre-selection.]

2006 and 2007 lists here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

La Migra - EPIC FAIL

Quote of the Day

"We got into this mess to a considerable extent by over-borrowing. Now, we're saying, 'Well, O.K., let's just borrow a bunch more, and that will help us get out of this mess.' It's like a drunk who says, 'Give me a bottle of Scotch and then I'll be O.K. and I won't have to drink anymore.' Eventually, we have to get off this binge of borrowing."
Martin N. Baily, economist at the Brookings Institution; once on President Bill Clinton Council of Economic Advisers.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas TV viewing diary

I suppose the two main highlights here were and Wallace and Gromitt: A Matter of Loaf and Death and Doctor Who - The Next Doctor. Both were enjoyable but left a bit of an aftertaste of 'haven't we seen all that before?'

My instructions from V on Christmas morning were clear: "If the doorbell rings, don't answer will only be ladrones or family."

We'd been up until 3am the previous night celebrating with rellenitos topped with Fortnum's cognac butter. This may sound all very posh and pretentious but the jar was something V had picked up at Heathrow Airport at a give-away price and stuffed in the freezer on arrival here in anticipation of this sort of synchretic seasonal need.

We did actually get to see the non-hostile portion of her family on our own terms later on the afternoon of the 25th, and had dropped them back at the Parque San Sebastián in time to catch the fireworks display that kicks of traditional Christmas Day festivities in El Manchén.

Boxing Day was then celebrated in the kitchen where we put together a delicious Thai red curry, with pan arabe as a competent, less greasy stand-in for Nan bread.

What holds Guatemala back: 4 - Insecurity

The latest PNC-released stats covering reported crimes throughout the year up to the end of the first week of December make sobering reading:

5,834 dead and 6,468 injured in numerous acts of violence. This includes the murders of 162 bus drivers, 6 ayudantes and 2 bus inspectors.

- 1,250 people 'disappeared'
- 183 kidnappings
- 350 rapes
- 995 thefts of commercial property
- 1,808 thefts of firearms
- 5,515 stolen vehicles
- 78 attacks on tourists

August seems to be the peak month for both visitors to the country (171,235 in '08) and for murders (616 in '08).

Quote of the Day

"Everybody I know is dead or in jail. I want to be a boss. I want to have supermarkets, shops, factories. I want to have women. I want three cars and when I go into a shop I want people to respect me. I want to own stores all over the world. And then I want to die. But like a real man dies, a man really in command. I want to be murdered."
Jailed adolescent in Naples, quoted by Roberto Saviano in Gomorra

The Happening

This poster for M. Night Shyamalan's latest offering has something the movie itself doesn't - a powerful evocation of a civilisation discarded by its suddenly suicidal adherents.

This is an oddly quiet apocalypse. As in the BBC's Survivors the unaffected head straight for leafy countryside, leaving viewers to imagine how the bodies pile up in the major population centres. If you want to wallow in ruination, watch Cloverfield.

Instead of frenzied neck-munching zombies, we have the rather more chilling scenario of people stopped in their tracks by a mysterious neurotoxin which induces them to seek out the nearest available means towards self-extinction.

The Happening has a quietist version of the ending of 28 Weeks Later too - which made me think that another, perhaps less idiosyncratic director, might like to take on a sequel, in order to explore this fascinating scenario in a, perhaps less preachy, way. (It's Happening Again?)

One of the conceits of the film is that the incidents grow ever smaller in scale, which for a certain type of viewer may mean that the action on screen becomes less and less interesting. It certainly grabs your attention in the first 10 minutes or so, but then struggles to keep it for the next 70 . (And unlike Saving Private Ryan there's no compensatory climax.)

Flaws it certainly has, but as I had been expecting to lose the will to live myself, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of this movie actually works. Critics will continue to point out that the director has shamelessly pilfered from his own back-catalogue and that the emotional reactions of the main characters are odd to say the least - though it's unclear in the end if this is a consequence of bad acting, bad writing, bad direction or just another artefact of the rather subdued backdrop, which has ended up throwing their somewhat half-baked complexities into sharper relief than one normally experiences in films from the resurgent genre that M. Night Shyamalan has meddled with here.


Saturday, December 27, 2008


It would appear that the Camorra mobsters of Naples have failed to come good on their pre-Christmas boast that they would whack Gomorra-author Roberto Saviano before we were all tucked into our turkeys and/or tamales.

The LRB's Tim Parks described Saviano's 2m-selling book (which I have yet to read) as "fragmented, cumulative, insistent, dramatic." This thought-provoking adaptation is all of these things, and pretty stressful too. I can't recall such elevated, cinema-induced anxiety levels I put myself through United 93.

Comparisons with Fernando Meirelles's City of God are also again quite handy. Actors new to the trade - some of them with a history of mob involvement - have been cast here too. (Many speak in a dialect so dense that Italian subtitles were added for the benefit of non-Neopolitans.)

Meirelles presented us with a lead character that we were given to understand was a fair enough analogue of photo-journalist Paolo Lins, the originator of this insider's view of the Rio favelas. Matteo Garrone on the other hand, has denied us such an intruder from the world of human decency - instead we are deposited into the midst of a fully-enclosed and hopelessly debased environment. There appears to be no exit.

We found ourselves fumbling for structure at the start before each mini-narrative and the overall thrust of the movie itself took shape. Screenwriter Maurizio Braucci has condensed Saviano's Gomorra into five streams. Of these tales - interwoven by location only - three end up being traditional stories in which a character moves from a starting equilibrium through disequilibrium and on to a new form of equilibrium. In the other two, a character is shown on the path towards a fully life-changing event, but we are left to anticipate what might happen to him after that. Two of the sections appear to have been constructed primarily as illustrations of how the Camorra connect up with the world of aggressive, globalised capitalism outside of this region.

We were soon recalling our own roadtrip through this part of Italy in 2005. On arriving in Naples we spotted a battleship grey armoured personnel carrier guarding the first main intersection on the coast road. It was as if we'd entered a land under occupation. The first time we stopped for petrol an old lady sitting in a plastic folding chair beside the pumps advised us to keep our windows shut at all times: "Molto pericoloso..."

Those abiding prejudices regarding blokes from Italy that I've always had trouble shaking off - that there's quite often an aura of vanity and ridiculousness clinging to them - were redoubled down here in this institutionally-disowned conurbation, where just about everything appears tackier...and crappier than anywhere north of Mondragone.

Garrone has captured this stifling scrappiness and squalidity extremely well. And there's definitely something both sordidly mediocre and ludicrous about each of the intrigues explored here, perhaps none more so than tale tracking the destinies of two of the more independently-minded young men Saviano has dubbed "talking corpses" (see pic above), who chatter excitedly about living to thirty, whilst plotting to provoke their elders and deadliers by filching from a cache of automatic weapons.

Apparently it is Saviano's own view that repressive policies only make matters worse because imprisoning the capos allows the Camorra to freshen their ranks with new blood, like an army in wartime. Only the word can win, he has concluded, because it will only be by breaking the hold of the mob on the collective consciousness of the general population that conditions for a new culture can be seeded. (A consideration perhaps for politicians pursuing Wars on Terror and Drugs?)

Grade: A-

Quote of the Day

"I love eating at bars; you can be solitary, without being no-mates, dumped or a greedy bastard. Bars are good for girls on their own; when you look up, the only eye you catch is the barman's."
AA Gill

Friday, December 26, 2008

A tidy bit of business..

Mexico managed to pre-sell most of its entire 2009 oil output at an average price $70 a barrel - this could give them around $7.5bn - equivalent of 1% of GDP - to stimulate their economy during the downturn with investments in infrastructure.


"Hostia de mierda, me cago en la puta!"

No, not something we overheard at 'midnight mass' the other night (here generally held around 10pm) but the voiceover on an amateur video shown on Spain's Antena 3 on Christmas Eve - which showed some unfortunate Basque surfer getting wiped out big time and propelled towards jagged rocks by a freak wave off San Seb.

His mate with the camera uttered this suitably profane (and basically untranslateable) exclamation on the tape, which was played back unbleeped on a lunchtime news bulletin. I'd have been surprised if I hadn't heard the Spanish C-word (Coño) used with some frequency on pre-watershed (even Children's) TV over there.

Quote of the Day

"A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on earth; the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union don't contain enough energy to keep a hurricane going for one day. A typical hurricane encompasses a million cubic miles of atmosphere and could provide all the electric power needed by the United States for three or four years."
Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm

Green Gold and other exports

Whilst imports of gringos may be heading towards historic lows, the news is a bit better on the export front.

Between January and September 2008 Guatemala's coffee exports increased 1.2%, while banana exports increased substantially by 28.2%. Sugar, cardamom and oil export decreased, but revenues have remained stable.

The BANGUAT report with this data also recorded significant increases in foreign exchange earnings from products such as natural rubber, which increased by 101%, and honey, by 91.5%. Oil rose by 59.8% percent and other minerals by 69.8%.

Guatemala's Green Gold is Cardamom. Production levels here effectively set prices in the global market.

Originally from the south of India cardamom was introduced into Guatemala back in 1914 by German plantation owner Oscar Majus in the department of Alta Vearapaz.

Guatemala is now the world's biggest producer and exporter of cardamom, with its entire crop dispatched to the Middle East, where it is used to pep up Arabian grub and is also ground together with coffee beans to make a spicier blend. Demand soars during Ramadan.

The name cardamom is used for herbs within two genera of the ginger family: Elettaria and Amomum. Both forms of cardamom are used as flavorings in both food and drink, as cooking spices and as a medicine. Elettaria cardamomum (the commoner type of cardamom) is used as a spice, a masticatory, and for curative purposes. It can also be smoked.

The BANGUAT report indicates that foreign exchange earnings from cardomom rose by 62.2% between January and September this year, equivalent to $48.9m while revenues increased by 23.1% , or $28.5m.

Meanwhile coffee revenues rose 16.8% ($92.4m) and banana 8.4% ($21.9m) in the same period.

Banco de Guatemala has estimated that the local economy will grow by 3.5% in 2009, compared to 4% in 2008 (and 6.3% in 2007). Not that bad when you consider that the World Bank forecasts 2.1% across Latin America, and Morgan Stanley has cut its forecast for the seven largest economies in the region in 2009 from growth of 1.5% to a contraction of 0.4%.

Jungle all the way

This Christmas Eve midnight went off with a bit less of a bang than on previous years; possibly a consequence of the gathering economic crisis.

We caught a taxi home some time after 2am - not Fernando, the trusted late night taxista habitually used by V's niece Clara Lucia, because he had only recently been blown away by two male passengers he'd run to Santa María de Jesús. A midday killing, we were informed by our own driver, who told us he had been a fairly close friend of his unfortunate colleague.

He also reported that he'd just given a ride to a pair of distraught late middle-aged tourists who'd been attacked some time after midnight in the Tanque de la Union. They had had passports and valuables taken from them and the woman's ear-lobes had been torn when her gold earrings were removed the quick way.

It seems that the mayor's plan to protect visitors with strategically-placed cameras has yet to demonstrate results - and why should it? Back in the UK we have more CCTV cameras than any other nation on earth, but they appear to do hardly anything at all for our crime rate.

Antigua needs all the tourists it can get right now - even dumb ones like these - so the negative word-of-mouth generated by such brutish incidents is unlikely to be helpful.

Yesterday V's brother informed us that nine of Antigua's Spanish schools and seven of its restaurants have already folded, including in the latter category the Cafe Panchoy and La Cocina de Lola. (Neither will be sorely missed. One can hope that Sangre will soon be bleeding out too...)

Before disappearing for the holiday season Don R treated us to one more grizzly local rumour - that of the resident pyscho in the ruins of San Jerónimo who occasionally pops out in order to slice people's throats from ear to ear. I've found no independent, corroborated account of this killing spree in the local media. (Don R suspects a police cover-up!)

Meanwhile, a little earlier on Christmas Eve, four men died in a shoot-out in the seafood area of Guatemala City's rather aptly named 'Terminal' market. The total number of violent deaths over the Christmas period (24th-25th) is running at around 30 so far, including 6 women.

8 bodies showing signs of torture were discovered just over the border in Guadalupe Victoria, Chiapas on Christmas Eve....those narcos up to no good again.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What holds Guatemala back: 3 - The Narcos

In the first 11 months of this year 5400 people died violently here, compared to 4600 in the same period of 2007 - not all narcotics related for sure - but the traffickers have to shoulder most of the blame for the breaking wave of murders which has swept over Guatemala since 'Peace' was formally established a decade ago. (Alternatively, you might want to point the finger at the cocaine snorters themselves.)

So here in this comparatively small nation, more people are dying as a result of organised criminality serving a largely external demand for narcotic stimulation than as a consequence of the actions of Islamist terrorists the world over (...or indeed, as a result of misguided 'War on Terror' policies designed to dispatch said Islamists to paradise.)

Before the 'War on Terror' we had the 'War on Drugs'. Such is the resillience of demand for blow in the West that repressive policies in Colombia simply helped shift the cartel distribution structures further north. And whenever local police and armed forces are co-opted into this battle they become corrupted, along with a host of other key institutions through which piping hot money continually flows.

70% of the cocaine bound for the USA - where 40% of the global production of that drug is consumed - passes through Guatemala. You can imagine the effect this is having on its already endemic problems of impunity and the practice of shadow economics.

Even if the Guatemalan state wanted to fight the narcos the way they have been fought in Colombia, it doesn't have the capacity. (The limited amount of technology which exists here for telephone interception seems to have been wasted on bugging the Presidential Palace!)

When the Peace Accords were signed a good part of the officer corps of the Guatemalan army was pensioned off, so it can come as no surprise that, compared to say Mexico where active colonels are in the pay of the narcos, here in Guatemala it is retired colonels who are the narcos.

And then we have the maras, street-gangs like the Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, which evolved in LA during the Cold War and were recklessly re-exported back to Central America by the gringos when it ended. For the past couple of decades these cholos have been the nihilistic footsoldiers of the bigger players at state and transnational level.

But the sense of surging crisis in 2008 is being driven by the invasive activities of the Mexican cartels. Guatemala has an underpopulated 950km border with Mexico packed with large estates, many of which have informal airfields. The owners of these estates are occasionally reporting - though more often not - some serious intimidation by the narcos from over the border, which in many cases forces them to sell up.

Last week President Colom sent the army to investigate a number of frontier fincas and has called for a pan-regional military response, a call which President Calderón in Mexico has rejected. (Guatemala is apparently a carpet under which he can sweep his own quite serious problems in this respect.)

During the course of 2008 there have been three high profile shoot-outs between Mexican and Guatemalan narcos which together resulted in 44 fatalities.

Prime suspect in the instigation of such massacres is an armed battalion called Los Zetas which works for the Gulf Cartel. Led by Heriberto 'The Executioner' Lazano, Los Zetas are said to have evolved out of GAFE, Mexico's elite airborne special forces unit. Some of them are also believed to have belonged to Guatemala's similarly Israeli/American-trained Kaibiles, and according to the Fiscal General de Guatemala 80 of the 300 known Zetas are based on this side of the border right now.

This unit is quite possibly better equipped than British forces in Afghanistan, with kevlar vests and ballistic helmets, 50 cal. and MP5 machine guns, grenade launchers, AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, helicopters and ground-to-air missiles.

Christmas Message

"The whole is untrue."
Theodor Adorno

Today being today, I thought I'd cut the God Squad some slack, or at least one particular member of it, a clergyman and radical theologian called Don Cupitt, whose approach to belief makes him seem even more an atheist than I am.

This is because Cupitt's non-realism about God seems to preclude any kind of metaphysical curiosity. The only stuff that's real to Cupitt is the stuff we can observe and discuss; we humans are the world-makers. Existence is thus essentially contingent and ephimeral, he claims, echoing the famous observation of Adorno (above) about the tentative, transcient nature of the cosmos.

We can dispense with the story of Genesis, Cupitt argues, because it is surely clear that man was not created and duly dumped into a "fully-furnished home". Everything we can say about God is subject to renegotiation along with the rest of our cultural values, which take shape and become fixed as part of the human conversation. In this scheme God should be our omega, but not our alpha, a spiritual guide
"not the ontological foundation of life." We should look to God as a personification of certain transcendent ideals, such as Love.

People should pursue their values for their own sakes, Cupitt advises, not because of some kind of external guarantor, or indeed because of a promised pay-off of eternal life. He feels sure that Jesus himself was a humanist thinker who fought against the oppressive nature of religious tradition: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" etc.

Against this backdrop of fundamental impermanence it is our job to 'jaw jaw' ourselves towards spiritual consensus - and clearly Cupitt feels that the best kind of omega we can aim for is a Christian love for our fellow man; Human kindness and a commitment to life. To illustrate his point, Cupitt quotes Pierre in War and Peace:

"To love life is to love God"

Cupitt's ideas have led me to consider whether some sort of formal religious tradition is indeed necessary in order that the majority of people, regardless of education level, have a handy set of cultural tools for contemplation, consolation etc. and for expressing the better, spiritual side to their biological natures.

It's a more tolerant approach to belief than Dawkins's, but it's not without its problems. Cupitt clearly decries the attitude of fundamentalists, but isn't some sort of fundamentalism inevitable with every kind of scriptural faith? I heard today that more people have gathered at Bethlehem than on previous years and I find it hard not to consider this apparently harmless bunch as fundamentalist in their own way, for if there is one part of the story of Christ's life which is clearly subject to factual revision it is the 'traditional' story of his Nativity - almost certainly tacked on by gospel-scribblers generations later in order to enforce an agreement with existing Jewish Messianic myth.

Is it really possible to make use of the literature of belief without incurring all the difficulties that inevitably arise when it is believed literally? And, as Cupitt himself notes, these problems will only worsen as the modern worldview distances itself to an ever greater extent from that of the wise but ignorant men who wrote those sacred texts.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Keep the company of those who seek the truth, and run away from those who have found it."
Václav Havel

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Employee of the Month

Certainly the best movie set in a Wal-Mart style supermarket since One Hour Photo...and surely also the biggest product-placement extravaganza since The Terminal. 

I watched the middle half-hour in the Cozy Corner in Placencia in November. Seeing the rest of it last night has added little to my appreciation of this occasionally clever comedy. 

Grade: B

Quote of the Day

"Every politician rises up in the ranks with a bagful of skeletons trailing behind him like cans of Coca-Cola dragging from the tail of a rebellious cat."
Carlos Fuentes in The Eagle's Throne

Sunday, December 21, 2008

La Zona

Across Latin America rich and poor both tend to over-compensate for the weakness of the state.

We saw in City of God / City of Men how the police are usually unwelcome in the Rio slums where organised criminality has stepped into the breach. Here in Guatemala there are also areas within the capital like La Limonada where the local cops have no beat.

Rodrigo Plá's debut feature on the other hand asks us to consider what happens when the professional middle-classes decide that they can be self-sufficient in terms of law and order. Welcome to La Zona, a fortress community in Mexico DF, a favela for the affluent SUV-driver, and the disturbing context for the socio-economic flipside of our very own rural lynch mobs.

The story begins to unfold on a stormy night. A high-rise advertising hoarding just outside La Zona becomes untethered and crashes down onto the stone pallisade, sundering it and temporarily blinding the community's CCTV eyes, a circumstance which tempts three young men in the auto-graveyard below to clamber up the twisted metal beanstalk that has suddenly turned up in their limited lives.

Disturbed whilst robbing the first property they come across in the upperworld, they murder a lone female householder and two of them are themselves taken out by La Zona's private security force. One of these guardias is in turn mistakenly terminated by a terrified retired resident, leaving the 'Assembly' to contemplate how to handle the disposal of four bodies without incurring interference from the outside authorities - and how to deal with Miguel, the youngest invader who escaped the scene, but not the compound. All but one vote for the 'an eye for an eye' approach.

They thus constitute a Lynch-mob in another sense too, for their eerie urban elysium, seen reflected in passing polarised windows, has its antecedents in the neighbourhoods imagined by the director of Blue Velvet. There are also some parallels in this scenario with JG Ballard's Cocaine Nights, in which a group of retired northern Europeans decide that they can do without the services of the Spanish state in their Costa del Sol resort.

Whereas Plá's conceit is that the residents of La Zona have happened upon a truly medieval solution to the medieval levels of income distribution in Mexico - both in terms of wall-building and the pent-up vigilante-ism that develops within these walls - Ballard was prompting us to think about the necessary conditions for a Renaissance: in Estrella de Mar the local tennis pro has to shit in a few infinity pools in order to dispel the spectre of endless tedium and set-up the conditions for a kind of cultural awakening, for "the first and last truth about the leisure society and perhaps all societies - crime and creativity go together, and always have done."

Compared to Fernando Meirelles's (Cidade de Deus) compelling realism, both visions are just un-realistic enough to be dystopic and fable-like; and the test of a good dystopia is surely the extent to which it convinces us that some of the dirty smudges in contemporary life could end up besmirching civilisation itself. La Zona certainly did a better job of filling me with dread and foreboding than Ballard's novel did. The evocation of the contrasting demographic contours of this city is chillingly effective, a back-drop of chronic Latin American injustice in which this parable becomes a chokingly acute episode.

My only misgivings were the feeling that the last ten minutes did little to top off the story and that throughout the earlier sections Plá and Santullo had been only partially successful in their attempts to represent the inner life of La Zona...and its conflicts. For example, felt they had focussed on a group of privileged male pupils in order to distract us from considering how many of the residents must have a day job outside La Zona.

Yet while I had a sense that there was some unrealised potential here, this was easily one of my favourite three films of the year.

Update: Time now to walk the dogs down the street V and I have dubbed 'Gringits'. The hostility of the residents in the thick-walled properties that line this dirt track is now that much more preocupante. We've already had to put up with one American aiming his hosepipe at us and a particularly nasty old woman who once shouted out "You don't belong son is in the Army, he will shoot you". We live less than 100m from her home and this is a public thoroughfare!

Grade: A

TV Viewing Diary - Carluccio and The Leopard

A genre-bending documentary from Beeb 4 in which wheezy culinary entrepreneur Antonio Carluccio travels to Sicilly in order to uncover the background to Il Gattopardo, perhaps Italy's greatest modern novel.

In between preparing some of the examples of cucina baronale which crop up at key moments in the book (none especially apetising to either of us, I have to say), Carluccio amusingly uses various varieties of biscuit to visualise 19th century Italian history (Bourbons, Garibaldis, Savoyardi etc.) and relates the rather sad biography of late-developing author Lampedusa himself, who died from lung cancer just after receiving a second, devastating reggie letter, and was never to see his great work published, or indeed flying off Palermo bookshelves.

Quote of the Day

"I have have enough money to last me the rest of my life - unless I have to buy something."
Jackie Mason

Gone Baby Gone

Whilst compiling a list of my ten favourite new release movies of 2008, I realised that there was one that I had somehow failed to comment on in this blog.

At the time I watched it (on my Archos in Belize) the conflict in DR Congo had swolen to bursting point and I recall one hack describing the resulting news footage as 'porno for misanthropes'.

Well, that wouldn't be a bad description of the first half hour or so of Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's tale of a stolen child which was shelved in the UK for months, thanks to some potential plot similarities with that other pervasive piece of misanthropic porn - the Tapas 7 saga from Praia da Luge...and because of a startling resemblance between the little girl cast here and missing Madeleine McCann.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, two young PIs native to Boston's more necessitous districts. When the daughter of a woman we are invited to contemplate as possibly the world's least suitable single parent is snatched, Patrick and Angie are contracted by the family to cover the underside of the police investigation. They are soon emeshed in a complex narrative - perhaps just a tad too complex - involving assorted thugs, dealers, pervs and bent cops.

I didn't know at the time that these characters feature in a series of novels by Dennis Lehane, so that at the end I was inclined to think that Angie's character was a largely superfluous shadow to Patrick's...until the last section where her true role was revealed - to throw into sharp relief the stance her partner takes when the plot is finally unravelled and together they reach a clear-cut ethical fork in the highway. The choice is straightforward, but the issues are profoundly complex.

There's not much else one can say without emitting spoilers, but suffice to say the younger Affleck is developing into a fine acting talent, while his elder brother is now compensating for comparative weaknesses in this field by demonstrating a strong aptitude for both direction and screenwriting.

Grade: A-

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cat facts...and mysteries (2)

When first presented with a new morsel of food cats - well, my cats at least - rapidly touch it against their noses before tucking in...rather like Robert in Everybody Loves Raymond.

Snakes on a Plane

Samuel L Jackson is an FBI agent accompanying a key witness on the red-eye from Hawaii to LA. The crim who stands to lose most from this pair arriving at LAX has had the 747's cargo hold filled with every type of posionous snake known to man - one of them is even "from the Middle East" - and triggered the more unpleasant side of their nature by spraying a load of Hawaian lei with pheromones. "Snakes on Crack," as Jackson later puts it.

It's hard to diss this movie because all the things that are truly terrible about it were clearly done intentionally. If Airplane took all the corny clichés from 70s arline disaster movies and turned them into comedy, the 'monkeys with typewriters' (as Andrew Keen likes to refer to the distributed talents of the blogosphere) who helped put this B-Movie together thought it would be even more entertaining to re-percolate them into an ostensibly 'straight-faced' scenario...and they weren't entirely mistaken.

Grade: B+ or C-- depending on mood and whether you paid to see it!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cat facts...and mysteries (1)

The terminal velocity of your average feline is 60mph, which means that their instinctive righting mechanism - which permits them to land patas abajo - is usually only operative in falls of roughly six storeys and under. Anything above that and the cat's nervous system is spiked and it is unable to swing midair into a comparatively safe landing position. 

Maya Deity of the Day: Chaac

This me, back in March 1988, sitting atop a carved mask of the god Chaac at Mayapan, political hub of the Yucatec Maya from the 1220s to the 1440s. 

Chaac or Chac - later to be known as Tlaloc by the Aztecs and Cocijo by the Zapotecs - is one of the most important deities in Mesoamerican culture as his remit covers agriculture and rainfall, with thunder and lightning as his call-signs. 

As with many other supernatural beings worshiped by the Maya, Chaac has both an individual identity and a manifold one (had to have helped the Maya get a grip on all that Holy Trinity claptrap) precipitating off into four distinct Chaacs, each with its own colour and cardinal direction. All share the same repitilian features with pronounced nose, curling fangs and tears streaming from spherical eyes. 

Over the centuries there have been many different rituals associated with Chaac, such as the rather bizarre Yucatec one where four young boys are tied up and made to croak like frogs. 

Chaac also features heavily in the twelfth century Dresden Codex and the walls of the Puuc city of Kabah are literally covered in impressive, protruding-snout Chaac masks, stacked one on top of another. 

It's not hard to see why Chaac has retained a significant role within the traditional religious practices of modern Maya communities. As Jared Diamond pointed out in Collapse, in spite of what the brochures say, the Petén jungle isn't technically a rainforest;  it's a tropical seasonal forest - which basically means that it doesn't rain there all the time. 

Worse still from the perspective of the various clumps of Classic Maya civilisation in the region, the ground underneath both it and the Yucatán peninsula to the north is made up of porous, limestone-based karst, which means that most of Chaac's bounty seeps away rather quickly. (To counteract this, the inhabitants of Tikal had plastered natural depressions in the karst to create reservoirs which could hold up enough water to meet the needs of around 10,000 people for 18 months.) 

The seasonal unpredictability of rainfall is compounded by a cyclical tendency towards truly desperate conditions: roughly once every 208 years -  apparently owing to variations in solar radiation - a severe drought settles on this region. We know that one such sequía from AD 125 to AD 250 can be associated with the pre-Classic collapse at cities like El Mirador in the north of Guatemala. And the one which began around AD 760 is thought to have been the worst in 7000 years. 

The great Maya centres in the forested lowlands seemed to have suffered the most severe brake on their cultural endeavours at this time, in part because the humidity there makes it that much harder to store corn for periods longer than twelve months. In comparison cities like Lamanai and Tulum, which could supplement their protein-starved corn diet with mariscos, and which were a little less ambitious in terms of ceremonial architecture, (plaster manufacture drove deforestation which in turn helped stifle rainfall), were able to keep up a more sophisticated way of life right up until the arrival of European pathogens. 

Quote of the Day: Niebuhr Week

"There are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war."
Reinhold Niebuhr

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Quote of the Day: Niebuhr Week

"All human sin seems so much worse in its consequences than in its intentions."
Reinhold Niebuhr

I recently heard David Starkey on R3 claiming rather boldly that history and its actors should be judged primarily by the consequences of their actions.

Reinhold Niebuhr was far more interested in motivations. He had a strong sense that the fundamental paradox of politics is that, whilst only the guiltless deserve to rule, the act of wielding power itself precludes guiltlessness:

"Nothing is intrinsically good, except goodwill."

Even the archetypally quietist Gandhi had caused significant hardship to children back in Manchester when he ordered a boycott on British cotton goods...

The best are at the top

Please return to your seat...

The essence of Taleb and Mandelbrot's argument here seems to be that in the process of over-simplifying our economic system - for reasons of efficiency - we've actually made it a whole lot more complicated, too complicated in fact for our little brains to cope with. Capitalism is about to experience the kind of heavy turbulence the like of which has never been seen before...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quote of the Day: Niebuhr Week

"Democracies are indeed slow to make war, but once embarked upon a martial venture are equally slow to make peace and reluctant to make a tolerable, rather than a vindictive, peace."
Reinhold Niebuhr

Toc Toc Toc Tottoc

I find myself laid low after attending a posada last night. I'm cross with myself, for I had thus far managed to avoid serious intestinal setbacks since my arrival here in May.

Posadas are a Guatemalan tradition which makes public theatre out of Mary and Joseph's mythological quest for suitable lodgings in the days leading up to the birth of baby Jesus.

They kicked off on Sunday (14th) when a procession left our local church and made its way noisily around the colonia before arriving at a prearranged front entrance, which is duly knocked on.

In its wake follows a crowd of reasonably devout individuals with lanterns, and behind them a trail of gorras and juvenile delinquents. Since cachinflines were banned throughout Guatemala, the best form of entertainment available to the latter is letting off bombas and cuetes underneath each others' feet.

When the door is eventually opened, those who have come for a bit of prayer followed by ponche (fruit punch) and maybe a filled pirujo or tamal, proceed to swarm inside the dwelling.

In this picture we see the anda owned by our local church in Panorama. Mary and Joseph stand, rather awkwardly apart, beneath a fine example of terraza española, in front of a fairly typical Antigueñan doorway. Tomorrow the posada people will come again to fetch these effigies and the procession will move on to another home....and so on, up until December 23rd. The anda will be back in the church for Christmas Eve. (Here's another example of the form I found on Flickr, featuring a little model of La Merced.)

It's not unusual for bits of the traditional nativity scene in the receiving household to change ownership. V's sister Silvia lost a Wise Man a few years ago.

However, Don R has assured me that when the baby Jesus himself goes walkies (usually on the first night), a sub-tradition is being invoked. The pious pilferers are supposed to hold on to it for 15 days before announcing their delito and inviting the whole gang of seasonal spongers to their home for a final celebration.

What holds Guatemala back: 2 - The State

From the outside Guatemala's state looks like one of those houses that someone decided to start building before they had the finances to finish it. We have several fine examples nearby. The ground floor is more or less complete, but the next level up is little more than a concrete terrace through which rusty iron rods poke skyward, testifying to the delayed ambitions of the occupants.

Like many of the neighbouring states this was one whose early growth was paid for by various kinds of inflationary financing and debt, because the wealthy haven't ever been willing to cough up. 

Even in the democratic era - and in spite of some clear stipulations in the peace accords - total taxation as a share of GDP is well below the developed country average of 29%. Excluding social security contributions the figure here is closer to 10% - and it is said by leading economists that the state needs a tax take of at least a fifth of GDP in order to provide basic public goods. (Such as the education and the police service which will be covered in later posts.)

The currently parlous state of the world's economy is not going to help much either. Fiscal authorities have reported a take last month of Q2.4bn, the lowest of 2008, and 7.9% lower than the equivalent revenues collected in November 2007.

Still, there has been a measure of successful decentralisation over the last few decades and both Antigua and Guatemala City, benefit from local government by mini-states run by apparently competent and reform-minded alcaldes. In the capital for example, Arzú has successfully transplanted Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa's Transmilenio - a modern transportation system (itself based on Brazil's Curitiba) in which articulated buses run along their own carriageways with fixed stops that are more like London's DLR than a common-or-garden bus stop. (Here it has been dubbed the Transmetro)

But then there's a pending post in this series entitled 'Neglect of the Countryside'.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Maya Deity of the Day: Itzamná

Itzamná (or God D) was Maya civilisation's high priest and cultural czar, having provided it with both writing and calendrical science. He is also said to have taught them how to cultivate corn.

Most often depicted as a toothless old duffer with square eyes and squinty pupils, as well as sunken cheeks and a bulbous nose, Itzamná is sometimes said to be the child of the creator god Hunab Ku, and as such has inherited the latter's position as the paramount supernatural power.

He wears a petaled headband which holds a mirrored ornament and the akbal glyph for night and darkness.

His name means 'lizard house'.


The fundamental popular notion behind Liberal Capitalism is that it is an exploititaive system which mainly serves the interests of an overprivileged, avaricious elite. However for the decade or so leading up to October 2008, anyone openly expressing this view at polite dinner parties was likely to be dismissed as some sort of tedious, kill-joy Marxosaurus. Fortunately it's now OK again to blame the *ankers for all our problems.

An alternative view - which may itself now be going out of fashion - is that capitalism is a system which rewards the sort of industrious individuals who like to make their living from pumping up the overall levels of vulgarity in society. As I suggested in yesterday's post, this position has been wrapped in taboo, which means (Reality TV, celebrity culture and Americans aside) its advocates have had to disguise their snobbish instincts as something a tad more positive - such as the promotion of organic foods or other kinds of 'environmental' activism.

I was amused by an article in Spiked! recently, which rumbled the claims of Plane Stupid and other protestors who have been targeting Stansted Airport; the UK's home of the cheap flight:

"No amount of fact-twisting can disguise the fact that, again and again, the eco-worthies of the anti-flying lobby are drawn towards attacking and delaying those flights taken by the lowest-income communities; by 'cheap people'...In their rush to mock the supposedly 'privileged' people who take cheap flights from Stansted, Plane Stupid neglects to point out that, according to the CAA's figures, the average household income of £47,000 at Stansted is the lowest for London's major airports...

"When you consider that aviation contributes only five per cent to Britain's total carbon emissions, and that a tiny proportion of that five per cent is caused by Ryanair, easyJet or Stansted itself, it becomes clear that there is something seriously skewed about Plane Stupid's focus on cheap flights. This is not about reining in CO2 per se; it's about reining in the slovenly, destructive behaviour of the lower orders. The shutting down of Stansted and the relentless attacks on Ryanair and easyJet are driven by the most pernicious snobbery, by a view of 'cheap flyers' as ultimately destructive, noxious, wanton and foul. These posh activisits, descended from baronets, lords, inventors and aristocrats, are keeping up a long tradition in which 'mass tourism' has attracted the 'class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity and spirit'.

Now, while I'm no social-relativist (I generally take more easily to the sort of superior people who got that way by reason of intellect, education, curiosity and spirit as opposed to the various other ways one might conceive oneself superior) and while I'd still need to be convinced that the lower orders aren't just a little bit more slovenly than the rest of us, the outing of this sort of cant in public life is always to be applauded!

Quote of the Day: Niebuhr Week

"Nations find it even more difficult than individuals to preserve sanity when confronted with a resolute and unscrupulous foe. Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddles every pool of sanity. In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited. Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. Unfortunately the only persuasive proof seems to be the disavowal of precisely those discriminate judgments which are so necessary for an effective conflict with the evil, which we are supposed to abhor."
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Niebuhr was of course talking about Communism not Islamism, and would express the hope that an underlying kinship between the two ideological blocks facing up to each other in his times, might perhaps allow Americans to somehow 'forgive' the waywardness of the Soviet system.

With Islamism it is surely harder to arrive at the conclusion that Niebuhr himself reached, namely "America now confronts a system exhibiting 'evils' which were distilled from illusions not generically different from our own"...unless of course you factor in the 'evils' of Pentecostalism.

9 Brave Men

Hugh Pennington writes in the LRB about a daring US Army experiment in Cuba back in 1900 - not something, I discovered, that V was pleased to hear about as she tucked into her granola this morning:

"The general view at the time was that yellow fever was spread by fomites – in this instance, infected clothing and bedding. But Walter Reed had evidence that it was transmitted by mosquitoes. To convince the doubters he constructed an ‘Infected Clothing and Bedding Building’. Sheets, pillowcases and blankets deliberately contaminated with the vomit, urine and faeces of yellow fever patients were shaken to distribute their contents into the air and used to make up beds in which three US army volunteers slept for 21 nights. Two more volunteers slept in yellow fever patients’ garments for 21 nights, and another two did the same using pillows covered with towels soiled with blood from a patient. None of the volunteers got sick."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Quote of the Day: Niebuhr Week

"Patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism."
Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society

More from Niebuhr during the course of the week. The way he tried to reconcile politics and Christian ethical thinking is, to me at least, quite fascinating. Here the notion of original sin is entirely appropriate. 

The passage above continues..."The paradox is that patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. Loyalty to the nation is a high form of altruism when compared with lesser loyalties and more parochial interests. It therefore becomes the vehicle of all the altruistic impulses and expresses itself, on occasion, with such fervor that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified nature of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations."

Floating around on my raft...

A good friend back in London recently congratulated me for having 'abandoned the sinking ship' in good time. Every day I follow the news from home and it does now seem that HMS Blighty is going down so fast and so deep that soon not even Robert Ballard will be able to find it.

If I'd settled out here back in the early 90s I wouldn't have had this opportunity to vicariously experience the UK's media - and indeed its cultural and intellectual life - through fibre-optic cables and signals beaming down at me from satellites circling in high orbit. And it's an odd experience this peering into the descending air bubble of Britain from outside...

Last Friday's Newsnight Review featured a panel discussion about the likely artistic consequences arising from this loss of prosperity. I found it rather distasteful in the end - the UK's buzzard-like chattering classes are so sure that none of this mess is their fault - that it's those awful philistine bankers who need to be excoriated - and would apparently rather experience (and comprehend) this crisis indirectly through the products of their own seemingly burgeoning meanings industry, than devote themselves to more hands-on / less narcissistic activities. Say what you like about the Yanks, right now their habit of picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and just getting on with it, is considerably more appealing to me these days.

The UK's economy has frankly only prospered in recent years because it has functioned as one big leveraged bet on itself. And for this the dastardly bankers surely can't take all the blame. Living out here I've come to see ever more clearly how people who risk money they can't afford to lose are often just as noxious to the common good as the most unregulated of capitalist bastards.

For example, V's father was a successful property speculator and accumulator of wealth, from a near standing start. Some of his sons however, have proved to be extremely poor imitators, largely because they seem unable/unwilling to make the present sacrifices (like saving) necessary for reaping benefits later. This means that several seem to have become rather set in the notion that what is generally required is a not insignificant injection of someone else's money in order to place their circumstances firmly on the path to exponential improvement.

Back in Blighty, there's been a consensus trade in the futures of UK PLC which even the Labour government bought into wholeheartedly. Those at the top of the financial food chain made vast profits which kept the whole thing chugging along nicely, but those in the social bell-curve's bump wanted in too, and the only way they could properly participate was by borrowing - which ultimately the government and the financial institutions did little to discourage. (An illusion of wealth always keeps Britain's middle classes from moaning too much.)

Along the way the boundaries between the real and the speculative economy were blurred, with banks in the US in particular wantonly muddling their core and proprietary trading arms in order to first generate, then disperse, new levels of exploitable risk.

It's always the 'greater fools' who bring these houses of cards down - the banks should know this - but they don't seem to have institutionalised ways of avoiding the temptation of sucking gullible low net-worth individuals into the game. Of course it remains deeply unfashionable to pass comment on how the masses somehow always manage to screw things up (though their effect on television is a lesser taboo), but democracy and capitalism do seem to be highly prone to popular cack-handedness.

That the financial sector represents around a fifth of the UK's GDP is bad enough, but there are other major sectors which are equally prone to cyclical unwindings, such as the PR, branding and advertising industries. Sure, new ventures need to spend here in order to get to market and establish themselves, but many existing products are effectively engaged in a marketing arms race, forced to match the monies thrown at agencies by their competitors. Marketing spend this tends to go off the end of a cliff the moment the economy shifts into reverse.

The global downturn hasn't really hit Guatemala properly yet. If anything, the collapse in oil prices has alleviated the sensation of crisis that was peaking around June. Looking around Antigua today - a town geared towards extracting a tithe from visitors - there are simply too many travel agencies, too many cyber cafes, too many boutique hotels etc. Normally this kind of endemic overgrazing would eventually lead to a clear-out, but here these mini-industries get sucked into in a race to the bottom where the bottom never actually materialises, and as a result, even the businesses that started out trying to offer these services to a higher standard begin to degrade. Perhaps a recession will instigate the necessary cull?

Anyway, the LRB's Donald MacKenzie has been a fine commentator on all matters crunchy. In this article he takes a look at the prospects for the hedge fund industry.

While up to a third may come a cropper as a result of the current crisis (thus dissipating up to a quarter of the wealth invested in their funds) - there seems to be something in their very structure which forces them to close positions even when it seems clear they might soon turn a corner - MacKenzie still feels they may ultimately assume an even more important role within the financial services sector:

"As banks retreat from trading risky financial instruments, a potentially very profitable space will open up for those still prepared to do so, and hedge funds will step in to fill it."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws."
John Adams, 2nd US President (1735-1826)

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Researchers in Nevada have calculated that spent coffee grounds can potentially add 340m gallons of biodiesel to the world's fuel supply.

Spent coffee grounds contain between 11 and 20% oil by weight, which is about as much as traditional biodiesel feedstocks such as rapeseed, palm, and soybean oil. Coffee-based fuel - which apparently smells like java - has a major advantage in being more stable than traditional biodiesel, due to coffee's high antioxidant content. The solids left over from the conversion can themselves be turned into ethanol or used as compost.

You might think here at last is a way for Guatemala to reduce its energy dependency, but then again, you might be wrong. Most of this country's high-grade coffee is exported, leaving the locals to drink a weak, highly sugared agua de calcetín made from grubby little granules. Still, Antigua has a growing number of espresso bars and our new mayor seems committed to biodiesel. It would certainly be more fun to stand behind the exhaust pipe of a departing chicken bus powered this way...

Lakeview Terrace

Two complaints: Neil Labute's excellent thriller has dark, nasty undertones, but in the end are they dark and nasty enough? Once you start down this complex road of inter-racial (and marital) tension, surely you need to go all the way? 

And then there's Abel's kids, conveniently removed from Act 3 by his sister-in-law. 

Still, it's well-written, well-paced and Jackson's performance is superb. Films like Next Door and Unlawful Entry may have had vaguely similar premises, but the oppositions here play out in a far more subtle and penetrating fashion and it struck me that we were also being invited to imagine that this embittered and racist cop might just be onto something about his new neighbours, something more elusive than the mere fact of their multiracial union. 

I was to some extent reminded of a short story by Juan Goytisolo that I read recently (Los Hombres-Cigüeña), in which a Moroccan man is transformed into a stork and travels north to settle in the house where his wife has taken up with a French lover and proceeds to sow disorder in their relationship. 

Grade: A-

Friday, December 12, 2008

Quote of the Day

"If we don't have the wit to escape history then let's at least try to relive the good bits."
London Mayor Boris Johnson in After Rome

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dead Man Supine

These traffic-slowing structures - known here as un túmulo (a bump), as a sleeping policeman (un policia dormido) in the UK, and as un muerto (a dead person) in Nicaragua- have the same chequered history of traffic lights in Guatemala.

This one was knocked up last week on the corner of the main road behind our house by the Muni workers who are currently cobbling the street beside the church.

They did one half of the street first, prompting Don R to comment that this was surely how they intended to leave it. Even by Guatemalan standards this would have been dippy. They obviously just needed a bit of a break, because today they returned to continue the obstacle on to the other side of the road.

On its first full night of duty the Muni team thought to leave a few little red flags around it so that drivers accustomed to use La Calle de la Reforma like one of the straights at Silverstone would have a few seconds in which to apply their brakes. The next evening these were gone - either because they had been nicked or because they were needed elsewhere - and V was later to witness a motorcyclist being caterpaulted several feet into the air. Several more accidents have ensued and the bump itself is already badly scarred from close encounters with overloaded pickups.

As you can see from the pic above, tonight the early warning system will comprise of some branches, a collection of rocks and two half-empty bags of cement...

Wi-finders keepers

"Si tu laptop está chilera, te la huevearán," enthused my friend Orlando the other day about the new free wi-fi zone in Antigua's Plaza Mayor.

Going into Pollo Campero with my Vaio used to be terrifying enough. Surely only mad dogs and Englishmen will choose to go out in the midday hotspot clutching expensive laptops?

I guess those more pocketable  3G devices like iPhones might just be use-able with relative long as one has one's shoes shined while using them.


Listening to interviews with people whose views I consider to be wrongheaded - such as Andrew Keen (he who thinks the Internet is wrecking our culture) and Nicholson Baker - (he who thinks Churchill was nearly as bad as Hitler and that the Allies should never have gone to war with Nazi Germany) it has struck me that there may even be something in the very timbre of their voices that should alert us to the presence of a tosh-merchant. For a start, both these men speak too slowly - at least when they are discoursing on their core contrarian ideas.

Still, wrongheadedness is never an an absolute quality. Baker's assertion that the way Churchill pursued a low-level bombing war may have accelerated the logic of the Holocaust - at least by bringing Germany and its bureaucratic institutions fully behind the more dangerous Nazi notions -  is one that may be difficult to entirely dismiss. Yet I's still have to content that if you imagine that history is a collection of well signposted forks in the road ur not doing it right. 

Still, WWII was always the big BUT... that my developing, essentially pacifistic intellect had to deal with and, without having had a chance yet to read Human Smoke, I sense that this is one fly in the ointment whose presence I'd at least like to acknowledge.

Andrew Keen meanwhile insists that the purpose of the media is to give experts a platform. He revels in his status as the 'Antichrist of Silicon Valley' ....and boy do some of those narcissistic digital libertarians out there need a fly in their ointment. 

For me the technological culture (especially as it relates to the media) is something I have been able to put on and take off rather like a costume; I'm not one to go around all the time dolled up like a complete homo digitalis, and one of the pleasures of moving out here has been the ability to leave this particular outfit back home in the cupboard for more extended periods. 

Keen is also wrong in a way that Baker isn't - factually wrong as opposed to just emotionally wrong. I often wonder whether thinkers who so consciously go against the grain are in some way aware of the intellectual integrity they have surely had to sacrifice in order to eschew the norms of balance. Perhaps their slow, deliberate diction is a clue to this.

I was recently listening to a radio piece about a new Brazilian venture called Movie Mobs, where people use a social network to gather groups to view films of their own choice. Andrew Keen should pay a visit to Brazil, for here is a nation that has immersed itself almost completely in social media. It strikes me that the 'expert' losing control in this instance, is the phoney expert we tend to call a marketer.

Maya Deity of the Day: Ah Kin

Ah Kin, "He of the Sun" (aka Acan Chob; Chi Chac Chob, Kinich Ahau, and God G) is an ambivalently-natured deity whose remit includes the management of drought and disease.

If you've seen Apocalypto you might have acquired an exaggerated sense of the importance of the Mayan sun god within their pantheon, but his twin areas of expertise must have seemed comparatively important during the two great crisis moments for the Pre-Colombian Maya - the collapse of their Classic civilisation (due largely to unfavourable environmental conditions) followed a few centuries later by the arrival of the poxy Spaniards.

Ah Kin likes to spend his evenings in the murky Mayan underworld; Xibalba. He had a companion dog to help him find the eastern horizon and while he's down there he merges with the nocturnal jungle cat to become Balanke, the 'Jaguar Sun'.

In his youth he was something of a looker (presumably before he developed those t-shaped incisors and crossed eyes) and had a thing for Ix Chel, the future Moon goddess. The pair are said to have invented sexual union and became patrons of match-making and procreation until Ah Kin assumed his full responsibilities as sun god, a position which came with a fiercer, less approachable aspect and the requirement to act as the bringer of doubt.

His union with Ix Chel persisted, and together they also became associated with sorcery and medicine. After the conquest however, her identity was quickly blotted out by that of the Virgin Mary.

What holds Guatemala back: 1 - Carelessness

A new occasional series, and one which comes in no particular order. (Nor is for that matter, necessarily complete!)

No country which loses stuff so easily - public money, automatic weapons...World Cup fixtures, can really aspire to favourable comparisons with some of the world's plucky, high-achieving smaller nations such as Ireland and Finland.

For example, yeserday Guatemala’s director of the National Civilian Police force (PNC), Marlene Blanco Lapola, informed Congress that more than 2,000 automatic weapons have disappeared from her inventory, including AK-47 assault rifles and Israeli-made Uzi machine guns. Oops.

This is however the same Congress which earlier this year lost a substantial part of its annual budget because someone thought it would be a good idea to invest it in an offshore 'growth' fund.

The matter of Belize

The first time I crossed the border separating Belize and Guatemala I couldn't help noticing a large map on the Guatemalan side which seemed to deny the frontier's very existence.

Modern Guatemala's claim is essentially inherited from the earlier and much larger, pre-Independence territorial block which was handily also known as Guatemala. (or rather the Captaincy General of...)

The Chapines continue to have their acquisitive eye on some 12,700 square kilometres of Belizean soil - more than half of the former British colony's total territory.

On Monday both countries signed an agreement in Washington DC stating that, pending referenda on each side, they would refer this matter to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

The background to this dispute is indeed a little complicated. Belize was granted a quickie divorce from the UK in 1981 at a time when the Guatemalan army was too busy murdering its own citizens to do much in the line of effective sabre-rattling.

Back in the nineteenth century a formal treaty between Britain and Guatemala ceded the territory soon to be known as British Honduras to Her Majesty, just so long as Her Majesty went on to build Guatemala a nice new road linking their capital to the Atlantic. The continuing absence of this road suddenly came to the attention of the dictator Jorge Ubico in 1931...just before he gave away the publicly-funded railway he'd built instead to the United Fruit Company. Time to reassert that claim he must have thought...

It's hoped that the OAS-mediated 'special agreement' is the first step towards a definitive solution.

UPDATE: Somehow I find it hard to see how Guatemala won't get something out of this. Belize's de facto position is strong - it has 27 years behind it as an independent nation with a separate cultural and indeed political identity. But there seems little doubt that Britain defaulted on its treaty obligations and that therefore Guatemala's de iure position is also strong. The north and west of Belize are increasingly Hispanic in outlook too and perhaps look more to Central America than the Caribbean. If not compensation of some kind, I'd expect to see a more crinkly border once the ICJ has passed its judgment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Soft 9-11

Boing Boing describes this piece by Johnny and Jenny Ryan as 'a profound and heartfelt work of belongs in a museum.' Not sure I'm with them on this...

Character Faults...

Over the past decade I've had untold opportunities to note how the people that build houses here in Guatemala have exactly the same ones as the people that build websites back in London.

Both start by underestimating the scale of the job, mostly because they are only thinking of the large-scale repetitive aspects of it. No need to focus on the detail is there, until it becomes a proper problem?

So, the Guatemalan builder throws himself enthusiastically at the familiar core tasks such as raising the walls, but when it comes to the multifarious little snaglets and clean-ups that will need to be attended to before the project can be declared complete, he at once commences to dodge them or even starts blaming us for changing the original scope. How is the patio drain now blocked by cement his problem? etc.

Once it becomes clear just how much extra aggro the final stage of the project is likely to generate, web-coder and albañil will both start looking to enforce an artificial deadline which will give them a chance of running away and starting the whole painful process over again somewhere else with another customer.

Both are also particularly bad at taking advice from clients. For instance, V told Don R that he should leave the PVC drainpipe inside the hole he'd made for it in the roof of our new store-room. This counsel was duly ignored - years of experience mean that underpaid do-ers always know better than people with a firm grasp of logic - and of course the hole was a different diameter once the cement had dried. Tok Tok Tok soon echoed around the patio as he re-widened it with his tools the next morning. As you can see from this pic, the pipe now fits, but it has some residual straightness issues....

Maya Deity of the Day: Ah Puch

Ah Puch aka Hun Ahau or God A is the Maya God of Death and is said to reside in the ninth and frankly least pleasant level of Xibalba. The Aztecs later gave him the much less tongue-friendly name of Mictlantecuhtli.

He is seen here in perhaps his most popular get-up, that of a rotting corpse topped by a skull. Bells also dangle from his wrists and hair-bands.

One of his nicknames is 'The Flatulent One', just one of his many ways of demonstrating a doggedly malevolent nature.

The head of Ah Puch was also sometimes represented as that of an owl and some indigenous people in the region still believe that the screech of this bird portends an imminent fatality:

'Cuando el tecolote canta... el indio muere.'

As well as the owl, Ah Puch's constant companions are the dog and the Moán bird, also perceived as creatures of foul-omen.

He ranks ranks fourth in number of depictions in the codices, appearing 88 times in the three extant manuscripts.

See also ahhh puchis?!

Quote of the Day

“I’ve got this thing...and it’s [expletive] golden. And I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I’m not going to do it. And I can always use it. I can parachute me there.”
Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevic on the current availability of Obama's old Senate seat.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Don R

Has a native Guatemalan talent for distorting received information. 

I thoroughly enjoy his discourses on world affairs, for in spite of the obvious difficulties he has with digestion, this is sadly a nation where so many don't even bother to consume. (For instance, there's a bright middle-class kid in our neighbourhood who was not only unaware that there were wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, he thought I was jerking his chain when I described the modus operandum of Islamist suicide bombers.)

Don R also has a collection of tallish tales gleaned from his professional life as an albañil. There was the time, he told us yesterday, when the immensely secretive Hermandad of the church of San Pedro Las Huertas invited him to fix a light fitting in their crypt and there, he alone amongst the uninitiated, caught a glimpse of their stack of glittering loot, including a diamond-encrusted golden crown and a grailish chalice, also studded with multicoloured gemstones. 

Then there is the story of how his spade once scraped the buried dome of a lost religious house whilst he was out digging a well on private land. (According to Don R, the owner of this finca is afraid to declare its existence for fear that the government will force him to sell-up cheaply.)

Indeed I've heard a number of such semi-mythological relatos about entombed monuments on the slopes of the volcano. The town cited in most of the guidebooks as the location of the Spaniards' first capital in Guatemala is Ciudad Vieja. However rumours still circulate that the precise location of the place where the Conquistador Don Pedro del Alvarado's widow Doña Beatriz de la Cueva met her mucky end in a catastrophic mudslide on on 9-11 1541, remains a secret kept from the backpackers. 

The indeterminacy surrounding so many key events in Guatemala's history is fascinating to me. Maybe they simply don't offer decent courses in History or Archaeology at San Carlos University? The boundary between true history and folklore is certainly a rather blurry one we saw yesterday, when I tried to give a verified account of the background to the Quema del Diablo tradition. Don R filled me in today that the Devil gets the bonfire treatment after dark on the 7th because that was the night that Lucifer took it upon himself to tempt the Virgin prior to the more sinless insemination which subsequently ensued. 

Infidel minds such as my own tend to wonder why the Christ wasn't born in September if the Immaculate Conception is said to have taken place on December 8th. (Maybe it was 'Express' as well as Immaculate?!)