Inner Diablog 2004

If you want to stride into the Infinite, move but within the Finite in all directions

To be or not to be is not the question, it is the answer.
Fred Alan Wolfe


This blog will go mute until early January, 2005. However, there's a good chance that intrmittent postings will continue on

Meanwhile, some thoughts on communications bandwidth. It's a while since I've read it, but Tor NŅrretranders' The User Illusion has greatly influenced my thinking about communications.

If you're on of those people that fret about the amount of deception involved in human communications (and the number of deceivers involved in the practice of communications), NŅrretranders will probably compound your anxieties with his tale of how nothing can really get in or out of our heads without some sort of basic level of deceit.

The problem begins as one of bandwidth limitation: "a million times more bits enter our heads than consciousness perceives." Indeed, our conscious experience hardly contains any information at all, which means that we can't actually tell each other about most of what we experience. (Not even if we never stopped talking.)

"The eye send at least ten million bits to the brain every second. The skin sends a million bits a second, the ear one hundred thousand, our smell sensors a further one hundred thousand bits a second, our taste buds perhaps a thousand bits a second. All in all, over eleven million bits a second from the world to our sensory mechanisms. "

NŅrretranders calls the information that never makes it into the spotlight of awareness exformation and concludes that "the least interesting aspect of conversation is what is actually said."

As far as I recall he also suggests that dumb people are responsible for a kind of information entropy - because they are not able to process microstates into macrostates - in other words, they don't unconsciously construct chunks of useful order out of their total experience.

Meanwhile bright people may not be at their smartest when they are most aware:

"Many scientists and creative thinkers have noted that the mind's best work is sometimes done without conscious direction, during receptive states of reverie, idle meditation, dreaming, or transition between sleep and wakefulness."

Symbols are an excellent way to extract more information from exformation: "Symbols are smart. They help us remember masses of information, even though we can keep only seven things in our minds at once. Symbols are Trojan horses by which we sumggle bits into our consciousness."

NŅrretranders suggests that there is a physiological side to our indirect experiences of exformation - more blood circulates in the brain when we converse for instance, than when we merely report. (It might be interesting to compare brain activity in on and offline readers of leading publications.)

The importance of the full range of perception to the way we think and behave is echoed by Dylan Evans in Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, a great little introduction to the topic for the general reader.

Evans describes how there's more to subliminal communication than sneaky advertisements that creep into our perceptual gaps. In general we tend to prefer things we have seen, even if we can't remember having seen them. The spotlight might never have fallen on many aspects of our experience, but we nevertheless perceived them below the threshold of consciousness and that creates a bias that we can't later explain. Evans refers to this as the "mere exposure effect".

Our preferences are also determined by both our background moods and foreground emotions. Regretably happy people are suckers for bad arguments. But then happiness is the one mood that expands the focus of our attention.

NŅrretranders described this shifting focus thus: "Consciousness is like a spothlight that emphasizes the face of one actor dramatically, while all the other persons, props, and sets on the vast stage are lost in the deepest darkness. The spotlight can move, certainly, but it takes a long time for all the faces in the chorus to be revealed, one after the other, in the darkness."

Happiness widens that beam it seems. This and other emotional states also help determine what is available for recall at any particular moment.

It follows that Culture (including our political intractions) will always be warped by the full sensory bitstream, and not just the dial-up experience of human awareness, and that Emotion and Reason are looped together at both conscious and unconscious levels.

Those that insist on separating rationality and sentiment are prone to misunderstand the psychological dynamics of argument and preference. Every communication has an intellectual, emotional and exformational context. The medium itself has a role to play in each of these. In particular it will help determine the contribution of symbols in squeezing more useful information through the narrow band of consciousness.

We have to relinquish the idea that exclusively rational beings (like Vulcans) would actually be cleverer, more effective agents than us. For starters a lack of fear is hardly an adaptive trait. To further illustrate the point Evans references Antonio Damasio's story of the brain-damaged patient that couldn't make "quick and dirty" emotional decisions. Faced with the task of deciding which day to make an appointment with his psychologist he drew up a matrix of pros and cons for each possible date. (I know a few similar care in the community types!)

Emotions are like bluffs we make to ourselves, Consciousness a post-rationalisation of something that happened earlier. Dissimulation and disinformation start at home. (6/12/04)

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I've named this piece The Unbearable Parrotness of Being in my blog. Not enough room in the frame for that here!

V's sister Silvia has (or had) a small collection of parrots living in her garden. (She split with her husband earlier this year and we're not sure who got custody of the feathered family members.) The least domesticated but somehow most human of these goes by the name of Gringo (a red-headed Amazon). Gringo is a no-prisoners sort of parrot. Only V's 18-year-old niece Clara Lucia is trusted implicitly, as they have grown up together. Everyone else keeps their fingers out of his cage. That he alone of all the household parrots spends most of his day behind bars is partly a consequence of this unpredictable sociability, but also apparently a matter of his own preference.

Gringo isn't afraid of people, whatever their size or gestural state, but if there is one thing that makes him take a few steps backward on his perch it's a shoe. Somewhere in his amygdala there's something footwear-shaped that triggers this response, an amalgam of fright, flight and fight. Gringo greets a backpacker's sandal the way an Inca might have greeted a total eclipse of the sun (or the way a certain friend of mine might greet his daughter's new boyfriend, if the latter turned out to be the bearer of non-European ancestry).

There's clearly something involuntary in the way he assumes the posture - which begs the question: is it just an empty reflex? How much of this behaviour is a signal to the outside world and how much is it an expression of an inner state? Perhaps the crucial question about animal emotion is not so much "do they have them?", because they clearly do from a behavioural point of view, but "how do they feel their emotions, subjectively?" How, for example, does it feel to be a parrot looking at a shoe? How does my father's jack russell feel when it watches me eating a mince pie? The question is also relevant to people that think everyone else is a zombie.

We can already make machines that can display and even recognise human emotions, yet we haven't the foggiest idea how to make one that feels them, and even if we did, we wouldn't be able to tell if it had anything like the sort of subjective consciousness we have. (Us non-zombies that is.)

In his book The Feeling Of What Happens cognitive pyschologist Antonio Damasio proposed that consciousness originates in our sentimental apparatus as "a state of feeling". As opposed to states of knowing, states of feeling emerge from the more antiquated parts of the vertebrate brain, suggesting perhaps that sentience is a spectrum of different sensations - not something that absolutely distinguishes every human from every other being in Nature.

Meanwhile, I'm not ashamed to anthropomorphise my green friend Gringo. When the skies open above Antigua in the late summer afternoons he sits and soaks up the downpour in his rusty old cage, and sings. He warbles together phrases from tunes he must have overheard, interspersed with his own notes, plaintively improvised. It's a performance that's touching like nothing else I've ever heard; and I can't believe that only one of us is feeling it. (2/12/04)

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I find fierce ontological discussions about the essence of things rather trying. Down through the ages philosophers have been aggressively polarised and continue to take sides today - but I would have thought that our understanding of information systems is now such that thinkers in both camps should be able to own up that this is basically an unwinnable debate.

Once you accept that there is no fundamental difference between reality and virtual reality (it comes down to the issue of energy and processing power) you can reach the following conclusion. Our cosmos could be some sort of projection emanating from a higher,emyrean reality, or it could actually be "turtles all the way down" as the lady said - the virtuality of existence is endlessly repeated, and uncompromised by any ultimate essence. But how could you ever prove which of these assumptions is true? (There may be a third way, in which both these statements are partially or simultaneously true, but I'm not ready to write that one up yet!)

There's another obvious problem. Our minds are synchronised with this world, which means that unless underlying reality is as it is depicted in The Matrix (basically the same but with scruffy jumpers) we are not going to be able to get our heads round it. Human perception, thought and language are all geared up for the specific material arrangements of this particular existence. Something akin to hardware and software incompatibility would prevent us connecting up to anything else. (2/12/04)

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Nietzsche sired two distinct dynasties of anti-metaphysical thought. The European clan hopped on the Marxism Express only to end up stuck in the inescapable departure lounge of Postmodernism. Long delays are anticipated; Duty Free anyone?

Their American cousins on the other hand had no need to go anywhere as they were convinced that they had already arrived. The future was a part of their present, the past somebody else's problem. The latter family are known as the Pragamatists. They argue that certainty should be replaced with imagination and knowledge with hope. It's much easier to do this when you already think you live in the future. "The vista, not the endpoint, matters", asserts Richard Rorty, American Pragmatism's tribal elder. Makes even more sense if the endpoint part of the vista.

Rorty and his relatives aspire to manage reality rather than represent it. In serving transitory purposes with a "hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind" (Rorty again) they hope to fashion a society that is rather like Denmark. But the really scary part is that they see to think the United States of America is Denmark! Rorty's Darwinian spin on the world historical significance of the USA is quite explicit: America is the "next evolutionary stage" after Europe.

You'll have gathered I'm not all that convinced. Jean Baudrillard's description of America (from the dirtiest, smokiest corner of the departure lounge) as "the last primitive society of the future" seems rather more apt.

I'm not even sure about the validity of the project from a neutral perspective. Hope and imagination are more dissimilar than certainty and knowledge. Hopes can be satisfied, imaginations can't. Even if we aim to build a world where the majority of humans are content there's going to have to be more on the table than just comfort. Experience of a whole range of emotional states, subjectively, vicariously and imaginatively is part of being human.

Capitalism probably continues to thrive, not because it fosters an egalitarian, participatory political system, but because it continues to develop the technologies of sensation. It long ceased to be a mode of production and is rapidly transforming itself from a mode of consumption into a mode of stimulation. (1/12/04)

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Following some links on my blogroll yesterday I came across a deliciously un-reconstructed critique of branding by Professor Terry Eagleton. It's worth reading for this comment alone:

"Branding used to involve stamping your symbol on the flank of some dumb creature, and nowadays involves stamping it across their T-shirts."

Eagelton, a believer in an absolute, albeit historicist good, clearly regards the instances of branding as a good approximation of absolute bad. You might say that any sort of trivialisation is a mortal sin to those that regard knowledge and virtue as twins. For commentators like Eagleton, perhaps the greatest offence that marketers make is meddling with dynamics that they only partially comprehend and control.

Personally I don't habitually wear those binary goggles which make cultural artefacts appear either as predominantly a force for the good or as vile tools of Moloch. Nevertheless in an entry below titled Brands and Evil I rejected the notion favoured by American pragmatist tradition that evils are lesser or rejected goods.

Evils, I argued, are a more or less inevitable by-product of most empowering goods. So when Eagelton characterises brand marketers as muggers that pose as vicars, it's rather like suggesting that every priest in the Catholic Church signed up the first instance in order to get a piece of the cassock-lifting action.

The truth is that neither the consumer or the brand owner has all the power. Brands are often just the marketplace in which the negotiations between them take place. The advantage that the brand has is that of being in situe when the consumer shows up.

Another piece by James Suroweicki which appeared in Wired recently attempted to quantify the decline of brands by pointing out that the premium enjoyed by SONY-branded DVD players has fallen from 44% to 16% in the last five years. Suroweicki suggests that brands are no longer much use as "insurance against missteps" in an economy where performance counts more than anything else.

Now you might say that the relations between the sexes are going down the route - performace first, loyalty second. But hold on, whatever the realities of our behaviours we still have reputations to manage in the court of public morality. Likewise corporations. In our inter-subjective society we care first and foremost about what everyone else thinks. Private morality is the dog that this particular tail wags.

A hearty welcome to my blogroll for my colleague JoĎl Céré . I suspect he might appreciate another little gem of a paragraph from Eagelton's review of Wally Olin's book On Brand:

"When Olins tells us that under Napoleon, őthe whole of France was rebranded‚, he is clearly unaware that this kind of boneheaded comment is usually to be found not in a sleek Thames and Hudson volume, but among a coachload of American tourists who miss seeing the Acropolis flash by their window because they are too busy fiddling with the air-conditioning." (30/11/04)

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My father used to describe my mother's characteristically circular argumentation as "illogical". It is however a debating technique with a pedigree that dates back to the finest logicians of the middle ages. Thomas Aquinas for example, counselled his students that "when you meet a contradiction make a distinction".

In common parlance this is known as moving the goalposts. The more sophisticated practitioners don't just move them they simultaneously re-construct them or more subtly, re-describe them. My mother on the other hand limits herself to turning up the dial on the emotional content of the discussion at hand - this has the effect of sharpening the background mood for all participants, making the exchange of neutral rationalisations an increasingly unlikely outcome.

I might have come to regret having a parent like this but for the fact that I increasingly have to deal with similarly disposed logicians in my professional life. Instead I find that my childhood experiences have left me remarkably well-equipped to anticipate the direction that life's goal-mouths intend to shuffle off in, a skill that nevertheless leaves me prone to bouts of frustration and more occasionally, a debilitating sense of futility. (30/11/04)

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Audiences have seen enough movies about conmen plotting a big sting to know that there are usually two cons going down - the one that the writer describes in the story and the one he or she is trying to perpetrate against the audience. Nueve Reinas (9 Queens) attempts to short-circuit our familiarity with the genre by introducing a third, dummy con into the mix. The snag is that that there are only two shysters in the foreground and once we become aware that the story is attempting to surreptitiously incriminate one of them, the other becomes the prime suspect by default.

Generally the problem with this sort of plot is that the best bit is inevitably the middle, where the possible resolutions you can speculate on have reached a peak. It's downhill from there on and the final revelation is necessarily an anti-climax, like being shown how a particularly impressive magical trick was done. Last year I reviewed Matchstick Men with the observation that "the twist comes along like a sledgehammer" which somehow shatters the emotional meaning of all that has passed before. Nueve Reinas avoids that particular banana skin. It is the first Argentine film that I have seen that is unobtrusively scored and lacks strong currents of both melancholy and nostalgia. Indeed there's a good deal of bad natured fun throughout and the elaborate plot is structured to ensure that the tension levels are evenly spread. (Fabian Bielinski's script was picked as the winner of a competition.)

There's one pivotal moment in the film when Marcos appears to open Juan's eyes to all the chicanery going on around him on the streets of Buenos Aires. It is this revelation of all-pervasive mendacity and theft that forms the message of Nueve Reinas over and above the mounting narrative complexities. Bielinski wrote his script before Argentina defaulted on its debt and the local credit system ossified - as such it is highly predictive of the final agonies of an economy driven by pilferage and plunder.

This sort of film always tempts you to immediately rewind to the beginning for a second in-the-know viewing. Movie scripts like that of Swimming Pool and Sixth Sense that are effectively designed to hoodwink us (without actually being about confidence tricksters) usually have one or two key moments when the conterfeit truth is spliced into the action. Nueve Reinas doesn't really have one or several of these blindingly obvious moments which make us wish we had been more attentive and sceptical. In fact the opening scene needs an explanation if the rest is to be ultimately credible and the story doesn't do us the service of providing one. I was also left pondering how many incidents were included primarily to distract and inveigle me as a member of the audience - and so were not absolutely essential to the successful conclusion of the swindle carried out on screen.

There's one other small issue of logic that leaves an aftertaste of dissastisfaction at the end. What have the plotters actually gained? (29/11/04)

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We also watched The Pink Panther on Saturday afternoon, a film I haven't seen for many years and one I had accurately recalled as the least outrightly funny of the franchise.

Sellars provides moments of slapstick comedy in between what are by our contemporary standards quite mannered and overlong dialogue scenes. The comic tenor then switches to farce before ending with a deliciously surreal masque and chase sequence. A comedy such as this that refuses to belong to any particular genre, that avoids speaking directly to any particular demographic (especially a young one) simply wouldn't get made today. There's a vein of adult hedonism and code-breaking that I also think would leave many of today's audiences feeling a little uncomfortable.

It's almost as if the film was conceived was a vehicle for Henry Mancini's memorable theme and Richard Williams' animated cat. Clouseau doesn't even sound that silly in this outing.

Like La Dolce Vita this was a film that set out to capture something of the mood of the early sixties - this is recognisably the period when my parents were consciously enjoying their prime. (My father was a year younger that I am now when it was made. Capucine, who played Clouseau's wife, took her own life in 1990 in similar fashion to my uncle, by leaping from the eighth floor of her apartment in Switzerland.) (29/11/04)

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AA Gill recently followed Boris Johnson up to Liverpool and after meal in an establishment called Simply Heathcotes reflected that a "restaurants don't work on their own. They have to be part of a culture. They need to be part of what people do. There are no working-class restaurants. By their very nature, design and intention, restaurants are middle-class."

There's something quaintly old-fashioned about this critique. In contemporary London at least you could be forgiven for imagining that the days when restaurants reflected the the eating habits of a particular nation or class within it had long passed. Whether stand-alone or part of a chain, the catering trade consciously blasts itself into the orbit of food objects and their meanings in an attempt to escape the gravity of peoples and classes.

Take the tapas bar. In Spain it is the manifestation of an authentic local snack culture, where the symbolic element of the experience is necessarily secondary to the cultural. (In fact in most Iberian towns it's relatively hard to find places to eat where the cuisine is not local and traditional in origin.) Over here in try-everything London the tapas bar is just one more exotic difference to crave and our social relationships have little substance when not mediated by images.

The owners of these establishments realise that we will pay relatively more for the consumption of signs that we would for the consumption of mere food. The result is a synthetic eating space which no longer has any real connection to class or culture. Now you can agree with Salman Rushdie that the modern metropolis is the birthplace of fascinating hybrid forms and cross-cultural chimeras, but in doing so you would be ignoring the fact that much of this output is ersatz crap.

The Postmodern economy thrives on suckers - and maybe no more so than when the suckers go out and pay for food from somebody else's kitchen. Eating out is one of the great cons of urban life in Britain, the culinary equivalent of Salsa dancing. Various factors combine to exacerbate the inauthentic and exploitative nature of this particular commerce. Firstly the lack of anything like a traditional dining out culture in this country, combined with widespread ignorance about food and its preparation. Then there's the rents and rates that any uptown restaurant has to pay. It's amusing that urbanites fret about passive smoking in restaurants when the most unhealthy thing one can usually do (psychologically as well as physiologically) is eat the food. (26/11/04)

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If it wasn't for the backbone of prescriptive law, our society would probably have gone ethically floppy a long time ago.

In addition to the threat of punishment and censure, game theory and higher cognitive emotions (such as guilt) also ensure that civic behaviours tend in aggregate towards the collaborative and trustworthy. (except in places like Guatemala of course.)

Beyond these skeletal structures most of what passes for ethics in our society is actually more akin to manners - attitudes that are aware that others are watching. As individuals we are conscious that one way or another we have a reputation that derives from other people's previous encounters with our conduct, and we deploy our manners to make favourable first impressions.

At a theoretical level ethics has been mottled by determinism and relativism. Thanks largely to Nietzsche, it's now comparatively difficult to make a case for ethics as a branch of epistemology or indeed of metaphysics. In practice we're back with Aristotle, who regarded ethics as a branch of politics. And of course the whole point of politics is contention. (Or problem solving, according to pragmatists.)

Meanwhile, out there in civic society the moral community rendered by mass participation in the media is one of village idiots. We judge our compatriots as if they were our neighbours in a small town. This puts the hype into hypocrisy.

So, in this context it's a bit of a mystery to me why anyone would assume that corporations should lead the way in terms of moral agency. After all, although companies are aggregations of individuals and so to some extent can be expected to behave like them, the law has things to say about the ultimate goals of companies that act to increase the gap between the good manners on the surface and the selfish beast within. Individuals are far freer to choose their own ends.

Modern westerners live in a society where people are encouraged to make up their own minds about morality within the framework of existing law along with some basic private rules bastardised from the old foundations of ethical behaviour (say the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Buddha). Most are thrown together into commercial organisations that exist in a far more explicitly competitive environment than most individuals are adapted to, and which have to tailor their manners primarily towards the simulated morality of the global media village.

Ethics are something that civic society needs to get a firmer grip of - at present we collectively suffer from the nagging suspicion that morality is either a superstition or a contrivance and the widespread notion that ethics commence where self-interest ends is actually neither correct nor particularly helpful.

We can't really expect commercial enterprises and organisations to continue to shoulder most of the blame for the wider moral confusion and apathy within society as a whole. It's just too easy (and trendy) to feel morally superior by making scapegoats out of big companies. (26/11/04)

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I have just reacquainted myself with Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir's archly ambivalent hall of mirrors from 1975. An interval of over twenty years has passed since I last watched it on Betamax. As an early teen this movie and the story behind it completely captivated me. It's a film that flirts with you, and to an adolescent boy any kind of flirtation, however unskillful and Anglo-Saxon, is utterly mesmerising!

It's undoubtedly a very beautiful and canny piece of film-making, but the symbolism now comes across as more heavy handed than coquetish to me - e.g. those wretched enigmatic swans drifting elegantly to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.

I also found that the wheels of supposition and speculation appear not to spin quite so giddily now that I know that Joan Lindsay probably made it all up. It seems that she wrote a concluding eighteenth chapter which was removed from the book and not published until 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock, though this is one mystery that actually works precisely because it doesn't depict UFOs or people walking towards the light. (Or worse still,gang rape.)

Weir's film version is a study of sexual sublimation that is itself a presentation of apparent historical fact through the medium of dreamy sublimation. In much the same way that Pop Art both reflects and propagates the signs of America, Picnic at Hanging Rock reflects and propagates the mystery of refined and tamed femininity juxtaposed with that of un-refined and un-tamed nature.

Anne-Louise Lambert played Miranda as an ethereal exemplar of cloistered girlhood - the epitome of everything I then wanted to put on my pedestal. She even rolls her head and screws up her lips like Diana Spencer did when standing next to Charles the day they publicly announced their engagement.

There's no denying that this film haunted me for a long while. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age or disposition in order to be deeply touched by this sort of arrant nebulousness. It is ultimately an ecstatic rather than an ironic piece, spinning until all sense disappears, shining as pure and empty.

The DVD encodes a director's cut which, unusually, has been tightened up through the removal of seven minutes from the original release. (24/11/04)

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I am in the midst of reading all of Anton Chekhov's short stories in chronological order. So far I have completed 17, written during a three year period, 1884-1887. The sixteenth was the first to contain anything like a sharp note in the last paragraph. The rest have been evocative vignettes featuring characters living not so much at the margin but within the cracks of nineteenth century Russia, individuals caught in the act of confronting the cruelties of personal, social and metaphysical indifference.

The last story I read, The Grasshopper, was also the longest so far and focusses on people whose predicament is, on the surface at least, more modern and opportunity-laden.

The lead character is Olga Ivanovna, a worshipper of false idols, who is eventually exposed as something of a false idol herself. I don't know anything about the origins of this story, but I find it hard to believe that Chekhov never made the acquaintance of a lady like Olga.

She belongs to that class of people in which men and women can aspire to become distinguished. Olga is a multi-talented social groupie in an arty, chattering crowd. "Whatever she did...turned out to be artistic, graceful, charming...even if it was simply tying someone's tie. She paints, she plays the cello and she accumulates talented men around her. Indeed in Olga's circle "there were no ladies present because Olga Ivanovna considered all women, except actresses and her dressmaker, trivial and boring"

However, somewhat out of character, she has decided to marry a comparatively dull doctor called Dymov. "Amidst these favourites of fortune, who, while perfectly urbane and well-bred, remembered the existence of doctors only when they were ill...Dymov seemed like a stranger, superfluous, small."

Olga adores her quirky medical practitioner but lacks any sturdy connection to his world and his goals and the relationship is weakened by neglect. She is mystified by his geeky colleagues, observing of one - "Surely it must be a bore to be such an insignificant person with such a puckered up face and such bad manners?"

Dymov is the noble savage of this tale. Chekhov deftly deploys him to undermine the prevailing view amongst Olga's family and friends about what it means to be a person of significance. It's hard to tell exactly how much bitterness there is behind this satire. Olga pursues an affair with a painter friend that barely gets beyond consummation - they seem to recoil from each other's mediocrity. Olga and Dymov's domestic life unravels and Dymov dies after a suicidal act of sacrifice that highlights the true meaning of distinction. Olga is left rueing a missed chance and a lost celebrity.

(I have since discovered that Chekhov's close friend the landscape painter Isaac Levitan was the model for Olga's lover Ryabovsky. Olga herself was based on Levitan's groupie, a young unmarried teacher called Lika Mizinova. In real life it was Levitan who was married not his pupil. Chekhov was of course himself a doctor.) (24/11/04)

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It's highly unlikely that Jean Baudrillard will ever sit down to write the sequel to his most controversial set of essays. What would he choose for the title? The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Again?!

"I live in the virtual. Send me into the real and I wouldn't know what to do", Baudrillard pleaded when asked if he actually wanted a proper correspondent's job covering America's first run-in with Saddam back in 1991.

Baudrillard's point is that the real and the virtual are being collapsed into the simulcra at many different points across our society. When his humanity was questioned (real people did die after all) he responded that the reality of war caused him the requisite anger that any human being ought to feel, but the virtuality, "the abstract problem of simulation" was something that he couldn't help getting excited about. So, as a professional commentator he has little concern for real suffering, his interest is in the compounded cruelty of its simulation and the disappearance of its meaning through transmission.

This distinction between the thing as it is and the thing as it is represented and perceived through media and culture is an important one. Take NASDAQ for example. Many investors focus on business fundamentals, but experience has taught me that an understanding of hype is more than useful.

Long before 9-11 Baudrillard described how a terrorist attack in Italy in 1980 resulted in a Möbius strip of twisting meaning where front is back and true is false. "In simulation all signs are interchangeable", so all explanations for the event collapsed into one another - the attack was authored by left-wing extremists, it was an ultra right-wing provocation, a cynical ploy by centrists to highlight the terrorist threat or a crime engineered by the police force to extract a bigger budget from the state. In the simulcra all this is simultaneously true. Even if you pinpoint the real truth, "the vertigo of interpretation is not stemmed".

For Baudrillard movies like The China Syndrome precede and contaminate real events like Chernobyl and Harrisburg. Conversely, wars like Vietnam can be interpreted as testing grounds for later cinematic representations like Apocalypse Now, a movie that Baudrillard claims was made in much the same way that America waged the war.

Baudrillard was much influenced by McLuhan, but he's probably the theorist that you'd least expect to say "this is frickin' amazing" when confronted by new piece of technology. He's not one to ever suggest that gizmos and the electronic media are short-cuts to human fulfilment. Real communication exists when there is scope for reciprocity, not just a reversability of transmitter and receiver. In this context Baudrillard regards the Internet as "faster non-communication".

I wonder whether he has yet written a critique of weblogs. He's certainly the master exponent of fragmentary exposition. Works like Cool Memories are clear written precusrors to the blog form - compared with more sequential journals, they exist in perpetual orbit around theme and intent.

Maybe it would be hard for such a fataliste to admit that, in one small area of contemporary communications, things might be improving a tiny little bit! No, he'd probably side with Arkansas librarian Greg Hill who whinges that blogs are wearisome monologues of the uniformed. Baudrillard would no doubt add that they further accelerate the horizontalisation of meaning. (24/11/04)

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Hugh McLeod, whose mischievous cartoons are usually the source of a daily chuckle, has written something of a manifesto called the Hughtrain.

"We are living in the beginnings of a new global spiritual awakening...benefit is a product of conviction, not vice versa...Branding is a spiritual exercise. Product benefit doesn't excite us, belief in humanity and human potential excites us...It doesn't matter what the industry is as long as the soul is engaged." etc.

I find this vaguely depressing. Something is lost when men of irony attempt to diversify into conviction-based creativity.

The consumption of abstracted meanings seems to be the only way consumers feel able to interact with issues like "human potential". The intellectual options are being boarded up one by one. Does McLeod really think ordinary lives will be improved if marketers join President Bush outside the ranks of the reality-based society and start refashioning the world in the image of their courageous beliefs...or if people start buying iPods in order to be "closer to God"??

Call me jaded but I'm a bit fed up with this programme of anachronising everything and everyone, and I'm certainly bored with reading unsupported, pithy observations like "a brand is a place, not a thing".

This comment I did value: "Having a good personal blog is so useful- it allows you to convey a lot of essential personal schtick over a great distance."

Mcleod's cartoons are wonderful; I wish him the best in his accumulation of metaphorical capital. (23/11/04)

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One of the supposed differences between 'primitive' peoples and modern westerners is is that while the former see the world in terms of their own society and 'outsiders', the latter have (for the last half century at least) aspired to a universalised view of humanity. The trouble with the gringos is that they have a primitive collective unconscious - a culturally overpronounced limbic system. Even when they use the language of universality (see Jakob Nielsen below) they do so in a blinkered, self-serving fashion. Most of the time though, the US and them frontier mentality pokes through, unnervingly.

Broadly the Western world knows that injustice is the fate of anyone or anything that finds itself outside the moral community. Whereas liberal-minded westerners have allowed in all kinds of human former deviants and are now even considering the case of the great apes, non liberal-minded westerners (many of whom are located on the other side of the pond) are retreating into their homestead and planning a whole host of new evictions and exclusions. (23/11/04)

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I'm aware that some people regard me as incorrigibly irreverent. The irony of the ironic stance is that it communicates a frivolous lack of conviction, and in my case it does this in precisely the area where my own convictions are at their profoundest.

Roguish American pragmatist Richard Rorty has been characterised as "incorrigible", largely because he has recommended that in response to the contigent, relativistic nature of our world in which certainty is essentially inaccessible, we dedicate our lives to building a personal, eclectic collection of high quality meanings. It's a difficult hobby to pursue if you have any social or political convictions. But it is essentially the only intellectually-valid core response to the situation other than nihilism. Either your glass is half full or it's completely empty. The rest is cant. Anyone who tries to persuade you otherwise is the real buffoon.

Another thing I have observed of late is the way anyone that demonstrates contentment with the present state of their lives, materially in particular, is regarded as kinky in the context of insatiable consumer society. Anyway, let's not forget that the last item in every consumer's collection of satisfied wants is death. (23/11/04)

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Jakob Nielsen's latest Alertbox pontification, in which he sets out to undo the Industrial Revolution, is flawed in so many ways I hardly know where to start. It's an unpalatable bisque of broad generalisations in which unwarranted assumptions and groundless assertions float unappetisingly.

"For the past 200 years humankind has lived and worked in ways that conflict with evolution" (By 'humankind', he means Americans of course.) Fortunately we now have the Internet which will allow us to live and work in accordance to our true nature...and so on.

Surely only creatures of instinct live in complete harmony with biological evolution? Why would humankind even want to? There are plenty of other candidates for the key moment of dislocation - such as when 'humankind' first started producing the means for its own subsistence. Still, there's no denying that there are qualitative changes afoot. However, most critical theorists would put a different spin on them. Instead of being hauled out of our traditional home-based lives to slave away for the machines for eight hours a day, the hardware has liquified and its formulated way of being now flows into all aspects of our lives - flexi-time. There has been a change of emphasis from production to consumption and the world has been flooded with abstractions. Meanwhile, there's simply no reason to think that the role of the electronic media is a reversal of the underlying process; if anything it will accelerate what Ernest-Debord called the society of the spectacle.

One of the many misconceptions in this piece is worth highlighting for future reference: "Reputation replaces image as the way to build a company, product, or brand position. This is partly because you can't establish an empty, slogan-based brand through mass marketing when there's no mass media." Yes you can. There are plenty of examples of image-based products and services that depend on word of mouth rather than mass media. Restaurants for example - more on them later. (23/11/04)

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This time last week, the corridors of power in the Palace of Westminster were packed with MPs debating things like hunting with dogs and gambling with chips, but over in Committee Room 14, you would have found nine teams of highly-motivated teenagers from schools representing different regions in the National Finals of the LionHeart Challenge - an event organised by the LSC as part of Enterprise Week.

Drafted in as the Challenge Theme Expert I was working the room sporting the purple baseball cap of the expert panel. The pupils had been tasked with "conceptualising, designing and creating a highly-innovative product that will become the media of the future", and had been given around three hours to work out what that meant, agree a concept and proceed to formulate a business plan which would show how their product would get to market and thrive there. A dozen or so other experts were on hand to provide assistance deriving from their experience in professional fields such as banking, marketing and engineering.

From the kick-off little people surrounded me and attempted to yank me over towards their huddled confederates. The first team to claim possession of me were clearly torn between the need to bounce their idea off an expert and an overpowering desire to keep it secret from everyone else in the room. Another group briefly vanished into a black hole while seeking a four dimensionsal solution to the challenge. As the clock ticked each little project appeared to experience a similar evolution - kids that set out to be widget manufacturers were quickly repositioning themselves as content and service providers.

The winners were announced at a formal banquet later that night at the Royal Horseguards Hotel. Before the judges retired for final deliberations the teams each gave a disciplined three minute powerpoint presentation. It was the team from St Marylebone's school in London that went home with the crystal punch bowl for their wearable wristband device that aspired to converge all known media. This all-girl group certainly seemed to have the best grasp of the business aspects, but I was impressed by all the concepts, most notably Motor Media, a search and download medium for the car, Eye-C, fashionable autocue-spectacles, and the i-Genie, a customisable holgraphic helper that will pop up and demonstrate how to use all the confusing gadgetry of the future.

A great experience - one of the highlights of which was munching a packed lunch underneath the arresting hammerbeam roof of Westminster Hall. I have to admit to my ignorance before this day that any part of the parliament complex had been in continuous use for 900 years. I previously imagined that the fire of 1834 had done for all the original buildings and that the modern palace was nothing more than a Victorian simulation of the medieval. I too visited the committee rooms as a schoolboy, but somehow missed out on this startling stone expanse. (23/11/04)

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I was up until 5:30am on Saturday glued to an entertainingly nasty Danish film from 1998 which exhibits a canny complicity of dramatic and representational styles.

Festen (The Celebration) is the evil twin of Babette's Feast. The moral of Thomas Vinterburg's tale seems to be that if a Danish friend kindly invites you along to a family reunion at a nice big house in the countryside, whatever you do, don't go.

And I thought Boxing Day at Heron's Farm was painful. Actually, in terms of sheer simmering resentment and overall combustive possibility I was much reminded of the plenary gatherings of los de León Martinez that it has been my unenviable privilege to attend.

This is sinister funny rather than black comedy. The camerawork is detached, in the style of The Office, (it was shot on video then blown up to 35mm film) a highly mobile method that flits between characters and scenes. Vinterburg has carefully ensured that most of the personalities in the ensemble are revealed to us as richly complex and real people, even though we only perceive them through a swirl of glimpses.

For me the most fascinating character in the mix was unzipped younger sibling Michael (played by Thomas Bo Larsen) - definitely some berserker blood in there. Arriving as a more or less unwelcome guest, by the end he has effectively inherited the throne.

Roger Ebert finds contrasting notes of farce and tragedy in the bouquet. The director's achievement here is in using the raw techniques of the intimate on-the-fly documentary to hold onto our credence in the realism of what is a fundamentally absurd, messed-up situation.

This was the first film made under the banner of the Dogme 95 movement which advocates the cinematic vow of chastity.

On Sunday night we watched a film called Todo Está Oscuro on TVe. It begins with a superb, functional visual gag. The director shows us Bogotá in profile then assumes an aerial view of the rush hour. We see a motorcycle sliding up the side of this traffic, its relative speed drawing it to our attention amidst all the visual and auditory noise. The rider stops at a street stall and dismounts, at which point a young man standing with his back to the camera nearby suddenly turns runs over and hops onto the bike. The owner gives chase, but soon we see the thief speeding on through the grottier barrios. The camera has been steadily drawing in closer to the action during the sequence. It's a nice way of seamlessly linking the general with the particular, connecting background setting to foreground narrative. The rest of the film disappoints. Why are Latin American filmmakers so enamored of verbal silences filled with hackneyed piano music? It's a joint Spanish, Portuguese, Cuban and Colombian production - "a charity case film" according to V. (22/11/04)

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Lost in Translation. No, not last year's fauxbrow must-see, but a headline that's going to allow me to tie together a range of seemingly unrelated topics such as Frode's jolly in Japan, the expanse of euphemistic language and of course the colourful non-pc expletives of Spanish football coach Luis Aragonés.

Recently Frode has been staring out of more Japanese windows than Scarlet Johanssen. He's over in Kyoto for a conference organised by the Science and Technology in Society Forum (STS). From experience I can report that being a delegate at one of these gatherings feels like staring through a window onto an alien, yet oddly parallel mindscape.

Frode's trip began a little inauspiciously when the airliner he was on pulled out of its final descent due, as they say, "to another aircraft on the runway". This has happened to me a couple of times, once at Heathrow where the sudden roar and acceleration was actually quite exciting, and at Barcelona which was a far hairier experience as we got a clear arial view of the obstructing aircraft as we passed over it.

In his blog Frode brings to our attention the ways that the Japanese appear to treat public space as an interface. There's the trolley exclusion zone next to baggage reclaim, not unlike the yellow lines close the edge of London Underground platforms, except that people over there respect them. Out in the busy streets you will find a series of lines and dots that have been painted onto tarmac to improve accessibility for the hard of seeing. (In fact, from the images I've seen Tokyo at night does look rather like a bold and lurid, neon on black alternative version of a normal city for the visually-impaired!) I wonder if peoples whose medium of the written word is ideogramatic are in any way more likely to cover their world in helpful symbolic aids? Anyway, in Japanese newsagents the top shelf is actually the bottom shelf - easier for those growing minds.

Another feature of Japanese urban space that Frode notes is the missing bit between macroscosm and microscosm. You walk in from the vastness of the cityscape and find yourself in a living area straight out of a a claustrophobe's worst nightmare. Even Ian Schrager hotels have bigger bathrooms.

Yesterday I read an interesting piece in The Independent by John Humphrys, who outlined his views on prevailing threats to good English. He singled out silly expressions like step change and paradigm shift and dishonest euphemistic langugage like build quality issues:.

"Bernard Levin believed all euphemisms are lies. He admired the writer Marghanita Laski, who translated "simple, inexpensive gowns for the fuller figure" into "nasty, cheap dresses for fat old women"...A businessman peddling an ambitious project for which he was trying to raise a lot of money exaggerated its the potential earning power. When, some years later, he was tackled about it and asked if he had been dishonest. "No," he said, "I was telling future truths."

Several high-minded British newspapers have been offering us literal translations of the words of Spain's gobby soccer coach Luis Aragonés this week. Watching Spanish language movies would be a far more absurd experience if this practice was more widespread. For instance, the Guardian informs us that Aragonés asked Reyes to "shit on his prostitute mother" (meaning Thierry Henri's).

A couple of years ago I watched a programme in which a leading Argentine TV scientist ascended the Andes in order to examine the wreck of a plane that mysteriously disappeared half a century ago, now emerging mechanical and biological piece by piece at the base of a glacier. This man was clearly an analogue of the dignified BBC factual programme presenter. We listened to his engaging summary of the debris and the story that it told. Then suddenly he slipped on some ice and screeched "prostitute mother"! Or rather, he didn't really. He said "puta madre", in Spanish. (Just imagine David Attenborough cursing similarly on the Beeb!)

Spend any time around Argentine males and you will find that they say "sos un buludo" to each other quite a lot. No doubt the Guardian would tell you that this means "you are a big balloon". Alternatively listen out at Wimbledon next year for those under-the-breath cusses from Chilean or Argentine players. "Concha su madre" ("cunt your mother" or even more literally, "shell your mother"), is a fairly common one. Another favourite expletive from that region is "la puta que te parió" - "the prostitute that gave birth to you."

Rudeness and obscenity is clearly a form of symbolic communication that goes beyond language, even when it takes the form of spoken words. (19/11/04)

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Like Hero, The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing Ke Ci Qin Wang) shows us how the King of Qin became the first Emperor of a unified China after confronting a would-be assassin in his inner sanctuary. Rather than a balletic, wirefutastic lunge we get what looks like a drunken midnight assault on the Central Line - the assassin lurching and slashing as the King runs and ducks, all the nearby bystanders pretending that nothing much is actually going on.

Both of these films appear to follow Western genre expectations only to turn orientally inscrutable. The Emperor and the Assassin is a three hour marathon that one critic has preemptively described as "a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions", but in fact it's clear that the Chinese don't have a well bedded down equivalent of the tragic form. I was reminded more of Ben Hur and The Godfather. Indeed, the King of Qin is something of a Michael Corleone figure in this old fashioned epic - a man led on to ever greater atrocity (and loneliness) by the goading whispers of his ancestors. Except that they turn out not to be his ancestors after all, so he could have saved himself the trouble.

My enthusiasm for the experience of watching this film waxed and waned as it progressed. In the midst of one of its well-contrived subplots you briefly feel the thrill of exposure to a true classic. As such the narrative structure is more novelistic than cinematic. There are isolated pockets of dramatic tension and structure but the sum is somehow less than the parts. It might actually have made a better mini-series.

The passing of time is especially mishandled. The King's mother and lover both look too young for him. The former suddenly turns grey before expiring, but prior to that there have been few other obvious temporal markers to clock onto.

Characters like the Marquis and the Assassin seemed worthy of more development and exposure, and yet overall the cutting room floor was underused. When you stand back and take stock it's all build-up and little resolution, but perhaps this is the cost of treating myth as history. Hero at least had an obvious nationalist agenda to push; Chen Kaige's film is far more ambivalent about the "unification of all under Heaven."

The costumes, sets and combat sequences are all realist in texture, but a number of the key scenes involving the main characters are actually quite stylised and theatrical. Once again it's clear that subtitles aren't an unlimited key to understanding Mandarin dialogue, especially when you can't easily detect the articles or the stresses. In one part the sort of noise I would make if someone slapped me on the back unexpectedly is translated as "it is beautiful".

Li Gong is luminously beautiful like her compatriot Zhang Ziyi. She will play Hatsumono opposite the younger actress in the forthcoming Memoirs of a Geisha. (18/11/04)

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You get a strong feel for the imaginative intentions behind Rashômon when you read some of the online reviews. (Four to be precise.) At least two that I have come across clearly state that the movie presents the viewer with a set of different testimonies, and that in each one the witness admits to being the killer. Hey, that's not the same movie that I saw!

It's said that this was the first film to represent different subjective viewpoints with the look and feel of objective representation, thereby driving home the point that all human perspectives necessarily include all sorts of embellishments and distortions. For some this may come as disconcerting news.

Each alternative account of how a Samurai died in the forest after his wife had been raped by a bandit has been related at a trial and is then reported (mostly probably unfaithfully) by a woodcutter, who later himself reluctantly admits to having witnessed the crimes as they transpired.

"If we don't trust one another the world becomes a hell", moans the priest to the shifty-looking woodcutter.

There's clearly some truth in each version Kurosawa presents us with; no doubt it was his intention from the outset to dump us into a maze that we can't escape by simply picking a winner.

The most treasurable part of this film is its highly evocative scenery. Here the backgrounds stealthily curl around and envelop the interplay of human psyches in the foreground. This was also the first Japanese film to point the camera directly at the sun, an effect used in conjunction with music to heighten the forboding demeanor of the setting.

The differing versions of how the Samurai ended up patas arriba are all being gloomily discussed at the ruined Rashômon gate of Kyoto in the midst of a torrential downpour - a scene with Shakespearean overtones - whilst the forest in which the alleged crime occurs is depicted as a locus of primeval irrationality, practically a fourth player in the key events, refashioning the dramatic triangle into a rectangle.

Tajômaru the bandit reports to the police that it was in fact an unexpected breeze that suddenly altered his state of mind unleashing carnal intentions.

The Samurai's wife, played by Machiko Kyô, is a chameleon-like being, acting out the best and worst (male) projections of womanhood. Her performance reminded me of Brigitte Helm as Maria (and the Robot)in Metropolis. (16/11/04)

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A cloud of world dignitaries and middle-east commentators in various states of pseudo-grief is covering the Falluja battlefield today - the coffin of a slippery old warlord of the twentieth century is hogging the coverage that might otherwise have gone to the eighteen coffins of as yet anonymous twenty-first century grunts that died bloodily in the dusty alleyways yesterday (or the even more anonymous Iraqi collaterals.) (12/11/04)

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"Kerry, Edwards, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Michael Moore, Jimmy Carter...those guys are so far outside the mainstream", sneered the Fox anchorman this morning at a Democratic Party analyst. "I'd have to disagree with you there, Jimmy Carter isn't in the same category" was the response he got. Which category would that be?

The Democrat campaign man was there to reveal that many Kerry voters had actually come out strongly against gay marriage, especially the ethnics. His party would certainly have to adapt its position on the issue. What would de Tocqueville have had to say about all this wagging of the Democratic dog by its tail? Perhaps if he could see what America has become it wouldn't surprise him to hear its politicians talking like marketeers.

In Greg Egan's short story Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies nobody can really say they exist inside the mainstream.

Back in 2018, the narrator tells us, something very odd indeed happened - humanity experienced a kind of convulsion of convictions, becoming "permeable to each other's values and beliefs". He recalls how he would have started praying "if God stayed the same long enough to be prayed to".

Now he lives as a vagrant kipping down next to the freeways that slide through the spaces between the irreconcileable blocks of absolute certainty that coalesced after the Meltdown. It's impossible to remain equidistant from everyone so he stays on the move, careful not to be "swallowed by one, eleaborate set of self-affirming lies". Any sudden insights invoke the fight or flight instinct.

He crosses the well-tended lawns of the Christian belief suburb, feeling the tug of comfort, but unable to dispel the knowledge of the "dog's breakfast of threats and contradictions" that underly that faith. Moving onwards he experiences "the giddy succession of truncated epiphanies, effectively cancelling each other out, leaving nothing behind but an amorphous sense of distrust." Is this path within the credence cracks a false Tao he asks himself.

At the next equilibrium point a prophet preaches. (Regretably not a chain-smoking Frenchman.) Of all possible routes between the metanarratives the tramps have apparently only explored a sub-set. The freeway may not be so free after all - they may have an attractor of their own, making escape to the countryside an unattainable aspiration.

Is there a minimum level of ambient bullshit required to lead a meaningful life? (12/11/04)

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During the eighties Guatemala's military analysts marked whole regions of their hinterland with colour-coded labels. White areas had no nearby insurgents so local peasants were generally spared. Pink indicated limited guerrilla activity, hence limited oppression. Red indicated a scorched earth policy in line with the lessons the Americans thought they had learned in Vietnam - kill everyone, man, woman and child, and the insurgents will be left stranded without their agrarian support.

The Guatemalan army is said to be the only armed force in Latin America that a UN sponsored Truth Commission has deemed guilty of "genocide". Yet the schematic outlined above should have made it clear that the intention at least was not essentially genocidal. Many of the solidiers that carried out the atrocities were themselves "Mayan", an identity that existed first in the pages of National Geographic before a shared experience of state-sponsored butchery fostered a sense of unity amongst the more than twenty distinct indigenous language groups.

Greg Grandin has written a book entitled The Last Colonial Massacre which aims to show that the Cold War was far from frigid in geographies outside the two competing blocks. Latin America experienced a particularly deadly confrontation of political, economic and ethical models and Grandin shows why the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954 was rightfully a key moment in world history, marking the start of the Cold War in the region. (It was also the event that finally sent Che on the path to armed resistance.)

The very nation that had helped free Europe from fascism became the reactionary leader of the counter-Enlightenment, an indulgent godparent to feudal regimes that "fused a romantic aversion to the modern world with the most up-to-date technologies of propaganda and violence", according to Corey Robin reviewing Gandin's book in the LRB.

The Guatemalan coup was the point after WWII where America became a force for bad in the world. Before then it might have convincingly carried off the posture of reluctant imperialist, but when the CIA drove out the reformers and began the forty year policy of cleansing by carnage, "a re-run of the fabled journey into the heart of darkness.", Colonel Kurtz got carte blanche. (11/11/04)

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Greg Egan's narrators are generic modern subjects whose unexceptional lives are being unglued by carefully extrapolated what if? scenarios derived from pretty standalone technological possibilities - ordinary folk that science has kitted out with "exotic perspectives" .

It's a technique that works best in short fiction. I couldn't honestly say I fancy reading any of Egan's full-size novels, though it wouldn't surprise me to see some of these bulked out into Hollywood scripts at some point in the future. (My bet is that the one where a woman carries her husband's brain in her womb for two years will make it to Tinseltown first.)

The weakest stories in Axiomatic are simple projections of a single idea which stop short of exploring the wider metaphysical implications. When it is integral to the plot, Egan's primary philosophical preoccupation is the mystery of selfhood. This theme is interlaced through many of the speculative futures that the author compactly discloses to us. How physical is our authentic identity? Are we just information that can be transcribed across media?

In Learning to be me we listen to a voice that explains that in its times every human being carries in their head a jewel which over time duplicates the biological mind of the individual, who typically chooses to switch around eighteen to avoid the consequences of a biological degradation of the brain. The narrator is reluctant to make the switch and asks if his authentic self will die when it happens. Should it matter anyway, he conjectures, as our earlier selves are all as good as dead? Before taking the plunge he actively avoids friends and family who have already had their disposable wetware sucked out of their heads: "I couldn't bear to be with people whose humanity I doubted." Inevitably Egan plays on the doubt we have concerning which of the two selves is revealing its inner life here, especially after an unusual misalignment develops just prior to the irreversible procedure.

Egan returns to the notion of the jewel later in the collection in a story called Closer in which a man burns with curiosity to experience what it is actually like to be his girlfriend. Fortunately, theirs is a society in which the legal identity of individuality is the serial number on the Nodoli Device (jewel) not the DNA fingerprint. The couple switch bodies, then spend periods of time together with one of them in a clone of the other's body. Still not quite satisfied the narrator suggests they go the full hog and synergise their consciousness. The consequences of knowing the unknowable are ultimately disasterous for their union back in everyday social space. "Together, we might well have been alone, so we had no choice but to part. Nobody wants to spend eternity alone." In this story Egan asks a number of interesting questions abou the nature of joint recollection within a long-term relationship (increasingly symmetrical perhaps), but overall makes the subjective experience of the "compromise" mind no more vivid than I have done here in simply describing it.

Kidnapping asks similar questions to Stanislav Lem's Solaris. An executive discovers that hackers have kidnapped a simulation of his wife, constructed from a mental facsimile of himself that exists in a parallel cyber-afterlife. He pays up in the end because the virtual hostage is constructed out of all his reasons for loving his real wife. Egan hints that the physical wife is possibly less worth saving in that sense than the virtual one!

The conceit of Safe-deposit box would be familiar to anyone that has ever watched Quantum Leap, but in this instance the idea is slightly weirder - not so much science fiction as the kind of logical fantasy that Austrian writers experimented with at the close of the nineteenth century. We get to know somebody that wakes up in a different host body every morning. As far as he can remember, that's the way it has always been, and it took him a while to realise as a child that he was different to everyone else - that Copernican revelation that the city was an unchanging backdrop and that it was his own inner world that was in motion. For such an individual health and fitness are public health statistics he is unable to control directly, suicide a form of murder. When he lost his virginity, his host was already an experienced lover. The only person that knows him for himself is a distant female pen pal - and when she suggests they meet he panics and drops her.

All this is fun to read and think about. Yet Egan spoils things a bit by insisting on seeking an explanation for this state of affairs, American style. The disembodied consciousness re-visits each host on average once every three years. All are twenty-nine year old males and the narrator becomes aware of a geographical bias in the high-repeaters. At work on the day we spend with him in the short story, he finds himself in a mental hospital and discovers what he concludes is his original body - a helpless 29-year-old confined to bed, his brain having been systematically strangled in infancy, the result of sick experimentation by mad scientist father on son. Consciousness fled the wreck, borrowing a day of physical existence from each male of similar age in the vicinity.

There are two stories which explore the implications of implants that hardwire precepts into the mind. In Axiomatic a man snorts up such a device in order to overcome his qualms about the taking of human life prior to stalking his wife's murderer. "For $50 I could have bought back my childhood Catholicism", he reports on leaving the implant store. In The Walk another bloke is offered an implant by his would-be assassin who says it will help him to understand why his death is less terrifyingly absolute considering that all things must have boundaries - except of course the universe of boundless possibility in which individuals identical to ourselves must necessarily exist.

Back to that brain in the womb. A man has been mangled beyond physical repair in a train crash. Fortunately his insurance covers full body replacements. A surrogate must carry a brainless clone whose biological age can be artificially fastforwarded after birth (though the face will still be unnaturally soft). The wife however must carry the comatose brain in her uterus as their life-support cover was the cheapest the couple could afford at the time. Naturally enough she feels exploited - and undecided as to whether the thing inside her is more like a tumour or a child. Her husband is duly restored, and quickly gets the hang of his new vehicle. Yet It's she that has experienced qualitative change. Debunking her instincts in order to adapt to the two year ordeal has made all her sentiments transparent to her. "I can even admire the courage and selflessness of the woman that saved him. I know I could never do the same."

Ultimately Egan's fiction seems uncertain what to do about the obstacle of dualism, much like The Matrix trilogy. If our essence can be copied and extracted then an immortality of sorts is possible. But if the mind is just software running on discardable hardware, isn't that just a modern re-working of Cartesian mind-body dualism? Such is the separation in Egan's future that when a woman is stabbed to 'death' at a retro-rave the narrator observes that this is "a sickening and expensive indulgence". (11/11/04)

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Depressing times indeed for the reality-based community - Ollie North was on Fox this morning commentating on the F'looja situation, with four more years of swagger and conceit written all over his face.

I heard it said last week that the crazy colonel's former commander-in-chief Ronald Reagan belonged to a regime that was essentially libertarian in its ideological disposition whilst it paid lip-service to the conservative values of the Christian right. Now the US is run by a right-wing, theocratic herd that instead pay their lip-service to libertarian values.

There's bound to be a dangerous polarisation amongst opponents of Bush now. Some will look at the way Hispanics swung to the Republicans for predominantly religious reasons and urge the Democrats to start using a more compatible pitch. Others will, like me, inevitably feel radicalised by a sense of frustration and horror at the direction the world is taking.

H.R. Clinton certainly won't appeal to both these camps. She lacks her husband's schmooze-ability.

Finding an identity and a programme that represents the opposite of all things Bush may not be the best way to change things. I've read enough history to know that human agency and intentionality is not always the primary cause of the effect we call progress. (9/11/04)

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AA Gill has repeatedly stressed just how important he believes the menu is to the success of any eatery. A restaurant can have everything else right - the ingredients (both individual and in combination), the service, the decor, a good theme matched with magnificnent ambience - but it can all go to waste if the menu isn't structured right. This isn't a bad metaphor for what I think went wrong with a number of books and films I've reviewed recently - such as Andrés Rabadán's Historias Desde La Cárcel and Yimou Zhang's Ying Xiong, a.k.a. Hero.

I was bouncing this off V on Saturday morning. I saw she understood what I was getting at when she ran with the analogy, relating cultural artefacts to what the average diner eats at Carluccio's. Places like that don't survive on their best dishes, nor on their most refined customers.

Something similar to the chain restaurant effect happens to successful novelists. What begins as something excitingly fresh and individual eventually degrades into a formula as the basic idea is replicated. García Márquez's career has been a struggle to find a detour around this congested route, which has arguably only been partly successful. Memoria de mis putas tristes has one or two menu items rather like that scorpion ice-cream that was briefly available at the long-gone fusion bistro in Lamb's Conduit Street. Personally I'm as eclectic at the dinner table as anywhere else, but I read the expression on my father's face when he was perusing the victuals on offer there as that of the bewildrered and terrified mainstream.

What is the simbolismo underlying the fact that the teenage prostitute never actually wakes up in the novel? Neither of us were quite sure. It remains possible that this aspect of the story is a bit of a cop-out as any substantive interaction between the ninety-year-old brothel creeper and his underage punt would most probably have alienated the mainstream audience that Gabo has so carefully cultivated. There are certainly a few dishes for aficionados only on his menus, but I guess the spread is congenial enough to keep the place packed with regulars.

One last foodie analogy. El SeĖor Presidente by Miguel Angel Asturias is like one of those apparently large and yummy Guatemalan avocados you eagerly twist open only to discover that it has a massive stone. El desengaĖo de la pepita grande.The spoonfuls of green flesh you do manage to scrape out of it are unforgetably heavenly, but the bulk of what you started with is indigestible. (8/11/04)

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Watched the US-trained Iraqis kicking down doors in Falluja Police-Academy-style this morning, in flagrant violation of what shall henceforth be known as Baksheesh's first law of armed combat - always make sure that the Yanks are in front of you.

In the forthcoming assault on Falluja the Americans may make the Israelis look like the Swedish armed forces. Every male under 45 will be considered hostile. They may say they're not crusaders but this looks a lot like "Kill them all, God will know his own."

Last week Simom Schama wrote with characteristic insightfulness on the post-election make-up of the dis-United States. He divides the population into two mutually-exclusive groups: Godlies and Worldlies, demographics that can be readily mapped onto the geographical categories I have used myself in the past: flyover and coastal. "The shock for the worldlies", he says, "is to discover that Godly America is its modernity."

Indeed, worldly America may be nothing more than a scab on the surface of the American body politic. Más costra que costa.

A Kerry victory might have led to further complacency here. Faith-based politics is the enemy within, just as much as it is the threat from without. Four more years of Bush are four years in which we could potentially reformulate the war on terrorism as the war on monotheism (at least as it expresses itself poltically.) It won't happen of course, as our current generation of politicians are far too compromised. The Conservatives would have to forfeit their little-England isolationism in favour of a more positive reinforcement of European-flavoured democratic, humanitarian values. And Labour would have to rid themselves of their tarnished Messiah.

Perhaps the last weekend's level-crossing suicide was a member of Al Qaeda's Newbury cell? Ali-Q of the Berkshire Massif? It's a nice low tech, repeatable technique with a particular resonance with the British hind-brain. A colleague of mine quipped that they probably tried to take out several trains at once but the others weren't running on time. (8/11/04)

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In non-tropical latitudes sublime art is generally well-groomed, self-contained, perhaps even a bit sparse at times. García Márquez is one of the most successful exponents of the other way - he attains the sublime through the careful cultivation of provocative excess. I can't really think of any better analogy than the horticultural one. Just mentally compare the typical English garden with a tropical one. In order to be authentic and beautiful the latter simply must be overabundant.

As I drew towards the end of Memoria de mis putas tristes horrendous adjectives like elegaic and bittersweet popped disconcertingly into my consciousness - reminding me that the essence of GGM's art is to take literature as close to the flames of cliché and pretentiousness that it is possible to go and not get singed. In contrast mediocre imitators like Allende, De BerniŹres and Rushdie have all been well and truly carbonised in the attempt.

This may well be Gabo's final work of fiction. We have followed him up the great narrative river of solitude and nostalgia and reached this, the last little tributary. The novel won't be released in English until Septmber 2005. I have already heard it referred to as "Memories of my melancholy whores", an early taster of what will be lost in translation this time round.

One reviewer in a Spanish paper described the idiom of the novel's nonagenarian narrator as "melodious castillian". It is indeed this lyrical lexicon that has endeared Gabo to ordinary literate people all over the world, making him accessible in Latin America to many who would not otherwise be avid consumers of serious literature. Yet the essentially pastel tones of his vocabulary disguise a darker, more sinister vision. Sentiment is the only reliable measure of right and wrong in a Gabo novel. Ethics, as sanctioned by religious beliefs, are not usually relevant.

This begins as the story of a solitary, selfish and loveless man who, on turning ninety decides to ring up the local bordello and treat himself to a virgin. It seems at this point that Gabo is going to follow De Amor Y Otros Demónios with another parable about ravished innocence, where an older man is consumed by intemperate lust for a pubescent equatorial beauty.

It all reminded me how another Nobel laureate, Guatemala's Miguel Angel Asturias, characterised the aspect of Miguel Cara de Angel in El SeĖor Presidente - "beautiful, but bad".

Yet the second half of the novel effects a shift in mood. The old geezer finds tears welling up into his eyes at the slightest hint of emotion in the warm air around him and finally succumbs to the trauma of adolescent passion in his tenth decade. "El bolero es la vida" (The bolero is life) he finally recognises, rephrasing a proposition that the author himself has made. Intellectuals may be reluctant to endorse it, but the notion that these sentimental songs express the essence of Caribbean poetics is for him undeniable; and like his novels, the best ones saunter unfalteringly along the line dividing the magnificent from the mawkish.

If this is Gabo's fond farewell, then he delivers it with the the devil in his eye. There's also a great deal of intelligent humour between the lines of these one hundred or so pages. He loves his boleros but chose Bartok's Intermezzo Interroto when he went to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Prize.

The ending is more nuance than climax. The story that is being told here doesn't really require one particular sort of resolution - so it is possible that the last few pages were tweaked in order to undermine the burgeoning market for the pirate copies that hit the streets of Bogotá in the days before publication. Yet are we to believe that Gabo fails to understand that in temporarily suppressing the value of the 'hot' copies to the advantage of the the final, 'authentic' text he was ensuring the lasting value and collectibility of the former? This is after all an author that systematically destroys all his drafts.

On the subject of tropical gardens the most poetically-resonant I have yet found in Guatemala belongs to a tall, abundantly grey-haired lady who could well have stepped out of a magical realist's wet dream. Like the house it was attached to (and its principal occupant), it looked as if elegant ruin was its natural, ideal state. The property was carved out of the earlier wreck of a convent by her father, as if he wanted to bequeathe to his children a nostalgic stone image of vanished propriety. My acquaintance and her brother divided the old mansion in two. She married a Frenchman and became a balletista in Paris. Now she teaches dance to local children on the cracked stones of her patio. (5/11/04)

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I blame the Guardian myself.

Anyway, slightly paraphrasing John Kerry's concession speech - at least when we wake up next morning, we are not all Americans. (4/11/04)

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That familiar feeling. Extra time, then penalties again. Hillbillies a'whoopin'. Another four year wait. Groan.

The Democrats can't even say they played better last night. Bush has the popular vote and much as it would be nice to see him go out in an Italian sulk after a perefectly good goal was disallowed, the principles of democracy require that the Democrats and all their entourage quietly pack up and go home until next time.

Looks like some ethnic cleansing needs to be done in the flyover states if the safety of the sane is to be guaranteed! Yet if this result was swung by new voters it may be time to get with the programme and start praying.

Next time round the Democrats will need to equip themselves with a candidate with some backwoods appeal - like Cuzzin Billy-Bob Clinton.

Joking apart, someday historians will be asking how the West squandered the opportunity of secular society. I haven't given a great deal of thought to this topic as yet, but I think there have been a number of key historical mistakes (or avoidable deviations).

Firstly, secular thinking was sequestered by the elites, largely because of it's perceived threat to the existing social order. When it did go mainstream it was inextricably associated with a populist strain of radicalism. To distance themselves from this kerfuffle, which burnt itself out relatively harmlessly behind the Iron Curtain, the elites of the free world pushed their creative and intellectual revolt against the sacred to the limits, then started mucking with the limits themselves. Not even rational thought itself was immune to their dissolvent scepticism. A nice pose, but hardly practical.

And in our schools a classical, materialist science continues to be taught (implicitly at least), nearly a century after the paradigm started to degenerate at the theoretical level; an oversight which may simply be recycling the deficiencies of naive rationalism.

It's a mess really. You have to wonder whether the life without redemption, but with some semblance of justice, is still a project that can be carried forward inclusively, even if it doesn't acquire further corruptions within and enemies without. These intermittent threats will surely give succour to those who are already reluctant to live the curious life, to constantly interrogate values and meanings.

Once again a narrow intellectual elite, many dedicated to little more than immortalising their own egos, will become the unreliable custodians of this important enterprise. (3/11/04)

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Tonight's the night - the Western hemisphere's biggest banana republic goes to the polls. I shall have to have a tactical sleep at some point early in the proceedings. Last time round I tried to go the distance and conked out around 4am. Gore was President then; when I woke up a couple of hours later, Bush was. This mustn't be allowed to happen again.

If Kerry wins, we will be firing our metaphorical AK-47s into the dawn skies. At the very least I shall have to drive around the island hooting my horn.

In this instance extra time may run for longer than the standard 30 minutes. Imagine World Cup final where you weren't exactly sure who could grab the cup until several weeks afterwards? For some time I have been resigned to a narrow Kerry disappointment, but have been hoping that he could at least repeat Gore's feat of winning the popular vote and forcing Bush to further discredit himself by seeking re-appointment in the courts. But the independent Electoral Vote polling site had Kerry in front for the first time yesterday so perhaps there is some scope for dreaming the dream. If Kerry loses like Gore did it will be like watching England lose on penalties...again.

Fox News looks like the ideal place to catch it all tonight. Yesterday the Fox anchorfolk were reporting on the Ukranian Presidential election, mouthing the term "second round" with obvious vocal inverted commas.

Meanwhile, Baksheesh sent me an email from Dubai this morning with the following observations on self-appointed election commentator and occasional vBlogger OBL: "You really couldn't make this clown up, even Hollywood couldn't, though they came pretty close with Art Malik in that Arnie film; maybe his eyes will light up one day and he will say those immortal words "In-ter-national Rescue"! (2/11/04)

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Emerging from the British Museum on Sunday we soon realised that we had acquired a tail...or rather a trunk, as the attachment in question was of the sort that think they are less obvious when following you from in front, when in fact the mummy of Artemidorus would have made a less conspicuous occupant of the Great Russell Street pavement. Just as we were about to take appropriate evasive action, the gap between us was suddenly narrowed and our trail moved in for his opening gambit.

"Hello I am a tourist...vot do you do here in the eveninks?"

You could tell that a lack of things or people to do was not unknown to him back home in the forests of Germania. But the question was a good one and I felt compelled to engage with it. I suspected that I needed to come up with an option that would represent an improvement on "go back to my hotel and have a wank" , though this being Bloomsbury at 6pm on Sunday evening, it might be difficult.

V had wised up rather more rapidly to his underlying intentions. Gooseberry alert. I soon cottoned on and realised that I needed to somehow make travelling in the opposite direction to us sound like the most attractive option, so I started to outline why East London was such a dreadfully dull place. He looked deeply reluctant. "Is not ze tower of London interestink when lighted up?" Yes, but think of all those empty office blocks you would have to walk past to get there I riposted.

Maybe he'd been banking on us being out-of-towners too. In the end we left him no alternative but to hiss a "sank you" and stumble off back towards the bright lights of the West End that I had so enthusiastically commended to him. (2/11/04)

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We first came across the story of Andrés Rabadán on Lo Que Me Contaron Los Muertos, TVe's compulsively watchable equivalent to Forensic Detectives.

Ordinary Americans being the banal sort of folk they are, they divorce and kill each other for generally very banal reasons.

Smalltime, small town passions and resentments instigate the mortal crimes; the modern world then appears with its swabs, test tubes and pipettes in order to solve them. (There are also the atrocities committed by the not-so-ordinary Americans: the gruesome, disenfranchised freakshow skulking behind every suburban hedge.)

In Spain however, forensics take a back seat. It's the why not the how that Iberian audiences want to be amazed by. The men in white coats are replaced by the men in olive green jackets and ties - the humourless, beared officialdom of the Guardia Civil.

And perhaps the best part is that you are usually left none the wiser. The criminal is captured, but the essence of the crime remains very much at large.

Such was the case with Andrés Rabadán. Back in 1994 at the age of 20 he derailed three trains connecting Barcelona with the Catalan hinterland. Nobody was seriously injured, luckily. Then one day he picked up a crossbow and fatally shot his father in the kitchen of the apartment that they shared together. (A few years before this Rabadán's mother had committed suicide in front of him.)

Twelve years later and Rabadán is incarcerated in Quatre camins jail in Barcelona. Nobody is yet quite sure why he did what he did; paranoid-schizophrenia was mooted at the time. There were unsubstantiated rumours of abuse. He is still in the psychaitric unit, but has long since ceased medication. If you take his word for it, he's cured of his demons, but the authorities in Spain are obviously not sure where they left that key.

Several failed escape attempts mean that he is now kept in relative confinement. He couldn't converse in Catalan at the time of his imprisonment and this may have encouraged him to set himself the challenge of writing about his experiences in the local lingo. A collection of connected anecdotes grew, apparently intended for outside correspondents, but a literary agent called Anna Soler Pont got wind of them and they have been published (in Spanish) as Historias Desde La Cárcel.

In fortuitous parallel with his emergence as a published writer, a search of his cell revealed some paintings he had hidden beneath his bunk, which led to the first public exhibition of his art.

CC got the book for us on his recent roadtrip to Barcelona. V devoured it first, as is her wont.

Let it be said first that Andrés is technically a very good writer. You suspect he might also be a great raconteur in person too. He takes us inside the walls of his world and shows us how the term inmate necessarily includes all the staff as well as the prisoners. He gently mocks the procedures, the irrational inconsistencies, the "impoténcia resolutiva". Altogether it's not unlike Yossarian's airforce base in Catch 22.

Nearly all of the stories begin with a closely observed physical description of the main protagonist(s) and in my view he considerably overeggs these individual portraits. The stories are generally lighthearted, but there's something about the sheer concentration of Rabadán's detached curiosity that verges on the sinister.

The person you learn least about from this collection is Rabadán himself, the silent observer. Still, it's hard not to feel that you'd like to get to know him some more. (2/11/04)

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This morning the trains were unusually full. Did they all forget to put their clocks back, or was it their body clocks that turfed them all out onto the street an hour before it was strictly necessary?

I read another of Greg Egan's intriguing sci-fi sci-fi stories this weekend which described software the coppers of the future will use statistical analysis software to screen incoming Crimewatch-style calls.

Every call is analysed for message, tone and gesture (they're mostly video calls of course). The investigator can see a list of all the main meanings with an absolute total next to each one. Each is also scored for reliability.

In comparison with this, many current media analysis tools don't permit communications investigators to study both the graphical and the tabular presentation of the data (like Webtrends) which is frankly a pity. The tool that Egan describes is not wholly dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge about volumes and trends, rather it allows the user to identify connections and to save time by drilling down to the individual item which contains the most useful information.

In the story the policeman discovers a connection between the crime in question, a 19th century Belgian painting and a deranged 21st centurty performance artist. He is then able to re-sort the data to review all the messages which specifically reference the painting, some of which have helpfully attached a scan of it.

One thing Egan might have added to this is a feature which allows the detective to package and interactively venn the various messages in order to visualise the intersections between different clusters of information.

Meanwhile the Washington Redskins lost yesterday. Historically whenever this happens just before a Presidential election, the incumbent is on the next stage coach out. As the saying goes, I don't believe in it, but it seems to work anyway. (1/11/04)

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I felt a bit Harry Potty the other day when I snapped up Gabriel García Márquez's new novel almost as soon as it was released here, having stalked the windows of Grant & Cutler for several days in advance. A bit of a fanboy as Raj would say.

V read it all in a single sitting on the balcony today, the second of two unlikely, spring-like afternoons. I will begin it myself in the morning.

Back in Colombia pirate copies have been on the streets for weeks, but at the eleventh hour Gabo apparently tweaked the ending to thwart them. I wonder if the nonagenarian narrator still kicks the bucket in the end? It is said that the demise of this character is the principle reason the author has superstitiously postponed the completion of his novel for so long. (He has been suffering with lymph cancer for a couple of years now.)

It's actually 10 years since Gabo's last novel was published. Memoria de mis putas tristes has 109 pages in five chapters of decreasing page length. (The first two are 12 pages long.) Gabo claims to write a page a day wherever he is, whatever he is doing, so we have to assume there was quite a lot of discarded draft material. Indeed, he has said it takes him 500 pages of scribbling to finesse a 15 page story. He always destroys his notes and early manuscripts and since a friend sold some of his personal letters back in the 70s, he has stopped writing them, preferring to use the telephone to keep in touch with his mates at not inconsiderable cost to himself.

Of all the great novelists alive today Gabo is possibly the one most likely to be credited with a "lively imagination" - and yet all of his fictions are grounded in truths, observed and reported. He has famously toured the bordellos and bars of Cartagena for larger-than-life tales. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a poetical reportage on the world of his childhood, Chronicle of a Death Foretold an essentially true story his relatives begged him not to publish because the families involved might be oversensitive, Colombian-style.

The Autumn of the Patriarch began after a conversation with the major-domo of Venezuelan despot Juan Vicente Gómez. The final chararisation eventually emerged as a composite that included other notoriously deranged Caribbean leaders. Gabo believes that the solitude of such men derives from their quest for power as a substitute for love: "The powerful live under the whip of sexual frenzy". Old chum Fidel Castro is always allowed to read the manuscripts of his novels prior to thir publication - Gabo was one of the journalists that discovered the location of the American base at the Hacienda Retalijuleu in Guatemala where the Bay of Pigs operation was being planned.

Great novels are always "a poetical transposition of reality, a coded world" Gabo asserts. He is careful always to begin with a core story that time won't be able to erode. (Literature in our own language more often celebrates the marginal voice.) He made sure every fact in his portrait of the "beaten and wretched" Simon Bolívar in The General in his Labyrinth was given a clean bill of health by leading Venezuelan historians.

In the interval since I last read one of his novels I have been somewhat deviated by the alternative vision of Latin American reality suggested by the McOndo writers like Alberto Fuguet. Just say no to flying grandmothers they proclaim. Down in Santiago or Buenos Aires, Gabo's world possibly appears just as flush with an overabundant exoticism as it might to a Londoner. Yet for V there something of her own childhood millieu to be found in Macondo. Her granny couldn't levitate, but she told po-faced stories that uncompromisingly blended the natural and the supernatural - just like Gabo's abuela Tranquilina. What the author described as the "unbridled reality" of the Caribbean when he collected his Nobel Prize has been captured in his work in a style that knowingly fuses popular myth with fiction, journalism and screenwriting, the three interlocking media of his long career.

Back in 1990 I was reading Love in the Time of Cholera simultaneously in English and Spanish and made the intriguing discovery that a whole page had been skipped by the translator in the Penguin edition. Curiously this elision was camouflaged by the fact that it was possible to carry on the story from the point at which it left off two pages earlier, without a jarringly obvious distortion of the sense - and yet, the meaning of the missing page was not only lost, it had been changed. The effect of this is that English readers of the novel can never really claim to understand a really crucial sequence within it! Gabo himself would not have realised this as he ceases to be interested in his novels the instant he finishes them. (31/10/04)

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Scientific theories make an infinite set of predictions of which only a finite set can ever be tested. ("The problem of induction") Humean scepticism has led us to accept that we can't definitively prove any theory correct, but it took Karl Popper to point out that a single observation can demonstrate that it is incorrect. He therefore insisted that the test of a good theory was whether it could be falsified.

More recently Alan Sokal's reponse to the "anything goes" relativism of Feyerabend has been to point out that hardly anybody is systematically sceptical and relativistic in everyday life, so why should we treat scientific knowledge any differently to ordinary knowledge?

A quick summary of theoretical physics' biggest contemporary dustup can help us see how these ideas are being applied in the field. It will also allow me to reiterate my point about how relativism is itself rather relative.

The key protagonists are Leonard Susskind originator of String Theory, and Lee Smolin whose alternative approach goes by the name of Loop Quantum Gravity. They are not so much fighting out of different corners as sliding around different parts of a Möbius strip, occasionally embracing, occasionally catching the other with a glancing blow.

The things they agree on are actually very significant. For example both men are convinced that universes reproduce giving rise to mutated offspring that differ in the values of the fundamental constants of nature. (Universe clearly isn't a word that was ever supposed to have a plural. Multiverse, coined in 1960 by Andy Nimmo is the term typically employed to overcome this semantic hurdle but Susskind suggests we use Megaverse as the collective noun, given that multiverse has been variously used to refer to both the set and the members of the set.)

If you thought dark matter (the stuff that hypothetically makes up most of the mass of our local universe and yet is as yet un-observable) might pose problems for a discipline that self-consciously progresses by observation, then just imagine the extent of the theoretical conundra posed by the idea that most of reality is behind a cosmic horizon we are unlikely ever to be able to transcend.

The stakes are suddenly very high. "If a large body of our colleagues feels comfortable believing a theory that cannot be proved wrong then the progress of science could get stuck", Smolin warns. His tetchy exchange with Susskind began over the question of how significant it is that we ourselves are here in this particular neck of the megaverse. Susskind supports the Anthropic Principle, which states that the shape of the particular universe we inhabit is the way it is precisely because we are in it. Smolin says this is unfalsifiable and therefore "outside science". (Though it's clear that as cosmology reaches beyond the visible universe the boundaries of science are being inevitably tested, and rigorous investigation now cohabits uneasily with equally rigorous speculation.)

Smolin is convinced that the primary mechanism for reality reproduction is bouncing singularities. The abundant presence of carbon in any universe is the ideal condition for the formation of stars massive enough to collapse into black holes that go boing. Carbon-based lifeforms such as ourselves are a side-effect.

"Pah!", says Susskind, even Stephen Hawking now admits that balck holes don't lose information so if they are where new universes are conceived, they would be born in a pristine quantum condition with no memory of the initial state, like offspring with no determined genetic resemblance to their parents. Susskind theorises that the megaverse is instead in a state of eternal inflation, which constantly spawns new pocket universes as it grows. Most are inhospitable to life.

The two would appear to agree that our own universe is untypical, but crucially Smolin asserts that the untypical is probably typical overall. This counterintuitive idea is justified because in any fitness landscape the distribution of variants peaks around small regions of parameter space. A typical universe would therefore appear untypical amidst any randomly selected group. (It's intriguing that both men also seem to assume that maximum reproduction is the only measure of fitness. Could there not be some other selection pressure?)

This argument is occuring at the point where classical determinism is being distorted almost beyond recognition by the infinite potential represented by multiple worlds. Intuitively I side with Smolin in the debate, not because I feel I know that black holes rather than eternal inflation account for the proliferation of multiple realities (although it is a vaguely cooler idea!), but because his theory is the more background independent of the two: "The view of time evolution that Susskind wants to preserve is tied to the existence of a fixed background...Eternal inflation is also a background dependent theory, indeed, some of its proponents have seen it as a return to an eternal, static universe."

In my view there is also a kind of fitness landscape of knowledge in relation to available information - this might perhaps be the fundamental nature of reality. All knowledge is therefore relative, because the fixed background scale is entirely implicit - potential not actual. Knowledge and value are also relative to the environment in which it is constructed. In another world with different constants "something else goes" to paraphrase Feyerabend, and it remains to be seen whether the scientific methodology can stretch to bring coherence to all possible alternative realities.

Meanwhile, in our world we simply have to judge things by how reasonable they are. There's no fixed background rulebook just for us. Nothing else I believe in makes sense if this is not in fact the case. (29/10/04)

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Brendan O'Neill has argued in Spiked! this week that the blurring between art and porno reflects our present state of ethical uncertainty with the implication that each instance of liberal disinhibition further notches up the pervasive mood of moral ambiguity and confusion.

As is often the case with these polemics O'Neill overshoots a bit and ends up mired in contradiction. He suggests that the BBFC disproportionately approves of porno chichi-flicks with subtitles, because they are apparently more likely to be viewed compassively by middlebrow, subliminal onanists. This suggests a bias towards "those who can watch hardcore sex without being tempted to pleasure themselves into a coma or commit an act of violence against the nearest woman - unlike the masses, who, according to the BBFC, can apparently be 'excited' into an 'aggressive response' upon watching violent pornography."

Hence a rather telling inconsistency - we should make value judgements about culture, but not about cultural groups - that of course, would (again) be snobbery. Boo hiss.

Yet do degraded people with degraded mentalities not exist at all then? Is it so completely unreasonable to associate certain unreconstructed attitudes with particular demographics?

If it's okay to map psychology onto distinct groups within society for the purpose of selling them stuff, why isn't it equally alright to do it when we want to selectively target them with ideas? The answer is that the exceptions to the aggregate will be mortally offended if we do, whereas in the first instance all that will happen is that they probably won't like our product and simply go away. This is indicates that along with uncertainty over standards our present society suffers from creeping double standards. (29/10/04)

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"What now? You ask me in for a coffee and I politely decline?"

This question is anxiously delivered by the narrator in a thought-provoking short story by Australian Sci-Fi writer Greg Egan. (Sadly, a very homepage-challenged author.)

Up until this moment in his private life the man had been more than secure. He has read his own diary up to the moment he dies at the age of 82. This is commonplace in the Australia of 2070 because the future is being downloaded from receptors pointed at distant time-reversed galaxies.

There's no mention of this girl and this imminent affair in his diary though. "I couldn't believe I'd keep the secret from myself for the rest of my life...If anything at all could happen in the spaces between the words, then I no longer knew who I was."

This existential problem arises in a world in which politicians make speeches and conduct interviews when they know (absolutely) that they are going to lose. Egan's narrator tells us that people found this a bit weird at first but later it all became "effortless". That the implications for free will were implicit long before the discovery of mirror worlds where time's arrow points the other way. "If choice were not grounded absolutely in cause and effect, what else would decide its outome?" Yes, but whatever the reality of free will, humans generally behave as if they had it. Would things really just carry on as normal if our everyday experience so categorically denied the possibility of choice?

The determinism is so binding here that Egan has probably found it easier to gloss over the cultural pyscholigical impact. It might have been more interesting to describe a world whose knowledge of the future was as patchy as our present understanding of Prehistory or even pre-Modern history. Imagine we could read the equivalent of Sam Pepys diary from 2360 but had very little else to go on. Suppose it challenged some of our fundamental notions about human progress?

For some reason the man in this story finally goes off the rails not when he sees the reflection of his own diaristic double-face, but when he is forced to confront the mendacity of the powerful. History is written by the victors as they say.

In another story from Egan's Axiomatic an assassin homes in on a girl tripping out on S, a drug that allows its devotees to "live vicariously in any parallel world in which they have an alter ego." The killer is a man with an above average ability to control his own multiplicity, spotted and trained by "the company" to eliminate users that go in so deep that they set of a whirlpool event across the multiverse which smears reality into "an amorphous multiple exposure of a billion different possibilities."

It sounds very rigidly cyber-punk in sensibility but Egan's descriptions of the assassin's path across the gradients of the whirlpool are often highly arresting. Building collapse as the inter-cosmic maelstrom throws together mismatched segments from variant designs, and residents near the centre of this reality twister frantically search for loved-ones before they become strangers (or at least before their haircut changes beyond recognition!).

Again you have to ask: what kind of society would result if all the general populace could dream the lives they might have lived? (29/10/04)

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Time to add some "meme gas" to this blog.

"The Web is obsessed with anything that spreads, whether it's a virus, a blog or a rumor. And so the Internet loves memes." enthused Sarah Boxer this week in the New York Times.

Clearly we are in urgent need an impressive-sounding neologism to account for the phenomenon of words that pass between the minds of marketing executives without ever being properly understood.

Memes (in the way they are characterised by this article) can be any silly idea (or even disconnected symbol) that is reproduced across culture, especially via the Internet, described by Wikipedia as "the ultimate meme vector." Richard Dawkins is of course cited as the instigator of memetics to add a certain scientific gravitas to the topic.

The thing is though that Dawkins had a very specific silly idea in mind when he first coined the term - the idea that Jesus was the son of God. There is a qualitative difference between this and a story in a discussion group about the pizza ambush at Old Trafford last Sunday.

What interested Dawkins about the concept he barely started to flesh out was that certain bodies of ideas exhibited tendencies like selfish genes. Beliefs take on apparently bizarre features that seem contrary to both reason and the best interests of the believers, but do in fact increase the likelihood that future generations will attest to them. You might quip that Dawkins was ambiguous as to whether a meme was supposed to be a mind gene or a mind virus but the distinction is an important one regardless.

Viruses are rogue DNA that has learned how to do without the technique most genes have employed to march on through the generations - building a body to survive and reproduce in. An equivalent mind virus might be an exponentially propagating sign that bypasses the border checks of rationality in order to spread far and wide across the globe. We can probably assume with some safety though that our grandchildren won't feel compelled to stick space invaders to the side of traffic lights. Like the biological virus, the spread of the mind virus is limited by the dynamics of the epidemic.

There is nothing especially interesting about the myth that Wacko Jacko's phone number is encrypted in the barcode to Thriller, other than the implication that there are people out there dumb enough to believe it. Ditto the famous Web rumours about Beelzebub on the board of P&G and Kentucky-Fried not really Chicken. The creators of these sort of stories know there are plenty of brains out there with low immunity to such mental infections.

The notion of the Holy Trinity on the other hand has survived nearly two millennia; the phenomenon of meme persistance over time thus has to be more complex than "it might just be true".

Anyway, on the vaguely related topic of whether film critics really have a clue what they are talking about when they refer to a plot as elliptical, I have decided to casually refer to the next obscure flick that I see as Gödelian. Usefully this could mean a number of different things such as 1) you remain uncertain about the outcome throughout or 2) wherever you are in the story everything seems to be going round in circles! (27/10/04)

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Last January in Seville I remember browsing a set of old black and white photographs of practicing working class atheists in the doomed Republic. It seemed strange and somehow regretable that this sort of collective rejection of obscurantist mumbo-jumbo was a thing of the past. At the time it appeared such a liberating lifestyle choice to those that adopted it!

When Dr Jonathan Miller (OP) stormed off the set of the BBC's colourful prime time TV spectacular on the state of religious belief earlier in the year I commented in this blog at the time that he ought to go away and make a programme about the joys of unbelief and in a way he has now done this. I saw the last episode of this contrastingly dour and bookish TV un-spectacular on BBC4 this week.

I agree with pretty much everything that JM has to say, but not always the way that he puts it.

He locates "thoughtless unbelief" somewhere between grim resignation and repressed intolerance, as if the unbeliever must either devote their lives to an ascetic anti-social discipline or instead start trying to forcibly convert the likes of creationists and Islamic fundamentalists to the true path of atheism. When he speaks of the historical impact of religion on humanity his voice almost trembles with incipient aggression - that of a man that thinks history needs a hearty shove (in the direction he believes it should already be inexorably moving).

For him the non-existence of the deity is so self-evident that even giving the belief in this state of affairs a name like "atheism" is to do unnecessary justice to the contrary position, which he has always found "alien, uncongenial and almost unintelligible." You can't fail to get the impression that he wants his audience to think of religion as some sort of terrible, inexplicable mistake - a collective delusion that at one point not so long ago we seemed to be finally ridding ourselves of.

In this you can tell he graduated as a Natsci and not as a Historian. Can you really imagine a society anything like the liberal one we live in today if prehistoric man had never started weaving narratives to the alleviate the pain of fear and ignorance? Is history without delusions possible...or even desirable?

JM explains how a rejection of religion moved from the closeted elites to the common man from the eighteenth century.

Enlightenment; the very word implies an analogue of the mystic route to a state of overwhelming positive psychological wellbeing. What went wrong? Miller rather skips this bit. He doesn't dwell on the fact that scepticism has a self-consuming tendency which led us seemingly inexorably towards Post-Modernism and the condition of second order doubt I have scribbled about before.

The problem however is not that atheism has been tainted by the parallel failures of dialectical materialism and communism, but that when the jury is out on the benefits pertaining to a particular set of beliefs, it's easy to be diverted towards the immediate pleasures of imposing them on the rest of humanity, even if this involves inhumane brutality on a par with the destructive cruelty we historically attribute to the great religions. And perhaps more importantly still, rational twentieth century thinking has increasingly encouraged us to question even the apparent certainties of materialism.

JM shares V's view that it's patently absurd to describe the 9-11 hijackers as "cowardly" and adds that those attacks would be incomprehsible in a world without religious certainties. He shows how most of the early American presidents felt comfortable with expressing their doubts about religion and compares this to George Bush the elder who famously said that atheists ought not to be considered either patriots or even citizens.He refers to the middle east as "the world's largest open-air lunatic asylum."

At one point in the series Bernard Hill faces the camera and intones the words of Epicurus: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" (26/10/04)

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There are three relatively misleading things commonly said about Relativists.

- that they think everthing is of equal value.
- that they think nothing has any real value.
- that you can ignore everything they say because by definition it's all meaningless!

Perhaps in the past I too might have tended to dismiss relativism without much thought, but as Bernard Bresson pointed out, "consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago."

These days I'm actually prepared to acknowledge that Relativism is more than just a fashionably (and annoyingly) subversive mode of thought.

"There are no such things as facts, only interpretations." Nietzsche said it first, but Derrida appears to have taken most of the flak. Perhaps this is because the scope of Nietzsche's epistemological doubt extended to the big ticket issues of life, the universe and everything rather than the esoteric literary world of "le texte". (20/10/04)

The debate about what exists independently of the obsever (and what business it has existing if it does) is actually as old as philosophy itself. Plato famously asserted that the eternally fixed absolute is the fundamental reality, everything else is just a flicker on a cave wall. Aristotle's response to this laid the foundations of what is known today as Relationism. He claimed that absolutes (like Time) were only meaningful when measuring the relationships between particular instances.

In this context, Derrida's suggestion that there is no meaning only context appears rather less iconoclastic. (25/10/04)

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Alberto Granado's Traveling with Che Guevara was a bit of a revelation.

Having read Che's own account of the two-wheeled part of the journey and seen Walter Salles Diarios de Motocicleta I had bought into the idea that these two men discovered their political selves serendipitously as they became acquainted with the social realities of their vast continent.

Even allowing for the fact that Granado wrote his memoirs many years later as a card-carrying Cuban communist, it's clear that these men were actually well-formed before they climbed onto the Norton and had packed a considerable number of preconceptions for the trip. Che summed it up simply: "It's all heads and tails".

Granado's account reminds me that not only did Guevara take out the duck, he also terminated a fox terrier in the darkness of a Bariloche barn imaginng that a large feline had come for dinner. (OK, as if by compensation he did later save a small kitten while assisting the Chilean fire service in Los Angeles.) This early fondness for weapons is confirmed by another anecdote. Before attending a student demo some years before the journey when Guevara was not much more than a wheezing asthmatic adolescent, he apparently observed to his mates "I'm not going out without a piece".

I now feel more than a little cheated by Salles. Aside from the fact that the script has excised most of the best anecdotes from both travel journals, he also appears to have taken more of the ambiguity out of the remainder of the story than was strictly necessary. Take for example the scene where the infallibly honest Guevara tells the doctor that has helped them so much in Lima that his novel sucks. In the movie it is made clear that Guevara's motive is an insatiable regard for the truth. Yet the way Granado tells it, you are left with the suspicion that Guevara felt that the doctor's characterisation of the Indian psychology was pessimistic and therefore not really communist enough. A highly-developed sense of historical teleology can get in the way of one's appreciation of literature!

This is also perhaps an instance of the way the bikers are forced to confront many of the frustrating attitudes familiar to anyone that would imagine an improved sort of Latin America. There's the "annexation pyschosis" of the rank and file soldiers and the seemingly ineradicable hankering after strong arm government in the general populace. They are irritated by the avaricious mentality of the owner of a riverside nursery, not least because of his obvious hard work and dedication. "He lives in fear of someone stealing a plant". However, having received a lecture from Che, the man presents them with a sackful of oranges and lemons.

As a long time fan of this elusive dish myself, I was struck by the episode at the leper colony where the director shows the Argentines how to prepare Ceviche, a delicacy they have not come across before back home. Granado makes a promise to himself to try it out with Kingfish on his return.

Overall it's hard not to warm to Alberto Granado. He reveals more of his heart than Guavara did in his own memoirs. He constantly pictures himself doing the whole trek again with his brothers, who he sorely misses. His journal allows us to participate in his amazement at confrontating pre-Colombian cities, whales and flying fish. At times he brings real poetry to his account:"the setting sun has bled into the river like a wounded bird."

Of these experiences he delightfully concludes that "this could never have happened had I stayed home selling cough syrup.", with the important caveat that "we are not professional globetrotters and at some point we have to sit down and do something useful."

Am I alone in thinking that Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman are cashing in cynically in designer leather jackets)? (20/10/04)

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Somehow my notes on the excellent Roger Dodger from last August got lost in my mailbox so this morning I have dug them out and dusted them down.

The close-up camerawork is terrific, at times almost excessively intimate with the actors, at others ducking and diving in the crowd as if trying to reestablish the same level of contact. (One example that impressed me was how the waitress was out of the shot when she came over to ask then how everything was, but then appeared in focus behind them as she moved off.)

The film's verbal and visual virtuosity seems to come in bursts, but maybe that's not such as bad thing as both it and we need to pause for breath during the in-between moments.

At the beginning I thought Campbell Scott resembled John Leslie a bit, which was disconcerting.

I loved Roger's concept of "winning time", apparently borrowed from Michael Jordan: ("Those guys think they are kicking ass!")

V can be quite a 'bloke' at times and has the same near 360 degree vision that Roger amusingly claims - "I see behind me on a good day".

This story fits into one of my favourite sub-genres - tales about men or boys on the loose in the urban night passing from one serendipitous adventure-mishap to another. Sometimes they are merely flirt with decadence, but more often they are circling the drain, being sucked ever deeper into it. Usually the protagonists are intelligent, yet somehow displaced. They're often their own worst enemies, and rapidly make further antagonists out of anyone that might offer them compassion. If I ever get round to writing fiction, I will have to have a crack at this genre.

Men like Roger are the modern equivalent of the Byronic anti-hero. He is simultaneously a success and a failure; he opens up opportunities for his nephew, but then ruins them and comes out badly from every situation. The boy has valuable ideas of his own (such as the one about getting to "the part she's been hiding") and serves as a counterfoil to Roger in each scenario. (19/10/04)

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Hero is collectivist, nationalistic eye candy. If I had seen it before Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (or perhaps even just one small 15 minute section of it) this review would have been much more of an acclamation. Instead there were times last night when I thought I was watching some sort of over-the-top, politically-suspect spoof of Ang Lee's captivating film!

Compare for instance Zatoichi. Even at its most serious it was dead-pan drole, and importantly you knew that you were allowed to laugh,especially during the post-climactic jamborie. Takeshi's version of po-faced is implictly more animated than Jet Li's.

Hero on the other hand has much of the style and sensibility of Italian opera, minus the jolly tunes.

Revealingly Zhang Yimou once directed Tosca with a cast of thousands in the Forbidden City. Here The army of Qin functions as a kind of chorus. Anyway, the result is that you're just not sure how seriously it wants to be taken. (Yet when Broken Sword gets skewered for the umpteenth time, I just couldn't stifle a snigger.)

It reminded me also of the floor shows I used to see in my youth con mis viejos in the Monte Carlo Sporting Club. No matter how many lithe, topless bodies paraded in front of you, the production designer never let you forget whose talent you were really paying to gawp at.

Part of the problem is that Zhang Yimou is less adept than Ang Lee at hiding the trickery of wires and computer animation. The balletic action sequences effectively peak in the chess house and thereafter become a bit of a chore. The first of the coloured love-triangle sequences (the red one) is also the most powerful. There really needed to be more of a build up.

The landscapes are relentlessly eye-catching, but as with much of the movie, someone has forgotten to apply the principle of less is more. (Again, Lee was comparatively sparing in his use of the poetry of location.) Less leaves, less arrows, less soldiers etc.

An ultimately rather disquieting feature of the film is that there are no real people; none of the bustling street scenes you nearly always witness in the historical martial arts genre. If you're not a name here, you're barely even a number -there's more than a hint of safety-in-vast-numbers Chinese nationalism in the sub-text.

Of course, with films like this subtitles give only the illusion of translation. The silent arias of this opera are sung to us in a mythological and symbolic lingo that most Westerners will at best only get the general gyst of. Yet for all the reservations expressed above, this makes for an experience that is predominantly fresh and invigorating. (Just imagine an all-American hero doing all the stuff Jet Li gets up to!)

The nested and colour-coded alternative plot strands could almost be a little art-house homage to Kieslowski (And Rashomon too, I'm told).

Luckily though this technique wasn't used much in romantic Opera! Imagine sitting through four different versions of the Liebestod! The impact of tragedy is significantly blunted by the mere suggestion of alternative universes.

Beautiful but somewhat inconsequential had been the critical consensus and although in the early sequences I was thinking to myself that they must have all been rather jaded at the time, by the end of the film I couldn't find that many reasons to disagree. (19/10/04)

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Yesterday my father told me that a close friend had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. His friend is in his early eighties and expressed the hope that at this advanced age he would die of something else before the cancer catches up with him. Either way his chess match with death has entered the endgame.

The Seventh Seal is a road movie of sorts, but instead of a journey towards self-discovery or renewal it is a journey towards death, through an agonised landscape where the Divine appears to have gone AWOL. (Perhaps though this is the most important self-discovery each of us has to make?)

The main plot and character elements of the allegory are taken from Bergman's recollection of images witnessed inside an ancient church when traveling as a child with his father, a Lutheran minister. One of these becomes the central motif of his story - the knight playing chess with the figure of Death.

Bergman says that he wanted to show human beings traversing the foreground of the unravelling of civilisation. The Knight and his Squire represent the two sides of his own faith, its earlier ingenuous piety and later distortion by a harder, cynical rationalism.

This isn't a historical drama per se. The Middle Ages here stand for the unadorned horror of the human condition. You find yourself reflecting on whether the recreational possibilities of the modern world can make any real difference to our predicament.

The lack of Technicolor aside, the film has much of the macabre sensuality of Hieronymus Bosch. There are strong contrasts of light and shadow, and the mood of existential torment is offset by simple pleasures like eating berries in the warm sunlight and by what Bergman referred to as "the holiness of the human being", personified by Jof and Mia (Joseph and Mary).

The Seventh Seal was made in 35 days. Amongst the figures seen at the end holding hands in the dance of death there are a couple of tourists that the director recruited to the cause after the main actors had disappeared off home.

Swedish is definitely the optimal idiom for expressing angsty gloom. (19/10/04)

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Islamic fundamentalists are at the extreme end of the one size fits all approach to geopolitics, but you don't have to travel very far back in the direction of pluralism before you bump into the siege mentality of the US President and (most of) his fellow Americans.

The American group-think regards Muslims in the same light as Communists i.e. any that aren't essentially extremist are probably just not doing it right!

In Global Brain Howard Bloom explained that Athens enjoyed ascendancy over Sparta whenever the prevailing conditions favoured the "information uptake" approach. In times of threat and scarcity on the other hand, the conformist, moralistic Spartan mentality came to the fore, even in Athens itself. (viz Plato's Republic.) Similarly bacteria left on a surface that is essentially non-conducive to independent survival will suddenly clump together and move off somewhere else. Bloom explains how most organisms behave like learning systems that balance inherent competing tendencies to generate diversity or enforce conformity according to the environment they exist in.

History is the net result of collective human behaviours so it is unsurprising that some of the same patterns are preserved in the aggregate . The problem is that genes that encode for behaviours that are in effect hypotheses about survival in a particular situation can quickly harden into entrenched mentalities at the cultural level. (This is ironic because culture is often said to allow humanity to respond faster to changing circumstances than traditional evolution would normally allow.)

Al Qaeda are unquestionably a rotten lot. But in the historical Yin Yang debate between pluralism and conformity, between cooperation and selfishness and between centralism and parallelism, the United States is not really best placed to represent the interests of the good guys.

For historical and geographical reasons a simplistic, provincial variant of the Western liberal tradition, prone to literalism and unilateralism and further corrupted by a theocratic worldview has risen to unassailable prominence in the developed world. In the long terms we may regret siding with it unquestioningly.

There are a number of standard ripostes to any European critique of the self-styled benevolent warmonger. One says that we are hypocritically making the United States a scapegoat for the collective guilt of the affluent everywhere. And while as consumers we can freely opt out of McWorld, we nevertheless remain implicitly involved in the global system of wealth generation and distribution. (Those of us that have mothers that are this way inclined will recognise the tactic of the guilt trip designed to unnerve and immobilise!)

American global hegemony is typically served up with a thick, righteous sauce.  Sardar and Wyn Davies characterise this as the hubristic notion that America represents the world as it should be, as the whole world would be if only it could. The implications of universal destiny are that the US considers itself above the rest of humanity, above history, and in practical terms, above international law. 

Francis Fukyama would have us all welcome the homogenisation of history and then admits that "history's last men" might revert to revolution out of sheer frustration with the undifferentiated monoculture all around them.  My own temperamental bent generally favours a pluralistic world, but this doesn't mean I believe that a given political and cultural outlook is suitable for all times and places and should be enforced on the recalcitrant like just another form of fundamentalism.

My own temperamental bent generally favours a pluralistic world, but this doesn't mean I believe that a given political and cultural outlook is suitable for all times and places and should be enforced on unbelievers like just another form of irrationalist fundamentalism. A civilisation fed by the likes of Leonardo and Einstein is one where a humanistic (and therefore humane) approach to ontology is likely to thrive. Unfortunately, it is currently also one where many people regard entertainment and other consumerist distractions less and less as harmless escapism, but instead as the fundamental reason for being alive.

Stuart Kauffman wrote that Stalin's control of the mental life of his people effectively performed a lobotomy on the collective brainwork of Russia. There's something similar going on across the Atlantic. We in the Rest of the West are going to have to work hard to reverse this trend. There's no easy mean between the dominant pre-Modern outlook of the US and the post-Modern one of the Europeans. De-fragging this mess will be a process of re-Enlightenment that will take us beyond Ziauddin Sardar's rather lame suggestion that the American Way should be replaced by "something more life enhancing". (13/10/04)

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Last Sunday's New York Times magazine reported on a drug called BiDil, the first to be niche-marketed to people of a particular race. (Interestingly the article consistently refers to this group as black and not African American.)

Futurists predict a time when drugs are tailored to individuals, but before then we have to negotiate our way through the era when it is simply easier and more profitable to market to groups.

For obvious reasons Pharmacogenomics is a topic that has everyone putting on their helmets and clambering into their toboggans at the top of the slippery slope. The human genome is rumoured to be 99.9% colourblind, but it seems the remaining 0.1% may have some relevance to medicine. Yet you'd think the safest thing would be to start with a group that shares common ancestry but not a history of phenotype prejudice and outright abuse. You might also worry about the risks associated with race-based medicine in a country where Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been referred to as an "African American".  Do we really think American doctors will be able to differentiate between the descendents of a narrow population of descendents of surviving slaves and individuals hailing from modern-day Africa, the continent with the greatest human genetic diversity? And what fun when white people are told that they are medically black, and vice versa.

This particular science will inevitably collide with the consequences of the fact that societies tend not to allocate (or individuals assume) racial identities based on single nucleotide polymorphisms. (12/10/04)

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Caught the last third of Y Tu Mamá Tambien last night. I can watch this movie (and any particular part of it) again and again and each time it strengthens my view that this really is a great movie. In Walter Salles' road movies the individuals in the foreground and the landscape in the background get closer as the journey progresses. (Motorcycle Diaries of course represented a real and not just a fictional progression for its protagonists). This doesn't really happen in Alfonso Cuarón's film and the consequence is that the film can be appreciated both as a bawdy romp and as as more profound meditation on the uneven and inequitable state of Mexico with a strong undercurrent of morbid gloom.

Cuarón makes all his "heavy" points through the devices of location, background symbolism or half-glimpsed micro-dramas that occur outside the window of the central narrative of the relationship between Luisa and the two boys. The narrator also intervenes to deliver perpendicular context to particular features of the main sequence. But the real stroke of genius remains the DVD commentary. Instead of the Director droning on about how he hired a particular extra or what he was hoping to convey with a particular scene, he asked Luna, García Bernal and Almeida to do the commentary in character, as if they were just a bunch of charolastras that the director had found and conned into doing a movie they understood only as a soft porn adventure.  They relentlessly take the piss out of Cuarón and his movie's pretensions to profundity and yet in doing so, help draw out the subtext in ways that a more simplistic and direct commentary would probably have failed to achieve. (12/10/04)

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RIP Jacques Derrida, who could endlessly defer meaning but not his own denouement. Commenting to the Guardian on the recent deconstruction (I had to...) of the gobby French philosophe Richard Dawkins wrote "My thoughts are contained in my book, A Devil's Chaplain, published by Weidenfeld, in the chapter called "Postmodernism disrobed". (i.e. He was a self-publicising twat but then so am I.)  With Derrida now going the way of Lacan, Barthes, Foucault and all except Baudrillard, there aren't that many Postmodernists left to disrobe!

A.C.Grayling on the other hand delved beneath all the verbosité and succinctly summarised Derrida's insight: "Derrida says that any text has multiple meanings and the great majority of those meanings won't be apparent even to the author of them. So a deconstruction of the text will show the variety and levels of meanings, some of which will be inconsistent with each other". (and unlike Dork-ins he doesn't plug his book.)

Once you get over the fact that he's French, there's really nothing that outlandish about Derrida's thinking. He stands on one side of one of the oldest philosophical face-offs. Either truth and reality are out there and we're getting ever close to them (realism) or they are essentially unattainable, forever obscured behind words and signs (nominalism).

In as much that he cautioned against a full detachment of the the subjective and the objective, Derrida was actually more in tune with a whole host of logocentric cosmologists than he possibly realised. What he certainly didn't suggest was that an emergence of meaning is somehow baked into the historical process, or at least the emergence of one meaning.

With our reserved temperaments we Brits tut-tutted at what appeared to us to be an elaborate celebration of confusion, but relativism and radical scepticism (in Derrida's case an inward-looking variety) play a pivotal role in modern intellectual life because they challenge those of us that would have any kind of standards to think very hard about what exists outside of the material and cultural constructions of our existence. Instead of rushing to ostracise the annoying Frenchman, perhaps we ought to have recognised how interestingly connected his ideas were to the provisionalist wing of contemporary thinking. (Does any timeless reality exist or is it merely implicit in the makeup of the cosmos?) (12/10/04)

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Biosemiotics, an intriguing opportunistic concept that apparently wishes to bite off more than it can really chew. Essentially the idea is to apply "the semiotic paradigm" to the epistemology of theoretical biology. In order words take a textual view of organisms - a cognitive turn apparently justified by the (rather imprecise it has to be said) "isomorphism between cultural and biological phenomena".

My introduction to the concept came from an essay by Kalevi Kull. He explains that "organisms are self-reading texts" and that "a living system is a multi-level self-organising anarchic (chaotic) hierarchy of communicative systems or swarms". These nebulous assertions are liberally sprinkled with buzzvordz: like umwelt (the semiotic world of an organism) and funktionskreise (functional circles). Kull pleads that scientists should not dismiss Biosemiotics as a child of the cultural movement but when you look at the stated aims of the discipline (below) you can see why it would be legitimate to expect them to have provided some concrete alternative explanations before setting up their stall.

- to reformulate the concept of information;
- to transcend (overcome) the dualism of mind and matter, i.e. the mind-body problem
- to solve the incompatibility of humanities and natural sciences
- to unite cultural history to natural history
- to give humanity its place in nature


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Four years ago I was on a flight out of Miami that was forced to make an emergency landing when the rear engine caught fire on take-off. Back on the tarmac in the immediate aftermath it was hard not to notice how differently the norteamericanos responded to the situation compared to their southern neighbours. It was obvious that stoicism, individual or collective, did not come that easily to them.

Sardar and Wyn Davies suggested in their book that FEAR is a fundamental parameter in the make-up of the gringo mentality. Theirs is a deferred utopia, an outpost of immutable, self-evident and basically unaccountable values surrounded on all sides (arguably even from the heavens above and the nether regions below! ) by a scary wilderness populated by potentially-hostile, savage, non or sub-human creatures. This propensity to edginess arguably makes the average American comparatively manipulable.

The American Way boasts an immune system which prevents any serious dissent or resistance from ravaging the American mainstream. To rebel in America is to become marginal - which usually means subscribing to some moronic sub-culture like the redneck militias. Then there is the paranoia of the conspiracy theorists and the aggressive chippiness of the gangstas. None of these represents a serious programme for change. Whilst in France the science of Semiology has been applied in order to better understand the surreptitious control codes of our social and political culture, the American equivalent, Semiotics, has instead been directed at engendering new systems of communication and cybernetics. Thus the characteristics of an unreflective society constructed on feel-good optimism tempered by non-specific apprehensiveness are further entrenched. (7/10/04)

War is God's way of teaching Americans geography - Ambrose Bierce (an American)

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Last week's New Scientist carried an interesting article by Ian Stewart on randomness. It would make interesting reading for fans of Richard Dawkins, whose Neo-Darwinist polemics might be said to stand or fall based on whether you share his signification of the term "random mutation"

Does life float on a sea of indeterminacy like matter itself? Well, Professor Stewart even questions whether quantum indeterminacy is truly random - "the door is still open for a deterministic explanation".

A system can be said to be random only if what it does next has nothing at all to do with what it has done in the past. If we can't spot a pattern it may just be because we currently aren't smart enough.

"Quantum stuff apart, we can state with assurance that there really is no such thing as randomness", Stewart concludes.

Good and Evil. Order and Chaos. Asymmetric pairs we mistakenly assume to be simple inversions. (7/10/04)

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The educated part of European culture suffers from second order doubt. (Baudrillard might call this an ecstasy or even an orgy of doubt! ) We doubt everything, including whether doubt itself is essentially a good thing, either for our own individual and social wellbeing, or for the peoples still outside the growing secular-sceptical consensus.

What would a world entirely purged of meta-narratives actually be like? If Fukyama's teleology was correct and the West is fast approaching the singularity at the heart of human history, what are the consequences of our accelerating the end of all other histories, of all other perspectives? Surely every Ying needs its Yang? (Even Fukyama conjectured that "history's last men" might start suffering from ennui and revert to revolution.)

The ecstasy of doubt is being subsidised and exported as an apostasy of doubt. Why should everyone (or anyone) embrace it? Is our own partial, 'scientific' outlook so much better than all the alternatives that we must secretly desire that they all dissolve after prolonged exposure to it? What is the optimal ratio between good and evil on this Earth?

Meanwhile, the singularity at the heart of the American collective identity is a happy ending. Indeed in many ways the United States is a society collectively imagined as a happy ending, or rather the bit just before when the tension is peaking and yet the approach of a clean and satisfying resolution is palpable. Now more than ever, the US conceives of itself as a wagon train surrounded by ululating injuns - commies, Colombians, cloth-heads et al. History's bad guys whose demise is encoded into the narrative.

The defeat of Hitler, the end of the Cold War - events that reinforced the links between American history and American mythology. Then on September 11, 2001 Mohammed Atta came crashing into the plotline and in demonstrating his alternative private eschatology reintroduced and repackaged macro-level contention on the political and cultural planes, globally. Al Qaeda has undoubtedly put a bit of Yang into the Yanqui Ying! (5and6/10/04)

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Genuine fitness requires a small dose of degeneracy. Perfection is a dead end.

Within the space-time frame of reference fitness is necessarily a measure of connectedness, rather than evolution or progress - the algorithm viewed as a nexus. (5/10/04)

This week's Review published an essay by Italian celebrity intellectual Umberto Eco in which he argues that aliens studying 20th century notions of beauty will take note of a marked polarity between the beauty of provocation (where art exists to teach us how to interpret the world through different eyes) and the beauty of consumption, which is the beauty ideal that informs the dress codes of people visiting the galleries that exhibit the provocative stuff!) Eco insists that the world of commercial consumption is essentially "democratic", as there are models of beauty to suit all bodies and all budgets. According to the novelist-semiotician, the extraterrestrial commentator-critic will in the end "have to surrender before the orgy (there we go again) of tolerance, the total scepticism and absolute and unstoppable polytheism of beauty." (5/10/04)

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Wyn Davies and Sardar's American Dream, Global Nightmare is a densely-packed (and often quite intense) gripe about all things American. The book serves as a reminder that in spite of geographical vastness and diversity in terms of both genetic and cultural heritages America, rather like Africa, can still be characterised as one big monolithic problem that the rest of us have to live with. As such it's the Western world's Bongo Bongo Land.

As far as this pair are concerned all Americans, whatever their political, racial or socio-economic traits are essentially "cocooned" in a miasma of myth which prevents them realising just how messed up they really are and how much of a pig's ear they are making of "the rest of the world".

While I sympathise with much of the authors' critique of the American way, there's a pervasive sense that they are responding to crude stereotyping with some remarkably unqualified stereotyping of their own. It's all a bit like saying that Africans are all tall thick-lipped people - which would be silly enough even if Africa wasn't specifically the homeland of the smallest humans on the planet and co-incidentally also the people with the thinnest lips as well. In fact Sardar and Wyn Davies only just stop short of stating explicitly that Hollywood was conceived as an elaborate mechanism for Jewish assimilation!

The subject of the book is the collective psychosis that is the "Greatest Nation on Earth". Interestingly, I have had the opportunity to repeatedly observe this particular kookiness on the individual level as a number of fairly close acquaintances of mine over the years have been the sort of individuals that at some stage in their lives choose to exist exclusively through the filter of a highly-constructed mythology of their own selves. In effect they can't do very much at all without examining every action in relation to an idealised representation of their own persona. To the outside observer there's a certain phoney innocence about all this, as if these dangerous loons wanted to have their ethical cake and eat it.

This is not the same thing as having principles. The latter pathology simply involves carrying around in your head a set of ethical guidelines that are brought out on appropriate occasions. A personal cult of the self is a much more elaborate form of self-mystification. Crucially the self in question is usually unable to admit to the phenomenon and responds abrasively to any criticism.

Back to the good 'ol US of A which typically builds its overseas influence with indirect forms of imperialism; dollar diplomacy coupled with a tsunami of cultural exports. They allows America to keep up the discourse of self-determination while being effectively immune from the kind of sudden colonial watersheds (typically followed by speedy ejection) experienced by the European powers. When called to intervene directly, the US immediately assumes the pose of the reluctant hero superpower forced into greatness by the forces of Evil. Sardar and Wyn Davies wryly dismiss this as a "partial and self-serving ideal".

Yesterday the NY Times carried a piece entitled The Passion of the Bush, jokingly referring to the new conservative DVD blockbuster - George W. Bush: Faith in the White House.

"More than any other campaign artefact, it clarifies the hard-knuckles rationale of the president's vote-for-me-or-face-Armageddon re-election message. It transforms the president that the Democrats deride as a "fortunate son" of privilege into a prodigal son with the "moral clarity of an old-fashioned biblical prophet." Its Bush is not merely a sincere man of faith but God's essential and irreplaceable warrior on Earth..."Will George W. Bush be allowed to finish the battle against the forces of evil that threaten our very existence?" Such is the portentous question posed at the film's conclusion by its narrator, the religious broadcaster Janet Parshall, beloved by some for her ecumenical generosity in inviting Jews for Jesus onto her radio show during the High Holidays. Anyone who stands in the way of Mr. Bush completing his godly battle, of course, is a heretic. Facts on the ground in Iraq don't matter."

Reading the Wyn Davies and Sardar polemic made me run through in my own mind some of the key reasons that there will still be faith in the White House next year and beyond. For a start American presidential politics have a lot more to do with mythology than ideology. American history isn't long or deep enough to abstract from it all the material necessary to construct a national identity and mythology, so religion, fiction and most importantly the movies have become the key supporting genres.

Who would fit better in a Western, Dubya or Kerry? It's that simple really.

The would-be President needs an aura that resonates with the sustaining myths that surround the cult of the office, itself in part derived from the cult of Jesus the redeemer which dominates American theological thought. As well as "leader of the free world", the US President is leader of that part of it which has a self-styled messianic mission to become and remain pre-eminent and take the fight to the savages that threaten civilisation on all sides - an ideal community bearing fixed, idealised values. Professional competence is not really an issue.

It's not had to see why the NeoCons have such an affinity with Israel. Americans are the New Israelites., the modern world's chosen people.

This mindset is backed up by a civic religion that has grown up around the sacralised Constitution. This more than anything means that politically, America has become an ersatz version of a pre-modern polity. Any other democratic country would discuss gun control as an issue of public safety, but in the States it is first and foremost an issue of governance, fed by a mythologised history of eighteenth century militias (and scraps from Thomas Paine's ambiguous views on government of any kind.) The ideals of the constitution are seen to be so self-evident as to be "outside the scope of critical examination." (1/10/04)

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Think for a moment of the USA as a big computer. Depending on your technical savvy and imaginative bent this might be a PC, A Macintosh, a mainframe or even some fancy parallel processing supercomputer. The important thing is that it's hardware. The output from this substantial piece of kit is the export-strength American culture that so inflames both the anti-globalists and the fundamentalists. Software. Now modern terrorism may pose an "asymmetric threat" but it still predominantly focuses on the targets of traditional warfare - people and things, the input side of the leviathan. Yet it is really the American mode of consumption rather than its mode of production that is feeding the fundamentalist backlash. There are signs that certain 'enemies of the free world' are beginning to understand this distinction better, but it remains basically easier to blow things up. 9-11 shows that target selection can deliver a wide-ranging cultural impact, but it's hard to say whether the perpetrators can effectively control this to achieve specific ends. Has America the product been damaged by the symbolic mugging it had in 2001, or instead has it been effectively re-energised?

Genuine resistance to US global domination surely has to include a strategy for diminishing the output. Simply vandalising the hardware or murdering the end users is like pissing into the wind.

Madeline Albright once claimed "we are the indispensable nation". This suggests two quite interesting thought experiments. What would the world be like today if America had never happened? Or the less historical, what would the world be like from tomorrow if America and all its citizens mysteriously vanished during the course of today? (1/10/04)

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Last night BBC4 broadcast the first episode of the remarkable Cidade dos Homens. Part drama, part documentary and partly also a televised sequel to Cidade de Deus, this spin-off mini-series bristles with visual trickery. You felt that one more effect might have been too much, but it just about avoided this kind of overspill. From start to finish it maintained the thrilling exuberance of the opening fugitive chicken sequence of Meirelles and Lund's feature film from 2002.

And like Rocket in the original, the lead characters, Acerola and Laranjinha, are right-side kids from the favela that demonstrate the dignity, pluck, and sense of humour that can exist in an environment that would bring on a severe case of mental cramps in most affluent westerners. In a key scene Acerola is shown ruminating how the wealthier clients of the warring dealers are forced to live cramped , incarcerated lives behind security gates topped by cameras. Compared to this, the chaos and discomforts of the favela are a closer approximation of real freedom, he concludes.

Neither V or I have ever really been inside one of the corrugated-iron covered 'zones' of Guatemala City. I remember driving alongside one a few years ago and watching as schoolchildren emerged from these squat metallic huts clutching exercise books, their perfectly clean white shirts gleaming in the early morning sunlight.

You get a sense of the slum as a physical space when you approach Aurora International airport in a light aircraft. As you leave the lowland rainforest areas of the north, the ground rises up to meet you giving the illusion of descent without the constant need to yawn or swallow to clear the pressure in your ears. Guacamole City is stretched out across a deeply fissured valley. The shanty world doesn't halt when it runs into one of the barrancos, it just carries on down into it. Life here is precarious in many ways.

In Cidade dos Homens dislocated samba rhythms season the fast-moving spectacle with a surprisingly upbeat flavour, yet this never quite quells the underlying pungency of unease. It's as if every time the story uplifts you, you experience a vertigo of tension. Every smile, every little triumph, is necessarily only a heartbeat away from a strangled sob. (29/9/04)

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There was an interesting documentary the other night about sea stars, urchins and cucumbers, five-point symmetrical, brainless creatures collectively known as Echinoderms. Using time-lapse photography it has been possible to observe how these unusual, yet undoubtedly successful organisms actually exhibit fairly complex behaviours, even 'social' interactions. The featured scientists noted their surprise at this. But perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised. Nature itself lacks a central nervous and processing system and yet is arguably both an amalgamation of complex behaviours and something of a super-organism with emergent behaviours of its own. Life is an interaction of matter with the 'wet' code of DNA. It seems to me that you can't really know all there is to know about any organism without appreciating its role in the complex, 'invisible' network of biological code. (28/9/04)

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The most dangerous sort of evils are not a reverse or even an absence of good, instead they are most often a by-product of it. Spam and computer viruses for example are more or less inevitable side-effects of the empowering and liberating systems they cripple. More often than not these by-products intensify and begin to threaten the core utility of the whole. Sometimes it is hard to know whether to characterise them as an external threat or as something that has evolved from within.

Democracies have generally prevailed in military confrontations with non-democracies (though of course Sparta had the better of Athens). This would seem to be because each political model essentially fought on its own terms. Now the non-liberals of this world are learning to fight us like by-products instead of polar opposites.

This makes the confrontation more complex than democracies have grown accustomed to. We can limit the effectiveness of our enemies only by limiting the freedoms and associated systems that have traditionally cultivated the positive aspects of our lifestyle and value system.

If the kidnappers of Baghdad had as much publicity in the Western Europe as their more prolific equivalents in Latin America they would arguably have to seek other ways to manipulate our attention, even if their snuff movies remain a huge ratings success in their domestic markets.

The challenge facing our politicians is to combine the defence of our freedoms with some sort of system re-boot that re-establishes the cost-benefit profile of democracy strongly in favour of the benefit side. The spam of democracy - terrorism, nihilism, consumerism etc. - might otherwise eventually overwhelm it.

Good things are always vulnerable, always potentially perishable, always susceptible to being overrun by their deleterious consequences.

When I listen to the argument between those that support brands and the no logo network, what I think is missing is an awareness of underlying process.

In the abstract brands are good, just like email or computer networks. But gradually the medium has become distorted by abuse. I think what we are witnessing now in the world of marketing is a reconfiguration of the brand in part because the very medium of the brand has been crippled by repeated misrepresentations and the resulting decline in consumer trust. Put simply, too many FMCG brands have found to have been bearing false witness.

I blame that David Ogilvy bloke! He told us we had to emote with our shopping trolleys. As a result for twenty years traditional brands have bought themselves time by squeezing our psychological pressure points, such as our need to be entertained, or our need to feel that our lifestyles are validated through consumption. But today consumers are tending to trust supermarket own-brands more, largely because they have no perceived vested interest in selling us anything other than what we want to buy. If we decide we hate processed food, they will stock less of it. Brands that have become a device for selling us stuff we don't really want as opposed to a guarantee based on consumer trust face a long downhill struggle.

Of course, many of the values that will drive the economy of the next twenty years, wellbeing, natural' and organic to name a few, are just the kind of abstract goods that inherently bear inside them the potential for further rounds of systematic abuse and misrepresentation. (26/9/04)

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Watched a hilarious spoof documentary about David Ginola on BBC3 last night. V had seen it the night before and smelled a rat so she wanted to see if I concurred. I did.

We are being asked to believe that the charismatic yet complex former French footballeur has been off to India to learn the art of telling people "you have potential" from Guru Dev, and has now returned in order set up a retreat for wounded celebrities at an "unnamed location" in Wiltshire. There they take part in experimental aerobics and chant "OMMMMM" quite a lot. Now I'm no stranger to this sort of thing. I speak as the former male mascot of the Chelsea Women's Buddhist Society. But this was BOGUS. Even The Office would be more convincing as a bona-fide fly on the wall documentary.

But why the subterfuge? It seems that the Beeb actually wants to dupe us; like Orson Welles and his famous Radio version of The War of the Worlds a line is being consciously crossed for effect. Anyone that grew up with The Goodies will know how entertaining ersatz factual TV can be, but after this I'll probably never trust even Panorama again! The comedy in this instance was rather muted because you weren't absolutely sure whether it was all being hammed up.

Who was in on this? The programme included interviews with Maurice Gibb, ArsŹne Wenger, Carole Caplin, Roger Cook and inevitably, Anthea Turner. Eammon Holmes presented. It ended with a disaffected drop-out from The Centre being 'secretly' filmed handing a video tape to Max Clifford! The sinister manipulative side of Guru Daveed was about to be exposed!

Before this I was at a fashion house party in Sloane Street. It most definitely wasn't the one that Baksheesh told me about where air kissing and calling people "Darling" were strictly prohibited. Mildred was there with most of her posse, showing off photographic evidence of her latest celebrity snare - Christian Slater.

Dinner, by the time I met up with it, had been three days in the making. As black beans are such a mythological dish in Central America it might be worth me sharing V's recipe for Frijoles Parados. The hard part is actually finding black beans in the UK. In London the best options are the Loon Fung supermarket in Chinatown (or the various Portuguese and Brazilian delicatessens). You then need to soak them in cold water for approximately three hours before boiling them with crushed garlic (and please NO SALT) for a further two. V's unique contribution to this dish is the addition of Oriental black rice, which add a wonderful richness of colour, flavour and texture to the already scrumptious confection. Another regional signature dish is of course that which in Guatemala is pronounced Guacamoll, not Guacamoleh or even Guakamowlee. The insider trick here is to replace the avocado stone in the completed mixture and squeeze some lime juice across the surface. It will maintain its fresh lurid green colouring for about an hour longer that way. Purists have already added (just) lime juice, oregano and a little salt. Onions and tomatoes as well as chilli sauce are generally frowned on while coriander can be used instead of oregano only if inauthenticity is your bag.

When Surfer and I first arrived in Guatemala City in 1989, we immediately nicknamed it Guacamole City, a label that seemed to encapsulate its in-yer-face essentiality of outrageous, brutal abandon (compared to the rackety, manky, but also quite chilled out menace of Belize City)

Stefan was telling me this morning how the people actually doing the kidnappings in Baghdad are often free-lance thugs that sell their prisoners to the highest bidding group of decapitators. This reminds me of what used to go on in San Salvador back in the 80s - wealthy diners at the Sheraton were occasionally pounced on and carried out by gangs of waiters in white waistcoats. Western news media presents these Arabian hostage-takings as something new and incomprehensible, but if you are a connoisseur of the Latin American kidnapping genre the pattern is very familiar. In Rio, Bogotá and Guacamole City, relatives are used to getting a corpse back even when the ransom has been paid in full. Everything that our media have done to publicise the anguish of Ken Bigley's family this week only serves to inflate the value of the eventual murder.

During La Violencia in Colombia in the fifties and sixties for example, a high profile, high value rape or murder was one that was conducted in the presence of the father or husband. Otherwise, what was the point? Men of violence around the world now understand both the economic and semiotic basis of their trade even better. I read yesterday that Pablo Escobar used to make sure that the goons he hired to carry out his hits were never actually sure who had contracted them. This lack of certainty surrounding the authorship of any symbolic killing only fed Escobar's reputation and power.

I'm sure there are still more violent deaths and abductions on a daily basis in Rio de Janeiro than there are in Baghdad. (24/9/04)

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Waking Life: "What's the word, turd?" Is this the most pretentious movie ever made, or is it instead a clever satire on the nature of modern intellectual discourse? Or neither? Or like both at the same time? Pass the Hemlock...

Whichever, whatever, it's 99 minutes of "people going off about whatever, intensely". If you haven't read up about this film before settling down to watch it (I hadn't) it will catch you off guard, leaving you dazed and confused within moments of the opening titles. You quickly feel the urge to place you hands on both your ears in order to hold your head in place. It's like some sort of weird encrypted channel where reality is just about perceptible if you squint a bit.

I guess it might have helped if I had seen more of Linklater's earlier experimental films from which several of the characters have been pilfered. In the end I had to structure consumption of this concurrently exhilarating and excruciating animation into manageable chunks. The first section was the most immediately indigestible. V started gagging almost at once. "The accents...the accents" she groaned as the dialogue brought on one of the more serious of her periodic gringo-phobic episodes. The next segments I watched alone.

Roger Ebert effused in his review that "The movie is like a cold shower of bracing, clarifying ideas". Was he like watching the same one ?

There's Groundhog Day and there's International Talk Like A Pirate Day, but this was more like taking a city tour on Talk Like a Postmodern Twat day! (and Waking Life without doubt demonstrates conclusively that this activity should be left to the Frenchies!)

Since The Matrix the gringos have been into interlocking dream-states like some new designer drug. The world's most effective practicing materialists tripping out on epistemological doubt! The problem is that their commitment to individualism, their God-given right to spout out whatever materialises in their private consciousness, means that there is no collective framework to all this frenetic opinion without commitment.

Another aspect of the movie lacking real depth is the visuals. Linklater shot the movie digitally with real actors then used a high-tech Rotoscope technique to paint over each frame. The nuances of non-verbal communication are thus faithfully animated but this is a warped and wobbly world that takes time to adjust to. If anything the vocal soundscape has much greater depth, so it's like listening to a radio play while watching a trippy cartoon. (Anyone who hasn't nostalgically recalled Rhubarb for a while will do so).

Like the main character who can't tell the difference between waking and wakeful life you are left pondering the line between insight and bullshit. These are the sort of conversations you used to have at University when under the affluence of inchohol. Just like dreams they only ever seem to be packed full of meaningful content when they are in full flow.

Linklater is nevertheless a very skilled eavesdropper on reality. Here he has captured the way discrete received ideas play a key role in initiating these confabulations, provoking waves of extrapolations. The two women in the coffee bar munch on the idea of the regenerating self, while Jesse and Celine (appearing in a scene that might be titled After Sunrise) debate some research he has come across which suggests that it's easier to solve a problem once someone else has - as if the progress of human knowledge is being given a leg-up by a kind of collective telepathy. Jesse really is the undisputed master of the factoid. (I can however promise one of my own about Echinoderms in the next few days which will allow me to speculate about the metaphysical implications of asymmetrical, brainless life-forms!)

We've all been cornered by these sort of people; Try as you might they are often unavoidable. Jason the errant barman-for-hire come budding novelist from Savannah Georgia that I listened to in Guatemala last year was one these mouthpieces of the unregulated free market of ideas.

Ebert reviewed this film shortly after September 11, 2001 and reached the following conclusions: "At a time when madmen think they have the right to kill us because of what they think they know about an afterlife, which is by definition unknowable, those who don't know the answers are the only ones asking sane questions. True believers owe it to the rest of us to seek solutions that are reasonable in the visible world."

Oh, how the fundamentalists will tremble and flee when confronted with such a terrifying horde of ranting pseudo-intellectuals!

And there it is again, that naive American commitment to the notion that when freedom is the medium for the exchange of goods and ideas, the alternatives will be overpowered and eventually wither away (and the dialectical duel between 'Athens' and 'Sparta', those two ancient warring capital cities of the human intellect will be flattened out for good.)

Back to the movie. The parade of antipathetic characters does seem to let up a bit towards the end. The Adam Goldberg sketch just has to be tongue-in-cheek and pinball machine man actually appeared to be talking some sense. Perhaps Linklater has tried to drop an avatar in there for everyone.

This movie so wants to be interpreted. So here's my take, more or less in its own idiom: Leonardo Da Vinci once said that all the time that he thought he was learning how to live, he was really learning how to die. (Cue expansive hand gesture) Imagine that in the twelve minutes of condensed brain time you have left when your body dies, you like "go salsa dancing with your confusion" get one last chance to digest all those half-chewed truths, to understand all those freaky bits of Nietzsche that you've quoted at people during your entire lifetime, and this like leads you to that final holy moment before the iguana bites. You see? This kind of rectal insertion of the self surely receives superior articulation from the true poets. "Every man in every moment of his life is everything he has already been and everything he will be." Jorge Luis Borges. Way to go Jorge!

The scene with the airport taxi with the chassis of a speed boat reminded me of a partially-animated film that I saw just once during my early childhood. It had a major impact on me for some reason. In it a young boy finds a little buggy in his front room one evening. He climbs in and drives off into a bizarre cartoon world with loads of eccentric characters. If anyone has seen this movie and knows what it's called, please email me (22/9/04)

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Ernesto Guevara wrote a number of books with the intention of transforming the social conscience of his fellow men, but The Motorcycle Diaries wasn't one of them. I remember his travel journal as a bit of a burlesque, a tale of high-jinks on the open highway. Yet the diaries undoubtedly also chronicle the young Argentine's growing realisation that the visible wrongs of his continent might be righted through his own determined efforts.

Using the living memories of Alberto Granado to full advantage, Walter Salles' wonderful film takes the story beyond the point Guevara's own memoirs come to a halt, along with La Poderosa, the crotchety motorbike that carried the pair only as far as Chile. I think it would be fair to say that Salles has consciously chosen to not only to show us how el Che was found and formed by his destiny, but also to take us all down the same road, and maybe radicalise us a bit along the way.

I wonder how many people will see this movie and leave with a will to act, with a sense that apparently intractable injustices might actually be tractable after all?

Is it a mechanism for supplying bittersweet nostalgia to the over 50s or might it perhaps re-energise them? Can even the middle-aged find a new me?

In the hilariously mischievous 'commentary' on the DVD of Y Tu Mamá Tambien Gael Garcia Bernal repeatedly refers to the discontinuous presence of the iconic image of Che dangling from the rear view mirror as they set off in pursuit of their chimerical beach paradise. In that movie Julio and Tenoch are another pair of city boys irrevocably changed by what starts out as a frivolous road trip. They too rub up against the injustices of their homeland's hinterland, but never really manage to internalise or comprehend it all. (Maybe this distinction arises from the fact that Guevara and Granado sensibly decided not to take a woman with them!)

In Diarios de Motocicleta the equivalent of this 'beach at the end of the universe' is a leper colony. This is both the objective and subjective point of destination (a bit like Colonel Kurtz's encampment in Apocalypse Now.) It's also where this road movie finally swerves into hagiography.

Interestingly, Garcia Bernal himself seems to have been radicalised by his experience of making these movies. He has bitterly referred to the "colonialist" attitude of Pedro Almodovar who insisted that he speak with a Spanish accent in Bad Education! (a good one it was too.) Viva la Elocución!

Rodrigo de la Serna, a fine actor who I believe is also the commandante's real-life cousin, here provides the more characteristic turns of regional lingo ("boludo de miiiiierda") while Garcia Bernal limits himself to affecting the lilting cadences of the Argentine accent. I recall these two companions as earthier beings than Salles has depicted them in the movie. The Brazilian director has structured their relationship to conform to the familiar buddy-movie format, with Garcia Bernal playing straight man to se la Serna's bubbly rogue. Garcia Bernal has a sullen delicacy that I suspect the real life Ernesto probably lacked. From this performance you can imaginatively project the character forwards to appreciate why the adored leader of men made such an indifferent manager of central finances in Cuba, but it's perhaps less easy to grasp how he might have matured into such an steadfast purveyor of summary justice. (Those adrenalin jabs he had for his asthma are said to have stoked his temper. ) If I recall correctly, in la vida real it was actually 'Che' that whacked that duck...execution style.

I hear that Stephen Soderbergh has contracted Puerto Rican Benicio del Toro to play the older and grumpier Guerrilla leader in Che. (Let's hope his Argentine accent isn't as diabolical as the Mexican one he delivered in Traffic.)

Many of the scenes in the movie have an extraordinarily visceral impact on the viewer. I'm thinking primarily of Guevara's Amazonian asthma attack, but the landscapes that Salles and French cinematographer Eric Gautier tow us into have almost tangible textures too. The director also pushes us in almost uncomfortably close whenever bodies are rubbing or colliding - you can almost feel the impacts when Guevara's family deliver their final hugs and you imagine you can sense Mía Maestro's warm breath on your cheek as she pets with the soon to be discarded Guevara in a parked car. This is compellingly fly on the wall film-making.

Salles (like Kieslowski) started out as a documentary film-maker and makes much of using non-professional actors. (Several of the lepers had actually spent time in the colony the travellers visited.) His last two movies have been road movies and he has claimed that in each case he made sure his narratives were "porous" to the people met along the way. The walk-on parts in The Motorcycle Diaries are all precisely observed with just the right amount of sentimentality for the job in hand. Much of their poignancy derives from the fact that this is never really a true period piece. You just know that none of these indigenas had to look in an old trunk in order to be able to dress up like their grandparents! How many modern visitors to Cuzco have heard that great little gag about "los Inca-paces"?

Habra mas que una sola manera de atravesar ese rio. It was Guatemala that turned Guevara into an armed rebel. Salles' movie leaves you pondering how the Argentine might have chosen to fight back in other ways, perhaps by providing material and spiritual assistance to the continent's have-nots. Maybe the point is just that he made a decision, or rather that it was made for him. He assumed the identity and took the consequences; he swam to the other side of the great river and stayed there.

When most of us face up to injustice we eventually find a way to accommodate it, giving the other me only a brief expression during our formative years. However, our world isn't up for grabs in quite the same way that Che's appeared to be. We can complain about it, we can nihilistically destroy parts of it, but generally we no longer imagine we can significantly improve it.

Inevitably I have since reflected on my travels with Thom in Central America; I was 22 the first time, just a year younger than Guevara when he set off. Thom was the 'guerrilla archaeologist', perpetually aghast at how un-stupefied I appeared to be at the deprived condition of the people around us. Yet Thom ultimately put Guerrilla Warfare back on the shelf and chose not to imitate his idol's assumption of a brutally direct and limited destiny. Who knows, maybe I'm the more subversive one these days?

"Y el Che que pedo?" As the end approached I started to wonder whether and how Salles would refer to Guevara's later career moves. Surely he would avoid the made-for-TV movie trick of parading the lead characters with a paragraph of biographical text? Well, kind of. It looks like they had a number of different ideas about how this film should conclude and ended up using them all. Guevara's last stand was communicated in one stark, somewhat unbalanced sentence. A woman behind me gasped. Could it be she genuinely didn't know what happened to the young would-be doctor? Perhaps she was aware only of the face on the T-shirt. In contemporary Europe this face usually bears only a hollow, vitiated history. Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian that "Now Che is pure image, pure icon. Even Jimi Hendrix has more context." There's clearly some truth in this, but in Latin America today Guevara is still recalled and cherished as more than just a poster-boy for youthful rebellion.

Anyway, Diarios de Motocicleta is a beautiful and deceptively clever movie that makes this man's mythology accessible to anyone that has ever embarked on that one unforgetable, unrepeatable journey with open heart and open mind. "Travelling for travelling's sake" as Granado embarrassedly informs the two displaced migrant communists they share a camp fire with in Chilean desert. Not everyone is convinced it seems, but you can "admire the bike and ignore the rider" if you prefer. (21/9/04)

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There's no doubt that the 60s "boom" of Latin American literature had by the 90s become a bit of a bubble and some sort of corrective was long overdue. In the early 90s Alberto Fuguet announced himself as a big grizzly bear moving in to establish a new territory in this bull market.

The pitch was simple. A generation of writers had emphasised the traditional outlook that underlay the fragile modernity of Latin America. Now some new kids on the barrio wanted to show how the increasingly frequent tremors of modernity were a more conspicuous and stirring part of their everyday experience than the rising damp of folklore. ("Flying Grandmothers")

But then I found an interview by Fuguet in Salon which revealed another side of this 'McOndo' (McDonalds, Macintoshes and Condos) movement. Something akin to chippiness. Attending a literary gathering in Iowa with other young 'Latino' authors Fuguet responded to the request to wear his 'native' dress by going down in an MTV Latino T-Shirt, baggy shorts and a pair of Birkenstocks. Not quite the noble savage his hosts were anticipating. Their disappointment was of course a bit ridiculous, but then surely so was the Fuguet-up?

(Get wid da programme Berto. The difference between the sort of book you can buy at the supermarket and a "contemporary classic" is a matter of perspective. You need one. And being some sort of ethnic gives you a head start in this respect. It's a fact of life that the sort of people that buy books, unlike both the jet-set and the debt-set, rarely like to vicariously experience the lives of people like themselves. And lighten up. Living as an intermediate is surely no worse than being an embedded; you even have a few extra freedoms. )

Anyway, in the same interview Fuguet refers to "the eternal double-curse of underdevelopment and exoticism". It seems to me though that the real double-curse is probably what was referred to in The Grid as the globalists and the old tribes. If you choose to sign-up exclusively with either identity you inevitably surrender a valuable part of your own authenticity.

Now whilst many will embrace the handy stereotype, others do everything they can to demonstrate that it cannot possibly apply to them. Both do so in the belief that they will be somehow appear more interesting to others and yet the sad truth is that their need to relate to expectation in this way indicates a form of insecurity. They probably weren't that interesting to begin with. I call this the "I'm a citizen of the world syndrome". Sufferers typically show signs of being locked in an adolescent-like mentality, whereby they simultaneously feel alienated by both their home and host cultures and yet also manage to feel somehow superior to each of them. I have enough Latino friends and acquaintances (though some of them would be mortified to hear me refer to them as such) to have observed this close-up on many occasions. There are those that yearn to be like Penelope Cruz in Woman on Top, and then there are those who take great precaution not to darken their fair skin just in case someone mistakes them for some sort of spicy Hispanic.

Anyway, I felt strongly at the time that Mala Onda was one of the best books I had read in ages, but Fuguet's fourth novel Las Peliculas De Mi Vida (The Movies of My Life) is disappointingly slight in comparison.

On a journey to Tokyo where he is due to speak at a congress, Beltrán Soler, a thirty-something seismologist, sits alongside an attractive American lawyer that works to help immigrants. She mentions a book she has read called The Movies of My Life by Lorenzo Martínez Romero. The next day Beltrán comes unstuck. Alone in an LA airport hotel and having missed his connecting flight he sits down at his Powerbook to write 50 mini-memoirs, each framed by their connection to a specific movie experience. He then sends them off as two separate humungous emails to his new chum. Pobre Mujer.

The format suggests two questions immediately: 1) What on earth would the American woman make of all this verbiage from a stranger she had the most casual of mile high acquaintances with? and 2) Would any of this very private stuff really be of any interest if it had been told without reference to more 'universal' movie experiences?

Fuguet is here following his own attested goal of "writing without an overt agenda" about his characters' own experiences, but in this case the result is a bit like writing just because you can. This is the point where cultural realism isn't that different from the magical realism of obsessive narrators like Isabel Allende. (boo hiss) Beltrán's experiences of solitude and displacement during his childhood have left him feeling neither fully Chilean nor fully American. In other words, one of those poor misunderstood citizens of the world.

In fairness Fuguet does make it possible for us to identify with this poignant sense of lost identity, but none of the other characters we meet in and around the cinemas are anything more than rough sketches. Beltrán has a very Allende-like extended family, featuring individuals who can usually only be really distinguished by some physical or fatidic quirk. Take Carlos, named after a brother that died shortly after being born. "Carlos didn't fight for his destiny because it had already been written. We all know we are going to die; what is less common is dying before you are born". Groan, groan, groan. It can at least be said that Fuguet brings a sardonic wit to this sort of material that is lacking in his more famous compatriot's trash.

In an earlier novel one of Fuguet's characters claims that he would like "to write a saga, but without falling into the trap of magical realism...Kind of like The House of the Spirits, only without the spirits". This is probably the sum of Fuguet's achievement here, but it's a bit like a cheeseburger without the cheese, as opposed to some other more nutritious alternative.

I have to say I did enjoy the ending. There's an unassuming little twist whereby we discover that the movies of Beltran's life referred to in the novel's title are probably not the long list of feature titles he has spammed his new lady-friend with. (20/9/04)

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In a recent Spiked! article Brendan O'Neill writes that Supersize Me, like so many other anti-McDonald's campaigns, comes with a generous side order of snobbery" adding that "In debates about 'bad' foods (McDonald's), fast foods (microwave meals), and fat mums in clingy leggings who make their kids fat too by feeding them 'junk', there's a barely concealed contempt for the working classes, who are presumed to be lazy, feckless and not sufficiently concerned with healthy cooking and fitness. It's there in the terminology: they are seen as 'junk' people."

Reading this I felt chastened at first. Casting my mind back to Houston airport I considered whether it's really the super size Texan folk rather than all those enticing food stalls that I have uncharitably despised.

Hold on though, O'Neill's essay references John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses, a book that scorned the cultural aspirations of the intelligentsia in the first half of the twentieth century and suggested that this kind of elitism was an essential plank in the rise of Nazism. When I read the book a decade ago, I enjoyed Carey's caricature of the suburbophobia suffered by the self-appointed defenders of high culture, but at the same time I couldn't help feeling that they had a point...even if it wasn't exactly the same point they imagined they had.

This sort of anti-intellectualism is not only a bit of a pose (especially when affected by tenured academics) it's also a remarkably disingenuous position given that cultural/intellectual elitism and relativism are asymmetric adversaries and that snobbery, much like racism, is an accusation that relativists all too reflexively deploy to divert attention from the flimsiness of their own premises.

Only the most iron-chinned relativists remain standing beside the notion that all truth and value is culturally relative. (It's rather too easy to prove that they don't practice what they preach.) Instead, the majority have taken cover behind the more nebulous notion of a dualism of individual and culture. However, if it's alright to have personal values and standards when it comes to culture and ethics, why is it mere "snobbery" to criticise individuals and groups that inhabit and transmit cultures that we disapprove of? Are we all somehow utterly blameless for our collective cultural behaviours?

There's one punch that O'Neill throws at the film that he definitely fails to land - " The same would have happened if he'd only eaten foie gras or fruit or some other 'good' food for a month." Yes, but where in the world is foie gras packaged and marketed in such a way that you might just feel tempted to eat it every day? Spurlock's point about McDonalds is indivisibly two-pronged - not only isn't the food nutritious , the way it's sold also tends to inexorably compromise the variety in our diet.

Anyway, perhaps only the modern Western world is in a position to synchronise the issues of healthy diet and class snobbery in this way. In the Middle Ages the "masses" (when not actually starving) had a more nutritious diet than the land-owning classes and in developing countries like Guatemala you are quite likely to find that people from a comparatively humble background have quite a healthy diet based on staples and fresh fruit, while the better off metropolitan classes head straight for the fast food outlets which have an aspirational appeal they now lack in the UK.

The so-called snobbery that O'Neill identifies in our own contemporary culture is quite possibly an attitude being driven by resistance to the values of consumerism and resentment against those that appear to be their somewhat "feckless" agents. Call me an elitist if you will, but consumerism needs willing consumers to function. Those who seek to locate the blame for it exclusively outside the general population are basically letting us all off the hook. (20/9/04)

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It seems unlikely that any critics have been injured in a rush to praise José Saramago's new novel The Double, which I recently read in Spanish as El Hombre Duplicado.

Take Adam Mars Jones for example; he's clearly unable to see much through the density of the prose, and blames this squarely on a deviant reader interface: "Despite what designers like to think, the look of a book on the page doesn't often make a crucial difference to the experience of reading. José Saramago's new novel is an exception: the sentences may not always be long, but the paragraphs certainly are. A large minority of pages contain no paragraph breaks. Any visual relief that might be provided by dialogue is denied by the device of embedding it in the prose, with only a capital letter to denote shift of speaker. The reader hungers for the piquancy of a single inverted comma...The accelerated pace of speech within the prose format make the eye stumble. Overall, the physical experience of reading The Double is of living in a house without windows."

There was a time when these apparent barriers to readability, the constant digressions and the postmodern artfulness would rapidly have put me off, but this was my third Saramago novel and I must be getting used to the immediate presence of the old guy hogging the narrative foreground in his customary way. I did find myself a bit mired in his longeurs at times, but his is a voice I find more beguilingly wise (and unerringly polite to the reader) than "mock-pompous". His affection for dogs and self-possessed female characters comes through strongly again in this book. I can't think of another contemporary great whose big heart is so apparent in their fiction.

Beyond these issues of style, anybody whose principal benchmarks for satisfactory storylines are derived from the standard two hour motion picture format is bound to feel a bit disappointed with the travails of this plot, as the basic premise seems to cry out for more extrapolation and structured tension than it is treated to here. But Saramago is a writer who has made a home at the edges of major movie genres like horror and science fiction, and in this instance at least appears to have carefully discarded many of the familiar techniques of cinematic storytelling.

Indeed, there's nothing quite like Saramago's fables elsewhere in Western culture, high or low. If I were to suggest that his oeuvre sits within the Fantasy genre you might expect that to mean that his characters include pointy-eared people of small stature, but in fact I would simply be trying to characterise the way Saramago's storylines tend to gush from out of an absurd, (and unexplained) premise. In Blindness for example, he clearly didn't feel the need (like John Wyndham did when he wrote The Day of the Triffids) to explain away how everyone ends up shuffling around sightlessly. Hollywood loves a good universal scourge yarn like this, but there are few mainstream movie scripts today that would dare to leave the what unframed by the how and the why.

The storyline of The Double tracks the consequences arising from the sensation of acute existential danger experienced by two individuals that discover that a perfect physical copy of themselves is living somewhere in their home town. School teacher Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is the first of the pair to confront this autobiographical glitch when he spots his double acting out a bit part in a mediocre comedy that he has hired out on VHS. (A colleague's recommended cure for his mild depression!)

Once again Saramago feels able to explore an aberrant scenario like this without offering any hint of an explanation for how it came about in the first place. (Perhaps there's a touch of knowing self-mockery when Afonso likens his predicament to "a science fiction film, written directed and acted by clones under orders from a mad philosopher"?!)

Such deviations from expectation can actually be more thought-provoking than off-putting. The Matrix Trilogy showed the downside of trying to squeeze every last drop out of your premise - the Wachowski brothers ended up behaving like kids let loose on an eat as much as you can trip to the philosophical sweetshop. Saramago uses our minds as extensions of his text, inviting us to participate in the uncovering of the possibilities, while himself sticking to a fairly narrow track.

Dopplegangers have been prowling around world literature for quite a while. After finishing The Double I quickly read Poe's William Wilson, where the duplicate is a persistent manifestation of the morally debased narrator's conscience. The difficulties of co-existing with your physical facsimile were also the subject of a novel by Dostoevsky, it too called The Double. My first and only published story (at the age of 12) was my own take on the Doppelganger trope, inspired, I would have to admit, by the long forgotten Roger Moore vehicle of 1970, The Man Who Haunted Himself. Moviemakers have pursued this allegory of the incarnation of our spiritual flipside on numerous other occasions - there's Drew Barrymore's malign alter ego in The Doppleganger and Tyler Durden in Fight Club. In Asian cinema there's Dopperugenga by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

In such company Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique is something of an exception as it focuses on the mysteriously metaphysical rather than the sinister implications. Saramago's tone appears more detached from the dread torment of the situation than his two principal subjects. Each has been caught in the midst of living through a quite ordinary destiny and they both immediately assume that one of them must be somehow more bogus than the other, a counterfeit and devalued individual. It doesn't seem to occur to them that the discovery of a flaw of this magnitude in standard received reality could actually be a liberating experience.

On a somewhat related note, my father lived for many years with the premonition that he had a twin. He discovered in late middle age that his mother had given birth to stillborn twins a year or so before his own birth. (16/9/04)

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I feel like a highly combustible heretic for saying it, but the prevalent concept of media measurement is legitimised by a bit of legerdemain - we first ask people to assume that the measurement of media is a simple analogue of the measurement of business performance (and for that matter of many other types of quantitative measurement). We then require them to believe that conclusions about the relationship between the two can be made entirely on the basis of observed correlations in the trends. The first assumption is patently wrong and the second suspect at best (without further investigation).

Businesses are economic units. In spite of all the culture that sits on the surface, their underlying reality is the transaction, which has a monetary value. Many other important aspects of a business can also be "reduced" to data units (such as customer retention).

However, compare the disciplines of the Professor of Economics with the Professor of Media Studies. Which one would you expect to be more numerate? How valuable an analysis of your personality and state of mind could someone produce using formal measures to count up the words and phrases that you speak and think during a given day? The media are the output devices of culture, itself the end product of the interactions of socialised minds. There is no underlying unit value here; it really is turtles all the way down. (if there is a down at all!)

We are jumping on the AI bandwagon of marketing syntax+statistics as a cheap short-cut to semantics or "intelligence". You don't have to be John Searle to appreciate why this approach is misguided, when not actually duplicitous. (15/9/04)

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Watching Battle Royale for the first time yesterday, V declared herself shocked. She said she would have found it very uncomfortable to watch in a dark auditorium on a big screen. This set me thinking a bit more about the way violence is packaged for our on-screen consumption and how a clever director can deliver a more powerful shock by attacking around the Maginot Line of our expectations.

One translation offered for Manga is "irresponsible pictures". Battle Royale depicts the violent side of our nature in a completely unfamiliar and therefore thought-provoking context. (Some would say this is what makes it controversial , irresponsible.)

The actual killings are all fairly stylised, but unlike in a Tarantino movie, here this doesn't serve to cushion the blow to our imagination. Straw Dogs isn't especially graphic either, yet was banned for years in Britain as a video nasty. The film has the power to disturb because the plot, the script and the editing are all highly suggestive. We think we've witnessed something much worse than we have. (Personally I found The Exorcist risible, but I can see how it could leave a certain type of superstitious Catholic feeling fairly messed-up!)

The events last week in Beslan should be at least as shocking than 9-11 for they carry the implication level of nihilistic brutality that bloodily outplays the destructive martyrdom of the 9-11 hijackers, who spared themselves the trial of looking their helpless victims in the eye for 3 days.

Yet 9-11 scores more highly on the symbolic level and will certainly be seen to have had the greater historical impact. It achieved this by categorically confounding expectation and permanently imprinting itself on global consciousness. Its essence as an act of symbolic warfare means that it is possible to feel nauseated by the destruction of innocent lives while at the same time harbouring a (usually unspoken) admiration for the blow it struck against a certain set of values and the overweening pride with characterises their propagation. (This inconsistency features strongly in Latin American opinion about the WTC attacks.) This explains in part why these murders reverberated beyond the intentions and motivations of their perpetrators, why the revenge attacks unleashed by the United States have been anything but precise and why the 9-11 casualty list is effectively still mounting.

The Grid was a US-UK co-production in much the same way the invasion of Iraq was. There are two very different perspectives and approaches at work here that sometimes clash and sometimes complement each other. The second and third episodes were much better than the first. Some of the latter's defects were carried through, but in general its strengths were built on. Part Two was particularly gripping. It still had an odd James Bond meets Inspector Morse quality about it at times, though many scenes were constructed with a visual verve that is unusual even in Hollywood's summer blockbusters. There's a feeling of awkwardness when characters appear that have clearly originated in the need to counter-balance the more negative portrayal of Muslim motivations; yet CIA straight man Raza Michaels ends up being the most psychologically intriguing of the spook cell. A throw away remark by a defence attorney is the only permitted suggestion that the US might be even partly to blame for the whole mess. The production team seem to have left room for a sequel. (Though like BBC2's dotcom soap opera Attachments back in 2000, it's not hard to see how they might be gazumped by world events.) (15/9/04)

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There was a flurry of belated summer festivities in London this weekend. The weather throughout was erratic and temperamental, as if in preparation for the major spat it has thrown this morning. On Saturday afternoon around four thirty in the afternoon the 17th Great River Race reached our stretch of the river.  A Dragon Boat with twelve paddlers and the obligatory passenger (beating a drum) capsized entertainingly just underneath our balcony. The tide was out so the stricken crew splashed ashore, righted their vessel and managed to get going again. On Sunday evening we jostled up and down the Brick Lane Festival and then Old Spitalfields Market. Teeming crowds of dress-down youth just about gagged the looming squalor of the location.

Earlier that afternoon we also watched the anime Metropolis which is based on the 1947 manga elaboration of Fritz Lang's classic vision of a mechanised world made exactly twenty years earlier. AWESOME. Few films so unquestionably deserve that most adolescent of classifications. What was Phillip French thinking when he that "The film can only be recommended to dedicated followers of Japanese Manga." There's a man that has lost touch with his inner child.

This is the kind of futuristic animation that plays straight to your imagination, bypassing the need for psychological or narrative depth. Neither predictive of our future nor explanative of our present, Rintaro's masterpiece is a nostalgic, visually rich homage to a more wide-eyed Sci-Fi era and the artistry of Manga master Osamu Tezuka.

Live action film-makers could learn a great deal from the way the action has been framed and paced and from the compositional detail that dazzles in every scene.

It seems pretty obvious that if the human world was organised vertically in the way the Metropolis fantasy suggests (with the out of control machine society at the top) instead of strung out across the surface of a globe, its injustices would be more apparent and galling to us than they are. The patchwork of nation states effectively muddies the issue.

Battle Royale is another tale that I found (initially at least) to be most viscerally fascinating in the graphic format, though it originated as a novel by Koushun Takami and has since become Quentin Tarantino's favourite movie. The set-up is another example of pure adolescent speculation on those worrying issues of killing and being killed. The Japanese as a nation are clearly very much in touch with their inner juvenile!

Critics that accuse this movie of packing some sort of social or political commentary are completely missing the point. (No doubt these are the same reviewers that worry about Kill Bill being derivative!) A totalitarian state is a established here for no other reason than the fact that absolute political control is needed to underwrite the basic absurdity of the situation.

(However, the veteran director, the late Kinji Fukasaku recalled in an interview shortly before his death how he had to work with young friends in a much-bombed munitions factory and thereby discovered the limitations of friendship: "We would try to get behind each other or beneath dead bodies to avoid the bombs." So whereas the original strip might have lacked a straight-faced subtext about teenage violence, militarism or even the rigours of Japanese educational discipline, that's not to deny that the storyline appealed to Fukasaku for it's resonances with his own recollections and reasonings on these matters.)

When I first caught a twenty minute mid-section segment of the film on Channel 4 I was reminded of Stephen King's early Sci-Fi novel The Long Walk written back in 1979 under the pseudonym Richard Bachmann. An ultra violent game show, compulsive viewing and compulsory participation, only one winner, all other contestants go home in body bags. This story trope feeds off our fascination with the relentless elimination of characters we have been invited to bond with.

Grown men look to war movies for this kind of indirect self-examination. The trouble with wars though, as Jean-Paul Sartre noted from occupied France, is their essentially voluntary nature - "for lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it". I am one of those that think of anyone that joins the military as someone that has carelessly surrendered their lives and their ethical freedom to the state, but will allow that the freedom to disobey orders is real enough, however tenuous. Nevertheless, bound by a sense of personal honour and loyalty to their comrades, serving soldiers in practice find their scope for individual moral determination inevitably constrained.

The Battle Royale scenario asks the following question of its pre-adult audience - what if the person the state obliges you to murder is not some kind of dehumanised other, but your best friend? (Or more interestingly perhaps, a classmate belonging to a rival clique or the girl you secretly fancy?)

Rather than introducing all the characters at the start and then hoping we are still familiar enough with their identities at the moment of their extinction, the Battle Royale narrative cleverly turns the spotlight on new individuals as the body-count mounts.

Yet the film version falls short of the impact of the Manga not just because the violence is literally less graphic, but because it neglects to explore each individual inner monologue in the way the comic does, mapping out how the choices to run, to fight or just give up and die are reached, and how these relate to the social dynamics of the classroom that this battlefield has superseded.

There are other problems. Most of the killing is done here by two characters that in the movie have been reinvented as transfer students - in other words outsiders. This inevitably dilutes some of the perversity of the plot. The fact that slaughter is a Reality TV format, and one this particular set of contestants have themselves watched with fascination is also forfeited in the late Kinji Fukasuku's film.

A final creative glitch is delivered by the typically quirky performance of Beat Takeshi, who appears to be ad-libbing his own mysterious little sub-plot that is barely consistent with the backdrop established by the novel and comic. (13/9/04)

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Channel 4 offered a quick round-up and half-hearted de-bunking of the main 9-11 conspiracy theories last night.

"I just can't believe they could be that incompetent", former MP Michael Meacher observed in reference to the apparent inertia and confusion within NORAD that day.

The programme-makers' rejoinder was an outline of how air defence budgets had been cut. They then played a tape of exchanges between Boston control and the USAF fighter command which showed that an inability to suspend their collective disbelief underlay the befuddled response that day to those errant jetliners.

The trouble with all these conspiracies is that they give the impression that just about everyone stood to benefit - Israelis, Saudis, gangster Republicans etc etc. V said it wouldn't be hard for her to come up with one that pointed the finger at the Guatemalans!

You have to ask yourself who would be dumb enough to deploy such a blunt policy instrument as a major cataclysm with long-lasting, indiscriminate and incalculable consequences. Channel 4 were noticeably less diligent in debunking the notion of Israeli complicity or prior-knowledge. I still think the Israelis are shrewd enough to see that an event like 9-11 is inherently destabilising to their region and therefore unpredictable in its impact on their society.

Anyway, ten years of professional life have taught me never to underestimate apathy and incompetence.

Thus far I have sat through just the first part of the BBC's asymmetric warfare pot-boiler The Grid. It's slick in places, but also deeply silly overall. The scriptwriters have taken advantage of the four and a half hour format to show us how even spooks have issues!

Take the intelligent and sensitive Muslim-American CIA operative. He first crops up in a meeting room with lots of shiny surfaces (suits, table etc.) but no chocolate Hob-nobs and beverages. He laments that the Intelligence community at large is guilty of judging Islam on its most extreme elements. "It's like judging Christianity on the Ku Klux Klan!" (Hmm, not quite; whilst most extreme sects wear distinct insignia in order to distinguish themselves from more balanced individuals (Klan-members helpfully wear pointy hats for example), the difference between a Muslim that goes bang and one that appreciates non-Islamic paths to the Truth is not always apparent. )

This somewhat contrived character, Agent Raza Michaels, also defines his working environment as the struggle between globalists and the old tribes. Thus far The Grid hasn't provided strong reasons to favour either side, though the old tribes are shown to suffer from a mobster mentality. The various "intelligence" agencies activated to thwart them appear to have the techniques and access to information of provincial detectives, though with more dress sense and Airmiles of course. (10/9/04)

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Frode, Henning and his friend Christoph joined us last night at No20 for the launch of Frank Furedi's new book Where have all the intellectuals gone? I was on the phone to my mother outside The Blue Room when Henning bounded over to envelop me in a warm and hedonistic greeting; not one of those glancing Romanian gymnast pecks this! Out of the corner of my eye I could see I was getting some unusually attentive looks from a small group of unfamiliar colleagues standing around outside the bar at the corner of Bateman Street.

My first thought on re-entering the building was where have all my colleagues gone? Outside the small organising team the local dodgirati had clearly decided that this was a theme of limited relevance to them. On the other hand, I have never seen such an ostentatiously intellectual-looking lot in our bar. I found myself silently counting the black polo-necks and thick rimmed spectacles!

Furedi is Spiked's High priest of Risk Aversion, but on this occasion he was confronting 21st Century Philistinism, particularly as it manifests itself through the aegis of the Government's populist education policies and the more general packaging of culture. Today you are considered a bit of a pervert if you seek education for it's own sake and artists are valued in as much as they make us feel good, Furedi lamented. "Why not just employ comedians instead?" Look at metrics like the number of novels we collectively read, he pressed, and you find no comforting evidence of broadening cultural standards.

Reality shows like Big Brother were then summarily dismissed as "authentic expressions of the banal life". And there's the thing - authentic. Even before Furedi had himself referred to "translation into the language of Islington" I had made the point to Frode that our so-called public intellectuals in the UK (Newsnight Review's talking heads for example) are largely engaged in the enterprise of re-phrasing and re-interpreting ideas that have germinated elsewhere in our culture. To this extent Intellectual no longer refers to a lifestyle, it's an alternative mode of representation. Clever diction.

Harry Frankfurt's lively treatise on Bullshit is full of relavant insights on this kind of 'dumbing up' - "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning the state of affairs", the Bullshitter instead "misrepresents what he is up to. It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such convention. Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

Furedi packages his own thoughts with engagingly sardonic wit, but there are significant misrepresentations going on under the surface here too. His polemics are driven by a species of insincere libertarian elitism that hides itself beneath democratic platitudes - for example, he disingenuously asks "Why shouldn't everyone read Shakespeare and go to the Opera?" Rocket Science for one and all then?

The Q&A session was hindered by the need to share one microphone between the speaker and a packed rectangular room full of potential interrogators. It was followed by a short recital by Grammy Award-winning cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio. Beginning with a Piazolla tango it was all rather easy on the ear, but the American cellist jumped right on the anti-Philistinism bandwagon when she declared at the start that he album was both a "labour of love" and a private response to the horror she felt when she discovered that the Dynasty theme was topping the Billboard Classical charts.

When the applause for this feel-good musical interlude had died down (why didn't they have a comedian instead?!) we shuffled towards the corner where Furedi was standing in his shoulder-to-knees length tan leather jacket fielding personal questions, his confident toothy grin now contorted into a grimace of comparative discomfort. Henning got his copy of the book signed, while Frode had the opportunity to make his point about how our contemporary approach to education is creating a "diploma society".

Furedi lost interest in me the moment Frode presented me as an inmate of the building. I did manage to briefly expound on how education (much like consumerism) has been recruited to serve the wider aspiration of containment - containment of the potentially scary and alienating implications of some of the prevailing paradigms that thrive at the bleeding edge of pure investigation.

It's not so much that people can get a degree without reading a whole book that frightens me as much as the fact that you can pass through higher education without confronting the split ends that lie at the extremities of almost every academic discipline these days. Perhaps the government believes that graduates that have not been pummelled by paradoxes will emerge as more useful citizens. Personally I believe that those individuals that have faced up to the intellectual demons emerge more empowered and are consequently more likely to be net contributors to the Extelligence of our society. (9/9/04)

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I was troubled by some rather macabre notions last night as I descend into the Underground. Is it a reflection of our race's exhausted destiny that we are condemned now to evolve the ideologies of our own destruction, memetic viruses that will wipe us out as surely as cataclysmic pandemic? The twentieth century's combination of nuclear proliferation and totalitarianism didn't quite line up in quite the requisite way to bring our world to an end. Meanwhile the cosmic background radiation of Moral Nihilism is something we now think we can live with. On the other hand, this death cult of the fundamentalists shows promise - it's like nihilism turned in on itself; death and destruction in the name of bliss. (8/9/04)

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Finally caught the Tate Modern's Edward Hopper exhibition which is due to wrap up at the weekend.

V tends to dismiss Hopper mainly on grounds of visual aesthetics, but also because she finds his art tainted with creepy voyeurism and "gittiness". It's primarily the thinking behind the art that intrigues me, or rather the not-quite thinking.

Eastern and Western mystics broadly agree that a suspension of all the usual perceptual categories results in a pervasive feeling of oneness and wellbeing. Hopper on the other hand demonstrates that blanking out can be a less than blissful experience. (Excursion into Philosophy, 1959). It's often repeated that Hopper's art is essentially about loneliness or desolation, but personally I find his inner dramas generally neutral, yet no less engaging for it. (However, if you are a natural melancholic, it won't be that hard to pick a Hopper as your mirror! )

On the surface a realist, Hopper invites us to make inferences about realms beneath the self and beyond apparent reality. So many of his paintings seem to encapsulate states of mind that are at least partially ineffable - those moments when the intentional stance is flat on its back horizontal! Stare at one of his paintings long enough and you too might end up with your beliefs, desires and goals nebulated into a more indeterminate kind of consciousness. (I guess a subject like Lying on a warm, windswept beach with your eyes closed would have been just beyond his reach though!)

To be honest the setting at the Tate Modern today was hardly the ideal one for contemplating these private instants. What kind of imbecile takes a restless toddler in a push chair to a Hopper exhibition? Then there's the walking stick brigade that need to stand with their noses right up against the canvas before they can start the flow of banal comments.

It struck me that in a number of scenes Hopper captures moments of isolated self-absorption in settings that you would normally expect to be more populated (e.g. Office in a Small City, 1953 and Intermission 1963.) Others perhaps tell us something about his difficult but durable marriage - such as those where couples sit in mute demonstration of the differences of scale between objective and subjective proximity. (Sea Watchers, 1952, and again Excursion into Philosophy, 1959.)

The first room was really very informative - I hadn't realised that Hopper had already established staircases, windows and inner courtyards as his central motifs for transitional states as early as 1906. His Night in the Park etching from 1921 is a clear precursor to the famous Nighthawks, of 1942. The latter is definitely worth seeing in the flesh. The scene stretched across its widescreen canvas is greener and more luridly contrasted than I have ever appreciated in print.

It's a pity that a good number of truly iconic Hopper works (Gas, 1940, Compartment C Car 293, 1938, Rooms by the Sea, 1951, Chop Suey, 1929, and People in the Sun, 1960 ) didn't make the trip.

My favourite from this particular selection was Sun in an Empty Room, 1963 - No people. Hopper wasn't that great at representing human beings, and their presence in his oddly lit rooms invariably dates his canvasses to that distant era when moviemakers spent as much time as photographers diligently fretting about the interplay of angles and shadows. (3/9/04)

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The former President of Guatemala Alfonso Portillo, AWOL since January, has turned up in Chilpancingo, Mexico working as an adviser for a construction materials distributor. The Mexican authorities have generously granted him a one year work VISA. Strangely it is now seems to be safer for Portillo in Chilpancingo than back in Guatemala. (In 1982 whilst working as a Professor in that town, Portillo somehow contrived to shoot dead two of his students "in self defence" and had to flee Mexico. The case has since been closed.)

Last night we caught most of Ben Anderson's Holidays in the Danger Zone (BBC4) in which he traversed most of Central America with the exception of Guatemala and Costa Rica. Whilst I support the intention of broadening awareness of the deleterious effects of US policy in this region, I worry that documentaries about Central America focus almost exclusively on hardships and injustice. This is a kind of "outrage TV" whose purpose is primarily to document individual suffering in poorer countries in order to influence the geo-political perspectives of audiences in the more comfortable world.

Imagine though that you had a time machine that enabled you to visit and report back on 17th century London. The poverty, corruption and pervasive cheapness of life would certainly be striking, but would you deem it the sole feature of general interest to modern viewers? That El Salvador is "the most dangerous country in the Americas" might be factual, but hardly suffices as a complete description. Any foreigner can just show up in one of these countries and start a long, lurid list of everything that's fundamentally wrong with them. It's much harder to draw in close enough to appreciate the often complex mainstream realities. (Hence the abiding appeal of "insiders" like Samuel Pepys as commentators on their own precarious milieux.)

Anderson interviewed one of the Jesuits that survived the 1989 murder of six of his colleagues in San Salvador (which took place a week after my own visit to that city). The priest expressed the view that for the peasants 'Communism' simply meant a society where they had better access to food, health and education, implying that the conflict was thus a straightforward face-off between an oppressed populace and an oppressive regime.

This might be how the Liberation Theologists saw it, but the realities of war in El Salvador had granular complexities as well as these greater simplicities that those with the luxury of zooming out are able to perceive. For instance, it is well documented that many of the disparate guerrilla groups in El Salvador took the finer points of Marxist-Leninist dogma seriously enough to divert a considerable portion of their energies towards eliminating each other.

Ben Anderson's perspective humanises one side of this conflict, ordinary people, while simultaneously consigning everybody on the other side to de-humanised, abstracted categories such as evil regime, the government, or the military.

One of the reasons for the appeal of weblogs is that they (mostly) don't pretend to be anything other than a partial view. Salam Pax's pre-war postings from Baghdad revealed an everyday reality that mainstream media coverage would have been unable to capture without distortion, largely because journalists (like politicians) are rightly suspected of packing an underlying agenda.

The infamous Everyman documentary in the 1990s which sought to expose police brutality against street children in Guatemala at least had a clear objective - to raise money for the Casa Alianza charity which was set up to protect them.

Ben Anderson's relationship with his subjects is more ambiguous and in a way just as exploitative as that between the coffee traders with the growers. At least the latter get paid a market rate - I wonder what the subjects of this documentary got in return for the harvesting of their hardships? Zilch, I'm sure. The rich world's media are as much a business as Kenco and while Michelle from Big Brother gets in the order of £150,000 for her exclusive story, the survivor of a massacre in El Salvador has only the privilege of appearing on TV in a distant country where most of the viewers have at best only a vague idea where her country actually is, or why they should care about it at all.

"But surely it creates pressure for change!" shouts someone from the back of the Internet. Not really, not directly. As I suggested above, this sort of programme is geared more towards influencing our domestic political discourse than alleviating the discomforts of the developing world's hard-done-bys. (Meanwhile documentaries like this can actually damage the countries they make use of to make their points by discouraging tourists from visiting them and investors from investing in them.)

The programme last night did however contain one rather chilling, revelatory segment. Inspectors looking for WMDs apparently need seek no further than Panama where Anderson explored a forested island host to both a handful of eco-tourism lodges and 3000 unexploded American chemical bombs, many as weighty as 1000lbs. Uncle Sam has kindly left satellite location devices on each one in case anyone tries to remove them from paradise. (1/9/04)

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On Sunday I finally got to see Brief Encounter and so am now able to make the comparisons with Before Sunrise/Sunset that have been invited by several critics. I'm not sure if I was ever aware that David Lean's film was an adaptation of a Noel Coward stage play, but the way Laura and Alec aspirate their affected dialogue offers some fairly conclusive indications about its ultimate authorship.

That Jesse and Celine make it through both films without describing in real time their emotional responses to their sense of connection begins to seem quite odd once you have sat through this railway romance from 1945.

Alec and Laura say a lot less of any substance than Celine and Jesse, but unlike their contemporary counterparts, they seem unafraid to articulate what they feel about each other. Their romance is almost absurdly intense, emanating as much from the mis-en-scene as from the verbal and emotional exchange between these two would-be adulterers. Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto is poured over each conversation like thick, gooey treacle.

The role of socially-constructed behaviours and attitudes receives greater emphasis in the earlier film, as you might expect, perhaps especially with regards to gender roles. Whereas Jesse and Celine do most of their talking face to face or ear to ear. Alec is most often shown at a right angle to Laura, emphasising the kind of empowered, masculine insistence Jesse apparently lacks (at least in relation to liberated Euro-babe!)

Coward borrowed a trick from Shakespeare rarely seen in modern movie scriptwriting - he establishes a small set of chirpy comic proletarians whose interactions repeatedly intersect with the main narrative, but are also represented independently of it. (31/8/04)

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I thought I'd exhausted everything I could possibly have to say or think about Before Sunset, but then my friend TC wrote to me explaining why she found the final moments so moving and I think it's worth sharing those thoughts with this blog:

"The last scene is very beautiful in the sense that Celine is utterly uncomfortable with the way time is being postponed, and it is so draining and sentimentally exhausting; she sings, makes tea, and plays with the cat, and dances to the jazz (the way she dances is so beautifully-acted). She is uncomfortable at first but, upon realising that he is staring at her more affectionately than with a sexual intent, she automatically becomes sexy in her dance, at ease with the space, eyes closed, aware of every piece of furniture and every breath drawn by her admirer. Until this dance, every piece of action takes an eternity and the viewer is made very aware that time is running out; palms sweating, muscles slightly tense - "he can't go now, for Christ's sake". By the time she lets herself be embraced by the song, you, in your cinema seat, have given up and realised that you too are not going to leave that tiny messy studio flat even when the credits are running and for a while after that. A film to be watched once."

I have only seen that last seen once, but I was less receptive to these nuances at the time because my mind was already full of the frustrations generated by the film's swollen midriff.

Anyway, there's no question that there's a basic imbalance in this pair-up in both of the films. Celine is clearly more individually interesting than Jesse (who struggles throughout not to de-cohere into an archetype) and this makes you wonder whether this is wholly intentional or also partly a reflection of an asymmetry in the personal charisma of the two actor-writers. I'm genuinely fascinated by the way the mere presence of an actress with the CV and connections of Julie Delpy is suggestive of a specific set of interpretations that might not otherwise be attempted. (20/8/04)

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Yesterday I found myself in the odd position of coming across a former colleague reincarnated as a potential agency customer with a blogging service that wants to explore B2B opportunities. This has prompted me to give further thought to the potential value of blogs in corporate communications, something which up until now has appeared pretty nebulous to say the least.

The benefits for the blogger at least are fairly clear. Tony Benn made the famous remark that keeping a journal means that you experience life three times. Once when you live it, once when you write it down, once when you re-read it. For a blogger I suppose a little bit more like experiencing his or her own mental life three times.

While mainstream journalism strives to be objective, the blogger is usually subjective and proud of it. In certain instances of communication the value of subjectivity (or at least of a very partial view) is clear - hence the success of this medium in politics, war etc.

The key elements of the success of any blog are probably the topic, the personality of the blogger, and the perceived value of the partial view the blog represents.

Blogs are partial or open-ended in another sense too. If the content sticks to topics where there is no final and definitive explanation per se then, rather than articles or essays which have a fixed start and end point, the blog offers opinion (or "intelligence" ) as an indefinite sequence or web of thoughts. It might even be practical one day to deliver certain professional services this way. (The provision of legal counsel for example could ultimately be quite blog-able, especially the alternative process of Collaborative Law.)

The stuff that Frode is working on now is very interesting - his Hyperpop prototype aims to make every word (or whole phrases) interactive - you mouse-over a chunk of text and a pop-up appears allowing you to say researchit on Google, check the glossary entry or even to refresh the blog showing only the parts relevant to that gobbet of text. I think tools like this would make weblogs much more valuable as interfaces into corporate "intelligence", as opposed to the extremely perishable, one-to-nobody platforms that they often become in practice today.

It was good to write up these thoughts here in my blog in order to re-live them a bit! (20/8/04)

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A few final observations about Before Sunrise/Sunset.

Before Sunset is in some ways more frustrating than its predecessor precisely because the action ends this time just as it is really about to get interesting. While students discuss the meaning of life as an end in itself; for adults it's usually a means to an end. Before Sunrise might have left us wondering, but it didn't suddenly pull a curtain across its own consequences.

It seems possible to denounce either of these films for their knowingly rhetorical scripting. Although it's true that Jesse and Celine are altogether too consistently articulate in both episodes, I found the dialogue of the sequel a little bit less like listening through a pair of sparring declamations. Nevertheless, whilst it felt more natural at the situational level, as a complete conversation it felt more affected. How come?

Perhaps it's because the time pressure is more intense (and artificial) and the whole exchange seems to be paced to exactly fill the allocated 80 minutes. I ended up thinking that if I had been one of these two I would have remarked on certain things earlier on. You can understand why their talk focused on existential matters back in Vienna, but here in Paris there is more autobiography to communicate up front.

The sexual dynamics are probably intentionally different in Before Sunset.   Both Celine and Jesse seem to be consciously trying to seduce each other, whereas in the first film they allow themselves to follow the flow of their instincts. Which brings me to what I think is a very key point about non-verbal communication. The flow of meaningful words is so attention-grabbing it's easy to forget that the acid test for the realism of this meeting of two young minds should be the interplay of unconscious signalling. (It's also the surest justification for experiencing these moments on celluloid and not in print!)

In the first film Jesse puts his arm behind Celine on the tram journey they take shortly after coming down off the train. He repeats the gesture faithfully on a park bench in Paris nine years later. This time though it's not the most well-constructed non-verbal moment during the entire discourse - this is delivered by Celine when she reaches out to touch Jesse when he's looking the other way, then pulls her hand away as he turns to her.

Gestures like these are well-observed and well-acted, but somehow not always wholly appropriate to the verbal line. When two adults are engaged in such a dance of semantic seduction the body language typically starts to both accelerate and synchronise with the soundtrack.

Jesse and Celine's verbosity never quite lets up. There aren't enough moments when thought, speech and gesture are shown to fall out of step. I may have to sit through this movie yet again, but at the moment I have been left with the feeling that while the chemistry is surely there between Hawke and Delpy, they didn't quite manage to carry off the apt non-verbal counterpoint to their insistent prattle.

In general though, movie sequels have to contend with a set of existing expectations, which on balance tends to be a disadvantage. I'm sure however that a great many people will see Before Sunset first, thereafter going on to experience Before Sunrise as the sequel.

This is surely commensurate with the two films' themes of connections, symmetries and inversions, and does seem to be an equally valid way of experiencing them.  If I have taken one thing away from my own, chronologically-sequenced viewing of these intriguing encounters, it's that our fight against the clock starts earlier than most of us usually realise in our early twenties. (13/8/04)

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OK, a little admission. We missed the first 10 minutes of Before Sunset last Sunday. Today at lunchtime I wandered over to the Odeon Covent Garden and bought myself a ticket in order to see the bits I missed. (This time I stayed until they board the Bateau Mouche.)

I'm still feeling a little bit isolated in my dogged determination not to be completely enchanted by this film. The director and stars have clearly put so much love and care into the sequel and everyone seems to be applauding the end result. It probably deserves my respect for the technical achievement of real time dialogue. And even in my discontent I am nothing if not fully engaged with the issue.

The New York Times review, otherwise glowing refers to Linklater's "prickly, enchating new film". Perhaps I just fancied being re-enchanted and not prickled last Sunday night?

Now that I've seen the start I guess I can revise my review just a bit. The opening scenes are very compelling. If you miss them, essentially you miss the rapid inflation of interest that they generate. It should have occurred to me that in line with the Before Sunrise/Sunset symmetry Richard Linklater would again show each of the key locations without the two actors in them, but this time at the start not the end. And Julie Delpy does actually point which way they are supposed to walk a couple of times when they start their stroll from the bookshop.

Yet after this successful re-establishment of the chemistry and the tension I still feel the dialogue wanders off course a bit in the mid section after they leave the Cafe Pure. I did tune in to how Jesse becomes a bit frisky in the garden, suggesting he might have more cynical short-term plans at the front of his mind at this stage. It's Celine that confronts him with his marital status.

Anyway, at 34 Ethan Hawke looks a lot like the rather older Tom Cruise. I read on the IMDB that Before Sunset was shot in just 15 days. This time I noticed the continuity goof that V pointed out on Sunday - from a rear view you see a man in a Burgundy shirt approaching them, but when the camera angle switches back to face on, he passes some time after you would have expected from his earlier location and velocity.

I found those copies of Jesse's novel on the table at the Paris bookshop strangely tantalising. It's as if I feel it really ought to be available to buy on Amazon, as the story from Jesse' point of view is the most interesting untold mystery. I remember saying to V last Sunday that it would be fun to keep making alternative continuations of Before Sunrise. The first movie franchise with a Kieslowskian bent! Delpy worked with Kieslowski and has brought one or two interesting parallels to this script. At one point, after admitting he showed up alone in Vienna six months later, Jesse jokes that he wrote a continuation of his novel in which the pair actually re-encountered. (Linklater also introduced the couple in animated form in Waking Life. In that strand they wake up together in Jesse's apartment in Austin, Texas.)

Julie Delpy actually performs three songs in the movie; she's a published songwriter. I've now read an interview in which she says"We didn't know we were going to do a sequel when I wrote the song, so it was a coincidence, but Rick chose the song. It is weird though to see the film, especially because the first song they use was the first song I ever wrote".

Afterwards it seemed strange to be suddenly out on Charing X Road in the sunshine again - as if I had somehow been teleported from Paris to London. I was conscious that the real time dialogue between these two fools of fortune was continuing in the dark, empty auditorium behind me. (12/8/04)

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While I was in Spain I enjoyed reading Hubert L. Dreyfus' contrarian views on the Internet, which he feels undermines our reticence about what doesn't really concern us. He traces the problem back to the eighteenth century and Habermas' concept of the Public Sphere.  Edmund Burke saw the rise of the media as politically liberating: "In a free country every man thinks he has a concern in all public matters." Dreyfus on the other hand sides with Danish philosopher Kierkergaard who concluded "Even if my life had no other significance I am satisfied with having discovered the absolutely demoralising existence of the daily press".

We are usually so immersed in our media that it's hard to introspectively observe its workings on our psyche...except perhaps when you pull yourself out of the media stream for a week or two and more or less dry off in the sun. Then when you jump back in, the experience of "information wetness" is briefly intense.

This was especially the case when I found myself back on the London Underground a week ago. All around the gurgle of messages. Terror alerts and a wandering white tiger in New York. All stuff I could really live without knowing about. The signs in your home environment pluck at your unconscious more insistently and distractingly than anything you spot while strolling along a foreign pavement.

The streets outside my office were packed last week with public sphericals chasing the raw material for a non-story about an FA bedroom farce, the wide dissemination of which is apparently in the public interest. That means us. I knew then what Kierkergaard meant when he observed that the effect of the media was that "men are demoralised in the shortest possible time on the largest possible scale at the cheapest possible price." But now I have been back a week and the trivia all around is becoming gradually less chilling.

While connection to the Internet offers the possibility of a more self-directed media experience it also accentuates the postmodern danger of a de-situated and disassembled self. For Dreyfus the online world accelerates a set of asymmetrical trade-offs implicit in the development of the public sphere: "One can say in general of a passionless but reflective age, compared to a passionate one, that it gains in extensity what it loses in intensity". (10/8/04)

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Unfortunately Before Sunset was disappointing on a number of levels, though I guess some of the reasons for this are quite personal and probably based on what the original movie had meant to us.

Given the chance to continue the story based on Linklater's original characters, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have scripted a sequel that somehow diminishes the poetry of Before Sunrise. (Oddly, this appears to be the opposite of what happened to the Observer's Peter French - "I was a good deal less enthusiastic about Before Sunrise than many colleagues, finding the pair's talk callow and the Viennese locals they encounter unduly colourful and eccentric. So a reunion between them was not something I looked forward to with any enthusiasm. In the event, I was charmed, engaged and moved by the delightful Before Sunset, and without having re-seen the earlier picture, it has been upgraded in my mind in the light of the new one.")

In the first movie Vienna was an inspired choice of location; indeed the city is the third leading cast member. On the other hand the choice of Paris for the renewed encounter augurs badly from the start; it's a city with too much cultural baggage.

The Paris of Before Sunset is like one of those extras in Central Perk in Friends. Not quite visible in the background and generally trying too hard not to draw attention to itself. (The mis-en-scene that results is more like an archetypal French relationship movie - I specifically thought of Rohmer.)

Conversely, in Before Sunrise Vienna had acted as the foreground into which the conversation constantly wandered. When it was over, the city remained. One of my favourite parts of the first film is the end sequence when Linklater takes us back to each of the locations Jesse and Celine have visited and shows us how they look, illuminated yet depleted in the early morning light, the moment having passed on. A woman strolls by the spot in the park where they may or may not have made love; an empty bottle of wine lies there in mute testimony. In the sequel we now have Jessie proclaiming "I even remember which brand of condom we used."! The enchanted world of the first film immediately decoheres!

Juilie Delpy always had a strangely asymmetrical beauty, and she seems to have aged in an oddly asymmetrical way. Nevertheless, the years have treated her better than Hawke, who arrives in the sequel with a wasted, dissipated look. His performance is weakened by some exaggerated reprises of the mannerisms he must recall having used to individualise the younger Jesse. ("Estos 10 aĖos le han colado muy bien" commented V.) At one point I reflected that neither of these actors are quite the (mainstream) stars they used to be - something which informed my appreciation of the often peevish sentiments their script expresses.

The movie does have its highlights. We both agreed that the best scene was Delpy's rendition of her sad little waltz, in part because it was so risky. It could so easily have smothered the final moments in thick melted cheese. Instead, Celine's expressions as she voices the emotions of her lost younger self are especially touching. I also liked the fact that throughout they are both uncertain of each other's sincerity.

Delpy and Hawke have accurately portrayed the difficulties of re-establishing the right level of proximity, and at times this is more a movie about disconnection than re-connection. Yet we both thought that their monologues about the impact that the night in Vienna had had on their romantic aspirations were at times overwrought and unconvincing. (Actually V often looked as if she was about to have one of Will Smith's "I'm allergic to bullshit" attacks!)

Peter Bradshaw's review quoted Oscar Wilde: "The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer." One of the key difficulties I have with Jesse and Celine's embittered adult perspectives is the apparent insistence in the dialogue that they were both aware on that night in '94 that they had stumbled across, and then squandered, a lifelong passion, something which was not clearly inferred in the original to the exclusion of all other interpretations. The sequel reads things back into the original which may not have been there for everyone and in doing so shrivels the possibilities it once appeared to offer.

In a sense then Before Sunset isn't so much a continuation of the original situation, but rather one set of extrapolated future circumstances. Callow they may have been, but Celine and Jesse were universal stand-ins for young people in the throws of romantic caprice. Nine years later they have instead become very particular adults. In the original movie you were encouraged to project yourself into one of the participants, porno-movie style. Here you feel more like an invisible intruder.

The two movies end up being as distinct as the two halves of Julie Delpy's face, yet efforts have been made to conceal this asymmetry with the ultimately rather contrived similarities in the name, the chance encounters and the conversational format. However, anyone that has ever had a long, strolling conversation with someone they are attracted to would surely have to admit to the unrealistic pace and progression of this one. (At the very least she could have stopped at a shop window while he was rabbiting on, or they could have had moments of confusion about where to head next resolved by an interplay of gestures.)

In Before Sunset you could assume that what they said was what they were really thinking at the time, even if it was increasingly inflected by lust. Yet whereas the mutual exchange of existential opinion was fundamental to establishing the connection between this pair in the earlier film, it's surely not the best device for getting to the heart of this second situation, which has far greater potential for sub-text. What does Jessy really make of Celine's semi-solitary, bohemian life with a cat called Che in a quirky Parisian commune? Can he now imagine hooking himself up to this person for the duration? How fast are their hearts beating at each stage of the journey?

By the end you have become detached, uncertain of what would constitute a desirable outcome. When the screen went blank at the end I was left with the feeling that something rather unpleasant was about to occur...and a nagging worry about the large black four-wheel drive left blocking the entrance to Celine's yard. (9/8/04)

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Another panzada de cine at UGC last night. I'll review the dessert course first - I, Robot

A summer movie like this establishes the new benchmark for Hollywood's ability to realise imagined futures. What it doesn't represent is an upward shift of the bar in terms of our culture's ability to imagine these kind of futures.

It's a point of interest that whilst Asimov wrote I, Robot some two decades before Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner earned its respected place in our cultural consciousness twenty years before the release of this Will Smith vehicle.

The best sci-fi tends to have a lifelong impact on our collective expectations of the future and I'm convinced that it's the motion-picture form that achieves this with greatest effect. People that have never read a single sci-fi novel and even express a degree of antipathy to the genre will usually have fond memories of at least one futurist premise on celluloid. (V says her favourite three sci-fi movies are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brazil and Predator - though the latter film is a sci-fi movie to the extent that From Dusk Till Dawn is a Vampire movie.)

After Rutger Hauer's "time to die" speech and Hal 9000's rendition of Daisy, Daisy how much more is there to say about the existential issues facing AI? And surely Westworld has secured the 'robots on the rampage' niche?

I, Robot is really an entertainingly unoriginal collage of familiar sci-fi tropes. Aside from Blade Runner, there are obvious borrowings from Minority Report, the Terminators, Planet of the Apes, even MI:2. Robot-dreamer Sonny even has strikingly similar diction to Hal 9000.

In the same way there's recognisable sub-class of ETs that share certain characteristics called "Greys" (and at times the robots in I, Robot reminded me a bit of these) there's a separate strand within modern cinematic sci-fi which I would call the "Blacks". Spielberg has played a significant role in establishing this aesthetic with AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, though Natali's Cypher belongs to the same ethnicity. In these films there are lots of shiny surfaces, and plenty of dimly-lit venues. More effort has been expended imagining what sort of cars we will be driving than the kind of social and political arrangements that will have emerged. Fashion, furniture and flat screens all appear to have progressed at a slower pace than the core technology underlying the movies' predicament.

American cinema shows consistent naivety when it comes to representing the possibility of future political or social dis-equilibrium. Baudrillard would say that this is because a society that sees itself in many ways as "Utopia achieved" inevitably has trouble imagining fundamental discontent. (Rollerball and Planet of the Apes weren't bad efforts though in the sci-fi revolution genre - the latter benefiting from it's satire on 60s race relations. I, Robot however, is no Metropolis.

There's little in I, Robot to support Kevin Kelly's view that machine intelligence will prove most effective en masse. These robots are almost as crap in collaboration as the droids in The Phantom Menace. V joked that it looked like you could rub them out just by sneezing on them.

It seems unlikely that the current course of technology will rush us to construct reproduction mechanical people. What use would they really be? Did we really replace our domestic help with machines only to end up making machines that can carry a feather duster?

The main value of humanoid robots seems to be the embodiment of awkward ethical dilemmas or the realisation of the megalomaniacal fantasies of unaccountable boardroom despots. V and I are agreed that humanity is destined to become more robot-like before robots themselves acquire even the most basic traits of humanity. (V also speculates that in the meantime we might instead "upgrade" our domesticated biological partners, cats and dogs, so that they can interact better in our society! )

I've been a bit sceptical in the past, but I, Robot convincingly affirms Will Smith's megastar status. It was still 27 degrees outside when we left the cinema around midnight - the temperature inside the packed Screen 10 felt much higher. The girl sitting next to me slept through most of the film. (9/8/04)

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The recent hiatus has been the result of absence on the road in France and Spain. I am experimenting with a more blogular approach to sharing our images and impressions, but it will inevitably take longer to process. In the meantime the first set can be viewed here. (3/8/04)

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From one misplaced, emasculated hombre to another...Jakes Barnes and his unconsummatable passion for Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises

I don't really have this kind of love-hate relationship with any other work of literary fiction. It may have been fed by the parallel love-hate relationship that narrator Jake has with everything and everyone in his world. It's a bitter, unsympathetic perspective with a political incorrectness that would probably be censored down to the bone today. It throbs with misanthropy, homophobia, anti-Semitism even perhaps a hint or two of the author's inner dread of his own true sexuality.

For Hemingway it began as a short story about a bullfighter and became "a novel about a lady". I've never before looked into the biographical links but it's clear that much of the action derives from a 1925 trip Hemingway made with friends to Pamplona. One of these, Lady Duff Twysden had an affair with a bullfighter and Hemingway felt guilty that he had in some way contributed to corrupting this fetching young Spaniard. Another mucker, Harold Loeb was involved in the concupiscent contortions of this holiday and became the model for Robert Cohn, just as Duff Twysden suggested Lady Brett.

It's funny how I never really paid attention to the bull fighting scenes before. They are like the ancient hind-brain of this tale. (Hemingway delights in informing his readers that Spanish has no equivalent of the English term "bull fight".)

This was my third encounter with the vaguely-androgynous, undoubtedly beautiful and can't-help-herself libidinous Lady of title. The first time I read the novel back in the mid eighties it was on my father's recommendation. He warned me that Lady Brett was alluring and I duly fell for her.

This is extraordinary; whatever else you think about the book's subject matter, it's a mark of authorial greatness that one can actually have such powerful emotional response to a character imagined through the medium of words. And so few of them really...the power of this little novel is all in the omission. With his Iceberg Theory of indirect expression, Hemingway strove to hide the mass of his meaning under the surface.

I've known a few flesh-and-blood iceberg women too. With a paucity of word and gesture they nevertheless shine with transcendent intimations of under-the-surface depth. Sometimes though, you just wonder if the rest of the iceberg is really down there after all. One minute you have them up there on the pedestal, next minute you're sifting through your memories for any evidence that they're not actually one hundred percent vacuous!

Meeting up with Lady Brett again was a bit like bumping into an old flame. It's been ten years...what did I ever fall for here?, hang on...wasn't that a spark?

If you're lucky you've known someone like Brett, even if you ended up "trompered" by them. Such people turn heads of all ages and sexes. (Hemingway communicates this when he tells us how a mother brings her daughters up to the glass of a shop window so that they may stare at the passing phenomenon!) The others. those insipid second-raters are not what mankind evolved for.

My second reading back in '95 was the least satisfying. These ambivalent, aimless, inebriated ex-pats might have seemed sexy to my adolescent self, but my twenties were more about hard graft and I recall being disappointed to discover that they were actually all rather dull and loathsome. Even Brett Ashley came across then as an irresponsible aristo-slapper.

On all three readings though I especially enjoyed Book I where members of the "lost generation" can't help but keep finding each other in the bars of 20s Paris. If I'd read The Sun Also Rises again at University this scenario of pockets of acquaintances flitting from nightspot to nightspot yet always somehow always re-congealing into one amorphous group would have struck a bit of a chord.

At this stage of my life I've now caught up and passed Jake and his mates. They no longer seem so cynical; their failings are mostly the familiar failings of mature adulthood. Anyway, I've probably "achieved closure" with this story now, but what a useful mirror has been over three decades to the state of my own connectedness.

One last thing worth noting. Hemingway suggests that he could get down more than three bottles of Rioja at lunch by himself with no falling over afterwards. I don't think I'll be trying that myself in Navarra next week.

BB Update: Politically the world divides between those who would have given Ahmed their sergeant's jacket and those who, like Michelle, wouldn't.

"When someone attacks you and you kill them, it's self defence", Ahmed commented after Michelle threw her flip-flop at him.

The would-be golpista and all-round odious creep looks set for dishonourable discharge on Friday. He may be missed, but not sadly. He's been like an Islamic version of of Milton from Office Space, at once amusingly cranky and creepily sinister. He's spent much of his time in the house horizontal like a vampire in his coffin. V and I have agreed that our antipathy to Shell is weakening. She's just put in so much effort of late, going about the tasks uncomplainingly and cooking for everyone. She has one of those faces in which you can clearly perceive the embryonic features of the old woman she's destined to become.

Thanks in part to Shell's cooking Michelle is looking more and more like (High School) Monica from Friends. The distorted voice of BB will blare "Please leave the big pasta house" if and when she gets the call from Davina. With luck she'll still fit through the exit.

Becki was a walking phenotypical litter box; the wrong hair, the wrong eyes, the wrong nose. Only the breasts didn't look like discards and sure enough, they were surgical simulations. She was the mongrel twin sister of the exotic archetype. Last week on the E-Forum Russell Brand commented that choosing between Becki and Ahmed was like having to pick either syphilis or gonorrhoea! Harsh.

An interesting aspect of Reality TV is the relationship between winner and audience. It's not enough to be the best player. Hence the fat girl wins Pop Idol because in doing so she helps assuage our misgivings about the shallowness of the market and restores the human/ethical element to the fame exchange. Nadia may win BB because she personifies personal struggle and and reveals to the viewing public where it's at in terms of tolerance. If she does, broadcasters' representation of transsexuals in the UK may be re-wired for good. (14/7/04)

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Ernest Hemingway is said to have originated the iceberg theory of writing: "Remove all but the most essential details and only suggest, rather than spell out the conflicts that lay beneath the scene. A writer shows only the tip of what may be a huge conflict."

You'll like Lost in Translation if you accept it as a successful exercise in dramatic restraint. I tried, I really did. It's a movie about listlessness, self-doubt and displacement and I found I couldn't sit through it without some of that ennui rubbing off on me. "How to pin down a moonbeam that tickles you with laughs, teases you with romantic possibility and then melts into heartbreak? Just go with the flow." advises the reviewer in Rolling Stone magazine. In the end though, I just couldn't.

"It's on the right track" observed V during the opening few minutes (encouraging for someone notoriously antipathetic to the hangdog charm of Bill Murray). Indeed there's much that works here. Coppola skilfully evokes the sense of place - anyone that has ever stayed in a modern high-rise business hotel in a foreign city will recognise this caricature of the Park Hyatt in Tokyo.

Most of us also appreciate the bittersweet taste of these wormhole moments when we are given the chance to briefly gaze upon and taste the flavour of alternatives denied to us along the habitual course of our autobiographies. The return to reality, albeit with bags of psychological growth, is a given from the moment the detour is made.

After watching the film you somehow feel that someone has tried to implant a poignant memory in your subconscious. It struck me however that Coppola achieves this at the cost of dramatic coherence - there are too many scenes and too many of these seem like random excerpts from longer sequences, and there's generally too much window-staring going on throughout.

At the risk of someone sneering "that's just the point" I was bemused by the lack of anything other than impressionistic portraits of the Japanese extras. The overlong Karaoke party sequence is full of missed opportunities to introduce at least one local cameo that we can engage a little more deeply with. They're all as impenetrably faceless as the masked revellers in Eyes Wide Shut and it leaves you with the suspicion that that is in fact how Sofia Coppola sees them. I'm one of those people that would treat a visit to a supermarket stocked exclusively with colourful, alien brands in the same way most children treat their first trip to Disneyland. On the other hand I'm of the suspicion that Americans typically find such places existentially disturbing; their creative treatments of otherness often often reflect this gringo sensibility.

I did like the way it took several attempts for Bob and Charlotte to "stick". Contrast the ease with which Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise (another one of those poignant memory implanters!) are cooking with gas before they have even swapped names! Yet even here the script misfires, as Bob blurts way too much information when the dialogue commences and little of it serves to make him wistfully attractive partner for the May-November dance. Why does she never mention his career? How annoying is that?!

Charlotte is obviously gagging for it (arguably from quite early in the relationship) but Bob's sexuality remains "ethereal". Are we really to see this avoidance of the bedroom scene as authentic and admirable? Could the French have made a movie with the same material and pussy-footed around in this way?

It even occurred to me to sympathise with the two spouses - Bob and Charlotte must both be difficult people to share your life with! Fortunately I share mine with someone that fancied going out for some sushi at the end of the movie. (Which she thought was a stinker. For full-on "poignant" she'd rather listen to the self-composed melodies of her sister's parrot when it warbles plaintively from its cage during an afternoon downpour.) (13/7/04)

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BB Update: There's more to Nadia's sulking this week than the response of a naturally transgressive personality to the strictures of barrack-room life. It's clear that she's anxious that having to wear camouflaged fatigues has in some sense undermined her disguise. Partially unmasked, she's struggling to conceal her discomposure.

Meanwhile, the experience of boot camp is permitting Private Ahmed to discover his inner dickhead.

Or maybe not; I can't help suspecting (more than ever now) that the volatile Somali is has a clandestine agenda. Perhaps like Kevin Spacey as Verbal/Keyser Soze in the The Usual Suspects he will straighten up at the end, light a cigarette, and with a characteristic monodental smirk reveal himself as Evil Big Brother's alter ego!?

There have been one or two clues. Yesterday for example, he claimed that the very reason he fled his homeland was to avoid national service. (If this is true it would make some of my Scandinavian chums "asylum seekers" too!) Now, I may be wrong here, but my recollection is that Somalia was a melée of clan militias; no government and no standing army per no draft to dodge.

At the end of the first fortnight I complained that Ahmed hadn't "dedicated himself to expressing the stereotype he was selected to represent". Yet since then he has surely been almost too perfect a facsimile of the "dodgy Arab" - ritually beheading the manikin, generally malingering. (What if Davina were to greet him wearing the burka when he comes out?)

Anyway, another indication that he might be acting on the basis of secret briefings in the diary room was his wily coup d'etat stratagem yesterday. It's just too droll a prank to have been conceived of by an individual so obviously lacking in ironic joviality. (In that uniform/dark sunglasses combo Nadia actually looks a bit like several Guatemalan military coup leaders cerca 1975-1985.) (13/7/04)

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There was an interesting piece about The Two Americas in the New York Times today.

George Bernard Shaw observed the following: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." In a sense both Michael Moore and Mel Gibson are unreasonable men. On which side of these polarities should the reasonable man fall? And must we really leave not just the representation, but also the management of history with chiflados like these?

Choosing between urban/coastal USA (Fahrenheit 9-11) and flyover USA (Passion of the Christ) is actually a bit of a Hobson's choice. It reminds me of the realisation in The Man in the High Castle that the on-going best interests of decent humanity would probably be best served by supporting the most outrageously evil of the warring Nazi cliques.

This is also a bit like choosing a President for Guatemala. The supposedly left-of-centre candidates are invariably actually deranged and venal populists that have a deleterious effect on the overall wellbeing of the society the moment they get into power. Rightist Oligarchs are inherently less acquisitive and occasionally even have an inclusive vision.

(See also the ironic consequences of collaboration with Peron's anti-Semitic immigration policy.) (13/7/04)

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My father tells a story about the set of (exclusively) blond waiters that served him in a Buenos Aires restaurant when he was living in Argentina in the late forties. "We reckoned they must have all come ashore from a submarine".

At present I am paused a third of the way through Uki GoĖi's The Real Odessa, which recounts how in practice most of the Nazis starting afresh in Argentina after the war arrived in altogether more comfortable circumstances thanks to the escape network set up by Peron.

The story starts with the Argentine military government ingratiating themselves with Berlin during the early war years. There is a real prospect of war with Brazil and Peron and his cronies are seeking German approval for an alliance linking Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia. An agent called Hellmuth is despatched to Berlin to do a deal. Hellmuth formerly sold insurance for the Commercial Union and hung out at the yacht club in Buenos Aires. On board the steamship bound for Europe he spends hours on deck scouring the horizon with binoculars, just so everyone can be assured that he is a spy. The British arrest him when his ship stops over in Trinidad!

In the end Argentina was the last South American nation to break off diplomatic relations with Berlin and GoĖi argues conclusively that the subsequent declaration of war one month before Hitler took his own life in the bunker was essentially a ruse to allow Argentine agents to enter Germany amongst the other victorious belligerents with a view to facilitating the process of escape.

The investigation spotlights how the Argentines, as ever, tended to ape the prejudices of the Old World just in order to feel that they belonged. And yet theirs was a peculiar, native-grown anti-Semitism, fed by pan-Hispanic Catholic militarism. (The goose-stepping GOU government appointed the Virgin Mary as a general in their army and sneered at "the plutocracies", Britain and the United States. )

Their complicity with evil was diluted by that other endemic Argentine trait, venality. A veritable cottage industry of visa retail allowed many Jews to break through Peron's immigration controls. (Directive 11) Peron himself saw the advantages of this, as did many of Hitler's henchmen on the other side of the Atlantic. "Why kill the goose that lay's the golden eggs?" the colonel responded to ministers in his government pressing for their own version of the final solution.

Adolf Eichmann's office in the Netherlands also maintained a list of Angebotsjuden: Jews who would be able to pay for their lives. Eichmann was one of the most high-profile war criminals to benefit himself from Peron's Odessa.

One of the most chilling aspects of the story however, is the way Argentina's attitude may have exacerbated the Holocaust. Peron ignored repeated offers from von Ribbentrop concerning the repatriation of Argentine Jews in Nazi-held territory and, in formulating the final solution, Heydrich made specific reference to the cancellation of entry permits for Jewish refugees as a situation leaving the Nazis little alternative beyond extermination. (The transit camp Bergen-Belsen had been set-up originally to trade Jews for German citizens abroad (there were 80,000 in Argentina) that Hitler wished to use to populate the east.)

GoĖi addresses the issue of unwholesome alternatives when he asks us to consider who served the greater good - the diplomats who were willing to stamp the passports of Jews in exchange for a bribe, or that who remained uncorrupted? (GoĖi's own grandfather was one of the latter group. )

"Silence is a noisy presence in Argentina...a country that has failed miserably the test of looking at itself in the mirror". The problem has not been limited to Southern latitudes however. In the midst of peace overtures with German agents in Berne in 1943, American OSS chief Allen Dulles remarked that "It would be unbearable for any decent European to think that the Jews might return someday", and added that "he did not reject National Socialism in its basic ideas and deeds".

GoĖi is building to the conclusion that the actions of the Junta in the seventies, 'disappearing' thousands by throwing them alive from aeroplanes above the South Atlantic, can only be fully understood in the context of this earlier infamy.

There can be no doubt that the middle-ages are alive and well in many parts of the globe. The War on Terror should really be a War on Medievalists everywhere, but unfortunately it is being led by the most retarded culture in the West - fly-over America. In Europe at least the peasant mentality has generally been banished to the margins, but our Enlightenment project has come unstuck, leaving us able to articulate the rhetoric for this crucial conflict at best only patchily. (8/7/04)

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I have acquired a definite taste for ironic director's commentaries on DVD!

A seminal example would be Lucas Moodysson's seemingly un-rehearsed re-encounter with his early short film Bara Prata Lite  ("Chat"). In it he owns up to having not enjoyed making the film and yet now, in the act of delivering this commentary seven years on, he appears to reflect on it more objectively and actually finds one or two things to be proud of...maybe. (Such as the sickly green tint - surely an accident?)

Sten Ljunggren plays a laid-off Volvo worker that still takes the bus to the factory each morning and harasses young girls en-route with his abortive attempts at casual conversation. Back home he resorts to the phonebook to feed his need for fresh subjects for spontaneous chat. (If only he'd picked up that AOL disk from the doormat!) One afternoon a girl from Hare-Krishna knocks fatefully on his door...

Moodysson's portrait of "Swedish loneliness" was one half of a narrative that he severed from its twin, Fucking ĀmĆl. I used to like to isolate each story in order to tell it separately, he explains, but nowadays I prefer to tell a thousand stories at once.

The ending still doesn't impress its creator. In truth, it has a bit of a Roald Dahl style pay-off that diminishes the impact of the central portrait. The split was probably a mistake - if this had remained a cameo within a larger framework it probably wouldn't have needed a punch-line. Sad and sinister old loner Birger Andersson is most interesting when doing things that tell us more about his psyche (the random phone calls for example) than doing things that serve the plot, such as being the Swedish equivalent of American Psycho! (I thought that one of the most engaging aspects the Patrick Bateman character is the way he insists on existing beyond the limits of a realist interpretation of his story.)

"It's like cooking without passion" commented V rather sourly on the end product of Moodysson's under-committed approach. Juan Solanas, on the other hand, spent four years in post production with The Man Without a Head. We're all certain that we did the best job we could, he assures us. (The cheesy ending with twinkling stars that V complained about on our first viewing turns out to have been a unilateral whim of the post-production team that the director subsequently allowed.)

Meanwhile, the full cinematic consequences of telling a thousand stories at once are exposed by Javier Fesser's El Secdleto de la Tlompeta, a zany labyrinth of narrative strands populated by familiar Spanish archetypes (Priest, builder, doorman, cleaning lady, Guardia Civil, Telefonica engineers etc.) It's V's favourite short film in the Cinema 16 collection.

"Tol-estoy said.." the commentary by a renowned Spanish film critic informs us, "that to be universal you have to write about your own local village". Fesser's village includes the conventions of Spanish cinema as well as the private humour of friends and collaborators. "All the narrative lines of this visual forest meet at the centre of nonsense" opines the critic. Apparently a "professor of narrativity" in Barcelona asks his new students each year to essay a re-ordering of the plot strands of El Secdleto de la Tlompeta.

Fesser's brother, the producer, is satirised as a muppet that keeps interrupting with comments about the mounting costs of it all. "A picture is worth a thousand words...that's why we don't have one."

"Another unjustified joke", the commentary warns us at a stage where we have become used to the steady flow of them. The punch-line here is everywhere and nowhere; the main titles run across its mid-rift, with the sub-heading "Dedicada a todos los listos del mundo" (dedicated to all the smart-alecs of the world).

This could easily have been a narcissistic, painfully self-aware and self-referential piece of film-making. Instead it's warm and playful. In some rare instances (usually not French) it's harmless fun to be up your own artistic arse! (7/7/04)

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If V had to pick an artefact or concept to stand as a sign for the essence of ultimate reality it would probably be a fractal. If I had to it would be a tessellated Moorish tile. Her choice would reflect her sympathy for the abstract, mine for the local, human and historical.

The fractal isn't a flawless analogue for all levels of visible reality, yet I'd have to agree that it's seriously tempting to postulate its value as a token of realities beyond perception. My azulejo meanwhile has a place in a semiotics of layered self-similarity, its interweaving patterns unsettling our notions about the relationship of things, the beginning and end, the top and bottom.

As I've mentioned before I think, the centrepiece of V's metaphysics is her concept the of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle, which only appears incomplete to the subjective observer "inside". This is not so distinct from the Platonic notion of "the absolute and eternal and immutable" which we 'remember' through the acquisition of knowledge. (The ancient Greek word for truth Aletheia means "things unforgotten".)

Felipe Fernandez Armesto blithely dismisses materialism as "the common sense of creatures with limited imagination" and in spite of the likes of Dawkins and Dennet there's a developing mood in contemporary cosmology that matches this sentiment. You just can't use Ockam's Razor any more to shave off the long immaterial beard that Western notions of reality have re-grown over the past century. (7/7/04)

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"Guatemala" has admitted responsibility for the death of Jorge Carpio in 1993. Carpio was certainly no bleeding-heart human rights activist and was only really a journalist and politician in as much as he owned a newspaper and a political party. He was one half of the oligarchy and was presumably rubbed out Medellin-style by the other half. The President at the time of the ambush was his cousin Ramiro de León Carpio, who later "passed away" during a visit in Miami from a sudden, unexpected bout of diabetes, ...or maybe it was a heart attack. (7/7/04)

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Last night V explained a fascinating intuition she has had since the Transit of Venus - suppose other realities or other dimensions are not simply arranged anamorphically in relation to our own, but are in constant, mutually-affective motion like heavenly bodies? Meta-reality would then look a lot like a three dimensional universe with the dynamic properties of matter in motion. Under those circumstances transit events might then underlie certain phenomena we typically label as paranormal. She said she had been intrigued by the way that the Transit of Venus would have been unobservable without the use of special filters. (V has been reflecting on the unobservable since reading Pepys and noting how innocent of microbiology his contemporaries were.)

AA Gill suggested an "unexplored philosophy" during his weekly preamble to his restaurant review.

It posits that our lives are cajoled and twitched by myriad minute events looking for their other halves. There is a metaphysical Darwinian thrust propelling apparently random occurrences to find their doppelgänger and thereby achieve significance ų the search for the significant other. The apparent chaos of life is made orderly by the hunt for binary consequence...„How do we recognise a coincidence in waiting?š you are about to inquire. Simple: any small, random, light-brown, cinnamon-scented occurrence is a coincidence that hasn‚t happened yet. Look out for them and you‚re halfway to understanding the secret of life, the universe and everything. The other half will be along shortly. And,"matched pairs of incidences are so common that they‚re barely coincidental. But how many of us can recognise an incidence before it gets hitched? Because, empirically, they must be out there; for there to be two, there must also be one, hanging around smoking on street corners."

Coincidentally I have been thinking about those odd conjunctures again myself. There is a piece by Bruce Martin on the website of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal which asserts that the "very nature of randomness" ensures that combing random data will yield a pattern. It is always possible, he argues, to find regularities not specified in advance, but you can never make a general conclusion from these patterns. He also demonstrates the maths behind the surprising conclusion that in any random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birthday. All well and good, but the "very nature of randomness" is however hard to pin down outside the abstract world of mathematics or the constitutionally indeterminate world of the subatomic particle.

Still, next time you get that email (originated by Ann Landers) listing the "chilling coincidences" discernible in the lives and deaths of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, you can refer back to the 1992 CSICOP Presidential Coincidences Contest in which contestants identified a range of spooky coincidences between other pairs of Presidents. (One wag quipped that he night before his death, Lincoln was in Monroe, Maryland!) For all round balance it's also worth noting all the different ways Lincoln and Kennedy's biographies did not coincide!

AA Gill also laid into Robert Hughes' The New Shock of the New (which I missed).

"He makes the fundamental mistake of asserting that art is a competitive knockout contest, an either/or deal; that Lucian Freud is better than Damien Hirst, rather than just different...Hughes‚s Sewell-ish demand for a return to the craft of art is an argument that‚s been chewed over and regurgitated for the past hundred years. It‚s really only for people who need a handrail to look at culture. And, it's "an old man‚s fallacy, believing that the best is behind you, and it‚s rigor mortis for a critic. He spits at Tracey Emin for being bad at spelling: grammar is the ultimate tedious spleen of Disgusted of Melbourne."

It was a well delivered sequence of punches, but given that Robert Hughes has been hobbling towards the edge of his own canvass (having never fully recovered from a near fatal car accident in the 90s), some of the remarks were a bit below the belt: "This Hughes ų jowly, three-legged ų sounds like an antipodean Kingsley Amis...He has reached that age...His call for slow art, like slow food or pedestrianised city centres, is a Saga advertising slogan, a Zimmer frame, not an aesthetic argument. Like a tapped-out old Falstaff, Hughes should retire to curating the past and leave the future to the quick and the vital."

As a lapsed historian I am not too comfortable with the temporal relativism implied here either. Things don't always get better or different - whole cultures or periods of remarkable creative upsurge can wither and decay. And there can be qualitative differences in the shocking kinds of newness that each generation offers up in response to its precursors, such that second order revolutions end up being merely second rate revolutions.

BB Update: I reckon Shell must have taken the Linguaphone Brian Sewell in 30 Days course. Victor the evictor appears to be the only undiluted heterosexual in the house, but he has been crooning one or two Kylie numbers, along with some other soppy tracks from Pretty Woman, so this could be a front.

There are at least two separate games to be played in BB, but none of the housemates seems to grasp more than one of them at a time. 1) Appear popular or harmless to the TV audience. 2) Appear popular or harmless to the other housemates or 3) appear not to realise or care it's a game at all (all audiences). Of course it's all very postmodern when the game itself becomes a player. Nevertheless, having had the boys in blue round once as a consequence of this knowing little twist, BB has been malignly interventional in short bursts only ever since.

The excruciating Shell Jubin admittedly has the most sophisticated combination of game-plans as she appears to carefully pick her method and moment for ingratiating herself to fellow housemates, so that only the square-eyed E4 always-on gang have a chance of spotting it - such as her selfless folding and storage of Slick's undies the other afternoon. The rest of the time she opts for low level aviation, but this may be creating suspicion within the Channel 4 electorate (evictorate?)

We've been treated to some spectacular sunsets on our balcony this month. The Gherkin has a certain "Take me to your leader!" look about it when those two little red lights under the cone pierce the lurid gloam. Raj would no doubt appreciate. (6/7/04)

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"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter"
John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn.

It seems to me that contemporary society is deeply suspicious of the practice of yearning for the unattainable. Contrast the attitude of the Romantics who appear to have understood the value of longing for things in the full knowledge that consummation might be both unsatisfactory and even undesirable.

Nowadays when we see someone apparently wanting something, popular psychology draws the obvious conclusions. We are thus collectively denying ourselves an important part of the imagined life.

This affects the mental life of the body politic as well. The tribulations of the twentieth century has left us wary of ideals because we have seen what happens when people attempt to realise them. Oddly though, such individuals are often the least imaginative of their generation. Whilst massacres can result from the uniquely human combination of aggression with imagination, often enough an aptitude for planning and process will suffice for the role allotted to vision. History still needs its "unravish'd" ideals to spur us to achievement and spare us from the mediocrities of Blairism and its like.

I'm a yearner for sure. It's hard in adult life to pinpoint exactly which piece was added when and how to your psychological make-up. Nature and nurture are just the ingredients, the content if you like. The taxonomy, the architecture and the step by step implementation are how we get to be the self we are. One of the literary bricks in my case however was undoubtedly The Sun Also Rises, which I have begun reading again this week for the third time. In the midst of each decade I suddenly feel an urge to prise the worn paperback (which cost me £1.95 back in 1985!) off my shelf in order to rediscover its relationship to the meanings that lay claim to my life. (5/7/04)

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Little Lady Fauntleroy, Keith Allen's delightful encounter with the freakish Harries family of Cardiff was enough to make you want to rush off to the Internet to get a doctorate in metaphysics just to make sense of it all.

The week before we had the Zoophiles of fly-over America and as AA Gill observed afterwards: "This isn‚t the love that dare not speak its name, it‚s the one that daren‚t moo, neigh or bark its name but comes when you call it. It was a show beyond parody."

These documentaries have both been stern tests of tolerance. They put a brick in your hand and tempted you to chuck it.

For example, we were asked to consider the following ethical conundrum. Isn't keeping animals for consumption morally more dubious than keeping them as long-term sexual partners? AA Gill again: "A lady sociologist posed us vanilla, single-species society members an uncomfortable question: if it‚s all right to breed animals with the sole purpose of killing them, why isn‚t it all right to keep them to have sex with? Make love, not leather."

This logical acquittal lands like pigeon shit on the bright bonnet of your liberalism. You can hose it off, but it leaves a stain that's hard to remove.

In last Monday's film, after Allen had unilaterally opted out of the bizarre symbiotic relationship that the Harries have established with their televisual selves, we were left with the uneasy suspicion that he had uncovered a crime. Sure they are all charlatans in the traditional sense, but James/Lauren appears to have been deprived in so many ways through his/her upbringing and general parental interactions that it struck both of us that this is tantamount to a case of abuse.

It's very clear that the ringleader is mama. James/Lauren's emasculation is symptomatic of what has happened to her brothers and father on a purely psychological level. This is family life organised like a matriarchal conspiracy. "You don't know what it's like to have a close family", Lauren observed to Allen.

In the Harries' ersatz existence just being able to say "metaphysics" without knowing what it could possibly mean is enough to lift you imperceptibly above the Joneses, of which there must be plenty in Cardiff. Where's that brick? (2/7/04)