"Cold Skin" Albert Sanchez Pinol

Spoiler laden book review...
Cold Skin creates a wonderful, palpable atmosphere. From the moment the
protagonist sets foot on the island, a feeling of cold and oppressing
humidity sets it, penetrating the flesh. The image in my mind is of an
inhospitable, barren landscape. I imagine the island devoid of colour -
the only breach in the monotonous grey being the shards of broken glass
mounted as armour in the walls of the lighthouse.

The discovery of the abandoned cottage and the first encounter with
Gruner, the lighthouse keeper, serve to increase the sense foreboding.
At this point, I was expecting a slow unfolding mystery, but was instead
was plunged into a nightmare. The sense of dread turns to horror when
evening falls on the island and our protagonist is lucky to survive an
almost overwhelming attack.

One reviewer compared the novel to HG Wells, presumably recalling the
subterranean, monstrous Morlocks of The Time Machine. The comparison
that came to my mind is Lovecraft and the aquatic horrors of the Cthulu
mythology. The monsters of Lovecraft are, however, the minions of an
ancient and god of indescribable evil and power - their motivation being
the dominion of the world and the enslavement of mankind's very soul.
The monsters of Cold Skin, the Sitauca, struck me more as a force of
nature. Their attacks on the island comparable to that of a violent
storm. At first the attacks seemed to be impersonal, as if they were
african army ants consuming everything in their path.

Although we never have the motivation of the attacks clearly explained,
the mere idea that these creatures could even motivation is part of the
exploration of one of the themes of the novel. One of the themes is an
allegory of war and the dehumanisation of the enemy I'm still trying to
work out why the author chose to set the book in post World War I. At
first I was thinking the novel drew parallels to the Great War. The move
I think about it though, I see stronger parallels to colonial histories
- in particular I am reminded of Australia's & North America's history
of invasion. English settlers in Australia declare the country to be
Terra nullius - empty land; uninhabited territory - the aborigines not
considered sufficiently advanced to claim a stake on the land.

The flip-side of the theme of dehumanisation is empathy for "the other".
The introduction of "the mascot", Aneris, is the first step in taking
the novel beyond that of a survival tale. Through her, the protagonist
and the reader begin to empathise with the Sitauca, at first in the way
that one might sympathise with a slave, or even a pet. The sympathy
deepens as the protagonist meets and befriends the children. This leads
to a temporary truce which is eventually spoiled by Gruner's incapacity
of dealing with the Sitauca as anything other than an enemy.

Despite Gruner's demise, our protagonist despairs of making peace and
effectively becomes Gruner; the arrival of the replacement weatherman
closing the circle. This part of the novel was the most unsatisfying for
me. With a truce so tantalisingly close, couldn't the Sitauca have
distinguished between the motivations of the two men or, at the least,
be given a chance to? Wasn't the protagonist's relationship with Aneris
substantially different from that of Gruner's? Was it also inevitable
that he would beat her?

The protagonist's sexual relationship with Aneris is a key element of
the plot and certainly the most disturbing. I'm wondering what the
author is trying to achieve here. One part relates back to the theme of
humanising and dehumanising the enemy. This starts with seeing Aneris as
an object of sympathy - and later as an object of passion, affection and
even what is described as love. Another part is certainly to horrify
the reader. The emotions it provokes, for me at least, were ones of
shock and disgust at the men's behaviour. In part it is a reaction to
the ideal of zoophilia. In part it is revulsion at the men's
exploitation of this poor creature. This view is deliberately muddied by
the protagonist though: we are led to believe that Aneris is a willing,
or at least an indifferent, participant in these trysts. And the
protagonist claims growing feelings for her.

Another aspect of the men's relationship with Aneris is that their
absolute dominance of her - both physically and sexually - gives them a
power over the Sitauca in a way that their closely fought battles don't.
Again I'm reminded of colonists and that sexual relationships between
them and native slaves was far from unknown. This perspective may, in
part, explain how the protagonist could be violent towards Aneris
despite, or even because, of his feelings for her. This gives him a way
to vent his impotence at the enemy and express anger at himself for his
growing sympathy towards both Aneris and the Sitauca.

Two final aspects of the book remain unclear in my mind. They may be
related. One is a repeated reference to the Frazer's study of religion
and mythology "The Golden Bough". I haven't read it, so can't comment,
although it was recommended to be just last week. The second aspect was
the ending and final conversation with the new arrival. The protagonist
describes the island as being a choice and that the new man could leave
by walking across the water. Another reviewer commented that "Inner
exiles are selfmade, thus the worst". Something for more thought...

Zeitgeist – The Movie

From Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…

Zeitgeist – The Movie has apparently attracted a lot of internet attention. It links together three conspiracy theories of religion, 9/11 and shadow figures behind international finance. Or, rather, it presents three conspiracy theories, backs them up with nothing more than hearsay and leaves the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The movie in presented in three main parts. The first advances the theory that Jesus is a myth and presents as evidence a string of ancient gods that were also -born on December 25 -of a virgin -had twelve followers -were resurrected -etc -etc -etc. Whilst I enjoy a bid of god-bashing, perhaps more than most, Zeitgeist does a terrible job here by presenting a subject clouded in uncertainty as something quite clear cut. Like much of the film, a bit of research shows that the claims they make are unsubstantiated and notoriously poorly cited.

Part 2 of the movie has yet another shot at the 9/11 conspiracy theory. There is great material in this subject area. Why did WTC building 7 fall? Why wasn’t there more obvious debris at the other crash sites? There are some beautifully presented conspiracies on this and they are definitely worth looking into. Once you’ve read the conspiracies, have a look at the many credible sources debunking them. Popular Mechanics does a decent job here.

Part 3 then drags out another old conspiracy that the banking elite run the world. The fiat money system is a very interesting topic. A similar conspiracy movie Money as Debt does a much better job of providing genuine (and entertaining) educational material on the monetary system before launching off into conspiracy theory. Zeitgeist is lighter on the education and even heavier on the uncited conspiracy. I’ve yet to find a simple layman’s explanation on this, but trust me:

  • The federal bank does not exist to make bankers rich
  • Bankers don’t have a license to print as much money as they want

The best evidence I can offer for this is (recent US$ devaluation aside), the US economy has not collapsed under spiraling inflation as, say, Zimbabwe has.

Zeitgeist goes further than this with the apparently popular right-wing rant, that income tax is illegal and, um, intended to make the aforementioned bankers rich. Do Americans really see no value in the government services their tax dollars pay for? Would they really be happier in a laissez faire system?

Then, for good measure, Zeitgeist throws in conspiracies about the Council for Foreign Relations and (booga booga!) World Government. CFRs trade-wonkish policy prescriptions may excite economists, but they are a long way from an oppressive all-powerful world government that Zeitgeist claims is being built behind the scenes.

Conspiracy theories are fascinating in what they reveal about human nature and psychology. For an antidote, have a look at:

Outsourcing wifery and the economic incentives of house cleaning

From Saturday, November 10, 2007

Doing the CFA gives me an excuse to subscribe to great blogs from economists and The Economist.

Here’s an Economist post about establishing a

The recommendation to fairly value house cleaning by outsourcing it is one that Juliette and I employed until recently. My reasons were actually explicit in avoiding an unfair portion of the housework being taken on by Juliette.

Indeed, now that our cleaner has gone AWOL, Juliette does do the majority of the cleaning. I always claim that men aren’t necessarily more lazy than women when it comes to cleaning. Rather, men have a higher “filth tolerance” than women. Thus it is usually the woman of the household that will decide something needs cleaning and do it. If the cleaning was neglected a little longer a man would do some cleaning.

That aside, Juliette has now delegated me the task of finding a replacement cleaner. Here we come to an interesting point about economic incentives. While Juliette might consider it fair for me to find a cleaner, I have no incentive to do so: the current arrangement of Juliette doing the majority of cleaning is unfair, but incurs little or no cost on me.

I also note that our previous cleaner was found by me when I was sharing a house with a male friend. Here the incentives of living in a filthy bachelor pad prompted me to find a cleaner (rather than do an unfair amount of cleaning).

Perhaps I should lend Juliette my copy of Naked Economics