Sunday, February 27, 2005

The mind of a fox

Been reading "The mind of a fox: Scenario planning in action" by Chantell Ilbury and Clem Sunter. Not much that's original but it is very readable. There seems to be something of a trend in current popular business and self-help publications, to take a catchy idea (the mind of a fox), mix it with a bit of traditional wisdom and current zeitgeist, and dice it with an appealing storytelling manner.

The main idea is that the mind of a fox is a better model for success (in business and otherwise) than the mind of a hedgehog. Suspending disbelief we are invited to consider why as we make the leap from the animal to the human kingdom. The fox strikes out into the unknown while the hedgehog sticks to the known. The fox is willing to try alternatives, get to know the rules of the game in order to get around better, and generally to optimise the use of its options. The hedgehog on the other hand knows only the traditional way, bends or breaks the rules to its own advantage with little consideration for the consequences to other players (and, so the morality tale goes, to itself at the end of the day), and ultimately can conceive of only one option and one way of doing things. The comparison between hedgehogs and foxes, incidentally, comes from a well-known essay by Isaiah Berlin, cited by the writers.

A description of the fox taken from Isaiah Berlin's essay runs as follows: "[Foxes] pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. Their thought is often scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the vast variety of experiences." Berlin's essay promises to be a more inspiring read than the present one, which occasionally has a tendency to act like its definition of a hedgehog towards a variety of philosophical thinkers that it references at will, categorising them as hedgehogs or foxes as the case may be, as if invoking their names outside of a plausible context lends a little more weight to the argument. Really! Clem Sunter, I see, studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University. He should know better, the wily old fox ...

But to get on with it. Scenario planning tries to conceive of the main plausible scenarios that a business (or a project) can face when looking forward. Just so we're on the same page: it's all about self interest and a future orientation. Oh, and the fox is an empiricist rather than a rationalist.

What I find personally useful is the main matrix - full of stolen ideas I might add, such as those in Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. We basically have 4 qudrants in a so-called Foxy Matrix along two axes, that of degrees of control and of certainty:
1. Rules of the game (Certain but Without control);
2. (a) Key uncertainties (b) Scenarios (Uncertain and Without control);
3. Options (Uncertain but with Control)
4. Decisions (Certain and with Control)

Foxy Matrix

1. The Rules of the Game, refer to the things that are fixed and we cannot change, but can get to know. In fact it is our job to ge to know them, and getting to know them is what the fox has to do - dancing on several incongruent levels to gather his empirical data of what is out there. Or so I'm guessing, 'cause no real guidelines are given outside of a few sports anecdotes and analogies. Presumably all business people love golf and find it easy to relate Tiger Woods' approach to golf. In the other example given, that of Apollo 13, the rules of the game are those of the universe: gravity, space, and the kinds of problems that physicists grapple with. Furthermore, as the problem developed on Apollo 13, the rules became the amount of oxygen left, the power available for use, and some other things. Boundaries and forces in the environment in which the eventual scenario will play itself out. As the authors say: "Far from being prescriptive, the rules of the game should be viewed as descriptive, as they shape the parameters within which we can operate." (p. 52)

2. (a) Key uncertainties relate to the things you don't know for sure but that are absolutely necessary to know and have the highest potential impact. To put it differently, these are things you have identified as essential but don't know how they will progress in future. Right brain creative thinking is worth more here than analytical thinking, because you literally need to think the less obvious, the implausible and the impossible.
(b) Scenarios are possible futures. The authors advise to sticking to two or three main scenarios or your mind will blow up. They are really just conceptual and descriptive outlines of those futures, each revolving around an essential theme. Focusing on the main goal (eg. in the Apollo 13 example it would be getting back to earth) is not the point - all the main scenarios have to be played out in advance. Essentially you are discovering the options open to you in a given situation, so scenarios are bridges between key uncertainties and your options.

3. Options are not meant to include the infinite variety of opportunities we are faced with every day. Instead they are limited to opportunities that can be implemented and follow from the scenarios outlined. Best is to create a list of all the possible options and gradually eliminate only those that are truly unfeasible.

4. Finally decisions need to be made - which scenario will be implemented? Following the decision there is execution. But that is not all - during execution there is constant revision. Referring to the Apollo 13 mission the authors remind us that "the success of the adjusted mission to bring the astronauts safely back to earth was the result of many decisions shaped by incremental actions and the results they produced" (p. 110). Constant adaptation through feedback. Foxes are encouraged to be in constant dialogue with the environment and with other people's ideas. The end.

Whereas I am not pleased with the rough handling of the ideas put forward in the book - there are too many casual examples, and too few real ideas - the ideas are at least useful and presented in a very readable format.

Oscars 2005

The Oscars 2005 ceremony is now just over 15 hours away. After I saw Million Dollar Baby a bit earlier I felt like compiling a little list of predictions. M$B, by the way, is just so terribly sad. Turtles Can Fly is a sad movie, but because you know it wraps a dire reality. M$B is sad because it is so moving - a movie feat: great acting, great directing, my favourite of all the nominated movies (not just the Best Picture nominees, but all categories' movies) that I've seen for 2005 (outside of nominations 2046 is my favourite). The Aviator is great but has no soul. Sideways is brilliant in its simplicity. But M$B leaves you truly affected.

After roaming the web in search of informed opinions I made 2.5 changes, and added the "personal" choice in select cases (Natalie Portman is without a doubt my personal choice for supporting actress although I can see why Cate Blanchett should win it; nevertheless the single most compelling scene for supporting actress goes to Virginia Madsen in the scene in Sideways where she and Paul Giamatti talk about wine, and so it'd be really refreshing if she got it). To be interesting I tried to predict more than just the main acting and picture categories - but I didn't venture where I truly know nothing.

Just so I can say "See, I knew it!":

Actor in a leading role: Jamie Foxx (Ray)
Actor in a supporting role: Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) (personal: Alan Alda)
Actress in a leading role: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) (personal: Hillary Swank)
Actress in a supporting role: Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) (personal: Natalie Portman)
Animated Feature film: The Incredibles
Art Direction: The Aviator
Cinematography: House of Flying Daggers
Costume Design: The Aviator
Directing: Scorcese for The Aviator (personal: Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby)
Foreign Film: Downfall
Best picture: Sideways (personal: Million Dollar Baby)
Adapted Screenplay: Sideways
Original Screenplay: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Friday, February 25, 2005

Thoughts on "Millennium People" by J.G. Ballard

This is my first J.G. Ballard novel, although I saw David Cronenberg's Crash when it played in cinemas. It did not take me long to realise the difference between Ballard's more condensed prose and the almost lyrical meanderings of C.R. Zafon in The Shadow of the Wind. Zafon is a true storyteller with a romantic imagination, whereas Ballard is a writer whose embellishments are more restrained and deliberate and operate in the realm of ideas and their relation to bourgeois or middle class cultural values and symbols, and whose lucid prose is strikingly British in its reserved tone. "I smell a Londoner".

But that is not saying much, least of all about the clever way in which Ballard gradually draws the reader into the slightly insane world of some of the main characters. The achievement is remarkable, and it becomes increasingly apparent when the events start to crystallise in the latter part of the novel. It is all the more effective because the world that he explores - the middle-class life spaces of Londoners in Chelsea Marina, and the cultural havens of the middle classes in general - includes precisely the familiar London places that I, too, value: the Tate Modern, the Royal Festival Hall, National Film Theatre, and Hayward Gallery, museums.

By making them physical targets of destructive and violent acts he succeeds in creating a truly unsettling atmosphere which does not play on mood but rather on the reality that the middle classes in general rely on for their livelihood and meaning in life. This is an achievement, an eye-opener.

The central meaning of the novel is not easily reducible to a particular transcription or idea. It is as much about David Markham's, the narrator, gradual exploration and realisation of the intentions and wayward ideas of the people into whose world he has stepped, as it is about the impotence of the middle classes and their ability to become aware of it, i.e. to still find some real meaning in their lives and pursuits despite their apparent meaninglessness and collective impotence. The latter idea - because despite the failed revolution in Chelsea Marina most of the residents eventually return and resume their middle class lives, apparently quite happily - was most meaningful to me as it gels with my own sense that the comfort zones of white collar professionals must be lived in despite their glaring inadequacies. But not without a knowledge of the inadequacies, at the very least.

I plan to do a personal update on this idea at a later stage, which in outline attempts to validate the economic necessity of professional income standards for middle class individuals and cohesive human groups (including families), but to indicate that the end goal is not, or should not, be the comfort zones and expensive life styles usually associated with the aspirations of affluent middle class professionals. More of that another time.

There are even cases in Millennium People that hint at what I have in mind - like these thoughts of Dr. Richard Gould's:

'... I was working with these desperate children. I was their delegate and I wanted an answer. If you're faced with a two-year-old dying from brain cancer, what do you say? It's not enough to talk about the grand design of nature. Either the world is at fault or we're looking for meaning in the wrong places.' (p. 255) 

Unless Nature or the Universe is sentient and aware of us humans as significant role players, it is pretty meaningless to speak of human meaning as anything other than human meaning: micro meaning, meaning amongst ourselves, anthropomorphic meaning, a human construct.

But what of the apparently meaningless universe - or our possible relation to it - even if it does not include us or consider us? That is the harsh place that David Markham and Richard Gould try to explore in their conversation about a void that only a psychopath can face unflinchingly:

'But I remember one or two things you said - the idea of God as a huge imaginary void, the largest nothingness the human mind can invent. Not a vast something out there, but a vast absence. You said only a psychopath can cope with the notion of zero to a million decimal places. The rest of us flinch from the void and have to fill it with any ballast we can find - tricks of space-time, wise old men with beards, moral universes ...' (p. 136) 

This meaninglessness cannot be filled except with our own projections. But what if we can conceive of the designs of this nothingness? That is a thought for another day (and I feel a little shudder as I say it).

From the similarities between Crash and Millennium People I deduce that Ballard's other novels also explore middle class lives and comfort zones when they come into contact with ruthless and apparently meaningless violence through strange and slightly messianic characters that lure the middle class characters into their warped worlds.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

At night, near the station

as i walk along this road, i alone in the dark
see their car appear, first its headlights,
then the bonnet as it slows; i run through the car park
where the snow is cake icing in moonlight

to shadows where tracks meet the platform
i slump to the gravel, not a train until 5
rubber soles approach softly like a snowstorm
and the steel blade winks: "still alive?"

my heart sinks, but the sky fades in white flakes
gliding all 'round and over my breath
steaming but safe; a voice from the car double takes
as i sigh and fall to sleep, or death.


Been snowing a bit during the last few days, especially today. Saw it coming down quite hard here around 3, then as strongly tonight in the West End. Discerned a thin layer of snow on cars as I snapfooted back from the station. On the ground it still just melts though. It's been the coldest all winter this last week, no doubt about that.

It's a little eerie to imagine what the train station must be like after the last trains. Deserted, for one. Eerie, in this context, alludes to "a fear of nightprowling humans who act in injurous, thug-like ways". Which is what the above little poem is really about. Fear.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

On wealth: towards a manifesto

Following Bataille in The Accursed Share, wealth is excess energy. We use this energy towards the projects of our lives, in self-serving ways if we are able, in service of another when we are not (as is often the case). At times we may simply squander our energies - occasionally retaining their effects as good memories for our later enjoyment. As individuals especially we love to do so when we are young - it is then easy to thrive on the sense of security provided by the relative privileges of our upbringing and familial environments, and the raw excitement that youth pumps through our veins (obviously, I can't speak for everyone). Creating good memories is often the wisdom given to the young these days, and not without reason (interestingly project Good Memories is often more successful when slightly unplanned or at least unexpected, because the laws of memory can only relegate them outside the confines of routine when they do not entirely follow from the designs of routine, which is easiest in youth because we are not so set in our ways then).

My proposition speaks differently to those of different means and connection and ability - and I speak of those and for those within the capitalist framework - but the end goal (but more so because it is an end means) is the same: wealth. If the imagination is able to see in wealth an emergent energy that continues and propagates without fail, the ideal has been glimpsed. Finance is but one of its possible currencies.

The ideal does not lie, it seduces. For those already within its framework the question up to now has been whether to follow it and burn in its fire, or resist it by starting a political movement or living a bohemian lifestyle in search of a separate secular meaning. Even the artist must make this choice, but it is exactly the artist who is the most vulnerable as he feebly resists its domination to isolate himself without means and without recourse. Sooner or later he perishes - occasionally his works outlive him beyond its purely market value. Then its currency will have become more than a monetary currency, which is our true aim.

Wealth within the capitalist framework is necessarily financial, at least inasmuch as we can understand it on paper without speculating on the complex workings of market forces. Power facilitates its distribution, either through direct means or indirectly as attraction for consumption. Even the most powerful presidents are like puppets in its might, legislation and democracy has seen to that. Money, in the capitalist reality, rules as God, and to blaspheme against Him or His administrators has its penalties. There are other powers - often in some form of alliance with Him, although it seldom turns out to be just a temporary coalition - political powers, heads of corporations, heads of institutions, movie stars and pop stars, we even have the artist near the bottom of the scale, poor sod.

Or is he really so poor, so poor in power? In every age it is the artists and intellectuals that have outlined the next set of ideas that the new majority rule have taken as their own. Clever creative folk whose ideas were almost without fail more sophisticated than that of their executors, among them the new set of political power rangers. Not that the executors were not self-serving in the end - but perhaps that is simply to be expected. Certainly it is better that we do not count on anything more.

At this stage, lest I overshoot my aim, it is possible to state the possibility that capitalism within a developed democratic and consumerist society allows the aspiring individual or human aggregate: the power to achieve their role.

Here the invention of wilfully opposed arguments are easy to level at me: what if the very mechanisms that make that achievement possible are at stake, are what is to be resisted? Thankfully that merely serves to make my point even clearer: like the Tai Chi practitioner, who uses the energy of his opponent to defeat him, the conscientious struggler soon realises that his own powers will not be enough to attain his goal. ("Take on the system by myself? Bah!") I have but to remind the reader of all the Bohemian back-to-nature failures, who ended up spending more time tending to their basic needs than to their thinking and communication of ideas. That won't do. What an affluent society provides to the aspiring individual or human aggregate is precisely the means to fulfill their ideals without risking some form of development through hardship without end, and sometimes without purpose.

It is not the integrity of a bohemian ideal that is being questioned, but the means to attain it. An idea is not a stagnant entity - it grows , it must grow, it must be fed. It lives like any organism and for that it needs energy - the very energy that is the stuff of wealth in general, and which in the capitalist network stands directly or indirectly (if the passage can be blocked) connected to Money. To each his or her due - but especially to the self, for the self must create change and be strong to bring it about creatively. The bohemian who lives in nature and succeeds is a beautiful creature, the most beautiful. But for the rest of us let's realise that a strong foundation is required before we are likely to go anywhere. Finding independent means to make ourselves self-sufficient and healthy, to acquire the nourishment to feed our intellects, this is statistically a stronger bet for the future than a deprivation (even if it is in honour of our best ideas), however endearing such lived sentiments may seem.


The movie Closer, featuring Natalie Portman in her most provocative role to date, provides a unique glimpse into the psychological interdynamics of relationships. Rather than taking a fairy tale approach and leaving relationships' destinies to the workings of circumstance, or the influence and counterinfluence of the characters' other lives (work, family, etc.), here the logic revolves around a series of pivotal moments put into motion by the characters themselves given the opportunities that were available to them.

A lot of the credit for the movie's interest must go to the superb play and screenplay written by Patrick Marber (the play was originally written by Marber in the earlier 1990s). An excellent cast brings it superbly to life and my sole regret is that (in large part because the play chooses to focus so exclusively on the interrelationships) the unique atmospheres of the settings in which each character played out their lives were a little neglected: the writer as a solitary worker; the doctor in contact with his clinical, upwardly mobile middle class setting; the photographer in her international artistic career; the striptease dancer in her cafe and stripclub. A film has the visual capacity to evoke settings and atmosphere in ways that a play can't. But as a second-best and to my personal delight something of the ambience of the city was there: in the memorial cemetary where Daniel and Alice go the first time, in the streets Daniel traverses, in the familiar London doorways, in the subtle glamour of the photography exhibition, even a reference to policemen as Bobbies.

So what we have are the personalities of these characters, and the striptease dancer was the most vivid and most successful, with the doctor in second place. We are introduced to Alice as a "disarming" young beauty amidst the pedestrian inner city crowds while a voice sings "Can't take my eyes off you". Daniel approaches from afar and that is exactly what he can't do, take his eyes off her. What makes this so striking and thematically important is that her identity is not yet known to us, but she is a beautiful, attractive girl. On film this works exceptionally well. She has left New York (for London) because of some situation with an ex-boyfriend, and we are told she never leaves anyone unless she no longer loves him. She no longer loves him. Moreover it seems clear that she is the one who usually walks away - not the other way around ... Now cut to the end where we have another walk on the sidewalk amidst the crowds, she is back in New York, she looks even more beautiful than in the initial scene this time with long flowing hair, slow motion as heads turn, "Can't take my eyes off you" playing in the background. The End.

Now we have two counterparts, contrary parts or opposite parts: Alice is free, again. What is more her real name is not Alice but Jane - the name she gives to the doctor in the nightclub. Are we to believe that her nightclub person is more real than the entire history she spends in London with Daniel? I think we are. As opposed to Anna and Daniel, who are looking for happiness, Jane wants freedom and independence - it is her goal more than relationship happiness. She strikes me as the skillful contemporary incarnation of courtesans, an independently motivated vocation even more than a societal role and service, stretching back centuries. The "bliss of marriage" is never her thing. Larry the doctor is the only character who senses her real character (but doesn't see it clearly either, because he is rooted in his own world), after their first meeting at the exhibition he says: "she is sly" - when up to that point she has come across as remarkably demure and we have little reason to think otherwise. She sidesteps his questions about her objectification in the photograph with remarkable answers ... The second counterpart, or opposite part, is the marriage and eventual restoration of marriage between Larry and Anna. They are happy, Larry is
victorious. Larry, whose lasciviousness is a compromise of fantasy within married life, eventually outdoes Daniel who is "unable to compromise" in general in relationships.

Daniel is the sole loser in the story, but let us not forget that he is a writer and to some extent authored the outcome of everything - despite himself. He is gentle - but extremely deceptive and manipulative; he evidently dumps Ruth almost immediately for Alice, and then without shame tries to get rid of Alice so he can be with Anna. But Alice outlasts him: her deception, which he only finds out after she's gone and he returns to the cemetary, is fastened on him just after they meet. Whereas he continues to shower her with his own deceptions, it is when she gains monetary (and therefore independent) power - though her trade in the club - that she is able to divorce herself from him. It is at this point that he breaks his own rules, but of necessity - his final resort. It's almost as if the entire reign of deception was all that held their relationship together - she willingly coninued her false identity long before Larry and Anna ever came into view (that is not to deny the importance of power play amongst the various characters, where truth plays a major role - the play as power play). When he succumbs and demands the truth she admits that he leaves her no choice - she can't lie, but nor can she tell him the truth about her relations with Larry. Again, it's as if he authors the outcome (but that's a funny "as if", because one thing the author cannot control is the desire that drew him to her initially, that put everything into play).

She does tell him the truth then but more as a goodbye gift, she is not malicious or into doling out hurt of her own accord. She has already withdrawn herself from Daniel. It's ironic that he should ask her just before that: "When do you plan to stop dancing?" as if it is just a utilitarian part of her life. Her identity intact, she might well leave him as she greeted him: "Goodbye stranger." Of course, there's none of that.

In the final instance we could pause briefly at the title, Closer. Closer to the truth, further from reality. Closer is further, in the case of Daniel and Jane. In the case of Larry and Anna "Closer" is a kind of lie - Larry became closer to Jane, and so recaptured Anna. Is there a lesson in that? That's a funny thing to wonder. At any rate, Anna and Daniel seem to have been seduced by some sort of elite but impotent dream. They were never the wielders of the final power and simply submitted or succumbed to their final roles - the one happily, the other unhappily.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The shadow of the wind 3

Warning: plot spoilers.

Someone else, from the Washington Post, observes the likeness of The Shadow of the Wind to Marquez. The reviewer mentions several others (Paul Auster, Victor Hugo) but fails to mention the other dominant influence: Edgar Allan Poe.

Since the start of the novel the pervasive sadness reminded me of someone's writing but I couldn't put my finger on it. King's Bag of Bones came to mind, but it didn't quite fit because the archetypes are different. But when, in TSOTW, the true relation between Julian Carax and Penelope Aldaya was revealed (they have the same father) it suddenly clicked. In The Fall of the House of Usher Roderick Usher and his sister are so similarly locked together in the crumbling House of Usher. The "Angel in the Mist", the cursed gothic mansion in TSOTW, falls into disrepair and becomes just a shell. Like in TFOTHOU it is symbolic of the lives it has touched - in TFOTHOU the house caves in taking its inhabitants with it and there is no redemption. In TSOFTW much of the story takes place when the house is in a suspended state of shell-like existence, just a shadow of itself. Nobody lives there but Carax, who is himself faceless and without identity. But it's finally a temporary state, unlike in TFOTHOU where the ruin is total and ultimately more devastating. In TSOFTW sexual activity ruins, but also gives hope and resurrects.

In further support of Poe's spiritual patronage of TSOTW I submit the proof of death of two of the female leads. Apart from Clara and Bea they are the most attractive female leads: Nuria Monfort and of course Penelope Aldaya. Both die and leave no offspring - Penelope's David was stillborn, and Nuria never had a child. Further, Clara's solitary confinement is a spiritual death - she has many suitors but no true happiness, and no children that we are told of. Poe, outside of his stories, once said that the death of a beautiful woman is the most melancholy thing in the world. Poe's maidens are beautiful but none of them are fertile (unless I have forgotten any, but I don't think so). Daniel's mother died and is the reason for his father's lifelong sadness.

Zafon breaks the trend with Bea and the narrator Daniel. Bea is spiritually the most fertile, because she gives birth to Daniel's son, restores Julian Carax's ability to write, and by virtue of leading Daniel to the conclusion of the drama in The Angel of Mist leads him both to his death and his new life: his spiritual rebirth.

The rebirth of Daniel is like the rebirth of Barcelona in general, and that goes for the new modern face of The Angel of Mist as well.

The analogy between the energy of successful procreation and the way the story was conceived makes TSOFTW a love story in two senses of the phrase: girl and boy in love conceiving a baby against (and despite of) a backdrop of memories of the people much like them who had failed to sustain life; and the spirit reborn like a Phoenix illuminating the history of the ashen ruins from which it arises, via words.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The shadow of the wind 2

I was wrong about The Shadow of the Wind. It has a bit of magic which makes it worthwhile. With its dreamy and everchanging backdrop of streets and buildings and colourful characters it's a bit like Gabriel Garcia Marquez but without the heat and the pride. Instead a velvety sadness swirls through every scene, gives life to every interesting character. For all its energy the book is never happy.

At one point a character, speaking of Julian Carax's writing, echoes what I had been thinking of Shadow of the Wind: Carlos Ruiz Zafon is every character, every character has his voice ... and to add my own: every female character is a permutation of the feminine response to his male persona. It's that kind of book, weaving, winding, lots of voices, but they're all just echoes of the same few personaes and storylines. Things changed for me somewhere shortly after page 130, when I realised the story has a lot of soul, and its story within a story plot is actually sweetly seductive.

Halfway through, halfway to go.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

South Wales

Had an amazing weekend in South Wales, on a two day tour with Shaggy Sheep. Looking back it's hard to believe we did so much in only 2 days. Starting in London on Friday evening we travelled first across the long Ail Groesfan Hafren bridge across the river Severn, crossing the border after the 23rd approach span (there are 45 altogether) then on past Newport and Cardiff finally to reach Carmarthen just before 11 o' clock. In time to have a pint of Brains bitter in Wales' smallest pub, the Plume of Feathers (full of pictures of local and overseas rugby players - obviously a big theme).

Slotted into a small Bed and Breakfast for the night (actually Shaggy's mother's place - but wonderfully transformed into a B&B), up with a standard English Breakfast and then off to the local market square for a bit of strolling around. Here I replaced my digicam's batteries and bought postcards, an almanac, and an English-Welsh dictionary and a book of Welsh poetry. We'll see if the latter turns out to be anything other than a tourist's souvenir habit ...

Then we went on to Llansteffan Castle (llan means church, so that is "the Church of Stephen") where I took an amazing picture of the view. Looks touched up with Photoshop that's how good it is. And all the time while driving we had the pleasure of observing the beautiful Welsh countryside.

Soon we were at Laugharne (pronounced 'larn'), where Dylan Thomas spent the latter part of his life after a brief stint in London. Not much going on there, but saw his grave, the boathouse where he used to sit and write, and the Brown's Hotel where he used to go for a drink. There's even a photo of him there, sitting in his corner with a lady by his side. C and I had ourselves photographed trying to strike the same pose. There's a little bookshop called Corran Bookshop just across the road, that sells 2nd hand books. I almost got permanently stuck there but fortunately C's good sense took us to Brown's Hotel in the nick of time, for some Double Dragon beer - the best Welsh beer I tasted all weekend (I tried 3 types of Welsh beer over the course of the weekend).

Grabbed a bite to eat and from there went to the horseriding farm where some of us went horseriding for a couple of hours. Not I. Instead took a long walk along the seaside all the way to White Sands, where Shaggy picked us up again. Nice little walk - very windy, and occasionally cold, but with a great view of the coast. That made up most of the afternoon and from there we went back to St Davids - Britain's smallest city (it's a city because of its cathedral) - which we'd passed on our way to the coast (we'd also stopped briefly at St Non's well).

At St Davids we got a chance to wander around the cathedral and the Bishop's Palace (the latter apparently a magnificent structure in its heyday several centuries ago). I had a cup of coffee and really good chocolate cake in the local Espresso Bar - which closed 15 minutes later.

Then we were almost on our way back to Carmarthen, but first we stopped at the Preseli Stones, also believed to be the source of the stones at Stonehenge - had an amazing photograph taken in the near dark. Then it was time to have dinner - this time at a pub with delicious Welsh cawl. We also tried some of the ffagodau (faggots) ... it's an acquired taste. Quite a capable local duo was playing 60s music live in the pub. Nice. Then some of us were too tired to have another one, and so went off to bed. But for the diehards there was another chance to experience some of the local atmosphere - off to a farm bar, a local noncommercial bar that sells beer on tap and of course everything else. Open all night - or until the last person leaves.

Up again early the next day, we were in for our biggest surprise yet: a walk up one of the Brecon Beacons ridges. But first we had breakfast, this time with cockles and laver bread. Cockles taste like mussles, but they're smaller - quite nice. So what was so surprising? The snow, the snow! (to start off with) To my complete disbelief my hands, after the first 10 minutes of icy cold, adapted and I made it without gloves all the way up the ridge and back. I even made several small snowballs with my bare hands. Only on the last piece, in the "little snowstorm" at the top, did I feel the cold that strikes you to the bone, where you feel as if you'll never heat up again. That was a little scary - not the cold, the wind. Snow was sweeping up through a concave part of the slope up the ridge on the back of a strong gust - probably the effect of the cold, the snow, and the shape of the mountain. The snow hits you with force and I had to cover my face and my eyes for the last couple hundred meters (it only affected that part of the path). When I got to the top the wind suddenly became much stronger and you could lean into it at a slant without falling over. Man. I was first at the top - but first to leave the top as well. The second time when the wind picked up strength like that I figured it's quite enough! One can drop off the mountain like that ...

We paid a brief visit to Aberfan, to the cemetary where the graves of the children and others of the Aberfan disaster of 21 October 1966 - 144 died including 116 school children - could be seen. At first I thought it was a disaster like you might read about of the early days of English industrialisation. But when I saw the date and realised how recent it actually was I was surprised. The incident, in which a waste tip of the coal mine on the mountain started sliding down and into the village, rocked Britain and drew sympathy from an international community of benefactors of the fund. It became a symbol of the exploitation of communities for coal mining, and a spur for change.

The last major event was the visit to Cardiff's Open Air Museum. Suffice it to say it's a great concept well executed. All manner of Welsh historical dwellings recreated or brought on site, and you can walk around, ask questions of people who look after the dwelling - great stuff. I even bought a slice of bread baked in the on-site historical bakery!

And then we were all just really tired and took it easy in the van, listening to Tom Jones and Stereophonics and German reggae, all the way back to London.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Bad education

More Spanish imagination as I saw Bad Education in the cinema today as part of UGC's "Best of 2004" rescreenings. This is the second Almodovar movie I watch, Talk to Her being the first (I somehow prefer the Spanish title Hable con Ella). They both explore disturbing themes through subversion, and sexual ambiguity play a role in both. But they are otherwise very different in content, which considering their respective statures, is impressive. Gabriel Garcia Bernal deserves to be mentioned for several convincing performances (yes, because he/she is not a single person throughout).

This is a complex movie with subtexts and a clever (but not too clever (that can be annoying)) narrative structure. The flashbacks and interplay between real life and fiction is balanced wonderfully. The colours are rich and warm, the influence of pop art is evident in the credits' design, the objects on camera, and even the decor. As with 2046 I would watch a scene or a sequence and think to myself "yes, this is amazing". Simple things - there is one place where the typewritten sentences on a sheet of paper (of the screenplay in the movie, called "The Visit") are shown large as life on the screen. Nothing too unusual. Suddenly the silhouettes of two people start appearing on the sheet - it's strange and you don't know what's happening. There's a voice talking and explaining something, and then suddenly you realise it's because you are moving onto the next scene, and the figures gain colour and texture and a background starts to fill the sheet. Yet at that moment, with the superimposed images and just as you were starting to understand that something is strange, a new meaning was created.

I'm not going to try and analyse the movie here. Almodovar is a sly craftsman. It struck me during the movie that the scene in which Zahara did her little cabaret is strategically placed near the start of the movie. Since the movie has no female protagonist this is so very important. At that point Bernal's act effectively creates a female sexual persona that retains its fascination throughout the movie by reinforcement through subtle gestures.

Another thing that struck me is that, just like in your typical Holloywood fare but there with heterosexuality - every other encounter happens to be between two gay men and ignites intrigue, as if the whole world is just a canvas for gay sexual drama. I thought there may be some ironic wit in this.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Shadow of the wind

"There is nothing like the first kiss", she said. But my mind drifted, unable to embrace this beautiful certainty. My first kiss didn't seem special in this way. It went on for hours and was wonderful (is that what she meant?). It seemed the way all true erotic encounters have appeared to me since: warm and lovely and spontaneous.

I remember her hands. I loved her hands and especially her nails, which were long and unpainted. I would trace the length of her fingers with mine, then let her long nails dent the soft cushion of my fingertips. I loved that sensation, there was something reassuring about the hardness of her nails against the softness of my fingers. When she kissed me she kissed as if she'd kissed many guys before - and she probably had.

Now I have been spoilt by certain writers. With their echoes in my mind anything less does not really satisfy. Take Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. By page 23 I had developed a crush. On page 56 I realised it was wearing off and I am left with merely a page-turner. No less and I am not complaining, but I suspect that in 400 odd pages I will read what a rare author says in a page, or two paragraphs. Of course
that's not the way to sell novels, but that's another matter.

While those certain authors chipped away at the fabric of my soul, these other mortals seem happy to play in the clear light of day, waiting for the same echoes to spur them on and animate their writing - stimulating but pretentious in the deep sense of the word. From somewhere in my mind those certain others keep returning, particles hurtling through space to teach about the very skin of the universe. Perhaps this is what she meant about nothing being like the first kiss, that the others are merely a bit like it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Hegemony or survival: final

I've finally finished reading Hegemony or Survival. It carries on for quite long, or so it felt, making similar or the same points. But as far as providing evidence for its arguments is concerned it's not a criticism, the volume of notes and references at the back is impressive although I maintain that I can't verify their validity. I'm sure academics have done this for us already so hopefully someone has or will publish an illumination.

Despite all the exposures in the book the main message is not simply that America has associated itself with atrocities worldwide since WWII. Rather it traces the ideology (Wilsonian idealism) that holds it in place, and demarcates the agent responsible: the US government.

The title refers to the fact that the U.S. government deems the U.S.'s maximising short-term (elite) interests to be more important than global interests and the future. The future is a significant dimension in this statement, because the way things are going the survival of mankind is at stake. There may be no future for our children.

From my own point of view it was interesting to note why U.S. interference and ideological coercion has such fundamentalist reactions in the Islamic parts of the world. Talk about exploiting basic human weakness ... Group theory explains that in the simplest of ways, individuals who belong to a group gain social identity. This surely includes being born into a certain society or religion. People invest themselves in their lives, which gain meaning in the context of their social identities. This sense of belonging is not only deep-rooted, but has self-esteem implications. Now this is important because as it turns out, if your "self" is threatened you will try to maintain your level of self-esteem. And the easiest - and in some cases, and here I mean an individual (or a society) under attack - the only way is by reacting in an extreme way. Thus a fundamentalist reaction is somewhat natural in the face of tremendous threat or confrontation from outside. Think of an animal driven into a corner.

To describe it succinctly: the invested self, if it has no external source for esteem, MUST retaliate in order to maintain itself - even unto death. The effect of "external source" should not be underestimated - this relates as well to expected benefits in the afterlife, if one sufficiently believes in it.

This description also makes it obvious why submission can become an option: it may seem more beneficial than death for positive self esteem possibilities. Following this logic the winner may claim that the submitters (the losers) have willingly chosen this option when, really, there was no choice in lieu of the threat of something even less desirable to the loser. But this is the familiar utterance of the U.S., dismissing dissenting as people who do not understand what the losers (eg. Iraq) "really want".

And so on. It was a good read.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Foamy the Squirrel

Haha, this made me laugh. It's worth checking out several - but you need sound.

The accursed share 4

The Accursed Share is thought-provoking. Towards the end of volume 1 (there are 3) Bataille really gets going about the two superpowers at the time of his writing: America and Russia. He first analyses Russia's contribution to energy in the world, noting that Russia in fact controlled far more than may have been supposed, purely by the incredibly tension it held and forced others (including the US) to react to.

Unlike the US, already industrialised and on its way to spend much of its considerable surplus energy, the Soviet Union was harnessing energy in the most rigorous way imagineable, focusing attention within its borders to be productive and become truly industrial.

What I find fascinating is his observation that Stalin, whose legacy is full of terror and atrocity, may have been the one who suceeded in making Russia industrial. I.e., without his rigorous method Russia would not have ascended as it did. That's what a philosopher - Bataille - can do: look at the unspeakable and stand beyond it, extracting an unpleasant but interesting truth. He enthuses about Russia at first, almost in the sense of something novel, unusual, not without promise to the world, and breathtaking in its fearsome production. Eventually he moves on to the US, drawing attention to the difference in workers' movements: in Russia, geared towards production; elsewhere towards increasing the objects of consumption.

Finally, he gives considerable attention to the Marshall Plan. My knowledge of it is insufficient to add much, but at any rate Bataille sees two options. On the one hand, the plan could be a true gift giving. The US gives away because it needs to find an outlet for its surpluses, so giving to the general economy, i.e. to the world. On the other hand, which is what he sort of suspects, it may well be that America will simply find a way to make it work in its own interests once more (he annotates Francois Perroux's argument in this section, so it appears not to have been entirely his insight first): "The plan may be an 'investment in the world's interest', but it may also be an investment 'in America's interest'" (p. 183).

As I have been reading Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival around the same period it's tempting to see how they differ. Of course, their focus is different. But a similarity arises in Chomsky's description of a hegemon so powerful, so capable, that its boundaries are no longer national - nor its ability to control. Chomsky's descriptions of military and financial support of other leaders (often dictators), would constitute the sort of spending Bataille sees as necessary to get rid of surpluses. Yet, as he suspected, much of this tends to come around later to work in the US' favour. In a phrase, "America's interest" is precisely what its foreign spending (financing of military leaders) and energy expenditure (war, eg. in Iraq) seem to be about.

Chomsky's words on the same Marshall Plan that Bataille wrote about indicate pretty much what Bataille suspected, but Bataille could hardly have foreseen it in so much detail back when he wrote his work (1940s). In Hegemony or Survival, quoting Howard Wachtel in Business Week (1975), Chomsky writes: "Reagan's Commerce Department observed that the Marshall Plan 'set the stage for large amounts of private U.S. direct investment in Europe,' laying the groundwork for multinational corporations (MNCs)" (p. 149-150) The rest of the paragraph describes the Marshall Plan as a facilitator of U.S. economic imperialism.

Looking at this through Bataille's eyes once more I do feel though that the considerable energy that is still being created, and streaming into all avenues and countries, from the U.S., is not antithetical to the notion of surplus consumption. Nevertheless, the form it takes is still aimed at increasing production, and where this will eventually lead to is unclear. When the world becomes too small something will have to give. Using one of Bataille's favourite images, a dam wall will burst - and what of humanity then? It is interesting that Bataille's framework allows me to predict very simply that a global catastrophic war is one possibility - at some point in the future - if not an inevitable possibility; if production increases at this rate. I.e., the general economy is in a sense totally disinterested in individual, even national, interests. And perhaps the U.S. keeps controlling and producing, not because it needs it, but because it is feeding on its own fear: the fear of catastrophe.

So maybe the continuing U.S. capitalist imperialist endeavour is something of a compulsive disorder ...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The accursed share 3

Following Bataille's description of economy in industrial societies, I feel as if I both understand Calvinism and have read Marx. Both are bogus assertions, but that is how taut his winding persuasions actually are. He describes ideas with analogies drawn from broad summaries, creating movements on the periphery of consciousness that nevertheless - like the gestalt of a carefully drawn but out-of-focus background - flow solidly into consciousness as an after effect.

One of the most beautiful sentences encountered so far - in the context of capitalism's stress on the enterprise of things, the products of surplus energy, that moreover gives rise to the worker's servitude to things as opposed to God (who was the predecessor of things), and to himself as a thing:
"The advantage was clear, in minds always quick to grasp the real object, of allowing intimacy to recede beyond the threshold of consciousness." (p. 136).

Indeed. And doesn't this make me think? Bataille has always had an unusual view of the nature of intimacy, whether between persons or of man with himself, as in this case. In Inner Experience - as elsewhere - he takes this idea into strange territory by speaking of the wound, and inner experience as a deliberate attempt to impale the self - rupture the self - in order to experience life as a self-sacrifice over time.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The accursed share 2

In The Accursed Share, Bataille's basic thesis is that economy should be viewed more generally, but instead is still viewed in a too limited fashion: "Economic activity, considered as a whole, is conceived in terms of particular operations with limited ends ... [economic science] does not take into consideration a play of energy that no particular end limits" (p. 22-3).

The real problem is the excess of energy (the accursed share of the title) that we must use or lose: "the global movement of energy ... cannot accumulate limitlessly in the productive forces; eventually, like a river into the sea, it is bound to escape us and be lost to us" (p. 23).

This problem has been dealt with in different ways in different societies. In Western societies industrialisation has reabsorbed energy as a productive force, balancing useless consumption and the ever-forward movement of technological invention. The Islamic world moved into military conquest for a while, then resettled in an equilibrium of inner consumption without expansion beyond its borders while opening up to and being influenced by the lands it conquered. In Tibet the effects of violence were turned inward - it is a country without military conquest, defenseless against military forces from outside. Monastic, with the divine Dalai Lamathe complete replacement of a king, Bataille explains that this is both expenditure and the complete renunciation of expenditure. Understanding necessity as the compulsion to expend and consume, he observes that Tibet "confronts human activity with its limits, and describes - beyond military or productive activity - a world that is unsubordinated by necessity" (p. 110).

The idea of potlatch as practiced by Northwest Coast Indians, and sacrifice as evident in Aztec culture serve as metaphors, analogies, and examples of the basis of his thesis. These are themselves not reducible to one single idea - nonetheless they include the notion that giving is a form of power because it induces obligation, and thus the seemingly useless expenditure of gift-giving actually has powerful consequences. Further, true wealth focuses not on what is owned or retained, but rather on what is expended or even destroyed.

Bataille is so utterly fascinating. His ideas are often unorthodox and not a little vague at first, yet they have a funny way of staying around in the mind much longer than expected.
Halfway through, halfway to go.