Inner Diablog 2004

Friend this is enough, should you wish to read more
Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence.
Angelus Silesius (1675)

Information is any difference that makes a difference.
Gregory Bateson


It appears that for another year at least, the English have run out of opportunities to triumph at any of the sports they invented.

And so another summer passes its zenith. The remaining flags of St George that flutter from the homes and pubs on the Isle of Dogs deliver a frisson of regret like tattered wreaths of holly and ivy in early January doorways.

Now then, turning to The Man in the High Castle, which was a surprisingly good read. Surprising because I haven't read anything by Phillip K. Dick since my early teens and this particular novel has been stuck somewhere in the middle of my pile of books to read for around a year - largely because I was wary of disappointment. 

With the exception of Stanislav Lem (who described Dick as "a visionary amongst charlatans") my recent engagements with Sci-Fi authors have done nothing to dispel the suspicion that this is a genre that you grow out of - usually as you acquire the kind of psychological depth the characters of writers like William Gibson so obviously lack!  Sci-Fi is predominantly a genre of interesting objects rather than interesting subjects.

Comment on Dick's reputation today is invariably prefaced by the information that he died in comparative obscurity and poverty having knocked off over 30 novels and 100 short stories just to keep the wolves at bay.  Largely overlooked by the space age, he has instead become the quintessential dead poet of the Information Age. (Having helped to introduce into popular culture some important ideas from the Axial Age.)

As a result the short story that was recently elaborated and filmed by John Woo as Paycheck was originally sold to a pulp magazine for around $200, yet will contribute $2m to Dick's estate. His daughters now speak of protecting their late father's "brand image" whilst a gaggle of big-name producers speculate over his anti-establishment fictions.

Aside from the scripts that have taken directly from Dick's own oeuvre, (Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report being the most memorable examples), there are a host of other films that can be said to owe a substantial debt to this great mythmaker of ersatz realities and hoaxed subjectivity:  Memento, Sixth Sense, Abre los Ojos (and hence Vanilla Sky). ExistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  The short story Time Out of Joint has also been pinpointed as the inspiration for The Truman Show.

Buddhism, Taoism, Gnosticism, even Kabbalism are mentioned as pointers to Dick's underlying metaphysics. Postmodernism also, as something he paralleled. "We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments , by big corporations and political groups", he observed back in 1978.  This phobia of pseudo-realities would surely ring a bell with Jean Baudrillard, author of The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. 

For Dick all coercive authorities were manifestations of a single cosmic oppressor he referred to as the Black Iron Prison and his own life serves as a reconfirmation of the ironic truth that the paranoid make excellent subjects for covert surveillance, as he was under periodic investigation by the FBI and US Navy Intelligence. He can't have been much fun to stake out though, as his agoraphobia meant spent a lot of time indoors.

This materially-impoverished, sedentary existence was often spiced up with amphetamines. During one of his trips Dick apparently bumped into God. Following this incident he started to hand-write a journal called Exegesis which documented the fall-out from this moment of revelation. (8000 pages long in the end.) It also seems that he thereafter believed that he was a reincarnation of the Gnostic seer Simon Magus

Once you start doubting your senses you are on the slipperiest of metaphysical slopes. Dick slid down it into the sombre labyrinth of delusion and paranoia.

Anyway, the best example of course from contemporary popular culture of the resurgent suspicion that normative reality is just a press release for something altogether more sinister is (for better or for worse) the Matrix TrilogyDick got in first here too it seems, having warned us of "multiple realities overlapping the matrix world" in 1977.

It's fair to say though that epistemological anxieties of the kind Dick suffered from were not unheard of in our culture before the late twentieth century. Don Quixote, the first great novel of the Western canon is about a figure whose comically delusional state is also conversely unfolded as a unique and admirable transcendental gift. Another important ism relevant in this context is of course Platonism with its myth of the cave and the hidden world of forms. Nobel Prize winning Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago is an example of a contemporary author writing "soft" sci-fi fables that are basically in the same tradition as Dick's more baroque, substance-stimulated stories. Of course such notions were even more prevalent beyond the frontiers of Western scientism: Taoist Chun Tzu wrote in the 4th century BC: "Formerly, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flying about and feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Chuang. Suddenly I awoke again and I was the veritable Chuang. I did not know whether it had formerly been Chuang dreaming that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming it was Chuang."

Before Dick science fiction writers conventionally made journeys across time and space in search of alternative cultures to hold up as mirrors to our own. He initiated the fashion for seeking them in perpendicular radii - we just need to adopt the right viewing angle, such as we need to to properly perceive the anamorphic skull in Holbein's Ambassadors. So, in The Man in the High Castle one of the most vividly-portrayed protagonists, trade official Mr Tagomi, briefly finds himself shifted across to our time-stream, a disconcerting place where white men in diners don't automatically stand in deference to their Japanese superiors. This bizarre side-effect of his inner distraction soon wears of however, leaving him to conclude that "we really do see astigmatically, in fundamental sense: our space and our time are creations of our own pysche, and when these momentarily falter - like acute disturbance of middle ear."

This idea of a multiverse of overlapping realities immediately suggests another set of conundra that Dick openly addressed in his writing - what can we legitimately understand by free will?  How determined is our fate? A re-examination of Calvinist notions of predestination is at the heart of the futuristic noir thriller Minority Report. Another of his tales, The Solar Lottery, imagines a society where each individual's social status is determined by a lottery. Finally, Dick also anticipated another of our great postmodern anxieties - the ever diminishing categorical distinctions between what mankind is and what mankind manufactures.  (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Blade Runner)

Anyway, there's a lot more to The Man in the High Castle  than a pot-boiler plot tacked on the back of a classic "what if?" alternative historical scenario (See Fatherland). Dick's Hugo award winning novel is not about the political implications of an Axis victory, it is about the metaphysical implications of historical substitutes - a kind of anti-history, if you like.

The novel is also a sophisticated rumination on the nature of authenticity. Beyond the big question of which version of historical reality is legitimate and which is the fake, some of the key individuals in the narrative are embroiled in issues surrounding the manufacture and sale of bogus Americana. 

This bizarre blend of genuine period antiques and the like of reproduction Mickey Mouse watches is here classified as memorabilia because Dick's "realist" fiction is set in a 1962 in which the allies have been defeated and the former USA partitioned between Japan in the west and the thousand year Reich in the east. There's also a DMZ in-between called "The Rocky Mountain States" (Today we'd call these the fly-over states.)

I've seen some criticisms of the book that make the point that of course, the Axis powers would never have been able to achieve anything more than a political settlement, so the whole notion of a partition of the USA is therefore ridiculously far-fetched.  To some extent that is just the point that Dick was making. His characters exist in a reality that is real to them, yet transparently inauthentic to us.  I don't think Dick wanted to show us an alternative that was marginally different; it had to be quite resoundingly easy to spot as a cheap imitation. (For the record Dick makes us aware that the points of departure with our own history occurred before the Second World War - Roosevelt was assassinated and the US never armed itself after the Depression.)

Dick found a clever way to make us shudder about the possibility of a Nazi hegemony in the late twentieth century world without having to portray life under the such a regime directly.  Most of the action takes place in Japanese-controlled California, a basically decent, if somewhat uptight society, seemingly dedicated to the maintenance of "equipoise".  We learn however that across the pond the Nazis have drained the Mediterranean, sent rockets to Mars and implemented a final solution to the problem of Africa. Meanwhile Hitler has been institutionalised with cerebral syphilis. Martin Boorman has succeeded him, but passes away during the story, setting up a power struggle between factions led by men like Göring, Göbbels and Heydrich. 

The narrative traces the sequential trajectories of a set of quite everyday characters whose destinies appear to interpenetrate according to the logic of Jungian Synchronicity.  All provide depth and interest in spite of their essential ordinariness. One of them comes to realise the disturbing truth that the survival of this particular world may depend on the triumph of the least wholesome Nazi faction. (Heydrich's bunch) This format allows for moments of black comedy when we see how the allied actions in WWII are vilified by the protagonists in this alternative cold war and how shopkeeper-collaborator Robert Childan apes the article-free speech of the Japanese, even in his internal monologues. (a device Dick uses with mixed success overall in my view.)

The eponymous man in the high castle, Abendoson, is a reclusive scribbler like Dick himself, author of an alternative history within alternative history called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It describes yet another time-stream where the allies have trounced Japan and Germany, but this also varies substantially from our own, as the British Empire extends to the Volga in Abendson's work.

In the rather inconclusive final scenes the I Ching oracle is consulted in Abendson's home and appears to pronounce that the reality of his novel is the true path of history. Dick suggests that the I Ching, the book of changes, is a living thing within the fabric of overlapping realities and that its use offers access to meta-truths beyond the facts of individual histories. Abendson admits that he wrote his own history by consulting the oracle at each critical juncture. The implication is that Dick did the same.

Hexagons standing as signs for categories of possibility are also a clear reminder of the Library of Babel imagined through a prism of idealist metaphysics by Jorge Luis Borges.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition, with its cover of an American flag with the stars replaced by swastikas, will get you a few odd looks on the Tube!

Dick was working on another "what if" novel when he died. His official website has published a typed synopsis for The Acts of Paul, set in a world where Manichaeism is the dominant religion, in part a consequence of St Paul's earlier failure to convert to Christianity.

BB Update: WYSIWG Geordie Michelle looked quite hot last night in her tight thai-dye top.  I recall that she looked warmish too in her Pocahontas outfit a couple of weeks ago. In fact, she looks fine as long as she avoids dressing up as if she's off with her girlfriends for a night out in Benidorm. Meanwhile, Victor only ever looks like a real gangsta when the bedroom camera has its night-vision goggles on. The next week will be instructive for students of group dynamics. Will the traditional close-knit in-group fall prey to a loose tactical alliance of natural loners? (1/7/04)

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Went to see Deep Blue last night.  The tone and quality of the ads and previews suggested that we could look forward to an hour or so of callow pre-teen infotainment, palliated by the absence of that familiar pair of cinematic stimulants, el sexo y la violencia.  Yet within minutes the biota body count exceeded the last twenty minutes of Commando

If Nemo was anywhere to be found in this movie it would be at the sharp end of a feeding frenzy. "Something nasty is about to happen" I recall V whispering in my ear quite early on. It did.

The section where a gang of killer whales take six hours to make prey of a baby grey whale swimming alongside its mother is gratuitously depressing. They exhaust it, half-drown it,  then chew off its tongue and lower jaw before leaving the carcass floating next to its helpless, bereaved parent. It's a tough old world out there, offers the narrator - but in cinema terms this is the equivalent of watching a gang rape scene that leaves you sitting uncomfortably while adding nothing to the plotline. One of these brutal encounters is to Deep Blue what Sergeant Elias Grodin's long, drawn-out perforation is to Platoon - you watch in seeming slow motion as a half-munched sea-lion is tossed maybe forty feet in the air from orca jaws, and then takes an age to fall back towards its final, lonely splash.

In spite of all these wincey moments it we found it generally hard to keep our attention levels consistently high. Very much an "endless cycle of birth, death and renewal" of viewer interest. 

Why did the Blue Planet team feel the need to blow up their documentary and then deliver it to captive audiences in darkened auditoria?  The ending appears to offer some clues as we are admonished in tones of conservationist gloom whilst watching a blue whale's tailfin disappearing portentously into the dark ocean. As this kind of message is always implicit in the best examples of BBC/Attenborough output, such an overt instruction to the popcorn-munchers to go forth and save the blubber comes over as patronisingly trite, even for the more junior audience members.

In general Michael Gambon's voiceover is grainy; lacking definition like many of the moving images themselves. It was also almost completely devoid of genuine scientific commentary.  Fenton's score meanwhile is an overwrought crescendo-fest, not unlike some ghastly symphony by Nielsen.

The best bits will depend on your taste in creatures. I happen to like penguins, so the five minutes or so dedicated to the admirable social contract of the male Emperor penguins and their otherwise exuberant torpedo-like behaviour felt like time well spent.  It's also hard not to be astounded by the fauna that makes a living in the high-pressure gloom. One nasty looking deep ocean fish appeared to have a set of gnashers like Ridley Scott's Alien.  Further down soft, photoporous organisms have colourful ray-gun shoot-outs. Another reminder of 50s pulp sci-fi was provided by the rare footage of nocturnal turf wars between neighbouring polyp colonies.  The fiendish coral send out slimy tendrils to dissolve and devour their neighbours. Very un-penguin like. This at least was something neither of us had witnessed before.

There was no big screen debut for V's favourite sea-creature, the Vampire Squid from Hell!

Anyway, we also caught the second half of I'm Not Scared.  Not much to add to my  review of the novel which this film is a lavish, Miramax-friendly realisation of.  I now believe however that the first person narrative was crucial to the impact of Ammaniti's story.  So a film version, however well it otherwise painstakingly reproduces the characters and the long southern Italian grasses, will inevitably seem a bit cute in comparison. (I guess I was wrong to think the ending would be improved if it was "represented rather than reported".)

The key baddie has become a Brazilian - perhaps to add to his credibility as an old hand at opportunistic kidnappings.

I commented earlier on the way the novel's dramatic ending approaches like an express train. It sneaks up a bit more surreptitiously in this adaptation, but with his screenwriting collaborator Francesco Marciano, Ammaniti has also tweaked it for added snivelling as the titles run!

BB Update: El beso de Judas:
Life doesn't offer most of us as many opportunities to put principle before self interest as we might expect, but BB presented newcomer Becky with the intrinsic dilemma in undiluted form and she picked the wrong option - even though she was given the chance to take a stand.

If she had chosen to reject the instruction and gone up for nomination herself she could have established herself as a heroine of  individual struggle against the machine, with both the housemates and the gawping public. Yet by allowing herself to be cornered into acting unethically in accordance with short-term self-preservation, she has quite probably cankered her own cause in the long run. 

In Michelle's case fortune subjectively experienced as bad may turn out to have longer-term recompenses, provided the British sense of fair play prevails. The tobacco fascist in me feels that Nadia ought to start packing her pink suitcase.  Both she and Marco are behaving like a right pair of focas now that their illusions of popularity have been pricked.

The queen of the spoonerisms that I live with has now inadvertently located all the main variations of Marco and Nadia - Narco and Madia, Marca and Nadio, Narca and Madio.  (30/6/04)


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Last weekend we watched some of the Cinema 16 collection of European short films.  The highlight was The Man Without a Head, a Franco-Argentine co-production directed by Juan Solanas.

The eponymous hero has a lady-love, two tickets to a ball but no cranium. He attempts to rectify this crucial omission by trying on some off-the-shelf heads in the appropriate retail outlet. Yet none of these bring the comfort and self-esteem he obviously seeks.

Outside, nobody else seems to be going about their business headlessly, but the very existence of the the boutique suggests the problem is far from unique in this world. The character (who converses well enough by the way) tells the shopkeeper that he's never bought a head before. Ultimately disappointed with all the options he tries out, he resolves to meet his girlfriend au nature. In the end it doesn't appear to bother her at all, and the credits roll to a distant mambo as the couple disappear into the ball.

Solanas cleverly communicates the pathos and personality of four limbs and a torso, so that even when a candidate head is in place we instinctively look beyond the eyes and facial expressions for the tortured soul that animates this body. His mis-en-scene with its hypertrophied urban landscape (Marseilles with CGI) is darkly nostalgic of bygone imagined futures. (It made me think of the New York of Bellevue Rendezvous.)

BB Update: I think it's interesting how some individuals are divisive in their impact if not by their nature, and how their departure from a group prompts a reconfiguration of the basic alliances. 

New housemate Becky (a kind of misbegotten Rebecca Loos) has yet to be befriended or devoured by either the jungle cats or the spotted hyenas. Michelle continues to quietly impress - she's appealingly transparent and doesn't whinge that much. She saves her whininess for those moments of romantic paranoia with one-dimensional Sheriff Stu. Shell, with her brittle outer-self, is the more likely to spontaneously grab the metaphorical bunny by the scruff of its neck and stuff it in the pot of bubbling water. Nadia also remains a basically sympathetic figure - typically viewed at a 45 degree angle, head resting on her fibula, observing the others with a lethargic glee. (29/6/04)


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England...a casita.  The Italians have their sour grapes whilst we have our hard luck stories. Yet a real twilight robbery would have occurred should Campbell's last minute scrambled goal have stood. Brave defeat was in hindsight the best that England could have hoped for in Portugal after Rooney limped off.

"Phil" Scolari did it again and this time Eriksson deserves some serious flak for allowing his team to be hounded off the ball again - thwarted the Brazilian way. 

Writer Martin Amis (he could tell Beckham a thing or two about reputation decline) has summarised knowledgeably: "The days when an England player's first touch could often be mistaken for an attempted clearance or a wild shot on goal - those days are over. The deficit is not in individual skill, it is in collective skill; it is in the apparently cultural indifference to possession...Portugal have claim to twice as much possession, twice as many corners, and half as many fouls."

With our panicked midfielders crowding the penalty area around calamity James,  England hardly touched the ball outside their own half during the second period. We can blame the referee, the penalty spot and Wayne Rooney's shoelaces, but it seems unlikely that this England team had the belief and flair to go all the way. 

Scolari has that combination of Trapattoni and Keagan that we need, well,  for those critical knock-out games at least. He chose the team and the tactics to fit the match. Eriksson had a once size fits all strategy and on two out of four occasions it went spectacularly wrong in an identical fashion.

"You can take Svennis out of Torsby, but you can't take Torsby out of Svennis. The Swedish small-town safety-first-always-cover-your-butt mentality has never been more evident." commented one of Sven's fellow countrymen in an email to Kevin McCarra.

Meanwhile the Brazilian newspaper O Globo has reported that Beckham has blamed Real Madrid for his poor form in Portugal. The England captain's comical spot-kick landed in the hands of 25-year-old Spaniard, Pablo Carral, who will be keeping the ball.

Thursday was generally a bad day for match officials. Venus Williams crashed out of Wimbledon after the chair umpire mis-called the score in her second set tie-break with Karolina Sprem.  Alan Mills has commented:  "As neither player queried the score with the chair umpire at the time, the result stands as the mistake should have been rectified immediately. I will be reviewing the matter with the Chair Umpire in the morning."  Sadly, Urs Meier is unlikely to have to face a similar man to man chat with his boss!  (28/6/04)

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Italia...alla casa.

"No one except the greatest cynics or conspiracy theorists will believe there was anything untoward at work here last night",  surmises Jon Brodkin in the Guardian today.  He is of course referring to the Italians. "Glad to see the back of them", spat Andy Townsend on ITV.  What got me about the back of them was those gold team numbers in that oh-so-precious serif typeface.  With kit like that they deserved to be embarrassed, but I did feel a little sorry last night for Cassano whose journey from hero to zero in less than ten seconds was (momentarily) painful to behold.

Desmond Lynam sensibly evaded endorsing his colleagues' condemnation of the hapless azurri-  he clearly doesn't want the trattoria community to start hawking into his tagliatelle.

Franco Carraro,  UEFA bigwig and President of the Italian soccer federation, has been masticating on those uvas acidas: "There is no doubt that the way the Denmark-Sweden game developed shows that the two teams were aiming for a draw".  Surely he should have been watching his own team?

BB Update:  Getting so dull that V was actually watching the football alone when I got home. Stuart has been vying with Shell to see who can dress up more like a pre-pubescent girl.  Ahmed is yawning a lot. Jason wants out. You have to think that his new un-cuddly persona might even cost him his position as a trainee airline steward.

Victor has analysed that sensuality-free zone Shell may have the "perfect disguise". (A wolf in sheep's clothing?  We think so. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they smoke.)  He has decided to try out some experimental wind-ups.  The first of these, about the selection of the shopping list team, seemed to work well enough.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Workers' Liberty Kitten has reinvented herself as an advocate of the real world.

"From watching the show, I knew on some level that it was all about control and obedience, but taking part in it is a real eye-opener about the mechanisms they use. Firstly, they use punishments to control individual behaviour, and secondly they rely on the group staying atomised and failing to work collectively. The punishments are hyper-effective, because you're in a sealed house with no means of communication and all the basics of life are provided at their whim. I got punished several times - for writing on the walls, climbing up on the roof of the house - but what they hated most was me trying to organise the housemates...I did an interview with the News of the World, basically because I need the money."

Rain at Wimbledon. The conclusion of the 2001 final has been re-broadcast so V has appeared on national TV yet again with her "Vamos Goran!" cap!  (23/6/04)

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España...a casita.  (21/6/04)

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In anticipation of the forthcoming sequel we refreshed our acquaintance with Before Sunrise this morning in bed. This was one of my favourite films of the 90s.  Such a fateful romantic intersection of two as yet uncooked lives has no direct analogue in my own biography, but it nevertheless connects with a number of important sketches in both my recollection and imagination. These include my first encounter with V,  resurgent nostalgia for pathways not fully explored and of course the four epic journeys I undertook with an Inter-Rail pass before turning 21. (That blur of steep-roofed houses amidst the rolling contours of evergreen regrets. )

Celine and Jesse's gestures and dialogue are fascinating because, free of any history and lacking a superficially shared culture, they are forced to go deeper than most are usually prepared to do from the start. They are immediately able to showcase to each other their innermost, and perhaps better, selves. 

Before Sunset, the sequel due out in July will take up the story nine years on. They promised to meet again in Vienna after six months yet neither apparently managed to show up. Jesse is now uncomfortably married.  Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have this time co-written the script with Richard Linklater. It's clear that they have chosen to draw some deliberate parallels with Hawke's own life experiences in the last decade.

Hawke has acknowledged that he took pleasure from the ambiguity of the follow-up: "Depending on your point of view, this is either a dewy-eyed romantic tale about two former lovers or a story about an unhappily married man looking to have sex with an old girlfriend." Watching the original film again, it's apparent that it too can be read on more than one level. You can soak up the abundant romance of the plot situation as you would with a movie like Serendipity, but you can also step back and take a more critical view. (I admire the way that director Richard Linklater chose not to use background music to pre-empt our interpretation of the relationship.) It seems to me that next to porcelain-cheeked Delpy, unfailingly the faultless fantasy Euro-babe, Jesse can come across as self-indulgent and superficial.  (In fact the typical American would-be-intellectual abroad that gets chewed up by more sophisticated continentals - see also Matthew in The Dreamers.)

Before Sunset will be a worthwhile movie indeed if it has successfully projected the escalation of these minor yet significant incompatibilities into the adult lives of these two characters.   

Jesse's challenge to Celine when their train pulls into the Austrian capital is a forward projection of that gnawing angst about mishandled opportunities most of us suffer from - "Think of yourself in ten years time". So I guess it was inevitable that they would want to pick up the narrative almost a decade later to see if  this pair have indeed managed to fulfil their potential without serious self-recrimination.

Jesse and Celine's meanderings around Vienna offer a veritable tour of clichés about late-night Europe. One of the most amusing encounters is with two camp and obtuse thesps . Jesse asks if they speak English. "Ja of course. Do you speak German for a change?", one of them replies with abortive Teutonic sarcasm. Later, at the pinball machine, Celine tells Jesse about the unravelling of her previous relationship and asks "why do you become obsessed with people you don't really like?"  (20/6/04)

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Enjoyed the Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy, an anthology of macabre and mysterious short stories written between and 1890 and 2000.

The most striking in the collection is Hugo Von Hofmannsthal's Sergeant Anton Lerch (1899). Whereas many stories in this short form seem to have been written in the interest of their punchline or as the concise elaboration of a single paradox, Hofmannsthal's tale is essentially an impressionistic mood piece. Even in translation the subtle beauty and concision of the original prose is apparent.

Lerch is a non-commissioned officer with a cavalry squadron during Austria's Italian campaign of 1848. Separated from his comrades he becomes utterly distracted by his own interior fancies. During this phase of dreamy apprehensions he encounters his own double. Returning to his troop he disobeys and order and is summarily executed by his commanding officer. This conclusion is brutal, but the narrative doesn't depend on it.

Others in the set reminded me of the link between the Middle-European (and predominantly Jewish) sensibilities of Kafka and Schnitzler and the early exponents of the suggestive and supernatural in Latin America, such as Borges. Ilse Aichinger's Where I Live, about a woman whose apartment slowly descends to the basement floor by floor, uncannily resembles many of Julio Cortazar's reality on the blink, baroque micro-masterpieces.

Impenetrable bureaucracy is another common theme that connects magically-real  Buenos Aires with the degenerate Prague of the German imagination. (In this set Kafka's Outside the Law is perhaps the most representative. It begins: "Outside the Law stood a doorkeeper. A man from the country came to the doorkeeper and asked to go into the Law. But the doorkeeper said he could not let him go in just then.")

In Max Brod's The First Hour After Death the Minister lectures a ghostly nocturnal visitor on geo-politcs: "In the distant future every nation will require the whole of the Earth's surface for itself."  War is not the result of national differences, he adds, rather the "inevitable similarity of nations".

Many of these stories are plays on the grotesque - such as Hans Von Strobl's The Head, which depicts the subjective experiences of a recently guilloteened aristocrat or Jakov Lind's Journey through the Night in which a seal sits up with a man in a train compartment attempting to persuade him to allow himself to be cut up and eaten.

This intercalation of mundane reality with the occult and the seriously gruesome seems to be endemic in literature scripted beyond Germany's eastern borders. Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is another classic example of this genre, which must surely have influenced later film-makers from the eastern states (such as Kieslowski). In this context one of the most interestingly idiosyncratic contributors to this anthology is Leo Perutz, a literate mathematician. Each of his narratives is crafted around a finely-calculated structure of coincidences, parallels and potentials. 

"Every coincidence is happy, for it gives the mind a spiritual pleasure". Jean Baudrillard.  (19/6/04)

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BB Update:
Ahmed has requested video footage of the drunken brawl the other night because he missed it having gone to bed too early again.  He is beginning to notice how occasionally picking the fleas of the backs of some of the other "chimps" might help him to prolong his stay.  He can count himself very fortunate that the first set of nominations were contrived to shunt two individuals into the bed-sit and not to summarily evict the housemate with the least social traction. By the time the proper nominations came round, the other housemates had started hating each other more than they were indifferent to him. Meanwhile Stuart continues to demonstrate how flexible social intelligence running in the background consistently outperforms the all singing-and-dancing Game Plan!

Victor: "We'll leave Stuart's missus till last". Jay: "She won't be a problem".  The homeboys are zoning in on "seal boy". Guy Ritchie should hire these two for his next movie. (Actually, Jason screws up his eyes like Zatoichi when he's stressing.)

I have to say I have warmed to Michelle. A good heart counts for more in this situation than the ability to remember a pizza order for more than two seconds. 

General sense of anti-climax. Perhaps they should swap a housemate with Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay?

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the US-sponsored coup in Guatemala which destabilised Central America for more than two generations.  Overthrown President Jacobo Arbenz made the mistake of including several communists in his government and of challenging the right of the United Fruit Company to retain massive land-holdings they weren't actually productively utilising at the time.

Gillette Soccer Thursday:  Chris Kamara, Frank McLintock and Rodney Marsh were commentating in the bar last night as England constructed (just) three telling attacks to see off the Swiss 3-0 in what was otherwise a fairly infertile performance.  By the end of the second half everyone had drunk too much free Carling to care.  (As the Mirror would say, we got the "Roosult".) (18/6/04)

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BB Update: Nadia is considering pressing charges against Vanissa.  Stuart and Michelle still have on their heart-beat monitors.  This may prove interesting.  Stuart must surely win now if the game goes on. Emma should have durability too if she can control her gob a bit better.

Perhaps girly Stuart does actually harbour a fiendish, Machiavellian "get these fuckers out" scheme like Victor, but he is bound to be much better at implementation. Jason is holed below the water line now. He got sucked in and undone by Victor's braggadocio. Dan was similarly misguided when he formed a mutual-appreciation society with Vanissa, but it may not be too late for him to turn it around. 

"Ghosting around" is how Victor liked to describe his vigilant presence in the house. He and Jason are certainly the living dead in there now.

Shell's mask of harmless well-brung-upness is wearing pretty thin. The ugly mug of English hypocrisy lurks beneath. When Jason tried to comfort Vanissa by saying she would leave with her dignity intact because she alone of the household slappers had kept her clothes on, Shell blurted out indignantly that she had stripped "decently". Eh?

Given her tendency to dress up like Lolita during the day and mow the lawn naked at night, her characterisations of ostracised Muslim Ahmed as a middle-aged lech and  foreign misogynist seem like pretty cheap shots. 

Ironically, all these squawkers and screechers must surely belong to the insidious phenomenon that Jean Baudrillard has referred to as "the silent majorities" - the very demographic he accuses of having "symbolically murdered" our political and intellectual classes. What a noisy lot these silent majorities are.  (17/6/04)

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Evil Big Brother went into memorable meltdown from about 2am last night.  There were scenes reminiscent of The Truman Show as Channel 4 were forced to cut the live coverage for almost two hours, replacing images of violent mayhem with a Will Young video followed by extended footage of the oven gloves.

V's suspicions that the social dynamics were being orchestrated at least in part from outside were more or less confirmed when a distressed Ahmed confided that he had been told to get it on a bit with Marco and Victor announced "I've been put here to rustle feathers, in more ways than one." Mission accomplished. 

This morning the website is also on hold: "Come back soon to find out exactly what happened last night". For the record, this is what happened.

The bed-sit girls were reinserted into the main house last night in a scenario conceived so as to generate maximum shock and surprise followed by maximum consumption of alcohol. Jason and Victor were racked by spasms of anger and disbelief. Stuart collapsed in a heap on the floor.

Nevertheless the two returning exiles had formulated a pact not to tell anyone outside their personal inner circles that they had been able to eavesdrop for 5 days.  Scientists have argued that human intelligence evolved to cope with just this sort of situation in monkey politics. All you have to do is remember what you have said and to whom.  Unfortunately, Emma and Michelle are not best practice examples of evolved human intelligence. By midnight they had confessed or hinted the truth to all but the hated trio of Victor, Vanessa and Jason and they had surmised enough to realise that they had been rumbled.  "Game on" declared Victor in an effort to gee himself up.

A celebratory re-enactment of the food fight by "the kiddies" lit the touch paper.  Vannazi got well  stroppy again. "I don't want to be associated with this type of programme" she blurted, and went on to say in her best iksent that although she had a cook and a maid back home in South Ifrica, the idea of wasting food was complete anathema to her. Shell sniffled sympathetically, Jason sat and scowled. While Dan tried to explain that the bed-sitters were probably just letting off steam, Jason got up and went across to the sitting room. Moments later a loud crash was heard - the urge to defend his females had driven the burly Scot to cast down the table with all the grub on it.

This ignited the conflagration between Emma and Victor. With his painted clown's mask the latter looked like Alexander de Large from A Clockwork Orange. "I'll cut your fucking head off", someone screamed. Channel 4 had helpfully provided a selection of cake knives. In the end he apparently only managed to empty the contents of a glass of wine over his tormentor and perhaps also got in a quick blow before he was man-handled into the diary room. Things then appeared to calm down but back in the bathroom Shell was in deep distress, doubled up on the tiled floor with the dry heaves. At this point the live cameras were cut.

BB bent its own rules with the bed-sit ruse. This made for great television, but now appears to have unravelled the whole show.  With the cameras disabled the SWAT team were sent in and now the housemates have been isolated in two groups by security guards. One group has no access to the toilets.  Each housemate was subjected to a medical check - blood pressure and heart rate.  Emma seems to have been deposited back in the bed-sit. It's hard to see how any of them can carry on the charade now. 

When live coverage was restored Victor (looking as if he'd not only washed off his clown make-up but as if he'd also had a quick facial) was sitting on the sofas with Michelle and Stuart, obviously a little embarrassed about all the commotion. Meanwhile, off camera, it seems that Nadia had lost it completely and launched a brutal revenge attack on the bossy South African.

Victor proudly told BB the other night that he considered himself "a good representative of my demographic". Oh dear.  That BB5 was more likely to be remembered for violence than sex has been apparent from the first week.  The warning signs were out when someone asked the group how they would deal with someone having an anxiety attack. "Just slap them" opined Victor.



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I detect an appropriately inexorable coincidence in the way I am being concurrently absorbed by Annette Insdorf's benedictory examination of the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Double Lives, Second Chances) and the second-order voyeurism currently going on in the Big Brother bed-sit!

The connection between romantic longing and voyeurism was present in Kieslowski's work from the outset. One of his earliest short fictional films, The Tram from 1966, depicts the experiences of a young boy that shyly observes a pretty girl on a tram while steeling himself to engage her in conversation. He blows it, of course.

Like Michelle spying on her man Stuart as he opens up and flirts uninhibitedly with the blondes, many of Kieslowski's leading protagonists are forced to peer powerlessly through windows at the object of their desires carrying on in the ways that they dread most!

Kieslowski appeals to me the way that Vermeer and Hopper do - his art seems to investigate and interrogate rather than affirmatively illustrate a set of underlying transcendentalist apprehensions.  (Hopper also has Kieslowski's pessimism and affinity for the bleak. )  With their exfoliating gaze each of Kieslowski's films becomes in effect an essay on the philosophy of intimate observation.

Like many of the best discoveries in my adult life I owe my introduction to Kieslowki to V -  early one Saturday morning many years ago she prodded me and insisted that I pry open my eyelids in order to watch a film she had recorded for me during the moonlit hours.

That film was A Short Film About Love, the extended, alternative version of Dekalog number 6. In it postman Tomek evolves from passive voyeur to active scene director when he contrives a interruption from the gas company in order to disrupt Magda's liaison with a male visitor. Emma and Michelle's anonymous interventions into the social dynamics of the Big Brother house this week betoken a similar transformation from object into subject. (Magda too ends up with her eye at the business end of Tomek's telescope. )

When I saw Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors in 1998, the "what if?" conditional parallelism reminded me of Kieslowski, but I was then unaware that the Polish director had made a film called Blind Chance in 1987 with essentially the same basic plot conceit - except that it features three, not two, alternative projections of its protagonist Witek's course after running to catch a train. Sliding Doors ultimately disappointed because the bifurcated structure serves only to illustrate the rather banal romantic and professional dilemmas of a London PR bunny.  There's not much to actually think about -  although Howitt does tie it up with another very Kieslowkian punch-line by killing off one of the two Helens.

Run Lola Run is surely another example of Kieslowki's posterity in European Cinema, as is Julio Medem's Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, with its subject matter of ineluctable and synchronised romantic destiny. My suspicion that Amores Perros owes a creative debt to Red has been confirmed by Insdorf, but any conscious influence has apparently been denied by director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Kieslowski's decision to retire from movie-making after the completion of his Three Colours trilogy was apparently prompted by a fear of self-repetition and a general fatigue with the process of making movies. A fairly fortuitous parental decision had originally set him on the path towards drama - he might have ended up as a banker instead. Shortly before his death he wearily observed that the choice made for him had been a poor one. 

Editing had always been his true vocation.  There are two versions of the ending of The Double Life of Veronique (for French and American distribution) and when he learned that the film would be released simultaneously in 17 cinemas around France he contemplated the development of a set of 17 alternative conclusions.  Perhaps nothing better illustrates his fixation with conditional parallels and alternatives. (Annette Insdorf waggishly refers to Kieslowski's cinema "about the whether".)

His movie-making career began with a focus on documentaries. In one of these, which followed the constricted existence of a pair of young lovers, he persuaded a relatively docile policeman that he had spontaneously  auditioned out on the street to intervene in the non-fiction narrative that he was in the process of filming. (Not unlike Tomek and the gas company in his later work.) Kieslowski also attended around 50 trials with his camera, even when he had no film, because he noticed that the judges were more restrained when they felt their actions were being recorded!

He nevertheless abandoned the documentary form as it placed ethical limits on his unrestricted access to his subjects' (or objects'!) inner worlds. "The documentary camera doesn't have the right to enter what interests me most", he observed at the time. Perhaps he would have been intrigued by Big Brother!

Kieslowski's own death delivered one last thought-provoking coincidence as, like the character Ola in the Dekalog, he died following risky yet non-essential cardiac surgery.  He was 54.  (16/6/04)

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The Intellectuals' Guide to Big Brother 5

Well, not really.  Just a few observations from someone that has never really got into this reality TV phenomenon before but was recently caught unawares when otherwise staring blankly at E4. Now my apartment is just another Big Brother bed-sit.

Anyway, two weeks in and the stage is set for the pseudo cull tonight. The housemates are edgy, craning their necks like meerkats in a state of neurotic perma-vigilance. "When the grass is cut the snakes will show" Victor confided yesterday to Big Brother, "and I can already hear some hissing".

Some commentators earlier observed that Victor looked somewhat peevish in the first few days as if rueing the way the role of alpha male had mysteriously evaded his grasp. Yet perhaps he was instead just quietly assuming the position of household Ubermensch.  (Nietzsche was the strongest advocate for the role of the man apart. "You run on ahead, do you do so as a herdsman or as an exception?", he asked. The third option, deserter is not really available to the BB housemates. )

Victor is the self-styled exception. He's the only housemate with a transparent, self-interested game-plan combined with something of a big picture perspective. His diary room monologues are currently the definitive insider narrative, though his comically-exaggerated sense of his own pulling and processing power make his gangsta gregariousness a bit hit and miss with the rest of society.

Often more phantasmal even than Ahmed he is an ever-present set of big, white, watchful eyes in the background of any intimate housemate dialogue. "Just dipping into the vibes" or "flying below radar" is how Victor himself describes this silent snoopiness. He even played gooseberry last night to hesitant lovers Michelle and Stu (thereby preventing Michelle from finally reaching third base when Stuart at last appeared to have steeled himself for the job ahead.) 

Victor also has a novel way of discouraging nominations, making made it known last night that he intends to hold grudges and will come after any would-be betrayers when they eventually join him back in the non-televised world.

Ahmed hasn't really dedicated himself to expressing the stereotype he was selected to represent in quite the same way that Kitten, Marco, Stuart and Victor and have, though a failure to pull his weight in the kitchen did see him being pilloried as a "misogynist" by the blondes.  He appears to have picked up the deplorable habit of wearing dark sunglasses 24-7 while living in Italy.

The plate smashing is just too little, too late;  though the dummy eviction ruse will probably save the Somali from an otherwise inevitable early reunion with his brood.

Anyway, Channel 4 deserves applause for at least attempting to set up the crazed Mohammedan scenario.  V thought there might even be room for a sub-plot along the lines of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers. A stiff floating face-down in the hot tub and one less rubber phallus on the wall...Ahmed the serial poisoner.

Vanessa is the Janus of the group. One the one side a self-assured, attractive amazon, yet not without a hint of feminine vulnerability. As for the other side, well, just having it makes her a two-faced cow.

Dan was enigmatic at first. I could detect a bit of a "Juan Carlos syndrome" going on here. Was he offering leadership with an inclusive vision for all, or was he merely a hedonist with a keen eye for the main chance? It took Vanissa to tease out his claws.

Watching Emma is like watching Phoebe on Friends. You just know that there has to be a cunning, stealthy intelligence skulking underneath the mask of abject un-sentience. Nobody is that dumb, surely?  Other than Michelle of course.

"I don't know what Michelle's thing is, but she must have one", Shell observed before nominating her. It seems that she has now looked into those disconcertingly vacant, ebony eye-holes and realised that after all, Michelle probably doesn't have a thing.  (Other than the "chicken" thing.)

Stuart is a harmless exemplar of English masculinity.  Telegenic enough but a total invertebrate.
Lacks chilli sauce in his circulatory system. When the producers announced that BB would be "more claustrophobic" this year, Stuart might have imagined they were referring to the architecture and not the attentions of the archetypal cloying, manipulative and all-too-blatant hussy that he attracted the moment he walked in the door. Reality TV most certainly negatively reinforces persistent prejudices society has about women, but it will be predominantly the girls that will be voting the vacant Geordie scrubber out of the house. (The book which exposes just how much the worst excesses of the patriarchal hegemony have actually been fabricated by the fairer sex themselves has yet to written!)

In the meantime let us all hope that Michelle is one of the two fake evictions tonight.

Marco - Gollum's gay elder brother.  Has a tendency to gyrate which can be very annoying. Victor's slow handclap offered the best account of the subjective experience of his charisma.  As with Emma the superficial charivari is belied by the unintentionally exposed computational machinery whenever he comes to a complete standstill.

'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing' quoth Archilochus.  Nadia is a bit of a one-trick hedgehog in this particular garden. If all transsexuals were like this Almodovar would be out of a job.

Shell is the flipside of Stuart's "Britain for foreigners" gender stereotype.  All very familiar, but the contempt is still incubating.  Some people will no doubt warm to her while others with loathe her. At present I can sense only a nagging indifference. Easily dominated by Vanissa, but likely to be in the final three along with Jason and either insipid Stuart or vicious Victor.

Jason A "walking hormone" according to his peers, yet already looks the likely winner. There are suggestions of Iago in Jason as there are with both Marco, Dan and Victor, but they are overpowered by a winning, ambi-dextrous charm and a worldly intelligence.

Week one evictee Kitten was attending a £12,000 a year school for girls round about the time she claimed she was squatting in London and living life as a child prostitute.

"Raised to the power of x, stupidity holds intelligence in check. It really sorts it out. Called in to serve as a mirror it becomes seductive in its own right, and intelligence comes to seem odious."  Jean Baudrillard 


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This week, watching the D-Day commemorations, I recall a conversation with Christofer some time ago in which he asked why the allies had taken so long to open up the second front in order to alleviate the situation faced by the Red Army.  Martin Gilbert's D-Day offers a set of answers.

After Hitler declared war on the USA many, including Eisenhower himself, still favoured giving priority to the Pacific theatre. Once the Americans had made up their mind to deal with Hitler first the invasion was delayed by logistical issues - such as the number of landing craft that could be manufactured and delivered and the number of troops that could be transported to Western Europe within a given time-frame. The decoding of Ultra and the subsequent easing of the U-Boat threat nevertheless allowed the allies to gradually accelerate their build-up of men and materials.

Planners were also to some extent spoiled for choice. They created such a plethora of alternative plans, many purely diversionary, that they ended up being distracted.  Churchill prevaricated only a few months before D-Day expressing a sudden preference for Operation Jupiter - an all out attack on Norway. (Norway would continue to be the focus of allied deception plans. The Swedish stock exchange was manipulated so that Norwegian stocks rose 20% giving the impression that an invasion there was imminent. )

In the end the Normandy plan and the date of June 6 prevailed. Churchill still outlined to Stalin a set of pre-conditions which would need to be checked before the go button was pressed. These included the number of German Divisions in theatre and the number that could be quickly re-deployed there. He also made it clear that the Luftwaffe would have to be significantly reduced in preparation. (At a briefing meeting at S.P.S. in May 1944  Churchill enquired how the German air threat would be countered and US Air Force General Quesada confidently asserted that "There's not going to be any German air force there". On D-Day 10,000 allied planes faced just 300 German aircraft. )

Some months before D-Day a dispute broke out amongst the air commanders. Bomber Harris was the Wesley Clark of his time - he argued for the strategic bombing of Greater Germany and suggested that an invasion might not actually be necessary. He lost out in the end to those that supported Eisenhower's request for tactical bombing of French railway facilities in advance of Overlord.

The collateral damage from these attacks was rife.  On April 24, 1944 400 civilians died in a daylight raid on Rouen.  Earlier 456 had died in another such attack on Lille and 250 Belgians died in Courtrai when a religious festival they were visiting was also visited by the RAF. 

It may be inappropriate to judge the conduct of the generals and politicians of 1944 by the standards of the 21st century, but Churchill for one had serious misgivings. Indeed he was so concerned about the slaughter of French and Belgian civilians that he asked for the bombing to be eased off, suggesting that no raid that was likely to result in more than 100 civilian fatalities should be authorised. Roosevelt overruled.  During the last few days of May 3000 French citizens died over a period of 48 hours. "Terrible things are being done", Churchill wrote to Eden.

French civilian deaths from allied bombing just prior to D-Day totalled 7000 in the end, considerably more than the 4500 troops that lost their lives during the first day of Operation Overlord.  A further 3000 perished when the city of Caen was targeted in the days immediately after the landings.

Relatives of the largely decimated first wave at Omaha have long criticised Eisenhower's decision to go ahead on June 6 when weather conditions were less than ideal  and the cloud cover prevented accurate bombing of the German cliff-top defences. On the other hand, the Germans believed that the allies wouldn't make their move until four consecutive days of fine weather were forecast, so the ifiness of the conditions contributed to the element of surprise the landings were to benefit from overall. 

The secret was generally very well kept. However, on May 23 one of the American "Bigot" officers that knew of the landings and their objectives in advance blabbed to a colleague in the Adjutant General's office. For this he was imprisoned for a year with hard labour and then discharged dishonourably.

Allied Intelligence officers were also startled by the crossword puzzle that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on June 1 which included the clue "Britannia and he hold the same thing" the answer to which was Neptune, the code-word for the naval assault. Looking back through past editions they discovered that the Telegraph's crucigramista Leonard Dawe had also innocently chosen Omaha, Utah, Overlord and Mulberry for his crosswords in May!

D-Day was a triumph of strategic deception.  The Germans were left dizzied and did not recover their lucidity until it was too late.  For many crucial days after the first troops waded ashore they still suspected that the Normandy incursion was just a prelude to the main event and held back many divisions in the north east of France.

Possibly the most ingenious allied subterfuge was Operation Taxable.  At very precise intervals successive waves of aircraft dropped radar-jamming metallic strips (known as Window) which gave the impression to German radar operators of a convoy approaching the the Pas-de- Calais at a steady speed of nine knots. The Times reported proudly afterwards that "any aberration would have given the game away."

Secrecy had its setbacks though. US First Army commander Omar Bradley learned of the re-location of the crack German 352nd Infantry Division in the Omaha beachhead area as he sailed across the channel on the Augusta. The radio black-out apparently prevented him from warning his troops.

Watching the old guys on their last parade this weekend was deeply moving. Watching the politicians less so. (One of the flag bearers behind Dubya passed out during his speech.) This weekends events were inevitably as much about re-enforcing the symbolic value of D-Day and the notions of righteous warfare it has left us with, than sombre reflection on what was essentially a bloody human tragedy.

"The massed, angered forces of common humanity are on the march" proclaimed Roosevelt and to some extent they have carried on marching from the beaches of Normandy to the streets of Baghdad. American isolationism was KIA on D-Day. Pearl Harbour was just a purple heart in comparison.

For Americans now this often manifests itself now as a sub-cutaneal sense of moral superiority to Europeans. They believe they captured the high ground on June 6, 1944 and have kept hold of it ever since. I recall that episode of Friends when Ross’s father dismisses his son's future father-in-law as a "horrid, would be speaking German if it wasn’t for us, little man".

Similar sentiments have emerged across the media since 9-11 in relation to apparent French amnesia. Very few Americans today realise that Germany declared war on the USA and not the other way round.

Many of the surviving participants are probably aware that 60 years on, history has tampered with the essence of the society and values that they sought to liberate that day from behind behind the Atlantic wall. The rhetoric of sacrifice and glory remains, but it is more often that not just plain old cant these days.  (9/6/04)

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Clambered up the hill to the Observatory early this morning to join the gathering of astro-geeks and BBC folk gawping skywards at the transit of Venus.

Having spectacularly failed to observe Halley's comet in '85 due to an advanced state of inebriation and then been undone by the clouds at Prussia Cove during the eclipse mania of '99, this was clearly an un-missable opportunity to finally witness a major astronomical event and one not seen by any living human until around 6:20 am on this beautiful, incandescent morning. 

Have just completed 1700, Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller.  "The past is a foreign country" L.P. Hartley once famously observed.  I honestly remember another history book that has sent me into such a frenzy of four-dimensional xenophobia!

You fancy the journey back there just to sue them all for criminal negligence.  Mortality due to slovenliness, carelessness and general obnoxiousness must have been at an all-time high. They're worse than Mexicans and they're living in my hometown!

I used to think that several of my friends that have suffered from infections or injuries would probably not have survived to pass on their genes in eighteenth century London.  Now I'm convinced that hardly any of us would still be breathing.  Only half of these people actually managed to get past the age of 15. 

The incompetence began with childbirth and just progressed from there. Across their child-bearing years women had a 6-7% chance of expiring in the process. Children were fed solids too early. John Evelyn's son of a few weeks was overlaid by his nurse - smothered to death as he lay next to her in bed. Another four-year-old girl in his family died as a result of her whalebone corset crushing her ribs and pressing into her lungs.  The future Queen Anne's only son William, who suffered from encephalitis, was beaten until he could get up the stairs unaided. Having achieved this, he died.

Needless to say most of the medicines and treatments they prescribed themselves were worse than the disease.  (Menstruation was then considered a disease. ) There were just 80 physicians in the capital.  Being poisoned by apothecaries was all most could afford.  That and a good bleeding once a year as a sort of spring clean!

The barbers took responsibility for this bloodletting, as well as the cleaning and scraping of teeth, nail paring, ear waxing, wig-making, and shaving of heads and beards. Their services also included gaming, news-mongering, and the provision of tobacco for toothache. Sexual advice and condoms were also on offer which gave the barber-surgeons a monopoly on the treatment of venereal disease.  Sufferers of syphilis or "Covent Garden Gout" were generally ridiculed as the "no nose club".

Women's rights had some way to go.  A woman that murdered her husband would be tried for treason and burned alive at Smithfield if found guilty. Women were considered the private property of their husbands so cuckolds were more like to sue for damages in the courts than seek redress with pistols at dawn. (Women wore one of their husbands garments during labour in the belief that some of their suffering would thereby be transferred to him!)

Anyway, the London of 1700 boasted over 2000 coffee houses.  The lice-ridden and permanently constipated men of London were expected to pay a penny entrance fee. 

Covent Garden coffee houses were more likely to be temples of Venus than resorts for newsmongers and wits. Visiting Swiss Cesar de Saussure related that in such places "you are waited on by beautiful, neat, well-dressed and amiable, but very dangerous nymphs."

Perhaps this was another reason many contemporary women were so opposed to this innovation in the sphere of male sociability. They got up a petition against the "black, thick, nasty bitter stinking, nauseous puddle water" which, they claimed, was making their mates impotent. "They pretend 'twill keep them waking, but we find by scurvy experience, they sleep quietly enough after it." They complained that their men would roll in late with "nothing moist but their snotty noses, nothing stiff but their joints and nothing standing but their ears. The coffee house being in truth, only a pimp to the tavern, this like tennis balls between two rackets, the fopps our husbands are bandied to and fro all day between the coffee house and the tavern."

Each urban occupation had it's own venue for the consumption of "politician's porridge". Men of letters like John Dryden were habitués of Will's on the corner of Bow Street and Russell Street in raunchy Covent Garden. (Soho was then largely the preserve of French-speaking Huguenot asylum-seekers.) Businessmen kept regular hours at particular establishments in the City so that their clients and associates could call on them there. (very Frode)

The coffee house of Edward Lloyd at the corner of Abchurch Lane, Lombard Street became the haunt of the maritime trade. Lloyd seized his opportunity and started issuing ships lists for the benefit of his clientele. Eventually this evolved into Lloyd's List and ships and cargoes were auctioned on the premises.  (8/6/04)

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I finally got to see K-Pax on Saturday night.  The overall tone and quality of this movie are announced by the saccharine, plinky-plonky soundtrack from the outset.  There's not much in the way of counterpoint around here.

Roger Ebert lauds the way K-Pax dares to leave its audience in a state of doubt and possible confusion, though no doubt in America at least, with their spirits duly uplifted. Yet in truth I found the unresolved ambivalence was rather like a dose of  Blairean fence-sitting - essentially un-praiseworthy. 

The unacknowledged debt to Eliseo Subiela's Hombre Mirando al Sudeste is compounded with thematic borrowings from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Perhaps Jeff Bridges considered a care-worn performance appropriate to the part, but he is an excruciating presence throughout, constantly tugging at his sagging face with a pained expression. Age is increasingly morfing his late father's features onto his once-chiselled countenance.

As for Spacey, Peter Bradshaw says it best. "You'll Want to Believe Him, it says on the poster. Wrong. You'll want to slap his silly, smug face." and " Spacey confirms the horrible suspicion he created with the recent dire version of The Shipping News: without a strong directorial hand, his style is just one long, supercilious smirk."

The French Open final yesterday looked like a facsimile of the one-sided feminine affair the day before, but suddenly Coria's spindly legs cramped up, Gaudio came back from Hades and we were treated to one of the most life-shorteningly tense Grand Slam finals in recent memory. 

Was I alone in thinking it unsporting of Coria to play like an brat in a tantrum until the fourth set was over thereby conserving his energy for a final push?  Funny how he was bouncing up and down on those cramp-stricken legs again at the start of the final set!

Yet I suppose the fact that Coria carried on did allow the incredulous Gaudio to fend off two match points and emerge the worthy winner.

"They will blame it on us Brits", predicted Simon Reed. In fact, it is Rusedski not Henman that today seems the more culpable to media commentators as the post-mortems commence. Coria was banned for inadvertently doping himself with dodgy supplements in 2001 and apparently, since toothy Greg's recent scare, the paranoid Argentine has been mightily careful to avoid bolstering his stamina artificially.

Weepy Gaudio is the more exemplary Argentine.  In contrast Guillermo Coria's short frame and squinty-eyed look make him appear like one of those Chicano pandilleros in east L.A. "Orale bato, whassappening?" (7/6/04)

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Some more trivia from Rivers of Gold. 

Columbus stopped on La Gomera in 1492 on his way to the Caribbean to stock up with some of the famous local goats cheese. It's scrumptious - I can vouch for this.

Indian cacique Hatuey refused baptism on the fairly reasonable grounds that he would rather not spend eternity surrounded by Spanish people.  They barbecued him.  Barbecue and Cacique are both words that the peace-loving Tainos bequeathed to globalised linguistics before the less peace-loving Iberians extinguished them.  Hurricane, canoe, savannah and cannibal are also Taino in origin. The Tainos were teetotallers and not in fact anthropophagous like their boozing, anti-social neighbours the Caribs.  However, "cannibal" became a useful catch-all term for the type of indigenous person it was OK to enslave regardless of diet and ethnic origin.

Thomas reports a notorious incident in the Darien colony when a number of Indians were torn to pieces by dogs because they deemed to be heinous transvestites.  He wryly observes that given the Indians' tendency to go around without much in the way of clothing,  this implies imagination as well as prudery on the part of the conquistadors!

Cigar derives from Cigaral  a type of hut in the countryside near Toledo where men would gather to smoke the weed. The huts were so called because of the insistent buzzing of cicadas (cigarras) outside these cigarrales.

The Earth's circumference measures 25,000 miles  at the equator, not 4000 as Columbus imagined. He inherited this fancy from a dotty Italian cosmographer called Toscanelli.  There can be few similar examples of how the advancement of human knowledge was driven by an inductive leap based on such a misguided starting premise.

America was named after a bloke based on the erroneous belief that Europa and Asia were named after females.

Hernando Cortes would have arrived in the New World sooner with Ovando had he not injured himself falling out of a Seville window Don Juan-style whilst attempting to extricate himself from an amorous encounter.  Cortes studied law at the University of Salamanca.

The Infante Juan, heir to Fernando and Isabel, died from eating a bad salad at the Salamanca fair. Everything his parents had done to consolidate and expand their kingdoms into a rudimentary nation and nascent global empire passed structurally intact yet already in qualitative flux to a foreign dynasty.

"Spain is the only happy country" (Peter Martyr)  (3/6/04)

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Have at last finished Hugh Thomas' Rivers of Gold.  At times reading this monster tome felt like wading through the treacle of endless featureless Castillian double surnames and their associated historical coordinates. Yet even when the detail is at it's thickest, Hughes often appears to be skimming - as if this is a 500 page summary of another greater work.  There are some great little cameos and some fine anecdotes, but there doesn't appear to be much of an overarching vision. It's a while since I read The Spanish Civil War and The Conquest of Mexico but I do recall that these earlier works were more consistently engaging.

Anyway, here are one or two of those anecdotes.

It turns out that the natives of Puerto Rico held to the unverified belief that white men could not be killed. The Spanish initially mistook this for an appealingly un-warlike disposition. However, after a while the Indians decided to test the theory. They persuaded an unfortunate called Salcedo to join them on a trip to a local beauty spot. Along the way he was pulled off his horse and held under water until he expired.  Following this triumph of the autochthonous empirical method, the natives became considerably more assertive.

Thomas' use of understatement is often amusing. Of Ponce de Leon in Puerto Rico he comments: "He followed a policy of relative friendship with the indigenous people which, in general, worked well, though there were some exceptions, such as when he had the cacique Pacra torn to pieces by dogs."  Practically a neo-conservative!  (Ponce de Leon also had a large red dog called Becerillo that received the salary of a crossbowman!)

Thomas also relates that when Magellan's expedition arrived in Brazil "a pretty girl came on board, found a clove in a junior officer's cabin, and put it 'with great gallantry between the lips of her "natura". as he put it' A clove was of course what Magellan would be seeking in the Moluccas above all. The girl's action seemed to augur well" !!

Some seven years before the momentous meeting of Cortes and Moctezuma on the southern causeway of Tenochtitlan, a trunk was washed up on the Yucatan shore near what is now Campeche. It contained several suits of European clothes, some jewels and a sword. 

Now, between 1492 and 1518 the European colonists and the great civilisations of Americas were within touching distance and yet somehow managed to delay their deadly embrace.  The hemisphere's new arrivals created acquisitive colonies on all the largest islands of the Caribbean, discovered Florida and established a fingertip presence along the "Pearl Coast" of Venezuela ("little Venice": so named by Amerigo Vespucci) and in unwholesome Darien, and yet somehow failed to immediately press on westwards. How come?

Hugh Tomas suggests that Columbus might have found the Yucatan sooner on his final voyage. He met some Maya traders in the Bay of Honduras but turned south and east not north and west, ostensibly because he continued to crave that chimerical short-cut through to China.  Still,  this hiatus remains somewhat mysterious to me and Thomas never really addresses it. (28/5/04)

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La Mala Educación is Almodóvar's darkest, most ambivalent and most unapologetically homoerotic movie since La Ley Del Deseo back in 1987. 

Present are Almodovar standards like obsessive-aggressive desire, an insistently melodramatic score with some oddly-dubbed and kitschy songs, garrulous "locas" and the cranky little old ladies...but no strong female roles this time out and,  perhaps even more strangely, not that many laughs. Instead, this is a film to smirk to.

Pedro has a keen eye for men that will make good tarts, but his signature transsexuals are invariably of the statuesque sort. Yet it's García Bernal's petite figure that makes him so disconcertingly alluring in drag. 

Almodovar blatantly teases his audience with the nascent superstardom of García Bernal in much the same way he did with Banderas in La Ley Del Deseo, but García Bernal is clearly the more versatile actor. (V now has no doubt he can carry off the youthful Che Guevara.)  Tellingly his Spanish accent is practically faultless. Compare the efforts by Spanish actors (and Enrique Iglesias) in Once Upon A Time in Mexico to do a Mexican!

You might think that with this movie Almodovar is temporarily placing on hold his development into a grown-up European art-house director. (Not necessarily a bad thing because the overrated Todo Sobre Mi Madre was a bit like Kieslowski with she-males.)  It seems that in order to rediscover the mood of his earlier work he has had to turn the clock back, setting La Mala Educación in the very era where his high camp brand of movie-making epitomised the new artistic freedom in the movida of Franco-free Spain.

In one important respect however this is obviously a mature piece of movie-making - the intricacy of the storytelling. It's interesting to have seen this film so shortly after concluding Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions. Almodovar's post-modern script is a complex weave of conjoined narratives, past, present and imagined. There is a gradual build up of doubt and suspense. The conclusion is also a bit "so what?"  But Almodovar succeeds where Auster stumbles, because his characters are fascinating in themselves. Yet he's also unafraid to make them all a bit sinister and never really invites us to care that deeply about them.

A novelist can similarly blur the boundaries between real, remembered and represented narrative, but Almodovar has made good use of one trick unique to the dramatic art - the casting of different actors in the different strands. It delivers the clues without spoiling the element of surprise completely by directly communicating the missing information.

I also noticed what are perhaps even a couple of references to García Bernal's role in Y Tu Mama Tambien - such as the scene where he plunges into Enrique's pool and the one where he seems to reproduce Julio's shuffling boy-about-the-house walk.

The what happened next notes at the end are surely a tongue-in-cheek dig at García Bernal's possibly ephemeral status as hunk of the moment, compared to the more lasting prospects of the writer-director. (24/5/04)

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Book of Illusions is a good read with an unfortunate aftertaste of synthetic tricksiness.  At times it seems less like a novel than a sort of fictional essay.  The plot, characters, even the central narrative voice all lose definition at key stages in the narrative, when Auster's own internal unpicking of the core theme comes to the fore.

This is essentially a variant of the falling tree conundrum.  Does our life and our art have any meaning if it isn't somehow witnessed?  Why does art need such a testimony and is it enough to be our own witnesses?

If Oracle Night was about startling conjunctions, The Book of Illusions is a lattice of interesting parallels. The narrator, a drastically bereaved academic, is keeping himself occupied with translation of Chateaubriand's Memoires D'Outre-Tombe. The aristocratic scribbler from St Malo was adamant that the critics should not have a chance to deconstruct him before the worms. His determination was that his memoirs should only be released and read after his death, but his end was slow to arrive, so he ended up having to sell stakes in the unpublished work in order to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, the fictional Hector Mann, a minor silent movie star that mysteriously vanished at the peak of his career, has been making movies in secret in New Mexico for half a century.  Auster's narrator David Zimmer has located and reviewed all of Mann's old comedies and has written the definitive book about them. On his deathbed in the 1980s Mann appears to emerge from obscurity and invites Zimmer to his ranch. He plans however to have his life's work incinerated the moment he passes away.

Hector Mann is Auster's main achievement in this novel.  Zimmer's descriptions of the lost silent comedies are utterly convincing.  The cleverness here is that Auster has tailored Mann to fill an identifiable missing niche in the extant silent comedy genre.

I was again aware of similarities with Juan Bonilla's Nadie Conoce a Nadie, not least because the pay-off at the end of the book seems rather weak once compared to the steady build up of suspense that precedes it. 

Auster wants us to understand that nothing in this story could have happened at all were it not for a series of accidents leading to random deaths and second chances in each of the main characters' lives.  For my taste though, the result is that there seems to be just a bit too much mishap and violent termination in the fates of what are essentially rather mundane, fleshless individuals.

I'd love to know if Auster imagined the character of Hector Mann then thought hard about a suitable narrative for him to exist within or whether he somehow found Hector in the labyrinth of his reflections on mortality and randomness.  (20/5/04)

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There are two good feature articles in the New Scientist this week.

One asks what it is that turns someone into a suicide bomber and chips away at some of the abiding myths along the way. "Suicide terrorism is an organisational phenomenon" that is invariably used against democracies.  While the individuals that sacrifice themselves are likely to be psychologically fragile and perhaps also more apt to be influenced by their peers, they tend to be above averagely wealthy and educated. Dubya may be deluding himself when he asserts "hope is an answer to terror". 22/31 suicide attacks in the Lebanon between 1983 and 1986 were carried out by secular organisations and the current leading exponents of the form, the Tamil Tigers, are Marxist-Leninists. It seems to be a phenomenon that owes more to the socialisation (and manipulation) around an ideology than to fanatical religious belief per se.

Michael Brooks' article Worlds Apart looks at research being conducted to examine the transition from the probabilistic reality of the quantum to the immediacy of the classical. Vienna-based physicist Anton Zeillinger has concluded that classical reality results from a leakage of information. This decoherence may be caused by entanglement or perhaps more simply by the recoil from collisions.  For example, a human being collides with 1028 bits of matter every second. This is what localises, or classicises us. In theory though, if you could somehow isolate the person from these interactions, they would become irreducibly weird!

Last week's issue had an article by Marcus Chown that wondered if we will be able to engineer an artificial mind that experiences time in a radically different way to the human. Chown begins by reminding us that Einstein established that there is really no such thing as a universally agreed past, present or future because time and space are inextricably fused.  The flow of time is experienced subjectively because of the way that standard IGUs ("information gathering and utlising systems") pass information from the input register to the memory register in order to make room for new input.

James Hartle of the University of California is experimenting with variant IGUs, such as the "split-screen" robot which focuses on two moments of time and the "always behind" robot which sees the world as it was a few seconds ago.  Finally there is the "no schema" robot, which calculates its next move from the content of all registers because they all feed directly into consciousness. Hartle even thinks it might be possible to fashion a robot mind that remembers the future and predicts the past. He admits though that none of these alternative forms of subjectivity would be evolutionarily viable in our world!  (17/5/04)

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Hugh Thomas' account of Columbus' second voyage in Rivers of Gold reminds me of bit of the Internet industry c. 1997, when the age of the enlightened amateur was passing.

Like all men of extraordinary ability Columbus had more than his fair share of foibles. And such individuals always seem to attract the ill-will of people with their own special talent for perceiving all the faults but none of the genius.  Yet for an explorer and founder Columbus undoubtedly had all the requisite charm, epitomising the "plausible dreamer" to those with capital to risk.  Clearly not everyone bought into his fancies, but enough.

Oddly, not a single priest sailed with him in 1492, but by phase two he was quite surrounded by clergymen, and they essentially functioned as political commissars, keeping an eye on the Admiral on behalf of his Old World sponsors. The priests were accompanied by notaries and other officials - a sudden wave of bureaucratisation that soon exposed the Columbus clan's lack of aptitude for everyday administration.

Perhaps the most serious challenge to the would-be Viceroy's independence however came from members of the aristocratic establishment - opportunistic Johnny-come-latelys from the already-privileged classes that at once anticipated an historic windfall; one that might be achieved with comparatively little effort.

The key difference between 1492 and 1494 was that whereas Columbus more or less selected his own team on the first voyage, on the second journey he found himself with a bunch of boat-mates that had in effect, picked themselves.

Columbus made use of some rather suspect reputation management tactics. He secured a statement from crewmembers exploring the coast of Cuba with him in 1494 in which they all swore that it was the mainland not an island and promised to hold to this opinion on pain of a fine of 10,000 maravedís and the extraction of their tongues. 

On the original voyage he had in fact kept two log books. In the one for public consumption he systematically underestimated the distances travelled each day, believing that a little laxity with the truth would ultimately aid onboard morale and protect his chances of landing the great prize that he sought.

Like Apple in the late eighties, Columbus set about exploiting a monopoly that was ultimately going to be impossible to defend.  Too late he realised that it was actually costing him money and that he would be better off licensing other explorers and adventurers.

His final un-doing was partly a consequence of his inability to stick to the original business plan. 

Realising that gold wasn't flowing as freely as he had hoped (he was by then sanctimoniously accusing new arrivals of naive greed!), he started to export slaves back to Spain.  Interestingly though, Fernando and Isabel had serious doubts about the legality of this nascent trade and many of these early American tourists found themselves being immediately shipped back to the Indies on the next caravel out so that they could instead become loyal subjects of the Catholic monarchs.

In stark contrast to the attitude of George Dubya,  Fernando and Isabel were aware that their imperialist ambitions somehow needed to fitted into the context of existing law. In those days not even autocrats could just make up the law to suit themselves.

Hugh Thomas reminds us that it's hard today to conceive of the impact that gold had on the imaginations of fifteenth century men. They yearned to possess it for itself, he says, not because of the abstract wealth that it represented.  I would have thought however that the shiny yellow metal came in effect to represent a visible token of personal achievement.  Look, I have sailed away and found gold - I have done something with my life. Respect me.

The cost of Columbus' first voyage came to one thirtieth of the final bill for the wedding of the Infanta Catalina to Prince Arthur in London. (14/5/04)

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One of the perks of being stuck in traffic in London is talk radio on News Direct 97.3 :
"Beheading someone and at the same time saying God is Great. I mean, what's that all about?" 

Perhaps I was a touch harsh on Weir's film yesterday. I have now sat through the deleted scenes and even revisited some of the key moments in the main feature.  The left-out scenes were mostly padding, but of the sort that might have improved the audience's overall engagement with the characters in the lulls in between thunder and broadsides.

I particularly enjoyed the scene when the crew are all on deck one night spooked by plaintive whale song all around the Surprise.  Aubrey orders them down to quarters but gives them permission to sleep with their lanterns on.

Another series represented Weir's efforts to depict the rhythms of shipboard life from the perspectives of several of its subcultures, and the final collage extended Maturin's foray on the Galapagos. In one scene he is shown surrounded by the dark mottled shells of scores of giant Galapagos turtles. (If this had been Keith Floyd he would have suddenly produced a wok and said "This morning I'm going to prepare goujons of turtle with chopped onions and garlic and some of those strange thorny plants I found over there")  (12/5/04)

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Watched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on DVD and felt disappointed at the end.  Maybe it was precisely because I had waited to see the film on this format that I felt let down, as this isn't really a drama that will reward repeat viewings.

As with Saving Private Ryan the plot is framed by two battle scenes that flaunt their ground-breaking, jaw-clenching authenticity. And as with Spielberg's film, the first of these establishes a level of intensity from which the film never really recovers, in spite of the efforts of the two main leads to generate human interest with fine individual performances.

I remember that during the round of promotional interviews Crowe remarked that the film would make Englishmen swell with pride.  Yet rather than swelling I felt instead compressed by the feeling of claustrophobia conveyed by "this wooden world" and by the sense of duty that clearly constrains the imaginations of the men that inhabit it.

It all feels somehow rather petty. Would-be Nelson Aubrey and proto-Darwinist Maturin are history's also-rans; men driven by the delusion that they can be a valuable part of something bigger. Paul Bettany played Crowe's imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind and his role here is basically similar - Jack Aubrey's weedy inner self. 

It's worth noting that the bad guys in O'Brien's original novel were Yankies not Frenchies and the time 1812, after Trafalgar. In Weir's script les fromage-mangeurs broadly conform to stereotype, adopting a consistently sneaky and underhand approach to their run-in with the resourceful English.

In the final confrontation, when the Acheron arrives alongside the Surprise, which has meanwhile apparently done enough to be taken as a defenceless English whaler, the French captain shouts across at them with a megaphone insisting that they "'ave no posibility".  In doing so, he deploys a comically-exaggerated Gallic accent reminiscent of John Cleese's Ferocious French Taunter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!  Unlike first-into-the-fray Aubrey, the defeated French Captain then hides in L'Infirmaire and pretends to be the Acheron's surgeon. It seems the "soorrrendeur" monkeys can't even "soorrrendeur" honourably.

Maybe the problem is that I'm not really a huge fan of genre novels.  Whilst Master and Commander undoubtedly starts promisingly, it then proceeds to relentlessly trot out the clichés of the genre - crew discontent, the inevitable flogging, an amputation, a man overboard, an incompetent officer, and of course the mother of all storms.

In spite of the ferocious beauty of the broadsides in the ocean mist I ended up recalling Pirates of the Caribbean for the way, by comparison, it playfully invigorated a well-trod formula.  Bizarrely, the Disney movie comes over as more authentic than Weir's maritime caper.

There's also something jarringly cosy and in-authentic about the sociology of HMS Surprise - it's as if someone has turned the knob marked "class system" down a few notches.  The part where two keen-to-impress sailors appear in Aubrey's office with a scale model of the Acheron made me chuckle. Well done lads, an extra ration of rum for you.  This is more like Microsoft than the Royal Navy!

Lastly, the selection of classical pieces to adorn the soundtrack was also rather odd - why use Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis in preference to an early nineteenth century composition?

I have the deleted scenes to look forward to tonight.

Mixed feeling too at the conclusion of Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions.  More to follow on this.. (11/5/04)

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Yesterday's New York Times carried an editorial piece A War for Us, Fought by Them by William Broyles Jr. which echoed the views I expressed in this blog on April 21. Broyles calls for a restoration of the draft as a test of public sincerity:

"In three generations the Bushes have gone from war hero in World War II, to war evader in Vietnam, to none of the extended family showing up in Iraq and Afghanistan...If this war is truly worth fighting, then the burdens of doing so should fall on all Americans. If you support this war, but assume that Pat Tillman and Other People's Children should fight it, then you are worse than a hypocrite. If it's not worth your family fighting it, then it's not worth it, period. The draft is the truest test of public support for the administration's handling of the war, which is perhaps why the administration is so dead set against bringing it back."

Meanwhile Von Rumsfelt has told reporters that the recent treatment of Iraqi prisoners was "un-american". Just like the "un-american" treatment of raped and tortured nun Diana Ortiz in Guatemala?  

It's interesting how images add a missing extra dynamic to a hitherto latent story that forces a wider reaction. The story of the detainees that died in British custody in Basra had been around for months, but it took some rather suspect photographs on the front cover of a tabloid newspaper to bring out the apologetic ministers. (5/5/04)

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The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks  - "The True Story Of Captain Kidd"

A fascinating revisionist portrait of the only "pirate" known to have buried his treasure and as immersive a ride back into the past as you are likely to find anywhere else on the history shelves or indeed in any big budget costume drama.

In the words of its own back cover blurb "The Pirate Hunter delivers something rare: an authentic pirate story for grown ups.".  Zachs achieves this not-inconsiderable feat in part by doing little to disguise the fact that he is essentially an enthusiast first, an historian second - a notion which is further reinforced by his mini-bio on the inside back-cover: "He lives in Pelham, New York, with his wife and two children, and every so often when he finds the neighbourhood just too smug and comfortable, he flies the Jolly Roger from the flagpole off his son's bedroom". Arrrr.   (Methinks Paul Auster doesn't go in for this sort of thing!)

Pirates, Zachs observes, are prone to daydream "about tipple-houses and dark-haired doxies", about "humungous" quantities of loot and occasionally act "like drunken jerks".  Lacking the possibility of opening Swiss bank accounts they are also masters of conspicuous consumption and sartorial innovation. In general, he adds, these ocean-going prototype anarcho-syndicalists were predominantly young and rootless men that led "a merry life and a short one".

Now while there's plenty of arrrr in this story, at times I found myself wondering if might have been just a little merrier itself, if only it had also been a pinch shorter. It's unquestionably well-researched but at times left me with the suspicion that Zachs had filled in the blanks with one or two details of his own concoction, or maybe just assumed where other more cautious scholars would have left behind an acknowledged crevasse in the plotline.

The most interesting character to come out of the story is a bona fide pirate, Kidd's nemesis - Cornish Captain Robert Culliford. It is to this charming and ultimately fortunate rogue that most of Kidd's crew defect on the return leg from the Indies. Shortly afterwards, Culliford is shown attaining pirate Nirvana on St Mary's Madagascar - "peel me a grape time" - surrounded by a bevy of coffee-skinned lovelies and the proceeds of his assault on The Great Mohammed, estimated at £231.000.

While Captain Kidd found notoriety and dishonourable death at Execution Dock, Culliford, although also eventually captured and interned at Newgate gaol, turned State's witness and made a surreptitious exit from history (though it's uncertain whether he needed to peel his own grapes during his unrecorded years of retirement!) The asymmetry of these two fates is the emotional backbone of this adventure.

Now. as a PR professional it's hard not to characterise Kidd's woes as a consequence of remarkably poor reputation management.  Zachs undoubtedly wants us to comprehend that there was a calamitous disconnect between the reality of Kidd's actions and how they were perceived.  Was this just a run of amazingly bad luck?  It looks as if a set of fairly innocuous maritime incidents somehow combined to create a monumental political stink back home: "Never had a scandal made more noise" reported the French Ambassador, le Comte de Tallard.  But Kidd's role in his own tail-spin isn't exactly blameless. His reputation really starts to bleed to death from the moment his crew clamber up in the rigging to disrespectfully moon the King's yacht Katherine as they glide by heading eastward on the Thames.

The are other reasons why at times it's hard to calibrate your sympathy levels for Captain Kidd.  Zachs asks us to relate to the "relentless" captain as the outsider betrayed by the system and specifically as a Scottish American set up and then strung up by the perfidious English establishment.  The adjectives the author uses with consistency to describe both English individuals and institutions hint at the possibility of a future biopic with Mel Gibson in the title role: "Tight-fisted", "arrogant", "corrupt", and so on.

"Kidd was a Scot in the English Empire", Zachs informs us, "a man accused or piracy; he knew his chances". But in truth, Kidd's credentials as the 17th century Braveheart are a more than a bit suspect. He seems to have identified himself as an Englishman until all was very nearly lost. Nevertheless, Zachs disingenuously hints that the London aristocrats feared Kidd's potential role as a Scottish nationalist and claims to expose their concern that he might somehow deliver a windfall to the fledgeling Scottish colony over at Darien in Panama. "Kidd's gold might seed this Indies trading emporium that would pry Scotland from under England's heel".

The Darien colony was Scotland's Tulip frenzy: 99% fantasy. Most of the shipload of colonists that arrived expecting to quickly establish a sassenach-free entrepot on the Isthmus were soon dead from insect-born disease. Kidd's gold would have sunk without trace in these mangroves. (Instead we learn, it ended up helping to fund Wrenn's new naval hospital in Greenwich!)  I think  Zachs is guilty here of projecting back our own contemporary notions of national allegiance back into the early modern era where many different forms of sociability and tribalism competed side by side.  Zachs himself shows that the Protestant-Catholic divide was often primary where news of national re-alignments took time to catch up with all possible combatants.

No, William Kidd was no Joan of Arc. His steadfast refusal to do a disappearing act while he had the chance (plus a chest-load of treasure) might generously be taken as heroic pride, but was more likely  yet another example of his overall knuckle-headedness.  And surely even Mel will have trouble with the bucket incident.  As it was, cruel English justice cunningly made sure he was condemned for the capital crime of murder before his alleged acts of piracy were even considered.  Yet it wasn't Kidd's temper that provided his essential tragic flaw ; it was his craving for respectability which ultimately overcame his instinct for self-preservation. 

The Pirate Hunter is a fascinating portrait of an era when the whole world was the developing world,  where massive but vulnerable trading companies existed beyond the boundaries of the nation state, and where commerce and diplomacy and highly nuanced venality coexisted.  It was an era when wooden brigantines could blast away at each other for hours creating a deadly spray of splinters, but were unlikely to sink each other. (Nor could they generally fire forwards at fleeing ships, though Culliford managed to install some mortars on the prow of the Mocha Frigate. Arrr. )

It was also an era when the condemned pirate rogues of Newgate could reminisce over a beer in the prison bar, perhaps recalling how Robert Culliford and his crew had once come alongside some promising prey and treated them to a jolly burst of  "musick of trumpets, oboes and drum". Arrr.

Luckless privateer William Kidd was probably never a proper pirate. He was an ambitious, short-tempered man of the margins that hoped to settle his personal fortunes with one last far-flung caper, taking advantage of that part of the grey area of legitimacy that borders most closely on the black and hoping that his blue-blooded Whig backers in London would gratefully under-write any misdemeanours that occurred en route.  But there's no disguising the fact that it was a fool's errand from the start. 

In spite of all these caveats you would have to be remarkably lacking in compassion if you are not in the end deeply troubled by Zach's descriptions of the lonely, demeaning and fairly disgusting close-confinement that poor Kidd had to endure for his final 18 months, far from his wife and daughter and such friends as he had back in New York.  As a result, I expect that the experience of downing lagers at The Captain Kidd in Wapping will be tinged with a certain poignancy from now on.

On a separate note me hearties, when not swapping hammock nails for sexual favours, I wonder if Kidd and Culliford's men spotted one of these aye ayes (as in "aye aye cap'n?") on Madagascar? I watched one thrusting at a tree with its craggy, grub-probing, extraterrestrial middle digit on Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek's programme last night.  Cute, but a bit eeeeeugh in its dietry habits. (The aye aye, not Charlotte that is.) (30/4/04)

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A chance remark on existential loneliness by Brian Blessed on The Heaven and Earth Show last Sunday sent us tumbling down into a fairly dark and dank philosophical labyrinth, from which we eventually emerged after three hours of often tangled debate.

V likes to use the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle to frame her metaphysical musings. We discussed how Einstein's notion of spacetime could be characterised as a completed jigsaw puzzle that appears to be  incomplete from the inside. 

The principle of entropy can be tied back to this too. Entropy becomes a measure of how jumbled up the pieces subjectively appear to be. At either a temperature of absolute zero or from the spacetime frame of reference entropy itself is zero because definite knowledge of the location and properties of all matter becomes possible.

We then remarked on how the difference between everything and nothing, whilst appearing absolute at the macroscopic level, almost vanishes at the microscopic level.  "Nothing" and infinite space are in a sense both artefacts of perception. Matter and space as such, would not exist in the same way without perception. This impression then led us to consider why an infinite astronomical universe is somehow more intuitive and plausible to us than an infinite multi-dimensional multiverse.

The really big question that emerged from this conversation is "Is reality irredeemably partial?" or are the absolutes of totality and void more than just conceptual baggage?

We agreed that one of the problems with education is that children are encouraged to learn facts and associations without being deliberately referred back to the twin bookends of zero and totality, which provide useful perspective and context.  V observed that zero is such an important abstraction and its circular representation so appropriate.

With the passions of the core discussion dissipating we slipped into a lower gear, considering the challenges of parenthood and its vital role in providing access to the big picture generally missing from formal education.

I proposed that it seems to take three generations to create human value. First you have the hard-working grandparent that sacrifices everything to establish a material base and educate his or her children. The next generation after this is critical - there are usually three paths open to them.  Accept mediocrity and prioritise their own comforts over their duty to their offspring, pursue the material in order to out-accumulate their parent, or recognise their central position in the chain and feed back the benefit of their own education into the formation of exceptional human individuals. (28/4/04)

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Saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 last night. It might be more accurate to say that we heard it, as the dominant sensory experience in the ludicrously loud Empire Leicester Square was auditory. Throughout the film the near scandalous level of volume created a kind of on-going background unease - it was as if we felt the whole thing might be interrupted at any minute by the neighbours thumping on the door!   (If my mother thought the opening scenes of Die Another Day were "unbearably noisy", she surely would have fled screaming on this occasion )  

Incidental noise-induced anxiety levels peaked in two scenes in particular - when Budd is shuffling around his kitchen clanking tubs and glasses and liquidising ice for a Margarita with Elle and during the buried-alive scene, more traumatic for the way it assaulted the ears than for any transference of the unequivocally desperate and mortal claustrophobia of Beatrix's predicament. And at other times the soundtrack just seemed to ERUPT.

It appears that the critics haven't been uniformly complimentary, especially over here.  Prior to going I read Cosmo Landesman's review in the Sunday Times which suggested that Tarantino's positioning in the movie-verse now lacks clear differentiation: His "whole I-love-pop-culture shtick was fun and fresh back in the mid-1990s. But here we are in 2004, and Tarantino, the self- appointed cheerleader for kung-fu movies (and spaghetti westerns), is still rushing around, shouting “Aren’t these films cool?”, when everyone, even Tom Cruise, thinks that way now." 

I'm not convinced that this is fair criticism. It's a bit like asserting that nowadays everyone thinks Salsa dancing is cool, and that given the near-epidemic travesty of imitation this encourages, even the people that do it competently or even beautifully should move on to some other fad.  Plus, not even Stanley Kubrick could make Tom Cruise appear cool.

Nor am I swayed by Sandy Starr's comments in Spiked: "Kill Bill is a product of a culture that is incapable of releasing single, definitive versions of works into the world...this situation is a licence to print money for film studios, who can milk a single product by hawking its multiple iterations to hungry geeks with plenty of disposable income."  This is turn is like complaining that supermarkets today can't stick to selling one type of pasta. It's a bit rich coming from a journalist in the online media too. (How does Sandy imagine capitalism works? Do we not grow our material prosperity by expanding choice, by finding ingenious new ways of selling stuff to each other?)

Dipping back into last year's blog I find that "Viscerally entertaining, yet intellectually annoying", was how I somewhat dismissively rated the first part.  Last night my impression was that the continuation chafes considerably less than its predecessor on the cerebral level, though perhaps without making you feel that you've witnessed something genuinely high-culture smart like Zatoichi.

I was however reminded just how  funny the first film was.  Everyone expects Tarantino to deliver humour on the scripted page, but in fact the Kill Bill films mark his successful expansion into non-verbal comedy.  The flashback chapter depicting Beatrix's apprenticeship with sanguinary beard-stroking Kung Fu master Pai Mei is a wonderful sequence of sharp ouches and hahas.

In general it doesn't feel like a sequel, yet as soon the credits roll you are already wondering how it would have worked as a single movie. Somehow I think I would have enjoyed it less as one long sitting, and while Vol.2 is perhaps marginally the better, it's genuinely  difficult to critically separate these two sets of chapters. Whether this can be counted as an achievement depends on what stage in production Tarantino knew that he was going to have to splice.

There are some obviously superfluous scenes in Vol. 2, both examples of the kind of camera-in-face dialogue delivery that was supposedly missing from the first instalment  For example, the Mexican pimp adds nothing much more to the action than an over-boiled cameo by Michael Parks, who played Earl McGraw in Vol.1. Oddly the jungle scene is preceded by Flamenco music and Parks delivers his lines with lasciviously wayward eyeballs and an accent like a louche Spanish aristocrat on Mogadon.

In the end I enjoyed these films enough to pardon any geeky adolescent shallowness and showy-offyness they might be legitimately accused of.  Maybe at times Kill Bill does seem just a little bit too self-knowing about its parts to remain consistently more than the sum of them.  Yet I guess it would be worth seeing for the performance of Uma Thurman alone, and is also an example highly skilful, highly contemporary and highly entertaining film-making, regardless of whether or not you are able to mentally tick off all the pop-culture allusions simmering away under its lid.

(For the record, Frode spotted an open magazine with a hardcore pornographic image next to the writhing body of Budd.) (26/4/04)

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I caught a glimpse a day or so ago of an opinion piece in an American newspaper (online edition) which boldly claimed that time would show that Bush had made the right decision to invade Iraq.  In other words, leave it to future generations because the present doesn't seem to be able to find an interpretation that will stick.

This really must be one of the slipperiest conflicts ever. It's more likely that future historians will judge that the invasion of Iraq was and is almost impossible to judge rather than that it ultimately served a higher purpose.

Did this seemingly intractable disconnect between public meanings and events on the ground begin with the way the case for war was made, or earlier?  Did we lose trust in our politicians along the way or has our underlying lack of credulity simply been exposed by the extreme conditions that military deployment throws up? Is the problem that a nation with an underdeveloped sense of history but with a strong sense of its own mission has stepped into one of history's biggest meaning quagmires?

The obvious and bloody mess at the present time adds great weight to the dissenters' case.  It's pretty clear too that Al Qaeda has had nothing much to complain about.  For those of us not of of a religious conservative mindset,  we can fall back on an unthinking conviction in the rightness of our civilised intentions or cite the human rights record of the deposed dictator prior to his "arrest".

Justifying the invasion in this way turns us all into dinner party statesmen. Equating Saddam with Pol Pot or even Stalin can make us feel good and righteous now, but would we really have pressed our politicians to attack Iraq before 9-11?  Where for example was the massive public outcry when Thatcher sipped tea with Pinochet? 

The freeing Iraq from tyranny argument is just one of the many loose meanings that is available out there in media space. We can reach out and grab it and pin it onto our breasts, but do those that wear it really believe it enough?

Think of a pilot in a burning spitfire in 1940 spiralling down towards his death in the English Channel. Does he feel that his individual sacrifice is validated by the shared cause?  Now think of a dying US Marine burning alive in a stricken Humvee.  If you think the war is just you surely would have to be prepared to be that Marine. 

Otherwise you are in effect saying that the lives of thousands of dumb rag and jar-heads are basically meaningless and expendable; a necessary price to pay so we can carry on our dinner party conversations about Islamic extremism and middle-east stability and hope that one day everyone, both domestically and "out there" will agree that it all made sense.

Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."
- Gen. F. S. Maude, Baghdad 1917

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The Loos Woman:  I have no particular reason to disbelieve Rebecca Baños, or indeed to be especially interested in her story, but her interview on SKY ONE last night revealed some inconsistencies that the interviewer neglected to pounce on.  For example, she claimed that she went public because the News Of The World were in Australia talking to the other woman and she knew it would all come out anyway.  Then later on she claimed that she had no knowledge that there was another woman before her story broke.  It's also clear that she's been practicing the key message "it's his word against mine" so she seemed uncomfortable when the interviewer mentioned the driver of the car in which they allegedly first kissed.

Nor did she provide us with any intimate anecdotes that resonated with the portrait we have already built up of Beckham. Indeed, someone could have dubbed over all mentions of "David Beckham" with say "Luis Figo" without compromising the basic plot.  (And when she said "I still adore him" you somehow felt she was talking about James Hewitt!) Famous person in the public eye with assumed commitment to monogamy is the essential ingredient.

I was rather annoyed by an article by Sarfraz Manzoor in the Guardian earlier in the week in which he referred to Beckham as the "last good icon to believe in" whose "fall from grace diminishes us all".

When are we ever going to learn our collective lesson from repeatedly sliding down the snake of monogamy?  It seems that the ideal of lifelong monogamous relationships will persist when all the other tenets of Christian morality have withered around it. People that have demonstrated no previous aptitude for either sexual exclusivity or religious observance willingly sign up for it still in churches around the land, often the only times they use the services of a religious institution in their entire adult lives. It's possibly the last great mass-culture falsehood, foisted on the Western world by misogynistic middle-easterners like St Paul. It turns us all into hypocrites.

At least in Britain it seems we only care about appearances.  I'm sure all parties to the current scandal will get through this without using the word "shame".  It's an issue of public image not of public morality.  On the other hand, I'd love to think that Bill and Hilary lay in bed laughing about how he had some fun with an over-keen intern. What we were made to witness publicly however was Bill's God-fearing contrition and Hilary's pained admission that she felt deeply wronged. What rot.

If monogamy began as a masculine imposition amongst chauvinistic nations, it has become more of a female defence mechanism in our liberal society.  I recently found an old presentation at work about Metrosexuals, of which David Beckham and Jude Law are supposedly the quintessential examples: Metrosexual man it claims, "describes himself as caring, nurturing and open-minded and is unlikely to refer to himself as sexy. Although he fancies Kylie Minogue, he is not interested in affairs. The Metrosexual possesses at least one salmon shirt".

Oh dear.

It's all rather clear now. Metrosexuality isn't a lifestyle choice - it's a posture that one has to adopt when you have a pushy, materialistic, lesser-talented spouse hitching a ride on your fame.  This is what really links Becks and Jude. It's also just another word for insecurity, a psychological pressure point that marketers can use to get you buy stuff you don't need so that others may do the same by example. Yet, there's only so much moisturiser a man can take.

I know of few people that I would describe as genuine monogamists on principle.  Pretty much everyone else habitually reasons backwards from the consequences - traffic light morality. 

I recall once provoking some friends over dinner with the suggestion that monogamy is actually an unrecognised form of immorality. Which of the great virtues is it actually relevant to?  Courage, Justice, Tolerance, Compassion, Mercy?  Fidelity perhaps, but sexual fidelity is often achieved at a cost of fidelity to our true nature. Honesty? The dishonesty that corrupts relationships built on the sham of monogamy is surely a consequence of trying to live in a make-believe world. 

It's clearly wrong to do something that hurts someone else.  But don't we often get hurt because we readily allow our expectations to be calibrated by our society...and because we lie to preserve the fictions we all force ourselves to live by?

How can we possibly know what expectations David and Victoria have of each other? Why do the media just assume they are boringly mainstream, and that her reaction to his alleged infidelity is the standard soap opera one? (Some might argue it's a case of "live by Hello, die by Hello")

Meanwhile, electronic identity can be a marvellously indeterminate thing. Wouldn't it be amusing if at least one of those text messages was actually sent by Victoria?   It should really come as no real surprise that after a few weeks in Madrid Beckham had become hooked by the local pastime of sending sad bastard porno-texts. "Justo ahora la tengo empalmada..."  (16/4/04)

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Royal Festival Hall on Saturday April 10:  First up were a pair of tuneless clankers from the Basque country calling themselves Ttukunak; twin sisters in plain white dresses that explained to the curious that their "very traditional" instrument, La Txalaparta, is invariably played by men. I guess it's a nice gimmick that keeps them one step ahead of something you could only imagine as being somehow worse. 

Their 3-part (or 3-pile) Txalaparta is rather like the kind of DIY marimba that children might assemble from planks, tiles, pipes and other debris they find in their back yard and the sound they make on it is very much the sort of rising and repetitive banging that such younger persons would make, amusing a first, but ultimately deserving of a curt "OK now, that's enooough". 

This ancient, highly-improvised "rhythmic communication between two persons", possibly deriving from an imitation of the sound of horses galloping, was apparently rediscovered in a sidreria in Guipuzcoa as recently as 30 years ago! Probably as a good way as any to annoy the Fascists.

After that Radio Tarifa were on stage for almost two hours. Like all artistic endeavours ultimately of Andalucian origin, they wobble precariously along the kitsch tightrope. The lead singer Benjamin Escoriza appears like a shrunken, pot-bellied version of Bono on the wrong side of a mid-life crisis. Not really a good mover. 

The instrumentalists meanwhile appeared on this occasion to be just a bit too widely dispersed across the stage, thus providing an effect rather like a scattering of London Underground buskers whose collective solos somehow come together into a coherent sound that is then topped off with some rasping  Flamenco vocals.  (Which seem to add an unnecessary layer of pastiche to the underlying instrumental innovation.)

The result was often just short of exciting enough to really shake an auditorium this size. Several people did however stand up to have a sway, while others down in the stalls gathered at the front of the stage to dance with greater freedom. 

I've read that the band are rather more popular in the anglophone markets where they slot into the lucrative a la carte World Music category, whereas in Spain they are probably consigned to the set menu alongside Gazpacho and Paella.  There were plenty of enthusiastic Spaniards in the audience though, so when not being told to shut it ourselves, we were treated to some appreciative "Óle!"s from just behind.

The two most attention-grabbing instruments were the Oud, played by a muscular German with dervish headgear and the Poitou Oboe. Radio Tarifa really are a profoundly un-sexy ensemble, yet when these two instruments were leading the melody, the auditorium was flooded with immanent eroticism. (At one point I registered the arrival a beautiful girl on stage with the thought "aaaah" (as per Girl from Ipanema) only to realise that her role would sadly be limited to the delivery of a guitar!)

DJ Martin Morales' Futuro Flamenco Club are the final piece of entertainment. They performed in the foyer area which had been converted for the night into a makeshift club venue. Aside from the DJ, the act includes a bongo-player and two sable-haired Flamenco dancers who look pretty from a distance. V is keen to dance and in spite of my headache I think that a bit of skeleton shaking has got to be better than just sitting at the side. Renee came down and danced with us amidst this menagerie of late night revellers - hairy Spanish lesbians, grey haired spinsters in elegant cocktail dresses, tall and generic American couples in college sweatshirts and sneakers and frizzy-haired academics in blazers with the sleeves rolled up.

Also on Saturday night, we watched the UK TV premier of a horror movie in Chinese called The Eye (Jian Gui) directed by Thai brothers Oxide and Danny Pang.  Essentially Ringu meets Sixth Sense. The basic plot premise is well-worn. It's one of those transplant horrors where the central character's consciousness becomes infused with daytime nightmares deriving from the experiences of the unknown, but clearly messed-up donor. 

Mun is a fragile violinist that has been blind since the age of two who one day awakes in hospital with a new set of corneas. It's pointless to quibble with plotlines like this, but the short-sightedness she initially experiences after the operation (which allows the Pang brothers to turn up our tension and overall sense of disorientation by simply twisting the focus knob on their camera), could easily have been cured by a pair of specs.  I also think it's the case that someone that could see until the age of two would nevertheless have real difficulties with visual perception later on, even with a brand new pair of eyes.

Mun's problems are not limited to the images her new corneas have somehow retained. She is also now able to see dead people like Haley Joel Osment.  Again familiar territory.  We also watch as the recently deceased are solemnly led away by a lithe, semi-translucent figure in skin-tight black, reminiscent of similar scenes in Ghost, though apparently without the bi-directional possibilities.

In spite of the abundant clichés, this film gives an original twist to every familiar ingredient. When Mun is sitting in a street-side Cafe she watches with horror as a woman with babe in arms (the proprietor's dead wife and son), approaches the counter where he works and starts to lick the dripping orange duck carcasses hanging from hooks.  After seeing that how could you ever eat in Gerrard Street again?  "I think I'll have the Peking Duck licked by the tortured souls please.

The first half of this movie is genuinely chilling.  It sets out to be the raw material of nightmares and succedes. Apparently in Hong Kong many people that saw it were afraid to sleep with the lights off for days. There's one particular scene set in a lift that's enough to make you take the stairs from now on...except that cold, dark concrete stairwells are kind of scary too, aren't they?

Once the plot turns towards Mun's investigation of her donor's denouement it loses some of its traction. Nevertheless. there's a well contrived set piece ending in Bangkok involving a massive gas explosion on a public highway which creates plenty of fresh ghosts for Mun to witness before being re-blinded by flying debris. (14/4/04)

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Mine was a generation convinced it had been born into the Space Age only to belatedly discover in its teens that we were in fact all destined to become Infonauts rather than Astronauts. Today's Information Age is being galvanised by developments in Information theory in the same way that the Industrial Age was stoked up by the emerging theoretical science of Thermodynamics.

Information: The New Language of Science by Hans Christian von Baeyer is an interesting but circumspect examination of current thinking about how this undoubtedly abstract and yet very physical and enigmatically measurable entity could be the "common currency" of all the sciences.

Such caution is all the more disappointing given the way von Baeyer frames his survey  between an introduction in which he acknowledges his debt to John Archibald Wheeler, praising the way his mentor grapples with the RBQs ("really big questions") and then concludes with a chapter in which he places his own life's work within the context of Austrian humanism and the ideas of great philosopher-scientists like Schrödinger, Boltzmann and Zeilinger. But in the bit in between he  doesn't make being an Infonaut appear worthy of childhood fantasy.

Weirdly, von Baeyer's exposition shares some of the properties of the microscopic reality he's trying to elucidate for us - at times it flows smoothly and unstoppably like a wave, at others it's irredeemably disjointed and grainy.  Nevertheless, there are some compressed lumps of wisdom in the soup here that force you to stop and masticate.  The rest however is often undifferentiated, almost noise.

Noise.  If Time is God's way of making sure everything doesn't happen at once, von Baeyer ponders, noise is Nature's way of making sure we don't ever find out everything that happens - important, because the measurement of a single physical quantity would require an infinite memory and an infinite amount of time without it. (and Entropy is zero when you know everything there is to know about a system.) It's when these kind of conceptual associations are flowing that the book is at its most tantalising.

One of the most interesting chapters covered the idea of Power Thinking. Sheldon Glashow used it to make an important observation about the nine discreet stages of human life:  Fertilised Egg, Free Blastocyst, Attached Blastocyst, Embryo, Fetus, Infant, Child, Teenager and Adult.  Plotted linearly, the early stages are squashed together, but when plotted logarithmically they join the others in a spread of equally-spaced stages. The same can be said of the known life cycle of the Universe. What other things in our world can be tamed in this way by the log?  A web project? One Hundred Years of Solitude?   

In another chapter von Baeyer explains how Einstein understood the scientific method as one in which deduction follows in multiple streams downward from the summit attained by an initial "inductive leap". Hence we improve human knowledge by reasoning from the particular to the the general and then work our way back down from the universal to the specific. A key element of this model is that one inductive leap can open opportunities for a range of practically distinct deductions. The initial creative spark, the thought that happens outside the box, provides employment first for a layer of theoreticians who then hand over to an even larger number of experimenters at the base of the pyramid. Something similar clearly also happens in the humanities.

Another enlightening moment occurs when von Baeyer reverses Wheeler's "Why the Quantum?" by suggesting that "Why the Classical?" is probably now the more interesting variant of this RBQ. "Science has taught us that what we see and what we touch is not what is really there". Reality is literally media-ted for us as perception requires a substrate of information which is always physical in the classical sense. This makes choice possible by preventing mutually contradictory realities and delivers "the familiar objects of our sense experience". (Adapted 15/4/04 from 20/3/04)

"Space is what prevents everything from being in the same place. Language is what prevents everything from meaning the same thing." Jean Baudrillard.   (22/6/04)

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Jarhead by Anthony Swofford

"The warrior always fights for a sorry cause and if he lives, he tells stories.

I thoroughly enjoyed Swofford's irreverent account of the 1990 Gulf War.  It's not quite a grunt's eye view, because the author was part of a specialist sniper unit and writes with a decade of hindsight enabling him to portray his unsophisticated younger self with the acquired literary skill of an Assistant Professor of English. Nonetheless, it's pretty clear that the initial adrenalin flood has never really subsided.

The Anthony Swofford of Desert Storm has "enough sense to keep him just ahead of the battle and enough sense to keep him somewhat detached".  There's something of a Yossarian or a Holden Caulfield about him, but his detachment is never complete. What makes this an important memoir is it's steadfast ambivalence. It's almost heroic!

Even now, the "pure and profane smack" of the US Marine Corps still matters to Swofford and he acknowledges the appeal of the domestic structure provided by military life, and his own "intense need for acceptance within the family clan of manhood". Above all, he says "I needed the Marine Corps to save me from the other life I'd fail at".

Early on he defines his role in the desert as "a hired warrior for another government" and this sense that he and his buddies are preparing to fight for the ultimate rewards of distant plutocrats is ever-present.  At one stage he describes the noise of wealthy locals fleeing the danger zone: "We hear their Mercedes diesel engines racing through the night, their sound like some muffled cosmic laughter". The waiting Marines laugh in turn. "We laugh to obscure the tragedy of our cheap, squandered lives."  In the heady moments of allied triumph Swofford sympathises with the flag-waving women that greet the conquering Americans in liberated Kuwait for, he observes, neither they or their rescuers are the real beneficiaries of this victory.

Swofford isn't quite sure if he regrets not actually killing someone.  He certainly comes under fire himself from panicky Iraqi artillery and has the chance to call in an air-strike snatched from him by an eager Captain, but never gets the opportunity to actually enact one of those much-fantasised medulla shots.  When the ground war finally gets under way it moves too fast for specialist infantry - an "easy victory that just scraped the surface of war".

Swofford's own easy victory consists of a march through a landscape already littered with the human and mechanical debris of modern war, and his personal encounters with death are of the eerie sort, such as the moment he takes his place on the only empty ammunition box within a circle of dead Iraqis, sitting crisp and dismembered on their own boxes set in the charred desert sand.

Another virtue of this book is the way Swofford appears to be tuned to every psychological nuance of the on-the-ground experience.  Only one of his core interpretations is potentially wobbly:  "If wars were fought only by men on the ground, the men facing one another in real battle, most wars would end quickly and sensibly. Men are smart and men are animals, in that they don't want to die so simply and for so little". Surely the American experience of war since Swofford's service, in Somalia and right now in occupied Iraq, demonstrates that this perspective is perhaps a little optimistic.

On various occasions Swofford tells us how he sat aside reading The Iliad while his comrades indulged in more trivial banter.  Did he not note how Homer's Bronze Age warriors found real joy in combat, how gladly they ran into the fray, giving little thought to the somewhat trivial case of marital infidelity that had sparked their mythic confrontation? 

Surely it is a legacy of the 20th century this notion that war should be about something, something that matters to everyone and not just a certain set of vested interests or "oblique financial entanglements" as Swofford puts it. 

In the half century before 1900 Europeans had begun to form ideologies or poetics of war, like those of men like Nietzsche and Kipling. Before that Western wars were mostly fought in the interests of governments, trading alliances and dynasties, (with the not especially striking exception of the Crusades). Is it really so  strange that we are once again going to war now for practical, economic reasons?  Isn't the concept of a just and legal war itself a dangerously paradoxical and bizarre concept?

Anyway, it's worth concluding with the best anecdote in the book.  Some US Marines were training a group of Saudi soldiers how to dig defensive emplacements.  They left them overnight to complete the job. In the morning they found out that the Saudis had driven into town, picked up some Koreans and Filipinos and had them dig the holes for them.  "We don't dig holes" they reported back.  (6/4/04)

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Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately,am Borges."

This is the much-quoted conclusion to Borges' twin essays called A New Refutation of Time, a title that knowingly shows off its contradictio in adjecto.  Borges relishes the playful contrariness of it all. He even preambles with a passage in which he claims his refutation comes to him as a glimpse or a foretelling, but adds that he doesn't really believe in it himself!

When in glimpse mode though, Borges would firmly agree with Berkeley that "to add matter to perceptions is to add to the world another inconceivable and superfluous world...Berkeley denied there was an object behind sense impressions. Hume denied there was a subject behind the perception of changes."

So while one denied matter, the other denied spirit. "Berkeley did not wish to add the metaphysical notion of matter to the succession of impressions. Hume did not want to add the metaphysical notion of a self to the succession of mental states."

Now this kind of strict idealism can appear pretty fanciful.  After all science is about the behaviour of matter in the first instance and strictly speaking even an idealist can bang their head on the stuff.  But by denying the astronomical universe he foresaw in part the direction contemporary science would take.  Most cosmologists aren't "in denial" to quite the same extent, but they will own up to the fact that whatever the underlying reality of matter is it probably wouldn't be recognisable as the stuff we perceive.  And so maybe Borges was also on to something about time.

Anyway, I also read Borges' History of the Tango in which he laments the shift over time from lewd brothel "swagger" to cruel sadness and concludes that "what was once a devilish orgy is now a way of walking". This seems to confirm V's point that I'd be a natural because of my famously erratic right foot!

One last bit of Borges before the weekend - I had to laugh when he described Schopenhauer as "a creditor as regards the sum total of imperishable human perplexity". (2/4/04)

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Brendan O'Neill recently published a Spiked essay that had many interesting things to say. Yet it speaks with the familiar polemical tone of this self-consciously history-making publication, which does tend to result in rather single-faceted conclusions.

The key points are:

  • That the West's political and moral uncertainty encourages and amplifies the kind of nihilistic terrorism we now face: "For today's terrorist, the means are the ends - the use of shocking violence for its own sake."

  • That on the basis of unpredictable, rare and isolated acts of terror whole societies are now being "overhauled".

  • Western politicians can't find any other way to unify their citizens than by demonising a common enemy.

  • Al Qaeda became in effect a global brand on 9-11. Before that date it may not have had a great deal of organisational or political coherence. 

He also seems to be saying that the "new" terrorism is in some senses custom-made for the kind of people we have become - it's the kind of terrorism we happen to deserve right now.

Today's terrorist is a different animal entirely; he defies political labelling. What we witnessed on 9/11, and in Bali, Madrid and elsewhere, was terror for terror's sake, the use of violence as an incoherent lashing out rather than as part of an ideological campaign. In the past, debates about terrorism tended to focus on whether the means justified the ends, whether the use of violence was necessary, or understandable, as a means of achieving certain objectives.

It's hard not to be reminded a bit of Gibbon and declining Romans when O'Neill says things like "The impact of terrorism is inherently dependent on the institutional, moral and cultural coherence of its target society". This strongly implies that it's our internal loss of nerve and coherence, our atomisation and consequent moral confusion (or decline?) that is encouraging the barbarians to have a bit of a go, as opposed for example, to how the West impacts politically and economically on the rest of the world.

Indeed, O'Neill's perspective on the "new" terrorists is very much as a Roman might have viewed Vandals rampaging in ancient Iberia.  They belong to disorganised groupuscules,  they act indiscriminately, they knock down gnomes in their own garden.

He can't quite bring himself to call then evil, because the Neo-Conservatives do things like that, but instead portrays them as murderous and infantile, and then implies that it is our own lack of parental guidance and vision is allowing them to throw their toys out of the pram.

"The real problem of terrorism, in terms of both its origins and its impact on contemporary society, begins at home, in the struggle for moral consensus and moral authority." (Friends, Romans, Countrymen...)

Risk-aversion in the West has become the dominant explanatory model on Spiked, a one-size-fits-all approach to post-ideological Europe.  O'Neill deploys it here with alacrity: "Where political life previously consisted of debates and disagreements about what kind of society we wanted to live in, today it tends to focus on issues of safety and perceived risks to our health, environment or 'way of life'."  Now there is certainly some truth in this, but the Madrid bombings don't really fit the mould. (It possibly works better with all the much foretold super-bombings and lurking demons that are being used to "overhaul" the legal systems of countries like Britain and the USA.)

Spain is simply not post-ideological enough. This is the country where panellists on the equivalent of Newsnight discuss the role of Lucifer in their political life. It is also one of the most homogenous societies in the EU. There is consequently more consensus on core values. No, I don't think Spain was targeted as a leading exemplar of Western decline (or risk-aversion).

So maybe the Moroccans that planted those 13 bombs aren't really as nihilistic and senseless as O'Neill would have us believe.  They certainly had a bigger impact on Spanish politics than the IRA ever had over here.  And Spain, or Al-Andalus as OBL likes to refer to it, has enormous symbolic value to the Jihadists. (In fact it was the only reverse-Jihad that the Christians conclusively won!) 

I can agree with O'Neill about the basic problem. On this overloaded planet both the gruntled and the disgruntled are facing new and often incommensurable complexities.  God is dead, and so now is Marx. Who's left to make sense of it all?  But what kind of solution is being hinted at here? It's all very well to say that we lack political and moral consensus in the West, but do we really want to put history into reverse? 

Some of this violent discontent and nihilism is an aspect of the many "cultural reactions to modernity", but going medieval on the terrorists is no solution. Perhaps Modernity itself is this "way of life" we have that our politicians would rather defend than define.  There are other cultural reactions to it such as Freedom which may seem awfully scary to a fundamentalist, but the conditions that foster fundamentalisms are geo-political and economic as much as they are psychological.  (1/4/04)

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Near front row seats at the Curzon Soho last night for Zatoichi.  Such was the surround sound that at one point I imagined someone in the audience behind us had a chicken and V was about to shhhhsh a bunch of imagined chatterers in the Saki house scene!

It's a Stir Fry Noodle-Western basically - the classic Clint Eastwood mysterious out-of-towner revenge set-up. It's actually a better movie than anything Sergio Leone did and probably also better than Crouching Tiger too. Less self-consciously beautiful, but wittier.

Director Kitano 'Beat' Takeshi plays shuffling blind masseur Zatoichi who in spite of appearances to the contrary, "kicks butt" with a Samurai sword disguised as a wooden staff - the kind that the soon-to-be-dead might think amusing to pinch or kick away from such a harmless beggar.  Zatoichi does his butt-kicking in ways which are invariably original, often funny and always thrilling to behold.  After seeing this you'll never really be impressed again by Arnie firing artillery from his waistline or even by the acrobatic sword-ballet of Jen Yu and co.

Raj was the perfect authority to see this movie with. He explained why it was all so refreshing, so genre-bending.  In Japan Zatoichi is a cult figure from the 60s like 007.  Takeshi's refresh of the franchise is an odd mixture of grainy un-softened realism with exuberant surreal details,  which float within the narrative like bubbles in a lava lamp. (The wardrobe and landscape are very reminiscent of After the Rain (Ame Agaru) which was the script Kurosawa was working on when he died.)

The ending is simply hysterical and has the effect of purging any discomfort that all the haphazard slashing and Peckinpah-style blood geysers might have created.  Imagine an ensemble version of Bruce Lee does tap-Samba!

If I had to make one complaint it would be about the way flashbacks have been spliced into the plotlines.  Other than that, pretty faultless.  The soundtrack is superb. "The use of sound and music to convey diagetic sounds is unique"  notes the flier we picked up on the way in.  It must be, because I can't find the word diagetic in the dictionary.

Drinks on Saturday with friends in The Light Bar at the St Martin's Lane hotel.  "This place is on the far side of cool", says Raj, our hotel guest. I guess he means that it's a bit like a new Tarantino movie - simply not so cool anymore, in part because of the way it seems to be looking over its own shoulder in the act of being cool.

With head-slappingly obvious irony The Light Bar is a very dark bar. The barmaids are pert, wear very short black thigh-hugging dresses and speak with indeterminate mid-Atlantic porn-star accents. Expectant pockets of Mildreds are rubbernecking from within dark, smoky niches - attentive, self-aware, all-girl groups eyeing up the talent (bling) on show.

With The Clift in San Francisco there was something of a "backstage effect" - beneath the thickly laid on style you could see bits of the old Edward Hopper era hotel poking through.  The beautiful Redwood Room reminded me of the place where dull-boy Jack starts doing shots in The Shining. My biggest complaint though centred on the lifts which consistently electrocuted me. I ended up having to press the buttons with the end of my sleeve pulled over my fingers. 

The lifts at the St Martin's Lane on the other hand feature mood-lighting and two little plasma screens depicting gusts of wind blowing through tall grasses to an electro-rock soundtrack. From what I recall, the St Martin's Lane occupies what used to be the Disney cinema which then became the Renoir. and so all this hip-ness has been grafted onto a altogether less dapper and established skeleton than the old Clift.

Raj showed us his room which had the signature brilliant white bed with six puffy white pillows- the kind you throw yourself onto with your arms outstretched just after you check in, confident there's nobody watching! In this hotel the rooms also feature integrated colour therapy, meaning that the mood-lighting above and behind the bed can become a self-directed soul-soothing voyage across the spectrum.  Wireless Internet and AV set-up are geek-class, though the widescreen Sony TV has a Powerbook-sized screen.

Later on we took Raj along to Zebrano in Ganton Street for Kiran's birthday party.  This is a fun venue - stylish in a more understated way, not unlike Denim, but with a more inclusive mood.  On the walk across Soho to get there we passed one of these in Broadwick Street.  (29/3/04)

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, the gnotion that our cosmos is infused with two equal and opposite principles, good and bad. Some Gnostics believe that the Universe was created, but insist that common sense suggests that the negative principle has to have been the responsible party.  This is not such an unreasonable position really.  It's always seemed difficult to me to understand how a Creator divinity that has a moral sense in the way that we understand it, that represents the pinnacle of power and virtue, would knowingly set up this particular situation for sentient life, capable as we are, of great physical and emotional pain.  There's indeed something masochistic about the notion that the apparent indifference to suffering in our reality was somehow established for our own ultimate benefit. 

So, two equal principles, or one positive one and another that's a deleterious side effect, or no principle at all.  The Dawkins Unbeliever believes the latter.  Yet why should it be assumed that this is the most rational of the three?  This kind of unbelief is really a sort of inverse-mysticism.

As such it's not really unbelief at all.  The Dawkins Unbeliever typically espouses the following beliefs, which are at best un-verified.

  • The Objective and the Subjective are wholly separate.

  • The existence of subjective experience within objective material reality is a contingent aberration. Objective reality is primary - it would exist anyway.

  • The Universe is a vast, cold and predominantly inanimate space. It will eventually experience heat death, a clear indication of the inherent valuelessness of everything inside it.

In my view the explanatory context for the existence of something rather than nothing is simply beyond the human frame of reference. Yet the moment you say that it is "pointless" or "accidental" you are using terminology that come directly from our frame of reference and most specifically from a classical understanding of causality.

Einstein observed that his own contemplations of the cosmos had encouraged the conclusion that God was subtle but not malicious.  In their rush to proclaim their stark atheistic position, Dawkins Unbelievers often seem to imply  the opposite conclusion. (I have made the point before that The Selfish Gene suggests an underlying immorality and not just an amorality. )

Dawkins Unbelievers will dip into Quantum mechanics when it appears to offer a possible explanation for how the very first microscopic "1" popped into existence somewhere in the great boundless and formless "0". They are less comfortable though with ideas like String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity that represent our current best effort at unifying General Relativity , which explains macroscopic reality, and Quantum Mechanics which explains microscopic reality.  This is because such theories step outside the cold, dark, contingent and mortal Universe - if you need multiple dimensions in order to understand normative 3D space, then perhaps you cannot write off transcendentalist theories altogether. (26/3/04)

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The debate in the US courts about the constitutionality of swearing "under God" is one of many indications that unbelief seems to be going through a bit of an identity crisis at the moment.

Perhaps BBC2 should immediately hold an event-TV special covering all the different ways that people around the world DON’T believe in God.  This might actually be more interesting than the flip-side offering they treated us to last month and it would give Dr Jonathan Miller a chance to get his point of view across instead of just sitting there in a state of facial contortion and then storming off the set.

This morning I was reading Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead and was entertained by a passage in which he explained the problems he had with requesting new dog-tags having decided he no longer wanted his last human interaction to be with a Catholic Priest.

"You either have a religion of record or they stamp NO PREFERENCE on your tag, but this still makes it sound like you want something, in fact it makes you sound like a religion whore, as though you’ll take it in any hole, from any pulpit. They make it hard for a non-believer."

Indeed they do.

No commentary on atheism in this country is free of the smug presence of Professor Dawkins. Nobody has done more to give unbelief a bad name than he has.

In the same edition of the The Spectator that carried that lame article by Roger Scruton, self-professed atheist Andrew Kenny writes that "Dawkins convinced me that chance mutations and natural selection alone can explain not only the magnificent variety of life on Earth, including humans, but also the way things behave.".

Kenny makes a host of loose historical statements which are not really worth addressing, but here goes anyway.  He defends the Spanish Inquisition as "a pioneer of rational legal procedure" and as "the leading voice of reason against the witch-burning", then argues that "the crimes of Christians Torquemada, Richelieu and Richard the First (Huh? Surely more a homosexual thug than a model medieval Christian? ) pale into insignificance compared with those of atheists like Lenin, Stalin and Mao.".

But then, having written off Mao, Lenin and Stalin as "atheists" he then suggests that "Marxism is of course, just a secular religion". As he’s also pinned down our religious longings as biologically-determined, we can assume he means that Mao and co. were led astray by their genes.  Anyway, I’m sure you could write a long and quite boring essay that compares and contrasts both the belief system and the sociability underlying Christianity and Marxism, but I’m not so sure you can just assume them to be basically identical, and both driven in an indistinguishable fashion by the same innate and inescapable human psychology.

Kenny also belittles the humiliation suffered by Galileo and others. "The Catholic Church had never denied the world was round…the trial of Galileo happened a century after Magellan had sailed around the world". So?  Kenny seems to be having trouble remembering his O-Level history here. Galileo was less concerned with the shape of our planet than the shape of its motion and its location in the cosmos relative to the Sun. Now it’s true that people that base their history on Ladybird books and Hollywood films might have the impression that Columbus was the first person to figure out that the world was round, and others may have had the kind of self-satisfied History teachers that love to point out that knowledge of our spherical existence dates back to the Greeks, and what do you think the orb that the Saxon King holds is supposed to represent etc., but I’m willing to bet that many of the sailors in the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were worried about falling off a ledge at some point. You simply can’t make general judgements about what people know.  Try asking people on Oxford Street about quantum mechanics. In the case of the round Earth, neither the primary school myth or its secondary school refutation offer the complete picture.

Columbus' unique contribution to the issue was being wrong.  Almost everyone in-the know at the time thought the world was wider than he did.  He was convinced (until his death even) that India was a short distance Westwards. Every other informed academic of the era was convinced the circumference of the Earth was larger and that India would be a long way away if you sailed West. Yet Columbus was lucky, because they hadn’t the imagination to guess that there might be another continent in the way.  Neither had he though.

Kenny concludes "Like Dawkins, I believe we must engage in a moral struggle against the dark side of our nature".  Hmmm, I’m not sure Dicky would recognise this admonition myself.  From what I’ve read Dawkins view is less positively-humanistic and goal-driven. He suggests in fact that human behaviour, unlike animal behaviour, cannot always be reduced to an underlying cost-benefit algorithm. Nevertheless, our more flexible natures still sit on top of an ancient lymbic system, but we can choose to be altruistic if we want, even though our biological code is inflexibly selfish.

Back to the crisis of unbelief.  Being an unbeliever these days is not something to crow about at dinner parties. Its validity as a world view is rarely if ever articulated in the media, other than by truly irritating people like Richard Dawkins.  As a result atheists are often assumed to be elitist, and selfish; defeatist even.  Just not team-players.  Perhaps even potential mass-murderers like Mao. Anyone that could be completely satisfied with materialism must be not quite all there. Aren’t they just a little bit too upbeat about human achievements in art and technology and simultaneously blind to the misery endured by the majority, both now and throughout human history?  And so on.

As an alternative to abject unbelief most of us get by with a potpourri of partial explanations and rules of thumb. Religion whores. We know it’s a bit like living in a skyscraper with no foundations, but the view is often good and life generally stimulating.  We know however that we need to keep an eye out for the fundamentalists in their aeroplanes.

In a future blog entry I will try to outline why that unbelief should be given another chance.  It's not had a fair crack of the whip since the Enlightenment. or at least since a string of German Philosophers made it seem like the last resort of the sad bastard. (If you really must believe that all transcendental longings are essentially delusional then you can find far better champions of this cause than Dawkins from amongst the ranks of the sad bastards.)

There’s an argument (The Anthropic Principle) that points out that the Universe we exist within is observably fine-tuned to make our being here not only possible, but also more or less predictable.  The counter-argument says OK, but there are probably also a multitude of other universes which are set up differently and in which sentient life like ours is not possible.

This is the kind of argument whose sole value lies in its ability to "nuke" the more interesting proposition it was set up in opposition to.  Sure there are millions and millions of alternative universes where I was never born, or where Hitler became a successful architect and admired philanthropist, but we really mustn’t bother ourselves with the implications of these infinite possibilities. Personally, I only care about the reality I have to live with.

To begin with we're going to need to distinguish between Dawkins-style atheistic certainty and the "uncertain" alternative I will suggest.  I will call the first "Classical Atheism" and the alternative "Quantum Atheism", but there are interesting points of overlap to explore too, just like the "argument" between Plato and Aristotle preserved within in the tradition of the Athenian Academy.

You can’t fabricate a classical computer that produces genuinely random numbers. True randomness exists only at the fundamental, microscopic level of reality.  Everything else obeys rules.  So the central pillar of Dawkins-flavoured atheism, "Blind Chance" loses its explanatory power when you step back to this level.  (25/3/04)

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In this week's Spectator Roger Scruton has come up with an astoundingly sophistic argument to protect the notion of an immortal soul from the investigations of science. In fact I could hardly believe my brain when I was reading this piece which is entitled What it means to be Human. I have always considered Scruton to be a bit of an intellectual heavyweight and whilst I was also aware that he was a believer, as a serious philosopher I hardly expected him to confuse his private consolations with logical argument like this.

Anyway, it goes like this... Scientists delude themselves into believing that biology offers a complete account of the human condition. Like my middlebrow equivalent Alain de Botton I'm going to use analogues taken from high culture just to show how superior I am to all these Natsci philistines. In this case I will argue that Manet's 'Bar at the Folies Bergere' which, "from the point of view of chemical a canvas on which pigments are distributed" but "from the point of view of the an image of a woman on whose face the last pale twilight of innocence is fading. From the scientific point of view therefore, the woman is nothing over and above the pigments in which she is seen".

What is this scientific point of view? It actually sounds a bit like Claude Shannon's definition of Information in purely engineering terms, in which the semantic aspects are notoriously excluded. But Shannon did not elaborate his theory in order to demonstrate that information has no meaning at all!  Look at it another way. If from from the point of view of a fan of ineffability like Scruton all scientists are nothing but petty reductionists,  to the Science-lover, reductionism is but a methodology, not a world view.  Science aspires to be more than the sum of its methods.

Scruton is knowingly misrepresenting this aspiration here. That you cannot understand a Jumbo jet by studying the pigments on it's tail fin would not come as a massive surprise to most researchers. A chemical scientist indeed might be happy to offer a chemical explanation of an Impressionist painting, but few scientists today would claim to be able to offer a complete explanation for genuine mysteries such as the Universe or human consciousness.

Einstein himself noted that the existence of science itself depends on the incompleteness of our knowledge. Of course some scientists are arrogant so-and-sos and it's no surprise that Scruton singles out Richard Dawkins. But it isn't scientific arrogance per se to suggest that Science offers the best set of methodologies for reducing human ignorance. A good proportion of contemporary scientists also recognise the concept of emergence, whereby new properties and meanings emerge at different scales.

However, beyond this disingenuous misrepresentation of the counter-argument Scruton's analogy is fundamentally weak in other respects. The human body is not a 'pure' material object like the painting, nor is the meaning of Manet's work the equivalent of the Divine spark. Take the following sentence in which Scruton appears to be suggesting that un-believers are in some sense cognitively-challenged: "All those things can be seen in the painting and someone who doesn't see them doesn't understand what he is looking at". Yet the "things" that can be seen in the painting are not in the painting at all. they are in the mind of the painter and in the mind of the person viewing the painting. The pigments on the canvas are simply the medium whereby the subjective experience is imperfectly shared from mind to mind. Information transfer, some of which is basically Shannon Information, but a great deal is semantic. You never get a perfect "meaning facsimile" - experience, culture and all the other parameters of subjective experience see to that.

The Subjective and the Objective are not like matter and anti-matter. Indeed, anyone who looks inside of themselves and understands what they're looking at will recognise that the Human Self is a complex mix of the two.  What for example is this ineffable essence of me-ness that could exist without my material body?  Theoretical science has also spent the last century coming to terms with the fact that at the subatomic level at least the distinction between subjective and objective is fully compromised. Some have gone on to conclude that we live in a participatory universe, one in which the subjective manipulation of meaning is a fundamental part of the fabric of reality.

When Scientists start to think like philosophers in this way, human beings seem less like lonely subjects lost within a vast cold, dark, mechanism. Closer really to Scruton's position, just not willing to fill the gaps in their knowledge with supernatural hokum.

I would have to agree with Scruton that the Self is something real and that it can be both developed and degraded, but disagree with this statement in which this process is set within a cosmic drama where good and evil are perpetually at war: "There is such a thing as the Devil's work, which consists in undermining the self, tempting people to see themselves as objects, leading them to identify completely with their biological condition"  And I'd add that degraded humans are not simply the unhappy souls that read Heat and have orgiastic sex instead of going to art galleries!

As the media for the proactive, self-aware information that is the Human Self our minds and bodies are indeed very special. But while Scruton insists that "Human beings stand out from the rest of Creation. They are subjects in a world of Objects". Personally I would say the best we can currently conclude is that "Human beings stand out from the rest of Creation. They see themselves as subjects in a world of Objects". In order to avoid living "nasty, brutish and short" existences, we Westerners have somewhat optimistically built our society around notions without ultimate foundation such as "free will" and "freedom"; these are however notions which we have consistently found useful for the humanistic goal of self-improvement and self-judgement. (23/3/04)

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Found another interesting article that considers whether Borges had some sort of strange prescience of the Web.  In 1999 French penseur Ignacio Ramonet spoke in an interview about the distortions, oversimplifications and misinformation (the fromage-mangeurs call this ‘l’intox’) perpetrated by newspapers and audiovisual media, and identified a surabondance de l’information, and concluded that both problems were being exacerbated by the decentralised publication model made possible by the Internet. The author of the article, Christopher Rollason argues however that Ramonet is wrong to see Borges' library as a direct analogue of the Web.  Firstly...

The Internet is, after all, also made by its users. The proliferation of Websites and newsgroups has not descended from outer space: Borges’ library is presented as a pre-existing, immutable given (‘La Biblioteca existe ab aeterno’ - ‘The Library exists ab aeterno’), but the Internet is nothing of the sort. The virtual library now evolving in cyberspace differs from any previous library - real or imaginary, Alexandria or Babel - because it is also the creation of its readers.

Borges ideas can be mapped onto many of the notions of contemporary cosmological radicalism, but the Library parable doesn't seem to me to encapsulate a metaphor for the participatory universe, as the duality of subjective and objective is apparently preserved.

Rollason also notes that whilst there is indeed a lot of filth and trash on the Internet the relative proportions of total gibberish would be much higher in Babel, where "the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception".

He notably adds that "the attitudes of journalists such as Ignacio Ramonet, who...impugn the ‘unscientific’ nature of the citizens’ speech that now exists on the Internet, may arguably not be totally unfree of conditioning from what a certain now-unfashionable psychologist named Freud once called the ‘professional complex’ - in this instance, the notion, surely eminently dubious today, that only the professional journalists and intellectuals have the ‘right’ to make public comment on the great issues of the day."

One last thought on Borges' Library.  Darwin observed that bees construct hexagonal hives because they offer maximum living space at minimum cost. The Library of Babel also consists of an infinite honeycomb of hexagons.  As in my view it's always been a much better metaphor for space-time than cyberspace, it therefore makes me wonder whether, like Darwin did with the beehives, we might one day find conclusive proof that our Cosmos, our colmena, is itself optimised for its own function in much the same way - a fitness to purpose we can perhaps catch glimpses of in the anthropic principle, but which may be much more profound and multi-layered.

Borges appeared to be a conservative in an era when radicalism and revolutionary fervour characterised both the ultra-talented Magical Realist generation that emerged from Latin America in the 60s and the wider global intellectual culture of the times. He was unfashionably an Idealist of the Berkeley and not the Guevara sort. It took another generation to detect the buried insights in Borges' thought, revealing a radicalism that resonated with that of the fin de siecle Third Culture. (Meanwhile Peron looks much less of a bleeding-heart liberal.) (19/3/04)

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The late great American physicist Richard Feynman once mused on how the whole scientific enterprise might somehow be compacted into a single sentence in case some terrible cataclysm were to force the Human Race to start from scratch:

"If...all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is...all things are made of atoms - little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed together."

I can think of certain kinds of cataclysm where you might want to make a mental note NOT to acquire this particular piece of knowledge the second time round!  On the other hand Nietzsche's "God is Dead" surely recommends itself as good a place as any to start on our second chance; and it too features a multiplicity of compressed implications. (Can all of Alain de Botton be collapsed into "Possessions don't make you happy and fulfilled"? )

In truth most of the human beings I mix with on a daily basis can get by without knowing about the graininess underlying the smooth reality they habitually exist within. And why not?  Culturally at least, it makes little difference.  If we were all living in a post-apocalyptic mess, there might be other slightly more practical gobbets of concise wisdom with which to bootstrap human progress: " Grass can be domesticated for food" (and if things get really bad...) or "Bugs spread by contagion".  Suggestions anyone?  (Best so far: the Coca-Cola secret formula.)  (18/3/04)

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Went along with V and TC  to the Barbican on Saturday to see Richard Galliano perform his Piazzolla Forever set.

The late Astor Piazzolla entangled the roots Tango form, concurrently hedonistic and sullen, with complex jazz harmonies and tone clusters in the Stravinsky manner. 

In the hands of rotund and revered French accordionist Richard Galliano, the music is anything but po-faced. Indeed, there's an exuberant physicality that constantly threatens to break out of the sombrely intimate, black-clad septet format that Galliano stands and performs within.  In all a slippery, jolting, mood-shifting and melodic ride around the viscous edges of violent cacophony.  If The Persistence of Memory had a soundtrack, this would be it.

We watch fascinated as Galliano buckles and twists around his low centre of gravity, often appearing like a man locked in a duel with a monstrous caterpillar, yet at key moments reminding us of the playful intent with an expressive little hop.  Behind him Logerot on the double-bass at times seems to be dancing a discreet, sweaty Tango with his instrument, at others deftly chopping at the strings like a Spanish waiter with a leg of ham. Sellin, the pianist, intermittently turns percussionist, slapping the imaginary pair of bongos on top of his instrument with his palms. There were also some un-attributable extra noises coming from within, as if they had earlier on stashed a rattlesnake in the belly of the piano.

We were upgraded to the Circle and had a pretty good view of the stage, though this auditorium somehow never feels wholly appropriate to the music that you pay to experience in it. The exterior of the Barbican complex is almost always difficult to locate within the City labyrinth, especially when you're running late and trying hard, whilst the interior features a system of staircases that MC Escher himself might have designed.  TC thinks it's all unspeakably hideous, with a special mention for the carpet, but there are parts that have a certain 70s retro-cool, such as the toilets, with their foot-pump water basins.

Perhaps Jazz-Tango isn't exactly TC's gourd of mate. But V and I were pretty enthralled. Galliano's solo rendition of Libertango was especially captivating.  The crowd were obviously knowledgeable and enthusiastic and four encore pieces were performed.

Also read an amusing piece by Salvador Dalí on Saturday in which he claimed to be superior at psychological analysis than Proust: "This is easily recognised from the depressing and distracted look of his moustache, which, like Nietzsche's, which is even more depressing, is the exact opposite of the alert and gay bacchantes of Velasquez, or, better still, the ultra-rhinocerontic moustaches of your humble servant and genius."  Tom Selleck?  (15/3/04)

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Naomi Wolf has written an interesting piece on The Porn Myth, which in effect laments the fact that "being naked is not enough" any more. "Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold their, real naked women are just bad porn."  There's a great deal of truth in this and  it's surely part of a wider phenomenon - the omnipresence of hyper-reality in our culture is systematically suppressing our appetite for "the real thing" in all of its manifestations.

Finally read the second part of David Goodhart's essay The Discomfort of Strangers, certainly the more provocative half of his argument. Indeed as far as Trevor Phillips (Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality) is concerned, he might just as well have spared himself the task of producing such a carefully-argued polemic and instead scribbled something like "Enoch Rocks!" and left it at that.

Goodhart has added another variable alongside ethnic diversity and individualism to explain the lack of Welfare in the US - vast open spaces. Tightly-packed Europeans have no choice it seems but to share stuff.  The United States has also deployed a "powerful national myth" to resolve the inherent tension between liberalism and pluralism.  But statistical diversity remains the key for Goodhart over and above culture and geography:  "Is there a "tipping point" somewhere between Britain's 9% ethnic minority population and America's 30%, which creates a wholly different US-style society - with sharp ethnic divisions, a weak welfare state and low political participation? No one knows, but it is a plausible assumption." (If only history could be reduced to quantifiable variables like this! )

Goodhart also claims to have found a back-handed explanation for British tolerance: "We are more tolerant than, say, France because we don't care enough about each other to resent the arrival of the other." He then suggests a third way on identity which "can be distinguished from the coercive assimilationism of the nationalist right, which rejects any element of foreign culture, and from multiculturalism, which rejects a common culture. 

Noting the vitriolic response that the essay has attracted Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail writes "How on earth have we got to such a pass, where a patently decent person is smeared as a racist simply for wishing to preserve a national identity?"  However, in truth Goodhart doesn't limit his vision to BBC-driven common-culturalism. He asks "why it is such a good idea to welcome people from poor parts of the developing world who have little experience of urbanisation, secularism or western values" and endorses the notion of a two-tier Welfare system such as the one emerging in Denmark.

Rowan Williams trooped along to see the stage adaptation of Pullman's His Dark Materials which he gamely described as "a near miraculous triumph" and likened the experience to the kind of "purification by atheism" that a modern French Christian has recommended to fellow church-goers as a way of working out exactly which types of God they don't believe in. This is the perennial problem in any debate between believers and non-believers - both sides begin by framing the other's position, which always leaves room for their adversaries to wriggle out of the caricature. Atheist Pullman's God is "Authority" and the Archbishop has no problem deciding that such a being has no resemblance to his deity.  But then the God described within the pages of the Bible probably doesn't either. Personal Gods are the rule these days. The question "Do you believe in God?" is presented as a straightforward binary decision, but there's greater proximity between the positions of people in the grey zone either side of the yes-no line than many would care to admit. (11/3/04)


Watched an interesting programme called The Truth about Killing presented by the ever game Grub Smith.

He takes as his starting point General Marshall's interviews with combat veterans in 1947 which seemed to indicate that only 25% of troops actually fired at the enemy and of these just 2% shot to kill. Smith eventually establishes that this 2% can be divided into natural psychopaths and natural leaders. (Men like Dick Winters in Band of Brothers.) He interviews oddball US Lt Colonel Grossman who claims that the problem is that men are more inclined to posture than to murder. (Muskets were preferred to the more lethal longbow because they were "loud, smoky and scary"!) 

Grossman also suggests that the primitive hindbrain gains the upper hand over the rational forebrain in scary, stressful combat situations and that perhaps counter-intuitively it is this more ancient part of our brain that offers animal resistance to shedding the blood of our own kind.

Marshall's still controversial data underpinned a debate I had a few years ago with Frode after I read Joanna Bourke's An Intimate History of Killing which focuses on the other aspect of the topic - how many infantrymen in both World Wars and in Vietnam came to enjoy and ritualise the legalised murder of combat: ("The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing".) Perhaps Grub Smith will explore these matters next week. He did suggest at the end of this episode that the volunteer armies of today have 95% willingness to shoot to kill. (9/3/04)

So, what to make of the televised version of Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety?  Well, it was a bit too long for a start.

De Botton is fashionable at the moment, the way Louis Theroux was a couple of years ago. Indeed some of the situations he forces himself into in this programme were vintage weird weekend fodder, but De Botton hasn't got quite the same easy-going charm that enables Theroux to extract such candour from his interviewees. In fairness, De Botton's on-screen persona is an improvement on the lugubrious vocal presence he had in the audio-book of Consolations of Philosophy and on the  "frumpiness" of his prose passages I commented on back on February 24.  Here he was instead just rather neutral, at times numbingly so. You found yourself hankering after the likes of a Mark Steel or a Grub Smith!  In spite of his Gallic surname he epitomises a very English kind of passionless compassion.

The core argument was that the ascendancy of specifically-American flavours of Freedom and Equality which replaced the ordered social hierarchies of the middle ages has resulted in increased levels of anxiety about relative achievement, especially in the US.

Overall there were too many illustrations and not really enough suggestions, especially beyond what you might do as an individual. Yet if Europe is somehow not as prone to equate the moral status of its citizens with their economic status then surely there must be way to collectively as well as an individually opt out of The American Dream?  For De Botton though, if you don't fancy reinstating the aristocracy, whimsically opting out of mainstream culture, or consoling yourself with the prospect of an afterlife, the best thing to do is turn to philosophy.

Or rather Philosophy-lite, a genre where Schopenhauer and Nietzsche seem almost cuddly. (I wonder if he'll ever get round to sprinkling a little Hegel into his chicken soup recipe.  Marx seems to be a no-no. )

Once you get past the sunny garden, hardcore Philosophy becomes a murky labyrinth with the embalmed corpse of its architect lying in state at the centre. De Botton's proposed remedy for the status-anxious would be like taking up cocaine in order to feel more relaxed about life! Reading Nietzsche did not exactly help Hitler with his issues, did it? (I recall the words of Safranki in his biography of Nietzsche: "Scientific curiosity is initially refreshing, enlivening and liberating , but truths turn gloomy once we have become accustomed to them.")

Nils Bohr used to say that Klarheit (Clarity) and Wahrheit (Truth) are complementary - you can't increase one without decreasing the other! He called this the Uncertainty Principle of Scientific Knowledge, but the same applies to philosophical insights - an absence of ambiguity and doubt should be treated as suspicious!

If you must develop a Philosophy habit, it really ought to be part of a balanced intellectual diet, quite probably from the onset of literacy, so that it can become an inextricable part of the balanced intellectual person.

I was also put off by what I took to be a rather  irritating  triteness with regards to mortality - least impressive of all was his use of a professional woman recovering from cancer to illustrate the point that the prospect of death help you focus on what really matters. 

Earlier on Saturday morning I had been struck by Charlie Brooker's memorable confession in the Guardian" I'm a bitter, alienated misanthrope who can't sit on public transport without wanting to machine gun everyone in sight" - an indication perhaps that there's more to opting out of the status game than the gentle Bohemian quest for authenticity.  Militant non-collaborators, nihilists and the like interpret the message of human mortality slightly differently.

Anyway, what's certain is that there's more to be said about status and how it is communicated and perceived than you could possibly learn from the comparison made here between cosy, eccentric village England and pitiless, wild-eyed, urban America.  What about the current phenomenon of amateur celebrities who are able to enjoy time-limited high status without actually having to "make it" in a particular field?  De Botton's Philosophy is nicely distanced from politics, history and theory; it's an attractive package of  insightful sound-bites from the long decomposed.

Anyway, I guess I have to admit that there are benefits as well as costs to this oft-disingenuous simplification in the name of accessibility. De Botton has certainly helped to create a wider market for serious philosophy which academics like A.C. Grayling and Simon Blackburn are also now exploiting.  A wider appreciation that whilst previous generations had less knowledge than our own, they often had a greater or at least a contrasting wisdom may result. (9/3/04)

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Watched an interesting but flawed documentary on BBC4 in which Pamela Stephenson interviews and profiles Joan Roughgarden, a trans-gendered ecologist that has written a book called Evolution's Rainbow. Stephenson rather irresponsibly sells Roughgarden's position as an alternative to Darwin. In truth it is Darwin inflected with tolerance to diversity.

Her ideas are, according to one of her peers, "more correct than Darwin". Debate about the validity of her ideas focuses inevitably though around the question of just how much more politically-correct than Darwin she should be allowed to be. Roughgarden admits to her own biases, but claims that while people immediately recognise her agenda as a trans-sexual in her methodology and conclusions, the scientific establishment refuses to own up to the nineteenth century, white-male bias in Darwin.

Roughgarden also writes off "The Selfish Gene" as a sound-bite, yet offers an alternative of her own: "The Genial Gene", by which she means that genes on a chromosome will have the social morality of folk afloat in a lifeboat together.

A clearly rankled Oxford biologist (not Richard Dawkins, but as good as!) was allowed to pour a few cup-fulls of water on the mood of enthusiasm generated by the female Hyena's scrotal sacks. Scientists all work within a cultural millieu, he admits, but the very best are those that distance themselves as much as they can from its influence – the claim to an approximation of objectivity that so winds up the cultural theorists. It's fine to ask for a new paradigm he adds, but Roughgarden hasn’t actually said what it should be.

As a member of congregation of general fruit-loops in San Francisco and of a trans-sexual gospel choir Roughgarden is about as far outside Richard Dawkins’ cultural millieu as it is possible to be. Yet her ideas represent an expression of a feeling that I share – that strict Neo-Darwinian theory hasn’t yet found a way to accommodate the notion that species genotypes somehow preserve diversity as a selectable characteristic even while specific traits are being refined over time.

Of course this is not to deny the explanatory power of Darwinian selection, just as the existence of hermaphrodites doesn't invalidate gender. It's a question of allowing some of the edges of our theories to be blurred.

It may be fair to say that mainstream biology is already aware of this diversity in nature, yet it is the Neo-Darwinian dogmatism that dominates the popular science market, proliferates through the media and crucially more regularly crosses-over into other disciplines. Pinker, Ramachandran and other key Third Culturalists popularise a brand of evolutionary psychology which reflects the belief in many circles that everything needs explaining in terms of adaptations that were useful to our pre-historic ancestors.

On a more general note...

We can comprehend our universe using intuitive categories like 3D space and linear time, but it is also important to admit that a full an understanding of reality as we are capable of requires thinking outside of these constraints. In other words, if Science wants a shot at what John Archibald Wheeler calls the RBQs, the really big questions, then the meta has to be put back at the front of Physics.

Many leading physicists like Hans Christian von Baeyer believe that the science of genetics indicates that Information may be the common currency behind all the sciences, and whilst Biological science is traditionally more comfortable with sticking to the how and leaving the why to Philosophy, many cosmologists would now admit to a suspicion that the process of evolution by natural selection could well be fundamental to the workings of the universe and not just to life on Earth. (See comments on Borges below.)

Nietzsche warned us that metaphysics is probably a pointless activity, one that can ultimately only demonstrate to us conclusively that we exist within a happy circle. Yet neither the self-contained circularity nor the happiness (or goodness) of ultimate reality have ever been conclusively demonstrated by reason alone. Science on the other hand is making slow but steady progress towards understanding how all the parts contribute to the whole, but undoubtedly needs to borrow modes of thought from traditional metaphysics tin order o set-up hypotheses for empirical testing. (8/3/04)

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Elena Curti explained in the Guardian today how her Catholic belief has been reinforced by her husband's imprisonment for downloading child pornography. She sees the Internet as an un-signposted pathway to perdition.

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they must not eat the fruit from a certain tree. With the internet, there is no supreme being telling us what we can and cannot access." and "While the secular experts are right to demand more research about this phenomenon, Christianity offers an explanation that I have never understood as well as I do now; all human beings are, to a greater or lesser extent, drawn towards evil, and once we succumb it is hard to break free."

To paraphrase the famous joke, if that works for you, great. The notion of evil can be a useful metaphor, but in practice I think the problem is that our moral selves float on the surface of a lymbic system that is beyond good and evil.

She says that her husband has himself spotted a parallel with the war on drugs, which is being fought at both the supply and demand ends. Unfortunately she goes on to conclude that "the dealers in this instance are often major corporations who, in their role as ISPs, sell consumers a gateway to the internet and, through their search engines, facilitate the search for illegal material."  Yet surely the ISPs are only providing the conduit. It cannot be reasonably argued that they intend to spread addiction (and profit directly from it) in the way that Pablo Escobar did - they simply provide the opportunity not the motive.

It is indeed very easy to stumble across human depravity on the Internet. But then it's also easy to stumble across a McDonalds on Oxford Street. You know what's inside a website for child porn enthusiasts just as clearly as you know what's on the menu in McDonalds.

The interesting thing here is why "Good Character" seems to offer so poor a defence in the case of the vile and corrupting Internet!  Indeed it never looked more like a sham. Why do some individuals find themselves so unexpectedly ambushed by the realisation that normative notions of wrong and right are out of step with their own? Why do others appear to feel the need to form their own judgements on this matter empirically?

You might for example be curious about what it's like to steal or indeed to take another life, but only a minority get drawn into these criminal activities because there are immediate risks and powerful psychological restraints blended from cultural taboos and more innate mechanisms of self-control.

However, when you view images online the immediate physical risks are non-existent and innate psychology is often driving rather than impeding the crossing of barriers, both imaginary and legal. I would also suggest that the nature of Internet experience confuses our in-built sense of social contract because it seems to sit outside society. (Taking the old traffic light analogy I'd say you could predict that English people would more readily jump a virtual red-light than a physical one.)

Curti asserts that she acknowledges that viewing these images is "child abuse by proxy". Oddly though the consequences of accepting this particular logic of culpability by proxy are not widely applied in our society. If they were, consumers could in theory be punished for providing a market for companies that exploit and impoverish around the globe. 

Curti has had the local priest exorcise her family home and plans to renew her wedding vows with her husband on his release as a free man "in more senses than one".  This should prevent further diabolic visitations of the kind she described in her article: "Once, late at night, when I was working on the home computer for a change, the screen froze and, as I tried to sort out the problem, a new and unfamiliar desktop appeared. It consisted entirely of lurid icons linked to child pornography sites and gave me a terrible fright. It felt like a manifestation of pure evil."  (5/3/04)

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Poor Naomi Wolf has copped a fair bit of criticism for her revelations about how she had to rebuff a pass twenty years ago from Yale professor Harold Bloom. She' been widely censured for  "helping to blur the line between sexual assault and the clumsy grope", and for "crying wolf" no less. It has been pointed out that many female students see brainy professors as fair game and that the feminist movement should "lighten up".

Nabokov made it clear that Lolita seduces Humbert as much as he does her, but as a society we have chosen to set a legal barrier that establishes where the responsibility must lie. If Wolf had been 14 at the time, she would not now be being told to lighten up. The problem is that many university students are a strange form of adult-child hybrid. We think of ourselves as adults when we leave home and go to college, but we not fully aware of the protections we have just surrendered. In this environment the clumsy grope can come as a profound shock and it can take many years for you to figure out what the meaning of it all was. If the institution compounds the betrayal of trust the shock is all the worse.

It seems clear to me that unlike school teachers University academics don't see themselves as surrogate parents with the responsibilities that that implies, even though the intimacy of their teaching role is often remarkably similar to the one that new undergraduates will have recently experienced at school.

When Kaplanoff put his hand on my leg the rebuff I gave him effectively ended my academic ambitions at Cambridge. Although I didn't know it at the time it therefore allowed me to stay longer in Central America and meet V, a genuine bifurcation moment if ever there was one.  As an adult you reflect on how a more mature you could have dealt with the situation with greater aplomb. (And how the perpetrator was just a sad and weak specimen elevated to a position of phoney power by the institution they served.)

Kaplanoff can grope no more. Yet the University never took steps to curb his predation of unsuspecting History undergraduates. It is such a key moment in your transition to adulthood and greater cynicism I can sympathise with Naomi Wolf when she says her brush with Harold Bloom left her plagued by a "moral crisis" and it can indeed take years to fully comprehend the moment and its significance and to put it behind you.

While it's reasonable to tick Naomi Wolf off for outing Harold Bloom in the name of her sex (as Zoe Williams does), she shouldn't necessarily be restricted to making her accusation in her own name alone. There is a wider issue at stake, and it is one of the impunity of institutions that young people trust rather than one of sexual politics. (See also: Catholic Church...) (5/3/04)

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Have been intrigued if not convinced by Douglas Wolk's fanciful article in Salon which suggests that "the greatest inspiration for Borges' work was a phenomenon that wasn't invented until four years after his death in 1986: the World Wide Web."

Wolk proclaims this revelation thus: "Of course! Nothing could be more Borgesian than ignoring linear time; in the meticulously perverse logic of his stories, essays and poems, it's only natural that an author would be influenced by events yet to occur. With the patience and concentration Borges demands, it can be seen that his understanding of the Internet was absolute."

The connection between Borges and the philosophy of the Net is fairly obvious. His is a literary world  with a pervasive, obsessive sense of addition, deletion and omission, of anachronism and counterfeit, a morass of textual tessellation that reads more like commentary than creativity, and it's hard not to get a bit bogged down in maze of fictitious cross-references and superfluous detail.

My first exposure to Borges Library of Babel was in Chapter 14 of Kevin Kelly's Out of Control in 1997. (Kelly says of Borges' tales "They are so absolutely fake that they appear real; they are literate hyperreality")

Back then, in the heady Internet boom-days, rather than seeing the library as a visionary metaphor for the Web, it was possible to enthusiastically imagine that both the Internet and the Library were metaphors for a universe conceived of as an infinite labyrinth of information.

"The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. There are five shelves for each of the hexagon's walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in colour."

Kelly quotes the above passage from original parable but then adds something missing in Borges' conception of an infinite library with its collection of all possible books in which sense is the exception not the rule  - "a geography of coherence".  And this leads him suggest how order might increase over time. "As long as I made sure that I was always climbing uphill, always marching toward books that contained more sense-I would inevitably arrive at the apex of a readable book. As long as I moved through the Library across the contour of increasingly better grammar, then I would inevitably arrive at the hexagon harbouring a wholly grammatical book-the peak."  Kelly names this way of travelling through the hexagons "The Method ...a variety of what we now call evolution". The sub-set of meaningful books on the Library shelves can also stand for DNA and The Method for the seemingly expansive dynamics of the information code of life.

Of course in 2000 we discovered that you could go down as well as up.

Kelly shares Wolk's fascination with how this "private dream" of an imaginative author back in  1941 so clearly matches the ideas that were fashionable at the end of the twentieth century. Another story published in the same set The Garden of Forking Paths contains the idea of a novel that encapsulates all possibilities. This is almost two decades before the term multiverse was first coined and 16 years before Hugh Everett proposed the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.( You have to wonder just how au fait Borges was with the scientific vanguard of his day.)

Kelly extracts yet more juice from the metaphor of the library: "all copies of the library are original...any computer can create a Library of all possible books" an observation about the essential sameness of reality and virtual reality that again didn't penetrate the mainstream until many years after Borges was writing.

And Borges' misplacement of Darwin isn't accidental either  - as an idealist he had ideas about time that undermined the linear sense of evolution. He believed that all authors were aspects of the same author (so plagiarism was meaningless) and denied material reality. He suggests too that we are all figments within a nexus of imagination, a circularity that removes the Creator and reduces everyone and everything to the condition of apparition.

Time was the one word that was forbidden in the Garden of Forking Paths. Yet time is also the key mystery in the cosmos conceived of as an information labyrinth.

It seems that both Kelly and Wolk have latched onto something in Borges writing that he expressed best in his amusing tale of the French poet Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote. Not a copy, but a creative anachronism, a word for word re-telling of Cervantes masterpiece that somehow carries different nuances of meaning simply because of the context in which it was written. It's intriguing to suppose that Borges deliberately set out to create fictions that would be mind-bendingly self-referential and open to anachronistic interpretations. The moment you comment on his texts you enter the labyrinth yourself.

The trouble with Wolk's article is that the Web of today is hardly a shining example of the kind of complex self-organising system that so excited Kevin Kelly, and really won't become so while hyperlinks remain so patently un-self-organising.  

Perhaps I should borrow (plagiarise!) Frode's Cynapse concept and write a story about a possible world where links really are self-organising. I could even make Frode a character in the story!  How Borgesian would that be?  It's often remarked that intellectual progress occurs when thinkers cross-over from one field into another and dabble a bit.  Imagine a PDA that alerted you to the arrival of a new idea, a new connection?  Or a Net that cross-references all of its hyperlinks, so that all its concepts are constantly updated within an electronic map of the affinities.

My own blog would be in there somewhere and when one morning a new affinity emerges the Net would bleep me to let me know. Not only would every word in my blog be hyperlinked in the traditional sense, but each link could become part of a self-organised Web of conceptual relationships. An intermediate stage would be a blog where hold sections could be highlighted as belonging to particular themes, emotions etc.

The idea of the Library of Babel can provide some comfort for perfectionist writers. Indeed Kevin Kelly says it helped him overcome his writers' block. For by definition it contains examples of Madame Bovary and other canonical works that are somehow better or worse than the one that we are familiar with. Any book by any author is after all just a version, as the author is himself. The trick for me with the above story idea will be adding human flesh the the skeleton of the concept - sensuality that is more than mere decoration. This is something that Borges often failed to do himself.  (3/3/04)

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Watched Bodyshock  on Channel 4 - a programme guaranteed to re-awaken any primeval fears of Germans you might have! (The kind that would be familiar to anyone that has watched RTL on a Sunday afternoon or competed for the processed cheese on the breakfast tables of three-star Spanish hotels catering for the tastes of the lumpenproletariat.)  Armin Meiwes is doing 8 years for manslaughter having eaten software engineer Bernd Brandes, a man he met online and shared his cannibalistic fantasy from the victim perspective. People that knew Meiwes, a man that lived alone in a forty room medieval mansion in the village of Wusterfeld, provided their own assessment of the situation in a set of amusing Eurotrash-style interviews - "I wouldn't slaughter a pig if I had enough sausages on the meat rack" muses one. "I don't think I'd go sailing with him again", concludes another.  One of the legal experts reassured us that most of the online cannibals are "just fantasists". Perhaps he  should brush up on his Kant, whose strict assertion that morals should be about what we think not just what we do is relentlessly applied these days to paedophiles, if not to person-munchers.

The barbarian race came in for some more stick shortly afterwards in The Bunker, the film we chose to fall asleep to.  It's about a group of fleeing German soldiers that hide in a spooky concrete bunker on the Germany-Belgium border in late 1944 and fall prey to...well, something. Themselves probably. The scriptwriters have obviously played too much Castle Wolfenstein. A pair of alternative supernatural explanations are suggested, but in the end it all seems to be study of claustrophobia-enhanced paranoia and because they're German soldiers we couldn't really care less when they start to drop. Oddly, all of these guilt-ridden members of the Wehrmacht have regional  British accents, except their Lieutenant, who starts off with a standard received German officer accent but then sort of gives up. The surname of the actor playing him is Kunz, so he may have felt obliged to have a go. (2/3/04)

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Watched the astounding film Russian Ark on Saturday Night, quickly overcoming any doubts we'd had after reading the TV listing review which had inflated our expectations with epithets like tour de force only to prick them by concluding with the phrase "potentially tedious". All the early signs pointed to the fact that this had potential to be one of those films that mugs you for the best part of two hours of your life in the name of a single artistic conceit...but, fascinatingly, it  wasn't.

Most discussions I've since read of why this essentially plotless movie is so captivating seem to focus on the technique of its filming, in itself apparently the core concept. Roger Ebert described it as "one of the best sustained ideas I have ever seen on the screen".

The viewpoint we will follow throughout awakes from darkness. This is "the stranger", apparently an avatar of Sokurov himself. He quickly finds a marginally less spectral companion to follow him around St Petersburg's Hermitage museum, an eighteenth century French Marquis who at first seems bemused with his sudden grasp of Russian. Both of these personages are phantasmal, but the Marquis seems able to interact better with the occupants of the museum. These have been collected from two centuries of Russian history, the significant and the less significant, and are witnessed taking part in intricately-staged scenes that are alternatively intimate and grandiose.

The uniqueness of the viewing experience quickly becomes apparent if you haven't already been tipped off - cinematographer Tillman Büttner picked up his Steadycam and filmed the whole thing in one unbroken 96 minute take. The camera choreography is just masterful. Cast and crew had just four hours of one day to get this right. Apparently it was a case of third time lucky - bringing the familiar stresses of the photo-me booth to contemporary cinema!

Many reviewers have asked "what's the point?" - if traditional film montage had been used instead of this uninterrupted digital journey the whole thing would be fairly humdrum they say. I think this is a valid criticism only if the technique had been employed for it's own sake, or indeed simply to make some esoteric point about the philosophy of cinema (It was Eisenstein after all that first developed the techniques of editing.) My own view though is that the flawless linearity of the action has been undertaken as a deliberate contrast with the historical discontinuity of the scenes we traverse.

On one level Russian Ark is costume drama without the drama - and yet the temporally-disjointed scenes, both the small-scale and the grand set pieces, have instances of narrative sense that can be construed from observation.

Now perhaps my own visits to this remarkable institution in 1984 and 1985 and my current fascination with non-linearity combined to boot-strap my attentiveness on this occasion, but they can't be the sole explanation for the ultimately seductive nature of this film, because Veronica felt the same way. So it seems that the subject matter does matter too, and so do both the central and the myriad of peripheral performances. In the end it's all simply mesmerising, although there are one or two unlively moments early on.

I remember how Yuri, our likeable guide to the Hermitage in 1985 expressed his enthusiasm for the museum in largely quantitative terms - the unfathomable number of paintings and windows, the vast internal distances. When I was 17 I wrote an essay which pondered why the Russians had this apparent obsession with quantity over quality. Indeed the Hermitage is itself something of a triumph of technical attainments over the artistic - there's no other great collection that I can recall that fills wall space in quite the same way, masterpiece literally piled on top of masterpiece. Sokurov's film might itself be an elegy to this peculiarly Russian idiosyncrasy. Its form does suggest that its creators were mighty pleased with the 1300m of corridors that are crossed without mishap, the 2000+ extras and the multiplicity of their cues, the details of costume and scene that have been realised almost to excess. You certainly can't see this movie without speculating about all the planning and logistics that went into it.

It's not really a film about the art inside the old Winter Palace either. The Marquis pauses to study (and to smell) one or two great canvasses, a Rubens, an El Greco, but most of the time you catch distant dusky impressions of mythological representations in a grid of rectangles, like TV sets in a shop window. The experience of not being able to find quite the right position for an unblemished viewpoint usually because of bad lighting from above is also accurately reproduced!

The Russians are natural melancholics like the Argentinians, with the added advantage of their murmured, ruminant speech. (The dead-pan, crescendo-less delivery often seems out of synch with the implied emotions of the English subtitles.) These two nations also share a profound sense of having been painfully displaced from Parisian civilisation at some point in their history. (Call it chippiness - but not of the Australian variety.) Russian Ark expresses this angst most powerfully with the plaintive words "Farewell Europe"!  with which it concludes, leaving you to ponder how Sokurov himself feels about the way the pre-Soviets paradoxically translated their inferiority complex into grandeur unmatched even in Paris. (The presence of Peter the Great amongst all these historical figures is apparently anachronistic as he died 32 years before the construction of the Winter Palace had begun, and yet somehow essential as the founding father of the cultural vanity of the Russian elite.)

I have concluded that the other point to filming continuously in this way was to convey to the viewer a palpable and really quite spooky sense of what it's like to be a ghost within your own history. (I've always felt that the Russians are one of those nations with this sensation of being like fishes drifting through the wreck of the TItanic.)

In the final "scenes" the grand ball concludes and the crowds head for the exits, histories and fashions converge on the extraordinary double-sided staircase. You only have to have driven down the M4 towards London at Heston one Sunday evening or navigated the narrow stairwells of a West End tube station to understand the unpredictable stop-start dynamics of the crowd. My first guess was that this was the hardest to get right and the one where the first two takes probably came unstuck. But then I did the mental arithmetic and worked out that if the first two takes had taken 90 minutes each, they wouldn't have had enough time left to do the third and final take. I've read that Büttner used a ramp in the ballroom, but how did he seemlessly mount whatever device it was that allowed him to smoothly, and increasingly speedily, slide backwards through the oncoming masses?

Inevitably I soon found myself blowing the dust off the coffee-table-sized Museum guide I bought in Leningrad back in 1984. V and I sat down to admire the selection of paintings therein - she loves the breakfast-piece still-life painted by Pieter Claesz.  Another great mealtime scene in the museum was painted early in his career by Velasquez, a kind of hybrid between a still life and a drama of peasant sociability, a combination which came to be known as the bodegón style.  Tiepolo's Maecenas presenting the liberal arts to Augustus is almost impossible to perceive as frozen time.  Even the statues seem charged with incipient animation. Then there's Domenico Feti's stunning portrait of an old thesp and Francesco Melzi's Flora.  Leonardo's Benois and Litta Madonnas are there too - both remind me of my own tendency to stare out of windows behind the foreground scenes I ought to be paying attention to! .(1/3/04

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The case of Anne Winterton has similarities with that of Kilroy. The offending party is unarguably odious and has a track record suggesting that there's more to their xenophobic pathology than a single indiscretion.  Both sought recourse to a "right to free speech" yet neither had the gravitas or credibility to survive long in rarefied air of the moral high ground.  What has been at stake however in both instances is the right to be rude, without which I do think our democracy would be diminished.  Offensive people, somewhat like drunks, reveal important aspects of the truth, albeit in a distorted dimension. At this rate we'll soon be living in a world like the Utopia imagined in Demolition Man where on the spot fines are issued for verbal misdemeanours in public spaces and in the workplace.  (28/2/04)

I note that Mick Hume's editorial piece in the Times is also concerned about the thought police:

"Our society has not become more racist. It has, however, become far more racialised. Racial discrimination may be relatively rare, but racial awareness is everywhere. Racial significance can now be attached to almost any issue, word or deed. An allegation of racism has become a powerful all-purpose shortcut to stigmatise whatever you find offensive...Racism has been turned into a petty matter of personal morality, the standard by which we are supposed to judge whether somebody is on the side of Good or Evil, a sort of lowest common denominator for polite society....I come from a different sort of left-wing tradition: one that opposes all discrimination, and also defends absolute freedom of speech; one that believes in both the right to be equal, and the right to be offensive." (1/3/04)

At the time of the Kilroy story Michael Howard commented that it's "absolutely wrong to talk about people in categories". 

There are obvious parallels here with Margaret Thatcher's famous remark that society doesn't exist. Except that the new Conservative leader seems to be making the equally absurd statement that culture doesn't exist...or rather we'd be better off pretending that it doesn't. Travel writers beware if he comes to power and turns this prohibition into law.

Let's wander into taboo-land and talk about people in categories for a bit. The selection below should reveal what the real problem is.

Few people will agree with every one of them. Some, may follow Michael Howard and disagree with all of them, on principle. Yet many will find it hard to disagree with them all and indeed will recognise that they themselves rely on similar statements for encapsulating their experiences of, and interactions with, groups of more than one.

- Brazilians like football
- English women are frigid
- Black people have a natural sense of rhythm
- Spanish people eat late
- Italians gesticulate a lot
- Muslims are religious fanatics
- Americans are knee-jerk patriots
- Indians are good at maths
- Australians are chippy
- Gypsies are thieves
- English men are repressed homosexuals
- The French don't use soap

Now of course you can claim to know a Spanish couple that have dinner at 6pm every night, but we wouldn't have evolved an innate capacity for forming often useful stereotypes if one or two exceptions always disproved the rule. There's another innate aspect of human social psychology at work here. Our "reciprocity calculator" which we use to decide how similar other people are and therefore how worthy of our concern and altruism.

Some journalists took particular exception to the Anne Winterton Chinese joke because they explained that the reason it was sick/funny was the implied racist subtext: Chinese people are different from us so we can be a bit more callous when referring to their mishaps and also remarkably similar to each other, an interchangeability that can further diminish our sympathy for their individual suffering.

The examples above are not themselves interchangeable. Each one has a slightly different relationship with the truth. Sometimes there are also underlying factual errors. For example, black people's sense of rhythm is most probably cultural rather than "natural". On the other hand some are more statistically accurate than others. For example, there are quite possibly more gesticulating Italians than frigid English women.

Clearly though these are not "pure" factual/statistical assessments. We are much more likely to have a negative view about a group that we are already indisposed to or one we feel is just very different to us. Some stereotypes can preserve themselves better than other in the face of contradictory evidence. Some can obviously play a role in replicating intolerant attitudes around society every time they are made, though the exact nature of this amplification effect is unclear - in the same way that sex and violence have a reciprocal relationship with the media that portrays them and the culture they are inextricably embedded in.

It's perhaps another example of the Sorites Paradox - how many bits make a heap? How many hairs does a bald man need to be not-bald? How many gypsies need to stop thieving before the stereotype is dispelled? I'm almost certain that some category descriptions will be more resilient than others and that the thresholds at which the majority of people agree with the statement will vary according to the majority experience of the group in question, formed from both individual experience and the experience of the culture they belong to.

Hollywood's way of dealing with this seems to make all brilliant astrophysicists black on the grounds that this will help break down prejudices. But if you understand how they are formed, you'll suspect that this is a largely ineffective approach. We are exposed to enough real astrophysicists (and alternative representations of them) to preserve the bias that  "scientists are educated white males" which will undermine the positive discrimination. A technique that might have worked a few years ago is one we are building collective immunity to - we're all increasingly culture-savvy and can detect when image-makers are addressing our preconceptions with signs that overtly contradict them.

Somehow, we need to find a rational way to preserve our ability to form these kind of judgements without simply deciding that some of them are simply off-limits, taboo.  We can't call everyone that talks about people in categories a bigot.  Yet this is what appears to be happening now.

The fact is that it's not the comment itself but the emotion and intention behind it that matters. We have to take this into account when we decide how offended we are or how offended we allow others to be. Characters like Winterton and Kilroy are shamed not because what they said was utterly untruthful but because most people realise that these kind of remarks carry an undeclared payload of irrational prejudice.  (3/3/04)

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Spiked have published another one of their polemical pieces - Helen Guldberg's essay entitled "Why humans are superior to apes".

She takes us through an overlong yet selective survey of current research on animal intelligence (focussing on self-awareness and communications skills) in order to make the point that we humans are in imminent danger of losing sight of the "exceptional nature of our own capacities and achievements."  She blames this on the combined effects of the Disneyfication of animals and the animalomorphism propagated by certain scientists and philosophers. (John Gray and Peter Singer are singled out for abuse.)

Hold on though. Jane Goodall is not some sort of anti-humanist and our species isn't being consciously denigrated by exploring our affinities with the rest of the natural world. An understanding of our closest biological relatives can provide many valuable insights into human psychological predispositions (as well as being useful in itself). The broader quest for understanding of our instinctual selves and their relation to our biological heritage is also clearly a valid one.

The problem is that much of the output from this research is being used to feed a wider media obsession with biological determinism  At the extreme end of this there is a group of people that would rather not be considered responsible agents at all and will quite latch on to anything they can find in the natural sciences that apparently undermines the notion of free will.)

Now while a chimp couldn't paint the Mona Lisa , nor could most examples of humankind, past and present. This doctrine of human exceptionality depends quite a bit on exceptional humans. There's a fair proportion of contemporary humanity that isn't especially insightful or imaginative.

Yet mankind's baser biological urges are generally mediated through individual reason and cultural norms. While a chimp can quite possibly feel the emotional pain of shame, it almost certainly lacks our more considered alternative, long-term guilt.  Where the exceptional nature of our intelligence becomes clear is that as a culture we can consider our ethical relationship to apes in ways they would simply not be able to comprehend.

Now, a well-trained adult bonobo will nevertheless outperform an average human toddler at self-recognition in a mirror and also with basic sign manipulation - which is one reason why human rights are not dished out on intellectual merit as Guldberg's argument implies. This way lies all the painful legal deontology associated with arguments about rights - my own view is that we should have the duty not to harm certain animals rather than granting them an associate share in our rights.

It's as if our kind of intelligence has potential, cosmologically. I also believe that ape intelligence lacks this special relationship with the information content of the universe that we have. Nevertheless we shouldn't forget that human intelligence is part of something bigger - the complex system formed by the Earth's biosphere. (The Gaia theory has been recently revitalised by the discovery that algae have evolved to provide the particles that clouds need to form over water.)

It remains the case today that nobody has yet come up with a definitive explanation for how and why human consciousness evolved. Guldberg quotes from Karl Marx's comments on our unique abilities: "'What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality."  Yet when bee-like intelligence is capable of constructing complex architectures without imagination, the mystery of the value of our unique form of sentience remains. It's also pretty clear to see that we have an enhanced capacity for cruelty and harm along with all the benefits - after all, we don't need to have a huge discussion about "the perfectibility of apes".

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Duende by Jason Webster:
This is the story of the recently-graduated Oxford arabist that runs off to Spain join to gypsies in a quest for the ecstatic emotional state or the half-glimpsed vision of beauty known to Flamenco aficionados as duende.

Overall, Webster is better at describing his unique personal autobiographical incidents than such standard big ticket items of the Spanish itinerary as bull fights, Benidorm and the Alhambra. Meanwhile, his constant musings on Lorca and death during the more mundane parts of his stay in Granada are examples of the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual travel journal writing.

This is also a tale about making the most of being marginal in a foreign land - a kind of  Englishman's guide to going native even when the actual natives seem determined to ignore you. Starting with his inauspicious selection of Alicante as a starting point, Webster never really finds the path that will take him where he says he wants to go, but does spin a passably good tale about his often bewildered saunterings around some of the less frequented corners of the Iberian garden.

His failure to break through socially in Spain almost makes you suspect that the eccentric old English lady he tags along with in Granada is pure invention. "Grace" has a certain phantasmal, fairy-godmother-like quality about her. You half expect Jason to admit at the end she was the secret friend he invented to help him cope with the loneliness. In truth the whole book reads like an odd infusion of factual and fictional styles, but it doesn't really work as fiction because the dynamics of Webster's self-development are not especially interesting.

I might have enjoyed it all more if it wasn't for that photo inside the cover. (The one in which he looks like the missing third Righteous Brother!) When Webster sums up his personal gains as "I knew something in me had been allowed to develop in Spain" I kept thinking, yes, it was your inner poseur. Nevertheless, compared with Touching the Void, Duende is an easy read and Webster an affable enough companion, able to describe events both inside and outside of himself in a far more engaging fashion than Joe Simpson.

At first the stylistic gauche-ness seems appropriate to the youthful right of passage we are being taken through, but after you've been attached to Webster for more than a few dozen pages you begin to wonder whether this lack of complexity is actually innate. The two most knowing characters he meets in Spain, Grace and Eduardo, make very similar and telling remarks about him. Grace says she thinks the guitar is playing him instead of him playing the guitar, and Eduardo says he thinks Webster wants everything "off the shelf".  Indeed everyone he meets seems to get a piece out of him. Bored housewife Lola gets the biggest chunk. And while Webster is proud to call doomed gypsy car thief Juan his friend, he doesn't leave you with the impression that Juan thought of him as much more than an expendable look-out.

He's the central character but the quest for duende leads him, rather than him following it.

Ultimately Webster decides that he's just not cut out for a lifetime submerged in the counter-culture, nor has he either the genius or the obsessive discipline to be a true Flamenco. He's even stopped listening to the tapes and craves a return to silence. He also imagines that he's rumbled the extreme emotions of the South as powerful but ultimately shallow. "Perhaps, even,  my search had never really been for duende after all" he lamely concludes. It's as if Sir Percival had turned round at the end of his quest for the Holy Grail and said "This sucks! I'm off back to Camelot. This Grail thing was just a metaphor after all man. Hmm, but at least I'll be able to live off all the bling bling from promoting my image as a handsome knight"!

Webster's bio tells us how he now spends half his time in Britain and half in Spain. After all that snorting of the Bolivian marching powder, thieving of cars and strumming of guitars (el rasgueo) he has found the middle way between the home counties and Al Andaluz. He's English, a guiri after all.

As for me, I am being drawn back towards The Sun Also Rises for a third time. Trouble is my second reading of it in '94 was a disappointment, but then I have seen so much more of Euskadi and Navarra since then. Hemmingway was after all, as Webster himself notes on his last page, the man for whom Spain was "the ONLY country". Maybe Hemmingway was one of those rare types who could stop the electron spin of Spanish authenticity. Webster's story belongs in that indeterminate world where the pure and the pastiche have coalesced.

Duende remains an intriguing concept. I've used it myself in the past to refer to the indescribable beauty certain people possess that could never be captured by an artless photographer. It's the uncanny ability to absorb the physical and intellectual space around you into the core of your being and then to project it all back outwards into the world. New-Agers inevitably resort to terms like "invisible energy" in accounting for this. (26/2/04)

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A new survey has discovered that Brits are one of the most secular nations on the planet.  Of course this is nonsense. We're not properly secular at all, just too busy and too dull to have beliefs.  We carry on being nice enough sorts without worrying ourselves overmuch if there's any foundation to our ethical behaviour. Just like when we form a queue for no good reason.  The issue of whether the rules need a rulemaker just isn't such a big issue in this country.

I was pleased to hear that Dr Jonathan Miller had one of his hissy fits at the studios when making the What The World Thinks Of God  TV event for BBC2. "About 20 minutes into the thing..I just thought: I must get out of this, I'm drowning in shit." BBC execs tried to talk him into coming back after he unfastened his microphone and stomped off.  "They said it would deform the programme. I can't think how - the programme was deformed from the start." (26/2/04)

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Yesterday the Guardian published David Goodhart's essay entitled "Discomfort of Strangers" which outlines his take on the solidarity v diversity thesis and the "progressive dilemma".

Goodhart reinforces an idea that evolutionary psychologists would feel pretty comfortable with - that each of us has a highly sensitive reciprocity calculator crunching away somewhere on the circuit boards of our social being. 

He effectively suggests that you can predict how much welfare a state will provide just by analysing how socially and ethnically homogenous it is. That Scandinavian countries like Norway have such high levels of institutionalised sharing is as much to be expected as the absence of welfare in a diverse, individualistic society like the USA. (Neat, but if you contemplate America as it is as opposed to how it would like to be seen it can often look fairly un-individualistic and un-diverse. And how does this theory help us to understand how we got to the welfare state historically and how developing nations can follow the same route today?) 

The fact that only 46% of people "in poverty" in the United States are non-Hispanic whites adds another important variable to the calculation  - Otherness.  What Goodhart doesn't add, but I think follows from these premises, is that certain types of otherness, such as in-groups with their own exclusive patterns of solidarity and sharing are likely to be discounted against when we conduct our reciprocity calculations.  Whether these are the Jews and Gypsies of history or the unassimilated asylum-seekers of today, modern atomised urban-dwellers will factor in their observation that these people generally belong to internally-homogenous sub-cultures with their own value and risk-pooling systems. This will impact their assessment of how similar they feel they are to fellow citizens that appear to belong to these categories.

His conclusion is that national communities are not as anachronistic as some might fancifully suggest. Some sort of glue is needed to hold together our civil systems of compulsory generosity, and if it can't be ethnicity it has to be history and shared values - so, Goodhart reckons that we need to recognise that constraints exist on our willingness to share which is why the current trend towards ever greater diversity poses a serious dilemma for "progressives".

Goodhart makes some other interesting observations along the way: "Most of the tax paid out by citizens comes back to them in one form or another"  hmmm. This "one form or another" part is unreassuring. (25/2/04)

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Read an interesting piece by Alain De Botton in the Telegraph Magazine from Saturday entitled Losers of the World Unite. I wonder whether De Botton is really as morose and frumpish as his on-page persona suggests. You're right there with him "staring out the window at rain-sodden streets" when you read his prose. He's the literary equivalent of Jamie Oliver - the output can seem fresh and tasty, but the delivery mannered and irritating. 

Anyway, this piece is a bit of an appetiser for his forthcoming book/series entitled Status Anxiety where he makes the oft-overlooked point that much of our wealth accumulation is done in the name of wanting to be loved and respected by our peers. He asks us to consider missionaries and explorers who invariably put up with startling material privations and yet at no stage do they look at themselves in the mirror and think "what a total loser!"  It seems obvious that this new work follows on from the points he made in The Consolations of Philosophy with the aide of Epicurus and Nietzsche, but this time he turns to Adam Smith to add intellectual weight to his critique of our often neurotic quest for rank and distinction, though he admits that the status-preservation instinct probably evolved to help preserve our adherence to a shared value system.

De Botton suggests that up to now relief  from status anxiety could only be achieved by the very wise or the very virtuous like Socrates or Jesus, but in doing so partially undermines his own point that it's really a measure of how we feel about ourselves and more specifically how loved we feel.  Wealth funds hedonistic pleasure up to a point, but beyond that it also funds status (less prone to diminishing returns than mere pleasure), so even though we can't take it with us when we go, it was never an end in itself anyway. We use the acquisition of material things as a surrogate for the affection and respect of others.

However, it occurs to me that an all-consuming and securely mutual love can also become a surrogate for the attention and opinion of the rest of humanity. Perhaps this is another extreme psychological syndrome that De Botton will be warning us against in his next recipe for middlebrow philosophical chicken soup?  (24/2/04)

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Watched a grotty remake of The Time Machine directed by Simon Wells, who seems to have been more concerned to produce a politically-correct version of the beautiful 1960 classic made by George Pal rather than returning to the original novella by his own Great Grandfather.  Time travel movies provide film critics with a free opportunity to fill their opening paragraphs with their individual take on all the fatigued objections about logical paradoxes etc.  Now in theory, this is one time travel narrative that should avoid all this because the traveller goes forwards not backwards, but for some reason the scriptwriters agreed with Paul Auster that you would only ever go to the trouble to build one of these things to travel back in time. 

In fact Guy Pearce builds his brassy contraption to go back and prevent the murder of his fiancée, but discovers in a scene reminiscent of Groundhog Day that her demise has been sealed by the mere existence of his machine which would never have been made if she hadn't perished. With this the writers behind this rather pointless remake clearly believe they've bolted the logical door shut before pushing their scientist forward several aeons into the fanciful world of the Eloi. That the blonde and blue-eyed Californians of the future have been replaced with racially-indeterminate Vin Diesel loo-alikes is just a bit too self-conscious a shift from the original.  The less said about Jeremy Irons' Uber-Morlock the better.

It's all indicative of how the future can no longer provide quite the same degree of either hope or anxiety that it could just 40 years ago, let alone when Wells was fretting over the prospect of human decline and deracination. Hollywood can't imagine how the future will be anything other than the present with more gizmos. (The imaginative legacy of Philip K. Dick is the closest you ever get to a vision of dystopia.)  The calamity which is required here to distort the default future resulting from America's manifest destiny to continue to rule this planet and eventually colonise the whole universe is a bizarrely mutton-headed one - the moon breaks up and chunks of it fall to Earth. If you have nothing useful to say about the future, then Auster is probably right about this genre.

Perhaps then Les Visteurs remains the definitive study of the forward itinerary because it satirises modern manners using hapless visitors from the medieval past.

In Oracle Night the narrator is asked to write a script for a new version of The Time Machine and having made the customary complaints about the genre produces a manuscript which is rejected by studio bosses as "too cerebral".  I wonder whether he was referring to this movie?  Auster's objections to time travel stories did make me consider whether it might be possible to construct a narrative in which the paradoxes commonly objected to are held at bay by framing the action within non-sequential multiverse.

Nevertheless, this move outside common sense cosmology would be seriously challenging for any scriptwriter. Most narratives depend on sequential progress for their entertainment value!  It's interesting that the notion of infinite space is intuitive, whilst that of infinite possibility isn't. 

I guess Dr Who was implicitly (and inadvertently) multiversal because over the years it depicted far too many alien attacks on the same part of the late twentieth century to have been absorbed consecutively by the same timestream. The problem is that in a multiverse intervention is probably pointless. Thwarting the Daleks means following one fork in the path, inevitably leaving behind others where everyone is exterminated and they roll onwards to conquer the universe!

Borges also believed in an infinite labyrinth of bifurcating times and possibilities. Being a reader or indeed a writer was the art of following a revelatory thread through this garden of forked paths. Reading Borges Nabokov said he had a sense of repeatedly finding a gateway to something fabulous and yet consistently found nothing of substance behind it. What would he have made of the Matrix trilogy?  I think he was wrong about Borges. Some things are beyond full comprehension but you can catch glimpses, like a blindsighted patient can perceive the outside world without actually "seeing" it. "The imminence of a revelation that does not take place is perhaps the aesthetic fact" is how Borges himself put it. 

The Matrix on the other hand can be cherished by people who like to experience the qualia of profundity without having to do any of the thinking, before or after.  Borges is one of those figures who will be more widely remembered more for what he thought than what he wrote. It's the underlying philosophy rather than any one work which is his true contribution, his masterpiece. The same can't be said for the Wachowski brothers. They have not only missed an opportunity to bring Platonist and Idealist thinking back into the mainstream, they have missed it for anyone else who would like to do a better job of it, because any follow-ups in this genre will inevitably be written off as derivative. (21/2/04)

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Have decided to abandon Touching the Void. This is a story that needed the film-makers art to rescue it from the bluntness of the storyteller. There's just no poetry in Simpson's prose. He portrays himself and his companion as vertical pedestrians. Perhaps appropriately I have turned instead to Jason Webster's quest for Duende. (I was almost put off by his publicity photo inside the cover - he looks like a lost Righteous Brother!)  

Looking over by old notes on Antonio Damasio who describes consciousness as "the sense of self in the act of knowing". He distinguishes this from wakefulness and low-level attention and then breaks it down into Core Consciousness (the transient re-created sense of now), Extended Consciouness (one's identity over time) and the Proto-Self (mental representations of the living body). Emotional states are not filtered out of consciousness like wakefulness and attention as he suspects emotion is key to understanding human reason - you can rationally control the expressions of your emotions, but not the emotions themselves. "The presence of you is the feeling of what happens when your being is modified in the act of apprehending something."

Read Richard Girling's rather silly piece in the Sunday Times Magazine about our incipient fertility crisis in Europe. It's a Malthusian time bomb in reverse he warns us, but then Malthus is a byword for reaching the wrong conclusions from the data, so we shouldn't expect inverting him to resolve the basic flaws in his reasoning.

Sex will sell anything today Girling says,  "except it's own naturally-designated purpose". Sorry Richard, that stuff the nuns told you about the purpose of sex being procreation was plain wrong. You could just about get away with the argument that the purpose of ejaculation and fertilisation is making babies, but "sex" as a set of evolved behaviours is bound up with so many other aspects of our emotional and social being.  It's just more obvious now that we are obsessed with our privates because the psychology has been replicated into culture in a multiplicity of forms.

Girling's scare story is also ultimately weaker than Malthus' one because  the impending crisis he alerts us to is one of institutions not the sort of impending human catastrophe that Malthus warned us about. It's also one that will inevitably be of short duration - a couple of generations of disconnect between social reality and traditional institutions such as pensions, but nothing Governments can't legislate their way through. The signs of how the transition will pan out are already visible - women will be able to have children later and later.  Hey, we might even try sending our over-60s across to the Middle East to fight all our wars for us! That should cull them a bit. (It all reminds me of Logan's Run with its mandatory death at 30.)

In truth the world needs fewer people. We required larger populations after we industrialised to provide the labour for production and then to buy more and more stuff to keep capitalism and the culture of expanding choice going, but the planet just can't take it any more. We need to downsize and it's not the developing world that's going to take the lead here is it?

Another spurious claim made in the article is that living with your parents is contraceptive - what about Mediterranean Europe and Mama's pasta then?  Girling is worried that our falling birth rates in Europe will tip the balance in favour of the USA. This part of the article is actually very like the kind of nonsense the Americans themselves were writing about Japan about 15 years ago. It's only one level removed from hysterical Catholic-phobia and other examples of racialist claptrap that have popped up throughout modern history - the dark heathens and heretics are outbreeding us! In the case of Americans, we only have to remember that quality not quantity is important. Half of them don't even believe in Evolution as it is. And I'm sure most of the breeding is going on in the flyover states anyway.

It's fun to look through some of my old notebooks. In January 2002 I was contemplating the nature of good and evil. I reached the conclusion that Good rarely manifests itself in as pure a form as Evil.  Importantly they are not equal and opposite principles, in fact Evil is quite often a direct by-product of something good. If we agree that Evil is a "potential for catastrophe within any system" and that the possibility of Evil exists within anything that could be described as good.  This alone explains why it's hard to have one without the other in our cosmos.  I read today that "commuters who use the Newcastle Metro system will be able to keep chatting and texting underground. This is the first time that complete mobile coverage has been provided to a UK underground metro system" - surely  a clear-cut example of the inseparability of good and evil outcomes from the same set of starting intentions?!   (20/2/04)

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El Greco at the National Gallery: V isn't really a huge fan of El Greco. The religious subject matter and the colour palettes remind her too much of the mawkishly pious stuff that Jorge Mario and other Guatemalan artists of similar sensibility produce. 

There's a cartoon-like quality to some of these paintings, especially the moist, upward-gazing, anime eyes of the penitent Mary Magdalene. It's interesting to see the sequence of Christ causing mayhem in the Temple scenes he painted - the old men have such frothy beards!  Surfer and I both see the strands linking the The Opening of the Fifth Seal backwards to sculptors like Michelangelo and forward to later masters like Cezanne (Les Grandes Baigneuses). 

My personal favourites are the View of Toledo and the one from the museum in Glasgow that is of debated attribution - A Lady in a Fur Wrap. This is possibly a secular portrait of El Greco's beautiful long term live-in lover Jeronima de las Cuevas. The Laocoon is also impressive. At this stage in his career El Greco had developed a very personal treatment for ominous skies and has reduced his adopted city to a set of instantly recognisable stylised architectural and topographic signs.

There's nothing here to quite rival the El Entierro del Conde de Ordaz we saw in Toledo or the pointy Hidalgo with his hand across his diaphram that graces El Prado.  V prefers his earlier, scratchier works in burned colours such as the imagined portrait of St Louis.

After dinner we attempt to watch the end of Lado Oscuro Del Corazon 2. I realise that one of the reasons I lost concentration and drifted off to sleep last night was that Oliverio's encounter with Alejandra results in a fifteen minute stream of mamadas intensas that provides a slipping consciousness with precious little sense to hold onto.

"Words don't make love, they make absence", proclaims Oliverio. "Your voice is an empire in space".  But Alejandra can out-bullshit even Oliverio.  Even her own Death is more pretentious and bombastic than his. 

We pause the film to chat and then to sleep and once again fail to get to the end. I have my suspicions now that this is another one of those films that offers an interesting and entertaining voyage to a lousy destination. (18/2/04)

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I'm Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti:
Ammaniti is much less interested in cranking up the suspense than Auster. Having set the scene nicely and prepped us for some chilling revelations, the screen hiding the mystery is wheeled off stage rather suddenly. He's a bit prone to the short sentence. Just like this. ("There was a full moon. It was high and bright. You could see for a long way, as if it were daytime" etc.)

A short synopsis of the story would never have convinced me to read it. The plot and its occupants are all clichés and yet all establish their authenticity in the course of the narrative. I'm not Scared is the kind of book that reviewers tend to describe as "lyrical".  Maybe this is a stock way of describing the stylistic magic that breathes life into such unpromising material.

Sergio, the ringleader of the kidnappers makes an entrance as a pantomime baddy, but is then given some nocturnal monologues that allow us to build up some sympathy for the adult conspirators before everything falls apart for them. Even as seen through young Michele's eyes they fill out into interesting portraits making you almost regret that they are being represented from down below (and across time).

The ending is unnecessarily frantic but I think it will feel better in the cinema - represented rather than reported.

The world of the children is shown to be both innocent and cruel. Indeed if the plot has a key weakness it's that Michele is just a bit too ingenuous for a nine year old, very much a child imagined by an adult, rather than a child remembered as a former self. 

A passage that struck me was the one where Michele and Maria are presented with a new bicycle and a Dancing Barbie respectively.  The toys are a bribe and represent their parents' speculation on forthcoming immoral earnings. Perhaps Ammaniti is deliberately suggesting that the innocent pleasures of our children are often purchased with the suffering of others.  Michele later reflects that his shiny new Red Dragon bike is actually a rip off, because its performance falls short of the expectations generated by it's formerly unattainable appearance.

I was also amused by Michele's description of how he has developed a strategy for dealing with all the monsters that might otherwise disturb his sleep. He mentally boards them all onto a bus before releasing himself into unconsciousness.

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Lado Oscuro del Corazon 2:
Oliverio is back in the underground bars seeking flying women, still unemployed (and since ten years have gone by since we saw him walk out on his advertising job, quite possibly unemployable.), but now also hairless and friendless.

This is Subiela at his exhilarating best. I can't think of any other film-maker that can take the literary portfolios of writers like Borges and the magical realists and transmute them into such enjoyable cinema.

Early on Oliverio gets a call from his old girlfriend Death. She loves to Tango, but warns him that she draws the line at Boleros. She introduces him to a new stalker, Time, who wears a hysterical grey overall with a sci-fi crash helmet (reminiscent of the visiting alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still). Oliverio is also tormented by his personalities (they hang out back at his apartment) and isn't quite the performer in bed that he used to be : "era como jugar el bishar con una soga".

Walking bent double along the street in Buenos Aires Oliverio finds himself confronted by the bosom of a beautiful physicist. When he asks her if she can fly, she responds that she considers it better to "ascend" to a place that's neither up or down. He accepts the compromise. When he later kisses her at his flat he holds a light bulb with her and it glows brightly. Later on in the relationship we watch as the power fades. In the end one of Oliverio's personalities presses the button - ascending just isn't the same as flying. She had "la misma concepcion del ascenso que tiene un jefe de personal..o una esposa".

After a couple more pretenders have been sent into the abyss via the button at his bedside Oliverio leaves behind the landscape of Argentine kitsch and flies off to Barcelona in search of lost voladora Ana.

There are some amusing digs at Spain. His neighbours have parties whenever there's a saint's other words every day. "Que santo nos toca hoy?" Walking through the old town in Barcelona he calls out "Anaaaaaa!" and immediately scores of women appear at shuttered windows and on balconies above.

But then, moments later the Ana he seeks fortuitously appears in the alleyway behind him. When he fails to get airborne with Ana again Time cackles malevolantly "I market a brand of shoes called One Way".

The fantasy female loners that erupt into the lives of Subiela's "street poets" are very unlike the kind of women that frequent the modern urban environments I'm familiar with. Byron had a long search too and quite possibly only found "a flier" in his half-sister Augusta.  (17/2/04)

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Have finished Oracle Night and moved on to I'm not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti. (Io non ho paura) One review I saw described Auster's novel as a page turner within a page-turner. Unfortunately the pages stopped turning on the story within the story and the one on the outer rim proved paradoxically both over-complex and over-simplistic.

Have a discussion with CC how hard it is to deliver a successful pay-off to a story that is rooted in creeping suspense.  The Others does it well. The Innocents which V and I saw late on Saturday night is based on The Turn Of The Screw which has a less clear cut pay-off but the overall supernatural suggestion  is ultimately satisfying. CC saw Unbreakable last night and we agrees that this fails to repeat the sleight of hand achieved by Sixth Sense.

Auster has apparently been obsessed with contingency since reading Sophocles. What brought Oedipus to that crossroads? In Oracle Night he uses "startling conjunctions" to blur everyday reality with a supernatural miasma but unlike Henry James he doesn't make this seem like anything more than a morning mist that gets burned away as the novel wakes up. There seems to be no underlying metaphysics behind his fascination with the arbitrary, though the "words can kill" passage does offer up a hypothesis worth a moment's consideration before you press on to the end. 

The post-modern tessellation of plotlines reaches out beyond the front and back covers, because elements of these carefully blended strands apparently dovetail with incidents in other Auster books and with aspects of Auster's own biographical narrative. (Trause is an anagram)

Yet the conjunctions in this novel would have been less thrilling to me had they not interpenetrated with some in my own world, and Bonilla's novel in particular.  

The artifice behind all this intricacy pokes through the flesh of this novel like the bones of the Holcaust victims who are mentioned with a degree of inevitability in literature emanating from the Brooklyn set.  Reminders about the Holocaust can be like antibiotics - swallow too many and they gradually lose their curative impact.

Blake Morrison wrote this review of Oracle Night in the Guardian:

"It's the story of an object escaping its human agent and wreaking havoc. It's also an allegory about the danger of words - their capacity to tell the future and determine reality...There's a price to pay for this self-referencing and auto-textuality. Even by Auster's standards, Oracle Night is a claustrophobic and involuted book. He has always liked to play games (including using a character called Paul Auster), but The New York Trilogy, The Music of Chance and Mr Vertigo are at best expansive and demotic - whereas Oracle Night is busy but confined, a hamster in a wheel, a writer spinning endlessly round his own's the writers in it - acting as conduits, "a porous membrane through which all the invisible forces of the world could pass, a nexus of airborne electrical charges transmitted by the thoughts of feelings of others'" - who are the ghosts." (Hmm Bonilla also mentions a Cuban writer called Juan Bonilla in Nadie Conoce a Nadie!)

It seems at the outset that Auster wants to run with the idea of someone that, like a Haitian zombi, decides to make a clean break with his former non-Zombie existence, in this instance due to close encounter with a near death experience.

AA Gill wrote about Zombies yesterday: "Not only is the zombie relieved of sadness, it has no morals or ethics to confuse life; no guilt, no responsibility. Think Jeffrey Archer with a duster and rhythm. But there’s a but; there’s always a but. You must never ever give a zombie salt. Their food must be as bland as their emotions, for salt will bring it all back: the past, the problems, the anguish, the raucous bloody humanity." (16/2/04)

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Continue with Oracle Night in the bedroom armchair.  I do love novels which can't easily be made into screenplays.

The narrator Sydney agrees to do a movie script himself, a reworking of The Time Machine, which he criticises for being logically flawed. Auster seems secure when he states that the moment when time travel becomes possible time itself would be tainted with interlopers and hence destroyed: "Instead of being a continuous progression of discreet moments inching forward in one direction only  (This is the key challengeable assumption here) it would crumble into a vast, synchronistic blur". 

Yet I recall that David Deutsch got round with this problem using the  many worlds variant of Quantum Theory which shows that other times are instances of other universes. You first have to concede that space time only flows in relation to subjective human consciousness. (15/2/04)

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Oracle Night is a novel about startling conjunctions and it certainly startles me that Auster has included the near miss with falling object plot device that showed up in Juan Bonilla's Nadie Conoce a Nadie, a book written a decade earlier. 

This is especially intriguing as Bonilla cited Auster as one of his key influences in an interview. Is the admiration mutual then? 

I enjoyed the part early in Auster's book where the narrator experiences "double consciousness" whilst socialising in his friend's apartment, a venue he has chosen that same day to duplicate in fiction as the home of the lead character of the novel he's just started.

There's a bit of Alhambra tile geometry going on here - stories within stories weaving over and under one another but which one is on top and which one underneath?

Auster uses the conceit of a writer expanding a plot incident from another novel (in this case the idea that someone who somehow narrowly avoids a highly contingent demise would want to discard their "previous" existence the moment afterwards) and in doing so does exactly this because the unexpanded version of the plot cropped up in Bonilla's earlier novel. (13/2/04)

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The Dreamers:  The story belongs to the genre in which impressionable ex-pats have formative experiences whilst living la boheme alone in foreign parts where everyone is just a little bit more fucked up than back home. Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin and Hemmingway's The Sun also Rises are landmark examples, likewise semi-autobiographical. There's also a bit of the "Mr Ripley" sub-genre: the principal character is briefly admitted into someone else's Arcadian lifestyle only to be ultimately detected as an intruder, chewed up and spat out. In Mr Ripley it was a couple but in other variants you get a whole family-load of hyperreal eccentrics to feel painfully excluded and personally-diminished by.

This is one of those movies whose beauty is best appreciated when it has its clothes on.  The first half hour is rather like a mesmerising strip-tease, but thereafter the panties are down around the ankles and the mystery simply drains away.  Here too a musical soundtrack is made to come to the rescue of the theatrically naked, disguising the essential silliness of this situation, but an hour is a long time to keep up the provocative gyrations.

The gratuitous pair of breasts phenomenon that (if we're honest) we'd have to admit ruined all pretensions to credibility that The Swimming Pool might have had, is at play again here - indeed from the moment they've made their dramatic entrance they're practically a fourth member of the principal cast.

The overall attitude to nudity is oddly inconsistent though. Whilst breasts are given carte-blanche to be scene-stealers penises can only occupy centre stage unashamedly when absolutely plot-critical.  This is no porn flick disguised as art however. There's really only one sex scene proper (which isn't a threesome) and erotic frisson beyond this is pretty limited.

Whilst the two boys are appropriately wet behind the ears, their vulnerability and behind-the-eyes emoting isn't really matched by Isabel. We both felt that she comes over as a bit too womanly. (Eva Green is 23 and frankly it shows).  She's on the intriguing side of pretty, but lacks the X factor that would have made us completely identify with Matthew's fascination.

Bertolucci's camerawork knowingly circumscribes - we often find ourselves looking at parts of people or tilted and constricted interiors. The script too seems to be an abridged version of a  more complete narrative. The part of Theo feels especially underwritten.

In Cold Mountain you could sense the underlying presence of the indifferent fiction on which it was based, and here the relationship with a literary original can also be felt. Gilbert Adair was both the author of the novel and the scriptwriter but the transition, but the coherence you get with many writer-director works is tantalisingly just missing in The Dreamers. I don't know this for sure, but I sense that the novel must have been written in the first person (Adair has said the novel was loosely based on aspects of his own life.)  So a narrative that is mediated through someone else's recollections and consciousness is on the silver screen presented as fact and stripped of its interesting partiality. 

V noticed an on-going visual motif of tripartite mirrors like triptychs. 

We both noticed that Louis Garrel looks a bit like Ben Jones, Michael Pitt like Di Caprio (though his uniquely idiosyncratic upper lip is yet another scene-stealing virtual cast member!) and Eva Green like Gabrielle Anwar (who a decade ago would perhaps have made a more convincingly virginal Isabel.) We both thought the behaviour of the parents when they returned was difficult to swallow.  However the very engaging "set-up" in the first thirty minutes includes two superb cinematic moments: the dinner conversation with the threadbare intellectual father which neatly steps out of awkwardness and then the sudden sizzle when Isabel's hair fleetingly ignites when she embraces Matthew across the candles.

The opening scenes provided a great giggle as they include a commentary by Matthew on why true cinefiles have to sit in the front row (just like Xtofer and Frode) so that they get their movies fresh and not passed down to them row by row through endless sets of grubby fingers.

I had expected this flick to be much more pretentious and was pleasantly surprised until perhaps the final moments.  The ending is pretty lame - the charging policemen and the end titles coming down from the top of the screen leave you with an unnecessary aftertaste of Amelie-style high camp. 

You are aware at the end that you don't really care that much about these three people and perhaps because the final scenes are set amidst a riot, you wonder whether a lack of any nostalgia for 1968 is part of the problem. 

You get a sense that Adair struggled with the conclusion as it follows a set of phantom-endings, a bit like the coda in a Beethoven symphony.  But then again, if it's really that autobiographical, perhaps, like those real-life episodes when you stumble into something that is so special that it manipulates you utterly, your parting from it often appears inappropriately mundane. (11/2/04)

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Reading Irwin's The Alhambra which has a lovely quotation from G.M. Trevelyan:

"The poetry of history lies in the quasi miraculous fact that once on this earth, once on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow."

Irwin uses "George Washington's Axe" as a metaphor for parts of the Alhambra.  First the shaft rotted away and then the rusty axe-head was replaced but the artefact which resulted was still displayed as the one used by the first President. (10/2/04)

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A Short Introduction to Ethics hasn't really forced me to reconsider my views on the subject in the same way that A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues did. It seems to me that we are all occasional universalists and our attitude to risk plays a bigger role in how we balance this than any fundamental principle. We are constantly re-calculating what we owe to the civil order we're born into. My view is that this calculator in our brains must be a legacy of our biological evolution. There will always be extreme cases of people that always act as Kant prescribes and Thrasymachus types that invariably seek their own interest, yet the majority will always tend to seek the common good most of the time when the social and political conditions favour that approach. Contractarianism and our contemporary obsession with rights (deontology) either disguises the real source of values or leaves them to our cultural milieu to sort out.

In the end Blackburn founds his ethics on the notion that we all "need standards of behaviour, in our own eyes, and we need recognition in the eyes of others." With utilitarianism as in football, the inflexibility of the rules make the game possible. He also notes the irony that the credit card system depends on a number of people failing to pay off the total amount each month. Institutions survive a certain degree of default in virtue and to some extent depend on it.

He explains how the Sorites Paradox should warn us against the slippery slope argument: a man with no hairs is bald. How many extra hairs must he have to be "not bald".

He's wrong though to suggest that the evolutionary biologist can't explain why we tip waiters we never see again.

A few more Blackburn soundbites:

"For Hegel freedom means the right to obey the police"

"When we ask if life has meaning the first question has to be, to whom?"

"It seems we would prefer to be guilty than unlucky...we know that neither success not suffering enobles people".

"When anaesthetics were discovered some moralists complained that their use was impious"

Compared to Blackburn Comte-Sponville offered a new take on Aristotle's virtue ethics that ignored practical concerns and social benefit and parks the issue of whether the physical world contains any ought as well as loads of is. For him civilised morality doesn't have to be so grey. (8/2/04)

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Richard Dawkins has never really escaped the implications of the title of The Selfish Gene.  Perhaps he got a little carried away with his atheist agenda.  He has since tried to qualify his position, but these refinements never really stick.  He is entombed within the reputation of being the man that said that all complex organisms are merely vehicles for the horrible selfish little monsters called genes. Like everyone else that has sought to unmask part of everyday human reality as "nothing but.." something else (Freud etc.) he ultimately deserves the criticism this variety of distorted and deficient hermeneutics always gets. 

The problem is that The Selfish Gene imposes a psychological interpretation of nature and implies that it isn't just amoral it's actually immoral. This is not really a position you'd expect from such a dogmatic atheist as Dawkins, but he is at pains to make us aware of the discontinuity between our ethical ideals and the workings of the universe we exist in and ends up suggesting that the latter are sinful in commission and not just in omission. And we don't like it when he then says something like "but that doesn't mean we can't be genuinely altruistic and ethical ourselves" because we generally don't respond well to the notion of unfounded value - that all our ethical judgements and subjective emotions are mere epiphenomena, ultimately meaningless in the objective terms of the cosmos.  ("Just whistles on the engine", Blackburn would say.)

Anyway, it's fitting that Dawkins' arguments should be so consistently caricatured as he himself has built a career around setting up caricatured creationist positions to knock down in this books.

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A Short Introduction to Ethics: Simon Blackburn rejects biological determinism with talk of "input-responsiveness". I would like to see someone from the science "side" make the point that "input-responsiveness" is itself a selectable trait. That way any variable characteristics wouldn't need specific explanation as an adaptation.  The ethical discussion about abortion has become deontological he claims, in other words concerned mainly with rights and duties. It seems that the discussion of smoking is going this way too, which inevitably leads to state intervention and prohibitions. (5/1/04)

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Have reached the part in A Short Introduction to Ethics where the challenge posed by relativism and subjectivism will be confronted - as ever I press ahead with interest and in the hope that I might finally "get the relativist imp off my shoulder" as Simon Blackburn himself would say. He also looks at the ethical implications of a supposedly deceased Creator.  Can we have rules without a rulemaker?  In Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks Euthyphro whether he thinks piety is holy in itself or just because the Gods love it.  The point is that we have existing moral standards and use religion to give them mythical authority. Religion isn't a source of behavioural standards but a projection of them. Blackburn also prints a version of the Letter to Dr Laura, a fundamentalist agony aunt,  which parodies the view that the holy texts provide absolute and unchanging moral guidelines. (4/2/04)

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"Art is the lie that reveals the truth" - a piece of glibness from Picasso that Ramachandran quotes as he delves into the neural basis for aesthetics. Much of art involves interesting distortions of reality, he claims. A caricature artist effectively subtracts the average face from his subject. This is a "peak shift". Lara Croft and Parvathi are examples of the ultra-feminine. Artists discover the "figurative primitives of our perceptual grammar" like the stick with a red dot that triggers the baby gulls' mother-recognition circuits.  Autistic children and adults with a certain kind of dementia can end up with a hyper-functioning right parietal lobe which equips them with extraordinary artistic talent for visual representation. (These abilities fade in the younger patients as their linguistic skills develop.)  Creativity requires a degree of hyper-connectivity or "flakiness", though the kind of associative ability (or perceptual bias) that a writer has may be acquired at the expense of visual representation skills.

These neural "abnormalities" might one day be controllable - you might be able to temporarily focus the brain's attention on the activity of the right parietal for example.   (2/2/04)

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AA Gill's piece on Guatemala in the Sunday Times Magazine today is full of careless factual errors and his usual verbal ostentation. He could have written most of it without actually even going there, but in that case he might have actually used his PC to check his facts a bit.  There aren't any luxury hotels" !  This would be except the luxury hotel that Clinton stayed in or the one that Xtofer and Luca and later Ronaldo stayed in, the very place Luis Miguel and Daisy Fuentes chose to spend their honeymoon. What he really means is "I stayed in some cockroach-infested backpacker dive run by an booze-pickled old boy from my school because my newspaper wouldn't pay for anything any better".

His characterisation of the Maya is just like the accepted academic orthodoxy...but 50 years ago.  Ethereal indeed...they spent half their time poking their penises with string-ray spines. The Aztecs were undoubtedly more low-brow and psychotic, but the Maya belonged to the same blood-letting, end-of-the-world-again mentality that characterised the whole region from the domestication of corn by the Indians to the domestication of the Indians by the Spanish.

"Guatemala is a Catholic country converted with torture and blackmail". More twaddle. There's a substantial Protestant minority these days and I suppose if it's anybody, it's these people that have been converted with torture and blackmail - by bible-clutching, khaki short-wearing in-breds from all over the Mid West and the right-wing governments they helped stabilise.

I've also never heard it said that Maximon is part Pedro de Alvarado.  He's actually a blend of the pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld known as Maam ("grandfather") and Simon. (Judas).

Gill says the sound of howlers in the forest is like: "An eerie cross between the M6 and the torment of lost souls" OK. thanks for the metaphor, but when it wakes you up in the middle of the night you don't think about Dante's Inferno or your last meal in a Happy Eater -  it sounds like King Kong, pure and simple.

Antigua makes a brief cameo appearance:  "It has an outré expat population who all seem to be escaping from something. Antigua is a Butch and Sundance hide-out for the comfortably off and the harmlessly dotty."  (26/1/04)

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Having now finally reached page 256, where I was forced to abandon Juan Bonilla's Nadie Conoce a Nadie  in 2002 , I am discovering (like the character Sapo), that not much happened in the next 30 pages that would have prevented me picking up the story after that.  There are a number of interesting themes in the book such as the idea that people can become parodies of cultural templates like Don Quijote, and that they "torcerle el cuello a la realidad" inventing private wars just to feel more alive. "El renegar de la propia vida" - Bonilla suggests that anarchists and their like have surrendered their own identity in order to participate in an RPG where the rules are determined by cultural forms.  ("Para los jugadores de rol el mundo es un teatro, y ellos personajes elejidos para unos papeles a los que no traiconaran, porque necesitan ganar, obedecer el rolemaster" ) There are other ideas that will stick in the mind, like the statement that we take 9 months to form and 9 months to rot. (21/1/04)

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Lies and Deceptions (Discovery): Ramachandran uses examples to argue that vision isn't a single process, but the result of the action of around 30 different brain areas and pathways. Selective damage to these results in selective damage to our perception and knowledge of selected categories.  "Philip" can't recognise people and animals but has no trouble with buildings. (Prosopagnosia is the name for the loss of facial recognition.) "Philip" mistakes Ramachandran's sketch of Donald Duck for Grace Kelly! "David" used to suffer from the Capgras Delusion. (After Frenchman Joseph Cagras 1873-1950) Seeing his parents he wouldn't experience the expected emotional resonance and so assumed they were impostors.

Ramachandran makes fun of the Freudian explanation and adds that sufferers often also lack the emotional response to visual recognition of their dog or house.

In conclusion, our intellectual interpretations are dependent on our emotional interpretations. I felt like "completely through the gateway" says another patient whose temporal lobe epilepsy has made him feel like God. Ramachandran thinks that the electrical storm in this man's mind prevents him from grading the significance of the different parts of the world he perceives resulting in a sense of "oneness". (19/1/04)

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Watched a Subiela film on TVe - Despabilate Amor (1996), which unlike all of last night's efforts from Hollywood makes you consciously alert to every nuance of the situations and their real human emotions. Nostalgia, that most Argentinian of emotions drives this piece. ("Those were the Days" accompanies a flashback and the end titles!)

An unusually jovial, life-affirming central character decides to re-unite a group of old school friends who haven't seen each other for 25 years. One of the old mates he digs up used to be his wife's boyfriend. Their reencounter looks set to end in an awkward rear-view mirror affair, but instead changes both of their lives for the better...more or less...this is Argentina after all.

This is a more restrained narrative, but some of the familiar Subiela motifs remain - heavy piano and organ incidental music apparently more matched with the underlying mood of the whole narrative than the particular scenes it accents, characters sitting alone at the rear of moonlit trains or buses, a tendency towards arch, over-poeticised dialogue - "un dia todos los elephantes se uniran para olvidar", an undifferentiated intersection of real and imagined experience - in this case a car that drives its occupant to his lover, a Cuban girl that plays the cello surrounded by candles, epitomising to the Argentine melancholic the curative properties of tropical carnality. (Though Subiela has cleverly layered his symbolism, because it's no accident that she hails from revolutionary Cuba, once Ana's main competitor in Ernesto's adolescent dreams.)

The best Argentinian films always seem to depict their world-weary characters stepping in puddles of optimism on the pavement to oblivion!   Perhaps Subiela's main message here is that we need to focus on our nows and not get too dazzled by our thens. I suppose I would have to agree with that. (18/1/04)

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The Last Samurai -  Great entertainment, but lacks any truly attention-grabbing (and keeping) moments of action, dialogue or human emotion that would make you rush online to pre-order the DVD. Cruise does most of his acting with his eyes. His role is little more than a vehicle for portraying an admirable but threatened way of life. (and for projecting his apparently unavoidable icky narcissism).  Dying warlord Katsumoto gargles to Tom at the end,  "I will miss our conversations"- frankly it's a pity that the script-writers also decided to miss out most of these too, as they could have made this a much more interesting movie.

Concludes with superb set-piece battle, where the "other way" finally gets mowed down after a real close-quarters gore-fest with Samurai swords, bayonets and pikes. (Eat your heart out Tarantino!) All this puts this film in the same category as The Mission, which also appropriated and twisted real historical incidents in order to make what was ultimately a fairly banal point about the corrosive nature of modern world.

(I saw another review that characterised this movie as The King and I meets Dances with Wolves!)

Freaky Friday -dipped into for 50 minutes. This could have been the winner of a competition to see how many teen movie plot formulas could be crammed into one script. The Scary Movie franchise is less formulaic!  The worn out body swap plotline should now be thrown out for good and Jamie Lee Curtis is just a little too old for this lark now. Apparently a remake of Disney original of 1976 with Jody Foster.

Cold Mountain - painful. One of those would-be epics that has a mediocre novel inside of it screaming to get out. And Minghella is a repeat offender - The English Patient.  (V found reason to recall Dr Zhivago and Captain Corelli's Mandolin is another seminal example of the genre.) Big name stars just worsen the impact of this pretentiousness, because they inevitably use the combination of costume melodrama and premium film-making as a platform for Oscars. 

The story reaches a point where Inman's demise becomes inevitable because there's no other way to conclude the narrative without a deeply unsatisfying happy ending. After watching Jude Law's Homeric trek back towards wholesomeness it's incredible that his being gunned down at the last actually makes a less pointless ending than the alternative!  But in the end that's all the story has to offer...the rest was just padding. 

From the outset Minghella fails to make Kidman and Law's relationship credible enough to care about before we have to sit through the long odyssey scenes. Tom Cruise and his ultra-demure and exquisitely beautiful Japanese lady-friend Taka (Koyuki) conveyed more emotion with subtle facial muscle movement than Law and Kidman or anyone else in this film. The overacting in Cold Mountain is supplemented by oodles of "gritty realism" e.g. brutality, especially towards animals for some reason. Of all the cast, Natalie Portman, in an oddly second-tier role, is the only one to deliver a convincing performance.   The miscasting of Ray Winstone just pips that of Billy Connolly in The Last Samurai. Zellweger has obviously spotted that Oscars come more easily to women that dress down and put on bizarre regional blue-collar accents. Yet V also objected to Kidman's eyeliner and Zellwegger's lipstick in the wilderness scenes.

Ok, there are perhaps also a couple of genuinely memorable cinematic images - the apocalyptic conclusion to the "turkey shoot" at Petersburg and Inman attempting to drag three dead bodies he's manacled to, but it will be a total travesty if this does win any Oscars. Overall, a bit of a suckfest.

I really ought to avoid Girl with a Pearl Earring. A movie-version will only exacerbate the novel's core weakness - that Griet is the only fully-formed character because she's entirely fictional. Chevalier probably didn't want to offend by imagining Vermeer and his family too much. End result...vacuousness! (17/1/04)

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Rosarigasinos/ Presos del Olvido:
Argentine movie on TVe about two erstwhile robber Tango musicians that emerge from jail after 30 years - reinforces all the standard Argie stereotypes. Generally downbeat, with a few chuckles generated by schadenfreude. The early urban scenes in Rosario take place in a gloomy, grimy and drizzly ambience that makes Kieslowski's Warsaw look like Disneyland. The pair return unsuccessfully to crime after they discover that their hidden guita has already been fished out of the lake where they hid it. They then live through several days of assorted calamities and end up crumpled and bloodied on their boat to safety.  Powerful, often brutal emotions and an inconclusive ending. V comments that it's the kind of film that Hollywood can't make, but also the kind she can only sit through once.