Saturday, April 18. 2015
OK, while I can see how some people will like what Hocus Focus does after less than a week I've thrown it away.
It does what it says it should but I just don't work in an environment where that's what I want. I like choosing whether to hide an application or not, depending on exactly what I'm doing. Hocus Focus does it automatically without any sense of what I'm doing.
If I worked in a job where I was routinely working in a single app and all the others actually were distractions, it might be different. Several authors whose blogs I read write in Scrivener for example, and pop out to their browser for researcher, to play on Facebook etc. Hiding everything except Scrivener and then everything except their browser is probably great for them. But I really do routinely have 3-5 different apps open and I'm working back and forth between them all (Coda, Safari, nvAlt, Byword, iTerm + sometimes Chrome and Firefox), plus I'll have other apps open (Todoist, Skype etc.) that I might hide or not depending on what's going on. It just doesn't work for me to have those apps hiding after some automatically determined time, so it's back to manual.
Thursday, April 16. 2015
How George Osborn must be regretting saying we should ask every politician to explain how their policies would be paid for. You can quibble about the fine detail - and plenty of people are - but the other parties are making the effort to say "We'll do this to pay for that" while the Tories are suddenly making announcements for lots of extra spending "We'll fully fund the NHS spending plan (£8b)" and so on but when it comes to saying where the money will come from they're saying "Trust us, we found the money in the last parliament, we'll find it in this one too."
The thing is, I do trust them, roughly, to do it. I just don't like what it means. The Tories have said they're going to ring fence education, increase health spending and continue their triple lock on pensions. Every other sector of public spending is up for cuts while they continue their drive to get a budget surplus by 2020. So, how do you get an extra £8b for health? Easy: you cut more deeply somewhere else, or, of course you raise taxes somewhere.
Let's assume the promise not to raise VAT actually holds up for a few years until they can claim it's a change in economic circumstances that require it. And the promise to raise the zero rate allowance. So there will be a rise in National Insurance. That's one obvious route that isn't instantly anathema to their party (alternatives like raising the top rate of tax are). There was a leak suggesting there are plans to - well you can choose if you prefer the verb cut or slash - a further £12b from the working age benefits budget. The cast bulk of this is credits for people in low paid work. I'd expect to see that figure be raised markedly. There will be a radical lowering of the cap on maximum benefits to be paid as well. I suspect the NATO commitment to 2% of GDP going on defence will be out of the window. And so on. And suddenly you can find an extra £8b.
Of course these decisions are taken in a vacuum.
The Tories essentially deny the rise in use of food banks has anything to do with the harsher sanction rules for JSA and the reduction in benefits for those in low paid work and the rise in VAT putting a strain on their budgets. In fact many of them claim it's a mirage, people simply knowing it's an available service and asking for it. The massive rise in usage and the numbers of new food banks really suggest that's rubbish. Part of the rise in usage of the NHS is a rise in cases of malnutrition linked to poverty along with other poverty-related cases. Slashing the welfare budget further to pay for the plan to meet current needs will, almost certainly, increase the demands on the NHS.
Likewise we hear a lot about bed blocking, where people who should really be in social care (which is cheaper to run but still suitable for those with lower needs than the intensity of a full hospital service) can't be sent to suitable accommodation because there aren't enough places. This occurs because social care accommodation is run by the local authorities and their funding has been cut (and will presumably be cut further) and while they've tried to not cut social care budgets inevitably, as our population ages even if you don't cut the budget the demand is rising and there's certainly not been an increase in funding to match that. If the Chancellor is finding £8b and a chunk will come from here too, and bed blocking will only get worse.
So yes, I believe the Tories can find an extra £8b. I just don't like the answers to how they'll do it and the implications for the NHS, and everyone else for what it means.
Thursday, April 16. 2015
The 1995 film Twelve Monkeys might not be an obvious inspiration for a TV series adaptation. Like a lot of Terry Gilliam’s films it has rather a cult following. Like a lot of films with central themes of insanity and time travel - and while we know Cole really came back from the future he acts as a scavenger and survivor and would quite possibly be imprisoned or diagnosed as mad on the grounds of PTSD without ‘raving’ about time travel - it’s also quite hard going for a general audience. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of fans, including me.
When SyFy announced it was going to adapt the film to a 13 episode series called 12 Monkeys I was cautious, but prepared to give it a go. There’s a well crafted story that fits neatly into just over two hours, could it really be nicely expanded to about 9 hours of story time? (With “Previous on…”, titles, credits etc. the 9 hours and 18 minutes or so of air time you get in 13 episodes is probably just about 9 hours of actual storytelling time.)
The show established in its very first episode how it was going to be similar to the film: Cole is still our time traveller and the protagonist, he goes back to find Dr. Railly, sent by Dr. Jones aiming to stop the plague that devastated the world’s human population. It establishes some ground rules too, about paradox devices (Cole has the future version of the watch that Dr. Railly wears and damaging the past one affects the future one, bringing them together is bad) and so on. However, it also establishes the future people don’t really know exactly how to achieve their goal: they think they have to kill Leyland Goines and all their problems will be over. Poor Leyland is dead by the end of episode 1 but the future is still plague-devastated.
The show, or more specifically the show’s writers, use their extra 7 hours of storytelling time to do various things.
In 2015 there is a lot more about the possible development of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys for example. There is a complicated CIA plot involving the possible spread of the virus that must be headed off. There are various moments of Dr. Railly’s life between first meeting Cole and where most of the story is set that helps explain both how she’s invested in the fight against the virus and how she’s come to leave the CDC while retaining her links and respect - which is useful at various points while allowing her to drop everything as Cole randomly drops into her timeline again.
There is, to balance all this current time material, a lot of exploration of the world of 2043 as well. They look at various different groups of survivors, from Cole and Ramse getting along as a pair to large groups of scavengers operating as raiders (think Mad Max but with less vehicles), to Jones and her team driven to send Cole back in time to a bunch of military types living on a base who are chasing down every computer they can find in the hope of developing a cure. Just to really stretch your time-travel sensibilities, quite a lot of the 2043 story is told in flash-backs and the like, although some is told real time too.
And, of course, they take the time to explore the characters in more depth. We find out a surprising amount about Cole’s life history, and about Railly’s, which shouldn’t be that surprising. But we also find out a fair amount about Jones’, Ramse’s and a host of other characters as well. This gives some interesting story lines and, in a move that is quite unusual for US TV, 12 Monkeys is brave enough not to answer them immediately (some answers hang for several episodes) or even to appear to answer some of them one way at first and then to appear to answer them in a different way some time later.
As if that’s not enough, there are odd side-trips to other time zones. Some are foreshadowed, some are used as twists and shocks. This is a show comfortable in its mythology of how time travel works (whether or not you agree with it, it is internally consistent and pretty clear) and while the vast bulk of the show jumps between 2015 and 2043 there are moments in 1987, 2013, 2014, 2017 and probably some other times. Some of the other possible storytelling uses of time travel, such as parallel time lines and the like are explored too. The confidence of Cole and his understanding of what jumping through time means for planning his actions, and the growing confidence of Railly and the implications of having a time-travelling ally are nicely handled too. There are various other characters who break into the charmed circle in 2015 at various points later on who struggle to handle it (understandably enough) and who highlight nicely just how well Railly has adapted.
SyFy in the US has been criticised (I’m not sure how fairly, I don’t see their output, but their sister station in the UK doesn’t have a great track record nor a great deal of stuff that makes me want to watch it) for not really doing a brave and genuinely Science Fiction show since Battlestar Galactica. Warehouse 13 was dismissed, possibly fairly, as comic fluff, although there was definitely a big chunk of science fiction in the mix there. Things like Sharknado certainly don’t count. There have been odd mini-series like Ascension (which I liked but was met by very mixed reviews) which are solidly in Science Fiction territory but for longer run series The CW has been doing better with The 100 (two seasons and a third to come for sure) and even The Tomorrow People (cancelled after one full season) despite their CW ‘lots of beautiful young people’ requirement (even more than your typical US TV channel). Helix (also on SyFy) is possibly too batshit crazy to really count as bravely Science Fiction despite managing two seasons. 12 Monkeys has done well enough to get renewed for a second season and is certainly a brave show. It’s really hard to claim a show in which time travel thanks to a clunky big machine is a central element of every episode isn’t Science Fiction. Large parts of the show are grim, dark and dirty as well (something I suspect The CW avoids by and large).
Cross-media adaptations don’t always work, nor does expanding a story in this way. But I thorough enjoyed this show and will be watching Season 2 with much less caution. Obviously there are stronger and weaker episodes over a 13 episode season but overall I thought they were good or excellent. Although the film is clearly rooted in the same core concept as the film it takes its own route with that idea and runs with the story and the characters. And you really have to love a show that calls Dr. Railly, the CDC virologist who warns the CDC about the coming viral plague that will destroy almost all human life and is told to rest and recover from the pressure of her work Cassandra.
If you have nine and a bit hours to spare, crank up your core, inject the drugs and let time splinter around you. Although given Orphan Black season 3 starts this week - BBC America doing gritty, hard, brave Science Fiction - you might have to wait a while to find the time!
Wednesday, April 15. 2015
The Water Diviner tells the largely tragic story of an Australian man who sends his three sons off to war and they fight at Gallipoli and, like so many ANZAC and Turkish soldiers, are presumed to have died there. (It’s estimated that the Ottoman Empire lost nearly 175,000 men and the Allies nearly 188,000. That’s not counting those lost to illness. While the majority of the Allied losses where British, this was the first major engagement by the ANZACs and they suffered particularly heavy casualties in a few key battles. ANZAC day, commemorating the landing on 25th April 1915 is a major event in Australia and New Zealand every year and sees its centenary this year.)
Four years later and the War Graves Commission is in Gallipoli trying to find the dead and put them in marked graves - as one person in the film comments, this is the first time anyone cares about other ranks, in previous years they “just raked them into enormous bloody pits with horses and mules and some lime and turned them into fertiliser.” You don’t have to try too hard to imagine the incredibly posh English accent that goes with that I’m sure. Connor, the father, is in Australia and getting on with his life as best he can but his wife can’t cope and she kills herself. This prompts him to go to Turkey to try to find his sons’ bodies and bring them home to be buried with her.
Arriving in Istanbul, Connor finds he needs a permit to go on to Gallipoli from the British and the office is shut. Thanks to Orhan, a young boy, this leads him to a hotel run by Ayshe, Orhan’s mother and the widow (although she still hopes her husband is alive) of another of Gallipoli’s victims and her brother-in-law. As you can imagine, there is some tension between Ayshe and Connor over their past, although Connor doesn’t really pick up why for some time.
Getting his permit is trickier than Connor expected - it’s still a warren of collapsed trenches, unexploded bombs and the like and you need a permit to go there. As a different, although equally posh but perhaps less idiotic British officer, comments on his initial arrival as they are marching towards the site of the battle “This is a veritable Garden of Eden.” It then starts to rain, they reach the top of the hill and he looks out over the mud and the battle-ravaged bay and it looks much more like one of Dante’s circles of Hell. One of the troops throws his words back at him and he has the grace to look ashamed. Although the very toff officer who made the comment about turning bodies into fertiliser is the one who won’t issue the permit he is also really unsympathetic. If he was a more sympathetic character I can’t help think you’d come away thinking he had a point: you really wouldn’t want some random sheep farmer wandering around up there.
Eventually Connor gets to Gallipoli, with some help from Ayshe who warms to him as he befriends Orhan and as she learns that his wife and three sons are dead and he is looking for their bodies. As she comments later on, she doesn’t judge a man for the vagaries of the world but by how much he loves his children. As one of the other characters remarks, he is the only father that came looking for his sons.
Connor’s arrival in Gallipoli brings into play the third big strand of the story. Major Hasan, commander of the Turkish forces, is helping the War Graves Commission with information about the disposition of the Turkish forces at various stages of the battle. For reasons that are really unclear until the end of the film he decides to help Connor try to find the bodies of his sons. Being a diviner, Connor is quickly able to determine where his sons died and the WGC team find and rebury two of them. One is not there.
From a technical perspective, having Connor as a water diviner lets him move around on the battlefield, supposedly divining their movements and finding their remains. This is vividly shown by flashbacks to the battle scene and their deaths. I felt it made a powerful visual statement on many levels without feeling out of place in the film.
For those of you who know your history, Turkey in 1919 is not a good time to be visiting - it’s the rise of Kemal Attaturk and the start of the Turkish War of Independence. Major Hasan, and through him Connor, is very much involved in this as well, as he tries to find out what happened to his third son. These parallel threads fill the rest of the film. While it doesn’t pretend to be a detailed and comprehensive history of the time, it does give an interesting snapshot into some of the turbulent political and building military tensions in the area with the rise of Turkish Nationalism, the Greek invasion and the start of the Turkish fight-back/the Turkish War of Independence forming the very dramatic backdrop for the hunt for the surviving Connor boy in what seems to my decidedly non-expert eyes to be a very plausible manner.
Given a strong Aussie and Kiwi presence in the cast and director’s chair this film is surprisingly sympathetic to the Turks. Less surprisingly the British Army, particularly their officers, are held up as posh idiots. The one naval officer we see gets a much better deal from it. There aren’t really major villains in this film: there are stuck-up idiots, there’s a jealous, lustful man to look out for too, but this is really a commemoration of ANZAC day’s centenary told through one man’s family history. There aren’t villains in that commemoration, and it seems to me this film doesn’t try to make any, it just makes some characters petty enough to keep the story moving along.
Comparisons to Saving Private Ryan will probably arise. They have for me as I was writing this, although they didn’t at the time I was watching it or immediately afterwards. This story starts darker and more sombre than that and doesn’t give that tone. It has a sense of political history and the bigger picture of what those events meant to the Turks (who were the enemy at the time) as well as the Australians. It’s not a film made with that sense of the American dream, nor that sense that the rest of the world doesn’t really matter. While there are superficial similarities this is a much more affecting and lasting tribute to my mind. That isn’t surprising because ANZAC day and the events of Gallipoli are still important in Australia and New Zealand so there is a stronger sense of history underpinning this than there is in Saving Private Ryan which is, to some extent, simply just another war movie, albeit one with a heart-warming family twist.
I imagine this film will do really well in Australia and New Zealand. But it’s a thoroughly good film in it’s own right in my opinion, even if it’s not exactly typical first date (or even second or third date) material and well worth the less than two hours it takes to watch it, especially as the centenary of ANZAC day rolls around.
Bechdel test: Perhaps surprisingly I think so. There are certainly several named female characters but in Istanbul Ayshe and Natalia (the relationship isn’t made clear, she might be Ayshe’s sister or a guest at the hotel - I think sister) have a couple of conversations and I’m pretty sure one isn’t all about Connor (although I could be wrong). Ayshe also talks to Fatma (her sister-in-law) but while there are moments of the exchange that aren’t specifically about Imam (Fatma’s husband) the conversation is about organising Ayshe becoming Imam’s second wife and fitting into the household so it all revolves around him.
Russo test: No, not even close. No one identifies as LGBT. It’s probably not surprising given the times (it was still illegal after all) and the film doesn’t have characters in a situation where they’re likely to disclose it but no.
Sunday, April 12. 2015
Hocus Focus is the kind of app that will drive some people insane, make some wonder why it even exists and leave others wondering how they ever lived without it. I’m not sure which of the last two groups I’m in yet - it doesn’t actually do anything I can’t do for myself, it basically hides apps automatically and I can hide them for myself just fine - but what it does is hide them if they lose focus for too long.
That, of course, is designed to help you focus on the main thing you’re doing, which can be great. Or it might be an unmitigated disaster if you’re reading text from somewhere and summarising it somewhere else, or reading instructions somewhere and implementing them somewhere else. So, while there is a default time for all apps that’s easy to set, you can easily override for individual apps on a case by case basis.
When I’m working, a lot of my work rotates between a browser (usually Safari but also Chrome and Firefox), Coda and nvAlt. But I’ll actually be working in either the browser or Coda, just reading things from nvAlt. So nvAlt has a long hide time, for other reasons so does Safari, while Chrome and Firefox sit on the default hide time because I use them to check sites in different browsers. Coda currently sits on the default because it’s not a problem to unhide it. I also fairly often work in terminal, using iTerm, and with instructions I’ve got in markdown format, so that’s currently in Byword. Again I’m reading from Byword and so that gets a longer than standard hide time because I don’t want my instructions to disappear in the middle of reading something.
Setting these times, both the defaults and the app-specific ones, is easy. Hocus Focus sits in your menu bar as a little wand icon and you have a slider or a direct number entry per app. You can also set up profiles with the default times, so if you’re doing something where you want to focus tightly you can hide after 1 second, if you’re working across multiple apps you might set it to ten minutes as the default.
I find this app slightly odd at the moment, simply because I’m so used to having multiple windows open and navigating between them and hiding the ones I want to hide, or simply having some in the background. This app is ruthless about hiding apps for me. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, it’s just a bit weird, and I’m going to give it a while to see if I get used to it or get rid of it.
This app is donation-ware, so if you’re in the category of can’t live without it, you can give a small gift.
Sunday, April 5. 2015
I sometimes wonder, and it appears I’m not alone if there’s a downside to the minimum wage. However, my concerns are not quite the same as those discussed by Mr. Harford.
I heartily approve of the concept of a minimum wage, lifting people out of poverty and preventing the poorest from being exploited, at least in principle. If you get caught not paying it, you are a criminal - which sadly doesn’t stop it being done by those who are already criminals and some others of course.
For all those reasons, despite the doomsayers, and with the exception of the criminals, it works and should be applauded. The reason I wonder if the legislation should be revisited is the people who are payed the minimum wage who perhaps should not be.
If you do a minimum wage job, what sort of job should you be doing? It seems reasonable to expect a minimum wage job should be a minimum skills, responsibilities and so forth job. Not a no-skills job, there isn’t any such thing, but a job that you could reasonably expect to pick up with a few hours of on-the-job training perhaps. If your job is as close to no-skills as you can imagine - lets say, without wishing to be rude you are literally pushing a broom all day, sweeping up litter or leaves - you can probably do that largely alone. Shelf stacking, if you’re stacking things light enough to be lifted alone could similarly be done alone (although I strongly suspect you would be part of a team and probably have intermittent supervision). There are jobs like working in a call centre and other customer service roles where more intermittent supervision might be suitable. You know how to handle (particularly in a call centre where you have a menu and a script to work through) a range of common problems and if you don’t know how to handle a particular issue you can ask for help and kick it upstairs. Equally, some supervision and guidance would doubtless help you. A job yet more responsibility or skill required - caring for others, handling money and the like - probably requires essentially constant supervision to remain a minimum wage job. Essentially while you’re actually doing the activity, you’re part of a team and you’re doing it under close supervision rather than making the decisions for yourself. (That doesn’t mean the supervisor can’t go to the toilet but it does mean they can’t go for lunch and leave you unsupervised for lunch, although you could have lunch at the same time as them.)
My understanding is that those jobs that are above the minimum in terms of their skills and responsibilities while being at the bottom of a particular totem pole are now often minimum wage jobs where, before the minimum wage legislation they would not have been. (There are obviously exceptions to this, starting nurses, junior doctors and the like are not paid minimum wage.) Some compression and absorption is probably inevitable but I would argue there needs to be something more, some form of differentiation. There is clearly a tier distinctly above the minimum wage: the supervisor, team leader or similar, and then other entry points for highly skilled people as well: the doctor, the nurse, the plumber, whatever.
But I think the minimum wage needs to differentiate between the genuinely minimum wage job: a combination of low skills required, closely supervised and no responsibility and those those jobs which still below that next step up to the next tier. We expect the people at the next tier to have a fairly significant pay rise too because they have superior skills, appreciable levels of responsibility and they are supervising (as well as supervised/managed). Managers get another increase in pay and so on.
Why shouldn’t the people doing the lower paid jobs but with more than the minimum in skills and requirements be paid more than the minimum wage then? But all too often they aren’t? And, more importantly, why shouldn’t this differentiation be enshrined in law just like the minimum wage is, to ensure a clear progression and a reward for improving your skills and hard work.
So, as I propose, at least as the basis for discussion the following:
With the current rate of the minimum wage I suggest these increments should be 33p/h each. That’s 5% of the current rate rounded up. As the minimum wage increases, that gives an easy formula for these increments.
Quite a lot of jobs that are currently minimum wage would not be affected. However, quite a few would pick up an increment or two. An extra £11.55 a week might not sound like a lot (that’s the increase in salary per increment for a 35 hour week) and it’s not enough to scare most small and medium employers about the cost and that’s kind of the point. Large employers will protest about the increase in costs but these are the same people that protested about the introduction of the legislation and now (however grudgingly) accept it wasn’t a disaster for them or the economy. But if you’re trying to live on the minimum wage an extra £11 or £23 pounds a week to take home might be the difference between struggling and managing. Move up to 4 increments and £46 extra a week and you’re suddenly you’re talking a real difference to how easy it is to live. Although, to my mind, if a job is picking up more than 4 or so increments you can start seriously wondering if this job should have been a minimum wage job in the first place. But under this system it clearly won’t be any longer. Instead of being £6.50, it will be earning £7.82/h.
This system could, and sensibly probably should be extended for all jobs that are structurally left as minimum wage jobs without promotion to a higher starting grade so that if you get additional training or responsibility without promotion, you gain additional increments and your salary rises to reflect that. Simple fairness would suggest this principle of salary increments after training and small increments in responsibility without actual promotion should be applied to other jobs that are not on a minimum wage too. With this extension, if you take the case of the responsibility of opening up or closing up, if you routinely do this, then I think you should count how often the person is expected to do it in a week. For every odd number, you give them an increment - so if they open and close one day, or open once or twice a week that’s one increment. If they open three times, or open twice and close once that’s three total, so two increments and so on. I could be persuaded to it being a more Fibonacci type progress: (0, 1,) 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, so each step up is the sum of the previous two. Really, opening and closing up is beyond a typical minimum wage responsibility so it should be rewarded but once you’ve started it going I don’t see there’s a huge extra increase. If you’re already opening and closing 4 days a week (so 8 opens and closes) stepping up to doing it all the time (13 is 6½ days in a week) isn’t a huge actual increase in responsibility - you’re already doing that responsible role a lot after all.
I’m quite keen on this extension to my original concept although I think the concept works well without this being necessary at least at first.
Beyond that, this system could be extended to work out a wage structure for all roles - I haven’t included an increment for management and supervision for so on, but it would be easy enough to do so, say an increment per 5 people you supervise or 1 per 10 people you manage. (Supervision is closer and harder work in my opinion, and you supervise fewer people, so managers will still end getting paid more. Although those numbers are somewhat based on experience, they’re suggestions to get numbers down and work with for examples later.) The responsibility increments would have to be extended for a whole host of other roles too and that would have to be discussed and debated carefully and at length. I don’t have the skills and experience to really do that - but you can imagine sketching in how many increments being a driver in a taxi, a bus, a pilot, a cook and so on are worth. (Some are covered under training times of course.)
It is possible to consider, although I’m not sure if it should apply or not, a seniority increment. The NHS still works this way but most professions don’t. I don’t feel strongly about it but this would be the place to do that.
As it stands it makes employing graduates expensive (90 weeks, a typical UG course duration in contact time) works out to be ~£1,200/w in increments! So the formula might need a bit of work. Maybe something like 1 increment per week for the first 4 weeks, then 1 per month thereafter to a year then one per year, so a graduate required job would get 17 increments giving them a starting salary of a bit over the current average for a graduate of £22,040.20 assuming no other increments. A junior doctor (5 years training and more responsibility) would be on a higher salary. A graduate working in a job that does not require a degree does not get all these increments of course.
A supervisor, working on a factory line say, and supervising a team of 4 would get 1 increment. They would also have other increments for more training and so on. It’s hard to image the line supervisor hasn’t had training on all the machinery and some training in supervision and so is picking up 6 or more training increments, at least one loose supervision increment and probably a batch of other responsibility increments. The factory manager, lets say managing 100 people (15 lines, plus other staff lets say) would get 10 management increments, plus whatever training and other increments they would also have. A more junior manager, say the office manager, (who might agitate to be ranked as a supervisor for 3 increments of supervising 15 staff rather than 2 of managing them) would get fewer points. This factory manager gets, just for their management an extra £115.50/w or £6,006/y over the minimum wage. It’s not a lot but they will also have training for the role, increments for no supervision etc. to be included as well as any other responsibility increments they get.
I’m far less keen on this second extension to this than the basic idea. I’m not totally opposed to it; I particularly like the idea of extending it as a response to additional training so if you are trained by your company but not promoted, you’re automatically entitled to a pay rise. (I would favour an increment per each month of additional training in that situation.)
I don’t think it’s completely terrible but I think it’s probably stretching a system that’s designed to differentiate wages at the bottom somewhat and to reward people starting work or in low paid jobs for training or taking small increases in responsibility tangibly. That’s not to say it couldn’t be made to work and without gross tweaking it proved possible to produce a reasonable looking formula to give something that gave a decent looking approximation to the average starting graduate salary for example. (If you standardise on this, I wonder how the high-flying jobs would stack up and what would happen to the pay gap between the top and bottom salaries. But that’s for a very different post.)
But I think at its best this system restores a sense of differentiation in low-paid jobs (and potentially others), rather than the huge range of jobs that are all simply minimum wage jobs now. The minimum wage has done great things for many of the poorest people and I’m not suggesting we get rid of it. What I’m suggesting is not brow-beating employers into saying “But the minimum wage is not enough” (although in many places it isn’t) “so you must change to pay the living wage” but to genuinely treat the minimum wage as a minimum: a starting point, for the least skilled, least responsible, most supervised jobs. As you train and give people a bit more responsibility and as they gain the experience to work independently: as you employ people to have slightly higher skills and responsibility than the minimum, then stop paying them the minimum wage - pay them more. Encourage them to work better for the employers and reward them by paying them the living wage and more as they work better and more responsibly. The best employers already do that of course but too many don’t. Some employers, big and small, still try to cheat on the minimum wage after all although the vast majority don’t, but this idea of simple to count points and a simple increment over the minimum wage per point is designed deliberately to be simple to apply and offer incentives to the employees to train and work and feel rewarded and feel valued. It’s also simple to check and punish - more complicated than just the minimum wage but not outrageously so. And employers will find they’re no longer paying nuts and getting monkeys for most jobs - but where they only need monkeys, they can remain paying the absolute minimum.
We need to revisit attitudes to benefits and more (and that’s another post, or perhaps a very old one revisited) but this will help those in work see a way to help make working and improving their skills clearly pay better.
Thursday, March 26. 2015
Tax evasion is a big, no one seems quite sure how big, problem in the UK. So is tax avoidance although that’s quite legal.
While I have thoughts about tax avoidance - starting with throwing the whole mess that is our tax legislation out and coming up with a very small number of simple rules - and you pay and then claim back if you think you’re entitled rather than claiming exemptions (this hurts me directly btw, I claim quite a lot of exemptions on my income since I work from home so I discount some of my household bills against income by agreement) - I want to write about HMRC and their desire to reclaim tax rather than send people to prison.
While I agree with getting them to pay rather than costing those of us that do pay our taxes more money is a good thing that doesn’t mean I don’t think they shouldn’t be punished. Like so many choices our politicians present us, I think that it’s based on a false dichotomy: pay taxes or punish. Jail is not the only punishment we have as an option. As anyone that fails to file an income tax return in time or pays late knows, there’s an automatic £200 fine. No appeal, just bang, £200. No prison is mentioned, just a flat fine.
So why don’t we have a change to the law to change the penalty for tax evasion to a fine? I would suggest a fine to suit the size of the evasion - lets say 100% of the amount of tax you have evaded. (I don’t think there’s a problem with this in principle - there are other fines that are based on a percentage of the misdeed in UK law, although rarely 100%.)
Of course it’s not just personal tax evasion that is an issue. Institutions seem to positively delight in assisting people in evading tax. So to extend that concept of responsibility, if you set up systems to assist others in tax evasion - even if you pay your tax yourself (personally if you’re an accountant that helps people dodge taxes or institutionally if you’re a bank say, that sets up accounts that help people evade taxes) then I propose you’ll be liable to a fine of 100% of the amount of tax they evade too.
No prison time means essentially no costs to the tax payer for the punishment. There will, of course, be some cost in terms of the investigation and the court cases. Systems already exist to recoup court costs and reasonable decisions about pursuing or not minor offenders (if you’ve made a mistake for £100 it’s probably not worth chasing you through the courts, if anyone even notices), while major offenders can be chased and punished suitably (if you’ve evaded to the tune of £500,000 then it surely is, especially since you’ll be recouping twice or three times that).
There is also a significant deterrent effect. Imagine for a moment you’re considering evading paying some of your taxes. How much are you willing to risk the tax man won’t catch you if you know not only will you have to repay your back tax, but you’ll have to pay double? Since it seems likely people are doing this in the interests of being richer, are they really going to gamble that much?
It is my, decidedly non-expert, understanding, that all of the terms about tax evasion used here are already defined in law. All that is necessary is some guidance to change the punishment and clear guidance to HMRC about pursuing and punishing the wrongdoers in accordance with these guidelines. It’s a relatively small, easy change and I bet any party that introduced it would get a shed load of support very quickly and easily. It’s not just a gimmick - it strikes to the heart of the matter. We don’t particularly like paying tax and a lot of us don’t like some of the ways our taxes are spent but we really don’t like people who evade paying their tax and then hearing that they get away with it. This seems like a fitting punishment AND a strong deterrent all in one neat package.
Friday, March 20. 2015
Insurgent is a welcome return to the world of Divergent and in a ploy to try and pull in fans of the first film that weren’t fans of the books, it’s been tagged Insurgent: Divergent Series in much the same way we have The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I) even when there’s no more Hunger Games actually in the films.
This is much more of an adaption of the source material than the first film was. The first film wasn’t an almost shot for shot translation in the way the first Harry Potter was, and certainly missed out lots of inner dialogue as I commented at the time, but pretty faithfully told all the events as they happened. This film tells a largely recognisable version of the story (although at the end there’s a definite WTF? How are they going to make the films of the final books out of that?!) but things are pushed around, some quite significant elements of the story are just swept aside. In keeping with the tone of the first adaptation, they don’t deal with characters coping with heavy emotional arcs and wrestling with their inner demons, so those bits are virtually all gone. In addition several of the action heavy scenes from the book are rewritten in the pursuit of making this more of an action/spectacular movie on less of a budget (there are scenes in the book that would stretch a Peter Jackson budget which I’m pretty sure this film didn’t get).
This still leaves Tris as a mostly bland young woman who is pretty and “the chosen one” - the only thing that distinguishes her from millions of others in films is the use of the female pronoun. Katniss at least has her ordinariness and luck, Tris really is special. Four is treated even worse - all the things that make him interesting as a character in the books are removed and he’s bland fantasy boyfriend - for the sake of his name, we’ll make him model 4.
It’s tempting to speculate that the hand of the studio is in action here. Tris is allowed a little bit of guilt in the form of nightmares about watching her parents die and killing Will (ironically enough given my comments about stripping out emotional arcs Tris’ guilt is handled much better here than Katniss’ PTSD is in those films) but otherwise the elements that strongly distinguish the original books from The Hunger Games books are stripped and we get films which are regarded as hanging on the coattails of The Hunger Games.
That is not to say it is all negative. Far from it. On its own merits, the film still hangs together well. It rather pleasingly doesn’t tell you everything up front, it just leaves you to find out as the characters do.
It has a lot of strong characters, both male and female with their own agendas. Some of their agendas we see in action from the start: Jeanine, the boss Erudite is lying through her teeth about the attack on the Abnegation faction, blaming it on the Divergents when we know (if we remember the last film) it was all her actions that led to it. Some agendas have to be teased out more and are less damaging: Jack (the leader of Candour) wants peace and the rule of Law and more particularly Truth back. Some agendas such as Evelyn’s are presented in one light and then taken in a variety of ways depending on need and emotional reactions to her. As a guide to growing up in a world bombarded by political messages it’s perhaps a better guide than The Hunger Games. Although there are plenty of cannon-fodder characters and special effects and so on, this film also takes the time to establish one major and two significant new characters while continuing on with several others around Tris.
And it’s satisfying in its own right as a sci-fi action movie. There are a series of sims that must be passed to obtain the magic plot token. Sorry, I mean open the mysterious artefact from before the disaster. It’s only five years since Inception but some of the scenes during those tests put similar scenes in Inception to shame.
I’m not a film-maker but this probably isn’t the adaptation of the source material I’d have made if I were. There weren’t rumours (as there were from Fifty Shades of Grey) that the relationship between Veronica Roth (the author and co-producer of the first film) and director was bumpy but I noticed her name wasn’t associated with this film that has diverged (sorry couldn’t resist) so much more from the source material. That said it made a completely acceptable movie to watch and enjoy.
Bechdel test: Yes, easily. There are multiple named female characters. Many of them have conversations that aren’t about men. In fact the very final scene is one such.
Russo test: No. No one in the film identifies as LGBT.
Sunday, March 15. 2015
White Bird in a Blizzard is based on a piece of literary fiction of the same name and if you go into it not knowing that it will rapidly become apparent as the film unwraps itself.
Structurally the film is told across four chapters, each a snapshot in four successive Januaries, in the life of Cat Connors from 16 to 19, as she grows from a sexually inquisitive and active teenager to a somewhat mature young woman while coping with the sudden disappearance of her mother when she’s 17. This includes nothing actually explicit but a fair amount of Shailene Woodley topless as Cat sleeps with the hunky but stupid boy next door, Phil, and seduces the ultimate antithesis of her father as she explores her sexual nature. There’s more than enough sexy times to get the 15 certificate though.
Ramping up the sexual tension and psychodrama, Eve, her mother, is still slim and sexy and more than a little jealous of her daughter’s youthful beauty. She starts to vamp it up. (And face it, when your mum is played by Eva Green and she’s trying to vamp it up, you’re in trouble.)
To add to the distinct feel of literature a lot of the story isn’t told directly, it’s revealed very indirectly, in conversations after the event with Kat’s friends Beth and Mickey or with her therapist. Even more of it is revealed in Kat’s dreams which are littered with metaphor and poetic imagery in a beautiful way that works really well. They also give the film its name, dressing Kat in white and having her in a snowstorm.
The build up to the reveal that you expect is strongly foreshadowed, as you might expect. Then there is a little twist at the end that just shifts it all and for me came completely out of left field but worked really, really well.
I commented about Silver Linings Playbook that I don’t mind small, true-to-life character driven films but I have to find some or most of the characters sympathetic. Some of the peripheral characters in this film were too sketchily drawn to evoke sympathy. They were also too sketchily drawn to evoke antipathy too. Both Eve and Cat are flawed characters - they have traits I looked at and went “Oops, no, you’re really going to regret that” but on balance I found them both sympathetic characters which certainly helped.
This film won’t appeal to everyone. If you don’t like literary fiction I’d avoid it. Although Shailene Woodley carries her part completely competently, the film picks up and zings when Eva Green is on screen. Part of that is the roles of course - there’s a big difference between a teenager on prozac and a young sexy mother who is vamping it up after all, but I can’t help thinking part is the difference between a good actress (who may or may not be a star in the making) and a genuine star.
All that said, I really enjoyed it. It made a coming of age up drama with enough of an interesting extra to distinguish it from a million others of that type. The dream sequences are beautiful and add to the storytelling in interesting ways. And the psychodrama works well. I don’t know how I’d feel if I was a teen still: I think I might be confused, but looking back from my age it’s a treat.
Bechdel test: Yes. There are multiple named female characters. They have all kinds of conservations, most of the film is women talking to each other. Sometimes it’s about men but a lot of it isn’t.
Russo test: Mickey is out and gay. He’s one of Kat’s closest friends so he’s probably OK on parts two and three as well. The film definitely passes all three parts. (there’s spoilers involved in identifying who and how though).
Saturday, March 7. 2015
This film is one I feel like I ought to like much more than I really do. It’s a film where there are a lot of actors I normally like watching, including at least one that I would go out of my way to watch, and yet I really struggled to get through this film. It also tackles a storyline that ought to be tackled more and does so with a fair degree of sensitivity.
Part of my issue with the film is about me. In the same way I like Godzilla far more than it deserves because of the memories from a couple of decades ago it brings back, I have issues the character of Pat who reminds in far too many ways of an erstwhile friend who danced, suffered from bipolar disorder and didn’t like taking his meds either. Pat is different to my former friend in many respects but there are enough similarities it was hard to watch him and not have some of those emotions come up.
But a sense of disappointment spilled out to many of the other characters too. I don’t necessarily struggle with small, true-to-life characters in films - I loved Boyhood, Dallas Buyer’s Club and Locke for example and I plan to see Still Alice as well and for the films on that list I’ve seen they’re all small, true-to-life. They’re people you might meet, or pass in the street that are being portrayed rather than superheroes or similar.
The problem for me with Silver Linings Playbook is that none of the characters are really sympathetic, with the possible exception of Pat’s mother. I certainly have moments of sympathy for both Pat and Tiffany and many for Pat’s mother. How can you not be sympathetic for someone, mood swings or no, who thinks things are on the up in his marriage and comes home to find his wife screwing the 20-years older history teacher in the shower? It’s equally hard not to be sympathetic for the widow whose husband died when he stopped on the way home from Victoria’s Secrets to help an elderly man change a flat tire and got killed by a speeding car.
However, I have many more moments when I’m really surprised they don’t send Pat back to the mental hospital (except it would ruin the film). Also Tiffany’s manipulations are so obvious to me on all levels that the big “twist” comes more with a sense of wanting to smack Pat that it took him that long to catch on than anything else. Her manipulations do make me wonder about the death of her husband too, it’s just so perfect and at a point where she’s lying so much it seems manipulative. But it’s hard to warm to someone who is that blatantly manipulative regardless of her loss. Pat’s father seems to be an emotionally abusive, small-time crook with very few redeeming features. The litany goes on. Everyone in life has their issues but they all seem to be painted in a particularly unflattering light in this film, highlighted as if they’re not people, they’re mental health problems in some ways in fact.
Although I consider Jennifer Lawrence to be one of the best young film actresses we have, part of me wonders if she won her Oscar for this for “playing ugly.” It wasn’t ugly in the traditional sense but she plays mad and damaged and that is considered brave by the Oscar voters. I think she’s done better work in better movies without being rewarded.
Although I didn’t enjoy this film, I don’t regret watching it. I’m pleased I didn’t see it at the cinema though. Watching it in little bursts when I was relaxing and doing other things was a much better way to see it.
Bechdel test: Yes. Veronica and Tiffany have a conversation about Veronica’s house and how Tiffany is coping with her new life. But where there are some films that I find myself wondering if four lines constitutes a conversation or not, they manage two or three topics!
Russo test: No. As usual no one identifies clearly as LGBT.
Saturday, March 7. 2015
I also heard an interesting interview on PM last night with a Tory backbencher to stand up who offered to step up and take Cameron’s place. The offer in itself wasn’t interesting - the Tory election committee certainly won’t let that happen but he did point out from the other side that we officially don’t directly elect a PM, we elect constituency MPs and the leader of the largest party becomes the PM. I’m not going to vote for Milliband or Cameron (or any other party leader for that matter), in fact the list of confirmed candidates where I live to date is:
There may be others to come as you can stand up to 6 weeks before the election so there’s still a couple of weeks to go.
Anyway, back to the interview. He suggested that having the final weeks of the campaign dominated by discussions about the leaders and their TV debates was not useful because it ignored the local issues and debates about the local candidates - the people for whom we will actually be voting.
While that is strictly true it is also disingenuous. Many people vote for a party, regardless of the candidate’s name. For example, unlike some, I know my local MPs name. However, I didn’t know he was standing down at the next election until I got that list for this post and ran my eyes down it. Given the size of his majority, there’s an excellent chance Ms. Maskell will be elected simply because many people here will look for the Labour candidate and vote without even reading the name next to it. Many people vote for policies not local candidates. Many people vote for the best leader. Many people do vote for a good constituency MP as well.
Having the national discussion dominated by the TV debate does not prevent those who want to read the manifestoes doing so, either online or in print and making an informed decision on every little detail of the policy. (There are those that suggest, as with this parliament, it may not be worth it as we will have a hung parliament and no single party large enough to deliver clearly on its manifesto. But people can still read the manifestoes.) Just because there are TV debates does not mean voters will not have plenty of chances to meet the local candidates if they choose and vote on local issues. It is extra information, it doesn’t prevent those who wish to engage in other ways still doing so.
Cameron has gambled and lost. He’s backed himself into a corner and while I’m sure he’s got some cunning plan in reserve - I suspect a legal challenge that the broadcasters are failing in their duty of impartiality that I hope OfCom has the balls to throw back in his face: the broadcasters are offering him the chance to attend, he’s the one not taking it - wherever he goes from here he looks more and more like a petulant bully. This isn’t Russia, we don’t take well to leaders with such a dictatorial style.
On the bigger scale of things, going forward, I hope OfCom uphold the broadcasters’ position because, come the next election, I hope this is held up as the example of how NOT to do this to all party leaders and campaign strategists. I’m Ok with there being negotiation about who should be involved, what the spacing between the debates should be - we don’t have a long enough tradition of these things to have all the wrinkles sorted out yet. These two longer multi-header and then a two-header seem like a decent structure to me but we shall have to see. After the manifestoes, in the last 6 weeks or so of the campaign seems essential so they’re actually a serious part of the campaign and the debate and questions can swirl around actual promises and issues rather than launches that are not yet set in stone or ‘our team is still working on that.’
TV debates, and more, are part of our future and it isn’t up the PM, any PM of any party, to dictate how our democratic process is given to us.
Friday, March 6. 2015
So our glorious leader thinks he can control the TV debate(s) in the build up to the election. I’m sure this will play as very weird in the US, if it plays at all - TV debates between the presidential candidates have been a staple of their elections for decades.
Of course the situation over here is more complex. While we have only two large parties and the chances of anyone other than one of those being the dominant force and their leader becoming our next PM is essentially zero (at least in 2015), we have multiple parties that will probably or definitely win seats in Westminster. For the last almost five years we’ve had a coalition government obviously, the Conservatives and Lib Dems. The SNP, PC and for the last election Greens have had MPs. The main parties don’t stand in Northern Ireland and there are their own parties - Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the DUP and so on (in no particular order except how they sprang to my mind). There are often independent MPs who stand in a particular constituency on a local issue - protesting against a corrupt MP, against plans to close the local hospital or similar as well.
So at the last election, we had three debates, all of them between the then PM Gordon Brown (Labour); the Leader of the Opposition (and now PM), David Cameron and the Leader of the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg. They were, unquestionably, the biggest leaders of the main forces in British politics, despite the other parties and independents they were going to lead the biggest parties. There were special debates on The Daily Politics that included all the other mainland parties - which were essentially only watched by the really politically interested. Lets put it this way, despite the comments on my blog about the last election which clearly make me significantly interested, I didn’t know about them (or certainly have no memory of them) until I checked Wikipedia for the precise details of the 2010 TV debates to write this. From the point of view of the electorate these debates were a roaring success with high viewer figures (I can’t find a source but a news programme discussing them suggested over 22M, our best typical TV shows at the time were getting about 12–15M) and a series of interviews played on the news today suggests people still remember the impact of those debates whether or not it changed their voting intentions. All of this sounds like a good thing when you think that we’re supposed to want more voter engagement, more participation and so on.
However, judging by opinion polls, our political landscape has changed. Support for the Lib Dems has more or less collapsed. It was running at about 25–30% in the build up to the 2010 election (they averaged about 24% nationwide at the actual poll in the end, although over 40% in the seats they actually won as the general rule predicts for UK politics). It’s currently between 5 and 10% over the last 10 opinion polls. In 2010 UKIP, the Greens etc. were lumped together as “Others” and totalled 9.8% of the votes (UKIP actually won 0 seats, the Greens 1 MP, and so on. Most Others are non-national parties such as those in NI, the SNP and PC.). This year, although they’ve dropped back from their real peak in January, UKIP are polling consistently about 15% (there’s actually a very narrow range 13–16 in the last 10 polls) and the Greens are polling 5–8% but typically higher than the Lib Dems (higher in all but 2 of the last 10 polls, equal in 1, lower in 1). These small numbers in the polls could easily, with our system, translate to 0 seats but the chances are they’ll translate to a smallish number where there’s good local support and/or a standing MP is stepping down. Non-national parties such as PC and the SNP will also return MPs (the chances are pretty high the SNP will return a lot judging by the news out of Scotland) but their support is not recorded in national opinion polls except as Other.
So, this year, there was going to be a very different debating structure to reflect these changes. There was an initial proposal for 2 four-way debates: Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems and UKIP plus a two-header: Labour and Conservative. Supporters of the Greens protested that their leader should be included in the four-way debates as the Greens are consistently polling higher than the Lib Dems. The broadcasters countered that the Lib Dems are likely to win more seats despite the poll showing. (This is not unreasonable, we tend to return sitting MPs as they have local support that can far outstrip national ratings. The Lib Dems polled about 24% overall but some of their MPs polled well over 60% within their constituencies. They have to lose a LOT of support locally to lose their seats. Some will but not all of them. It will be interesting to see who survives and who goes in formerly safe Lib Dem seats.) David Cameron announced he wouldn’t take part unless the Greens were included. While this might be principled (I was inclined to doubt it then, most politicians in charge of parties just aren’t principled after all) and was allowed to play that way it certainly played to his desire to avoid a TV debate. The TV companies came back with a proposal to include the Greens, the leader of the SNP and PC as well (and to do separate things for Northern Ireland which are hardly ever reported), and still keep two of those plus a direct head-to-head.
Cameron has now attempted to veto that, to say he will only do one “hydra debate” with multiple party leaders and that it must be more than a month before the actual election. His opponents, all them, say he is running scared. He claims it is a principled stance to clear it all up and get a TV debate.
I’m not sure he’s scared per se, but I think he is playing electoral calculus. The Conservatives have a huge war chest, more than they’re allowed to actually spend on the campaign. Labour and the other parties don’t. If they get the TV debate out of the way, then (bearing in mind the old adage “a week is a long time in politics”) the last month will come down to a more traditional campaign and their money ought to help them do better. It won’t necessarily but it ought to. It also helps them try to control the debate and the topics. Yes, everyone else makes their own press releases and launches but each party at least controls their own agenda (by and large, baring sex scandals, racist outbursts from candidates and the like). With the TV debates, the discussion is about the TV debates. Cameron is probably not scared of Milliband: although he could lose that debate you would think the guy that used to work for a PR firm and was groomed at Eton ought to beat the self-admitted “politics wonk.” But the other two? Clegg is a ferocious performer at these things and ran rings around Brown and Cameron at the last election. He could well run rings around Milliband and Cameron at this election. Farage is definite personality and could certainly do well. Bennett made the headlines for all the wrong reasons after a recent interview where she had a mind blank - something similar could steal all the headlines. And he has zero control over any of that.
It should also, for those that believe the traditional print media still have a strong voice, give him an advantage because there’s a strong right-wing bias there that is probably more in his favour than UKIP’s and certainly more in his favour than Labour’s. I’m less sure how important that is these days but I think politicians think it’s incredibly important. Newspaper circulations have collapsed to the point I think you now have to wonder how significant the “double coverage” effect is. The traditional idea was that people bought a paper and read it, and a small number of institutions (libraries, cafes, etc.) and people (mostly politicians and journalists) bought copies of them all. If you sold 3M copies then 100,000 or so being sold to someone who bought a copy of every paper still meant you had an impact (maybe) on 2.9M people. With sales closer to 1–1.5M and MORE coffee shops and cafes so potentially more places buying a copy of them all… the impact is surely smaller? But politicians still buy them all and think its big.
Nevertheless I think he’s making the wrong call. He does looks scared but worse than that he looks patronising, bullying and manipulative. Teresa May coined the term “The Nasty Party” to describe her own party with its narrow base and narrow sympathies - lacking sympathy for the poor, minorities, being anti-gay and so on. Cameron has managed to cross one of those off the list but not done much for the other two. But there’s a very patrician attitude that goes with it too that contributes to the impression. That sense of him being entitled to tell us plebs when he will let us have our panem et circensus doesn’t really sit well. And he needs to reread his Juvenal - the idea is to give us more to appease us. This might play well inside his campaign office and to a subset of the Tory faithful but nationwide I think this could be a moment where after the campaign the analysts will look back and think it was a serious misstep.
The absolute worse case scenario is that the broadcasters agree to have a large debate on the deadline to allow him to attend, and two after, to which they invite him and he fails to attend. A “seven” header with no Conservative representation would be a disaster for his party. With someone other than him? Who does he send, Osborne would be destroyed, May might work but will the Tory faithful support her? Who else is enough of a name and going to be here after the election, with Hague standing down you can’t really send him to the debate, he’d be dismissed as irrelevant and of the past too easily. So that strategy is risky too. Whether there’s a “Milliband monologue” or a two-hander between Milliband and Clegg that would be a disaster too. One gives 90 minutes to the main rival and however much the press pretends he’s a clown a 90 minute interview on the BBC a week before the election is 90 minutes of free publicity. If Clegg is there, Milliband wouldn’t get it all his own way, but the Conservatives would get hammered from two sides and while attacks on the government wouldn’t go unchallenged, attacks on the Conservatives would. Milliband and his advisors are astute enough to work out how to present their policies and slant them to attack the Tories rather than the government and let Clegg have his moments of glory while getting their message across. And all the broadcasters need to do is say “OK, we’ll accommodate your dates and have the first before your deadline. We’ll invite you to the other debates and if you choose not to attend, that’s up to you.” I hope they have the bottle to do just that. I’m not going to vote Conservative of course, but even if I were, I hope I’d have the principles to say this. TV debates are a good thing for the democratic process in the 21st Century. We should encourage them and they shouldn’t be at the whim of the Prime Minister. He is our elected leader, not our liege lord, not our dictator. He leads at our whim. We don’t have a lot of ability to recall him but just occasionally he needs to perform and jump through hoops for our amusement or we’ll turn on him. It won’t be a revolution but floating voters will remember this too, it will be part of their electoral calculus.
Sunday, March 1. 2015
Jupiter Ascending isn’t a great film, it almost certainly won’t win any awards or anything, but it is a good, fun film and in many ways it is an interesting film.
This isn’t a film with a complex plot. I’d go so far as to say it isn’t a film with much core plot at all. Essentially Jupiter Jones finds out she’s special and goes to meet the rest of the family. They all have their agendas, including Jupiter, and these are what drive the movie along. In that sense it’s a pure character-driven story. That makes it hard for me to judge how a plot-fiend will take it, because there isn’t a strong plot driving it forwards but there are no plot holes either, Jupiter moves from encounter to encounter with some internal logic and each of those encounters moves with its own logic based on the character interactions. At that level I think it works well.
Some have argued that Jupiter is wholly reactive and passive through the film. I don’t think that’s true. There are certainly times when that’s the case but there are many times when she makes her own choices, whether they’re good or bad. Some of those choices are absolutely terrible in my opinion, some of those choices are complex and in parallel with others but are her choices. As the movie develops she makes more and more choices of her own that are clear and distinct. And while you can argue about it, it certainly felt to me fairly organic. She went from being an illegal alien cleaning houses for rich people in America to being totally out of her depth and trusting the person who had saved her life and really not understanding the world she was living in. She didn’t make many choices because she didn’t understand what was going on but as she started to understand better she started to make choices for herself once again. It’s not classic hero behaviour but I think it makes sense for her character.
Most of the characters are nicely drawn. Jupiter, Caine, Stinger, and Jupiter’s mother and aunt, cousin and the patriarch of her Earth family are not necessarily fully rounded but they’re more than just sketched in despite in some cases very limited screen time. Kalique and Titus Abraxas (the Abraxas family are Jupiter’s off-world family) and several others of the various space-dwelling factions are also more than just quick little sketches. Poor Eddie Redmayne as Balem Abrasax is the only really two-dimensional stereotyped character but he throws himself into it with a gusto and chews the furniture and makes the most of it. Heck, even Jupiter’s father, who is only seen for 3 minutes, is a more rounded character than Balem Abrasax.
In all honesty though, those elements don’t always work in combination. I think, perhaps, there are just so many ideas bubbling up in short order in some places that it is a bit too much to take in and the pacing of the film doesn’t help. As I was taking in one idea there was a leap to an action scene or a different exposition scene where, perhaps, a 30 second to 1 minute beat to let the idea sink in would have helped more and made the film a little smoother. I’m not sure if I’ll rewatch Jupiter Ascending but I think having seen those things once it will be smoother if I do.
There is enough that is good that the thing that really works is given a chance to work. Visually this film is wonderful whether that’s at the small scale - be that little fights, or Jupiter vs. the bureaucracy and the various offices and officials or huge scenes like the Aegis cruiser jumping into space or the refinery or the cathedral or similar. I wouldn’t see a film just for the effects but the effects in this film are more than good enough that despite the occasional clunky moments that I felt were present I was engaged and thoroughly enjoyed the movie overall.
While thinking of the visual impact of this film, it’s worth pointing out that this film has definite moments where you have to say in the commonly used parlance this film is shot for the female gaze. To be less heteronormative, it’s shot with a somewhat sexual appreciation of the male form (the film got a 12A rating so there's no really naughty bits). There’s lots of lingering shots of Channing Tatum shirtless. That’s not unique, but the almost lascivious camera pans and clear depiction of Mila Kunis admiring the view are rare. Similarly the scene of Caine and Stinger wrestling might have a plot reason, however flimsy, but it felt much more like watching a movie where the character goes to watch mud-wrestling as Jupiter enjoyed watching the two men roll around on the ground. Men watching women catfighting isn't that common but it's not unknown, and there's a porn genre for it. Women watching men fight for the visual spectacle, and it being shown, almost with her licking her lips? I'm sure it happens in fetish porn but I don't remember it in mainstream cinema (although it may have happened) and not in a mainstream release.
Parts of this film made me think, at the beginning, of the Cinderella story with the rags to riches element - toilet cleaner to owner of the planet certainly has parallels to cleaning the cinders to marrying the prince, just with a space opera twist. Jupiter also gets her fairy-tale wedding AND the man of her fantasies. While I think that parallel is somewhat fair, Jupiter’s family life is very different to Cinderella’s which is rather important as the story unfolds. While I think Jupiter Ascending will probably become a cult movie in its own right I suspect, possibly for the first time, the real driver of that status will be young women. Where Frozen worked for 3–8 year old girls (and others certainly but they’re the real drivers of its success) my feeling is this will hit that same sort of wish fulfilment for young women 10–15 years older than the Frozen generation, and they will take ownership and make it a cult hit. I don’t remember another film where that is the case.
As I've said above, I'm not sure if I'll watch this again or not, not seriously anyway, but I certainly have no regrets over the just under 2 hours I spent watching it and would happily recommend it. I'm not even sure it's really a good movie but it is loads of fun as well as interesting. The clunky bits are few and far between and the good bits are glorious and it's beautiful throughout.
Bechdel test: Yes. There are multiple named female characters and they have long conversations about many topics other than men. Sometimes they talk about men too.
Russo test: No. No-one identifies as LGBT.
Saturday, February 28. 2015
Tuesday, February 17. 2015
So long John Constantine. NBC’s experiment with Hellblazer came to a premature end last weekend. It may be back for Season 2, or it may move to SyFy - either of those would be great results from my point of view.
The script writers, cast and crew gained some confidence as the series went along and with that added more of Constantine’s swagger and bad habits. For example, in the first few episodes John is not a smoker. In the last few they never name his favourite brand, but the infamous Silk Cuts make their appearance. Both big and small stories from the comics (and lets face it there’s plenty of material) is called on and adapted well. There are nods and Easter eggs if you’re a fan - the reason Chaz appears unkillable in particular is a great blink and you’ll miss it nod to the comic universe, although there are many more - but at the same time they’ve established their own lore and structures nicely and fitted the stories into them properly - the references are there but they’re not core. Chaz, for example, is American through and through.
There is certainly a difference of opinion as to how good the show is, even between different reviewers on the same TV review site. These seem to split mostly on whether the reviewers have come across John Constantine/Hellblazer in his comic book incarnation or not. And that dichotomy seems to underpin some confusion about why Constantine, the show, is not doing better. Look at The Flash and Arrow say the comparisons, comic book adaptions doing just great, why doesn’t Constantine do better? It’s a much more respected comic among comic book readers after all (which certainly seems to be true, Hellblazer is a heavy hitter in the comic book world, Flash and Green Arrow are pretty much in the pulp bin).
Therein lies the problem though: The Flash and Arrow as characters are relatively clear-cut heroes. They may or may not be vigilantes and have fascist overtones (OK, they clearly are vigilantes and like all vigilantes they do have fascist overtones) but they generally take a stand against evil and try to stand up for those who can’t fight back. They occasionally veer into morally ambiguous territory, such as the (hopefully temporary) alliance with Malcolm Merlyn, but generally they’re fighting the good fight if you take them away from any connection to the real world and real life morality. Dear old John, even in his TV incarnation, is a con-man and a trickster. Although he calls it something different, he uses psychic paper of Dr. Who fame to get places he shouldn’t be. He’s also sanguine about the death of his… lets take a risk and call them friends: in his TV incarnation he meditates for 5 minutes every day before he gets out of bed about what it will be like when each of those he likes and works with is dead and buried because that’s his expectation. And he tells them all this - he’s not at all shy about the fact that he’ll probably get them dead. He delivers too: in the course of this abbreviated season he’s trapped a demon in one former friend’s body, he’s been shot by another, he’s cleared out of the room so a friend could set of a hand grenade (admittedly to kill a bad guy who probably couldn’t be beaten by other means) and more. And these are his victories! He’s also trapped an angel on Earth and then lied to him because he was pissed off, and that angel is possibly his friend, seemingly an ally, if not a whole-hearted one. He sold his soul to a greater demon in order to stay alive a bit longer, in the hope someone would be able to exorcise him before it got out of hand - failing that he trusted his friends would kill him later. Although John Constantine by and large fights the good fight - he rescues children from demonic possession, sends demons back to Hell and the like - John Constantine is NOT a hero. He is not a nice person in the slightest. He will win by sacrificing anything: his friends, his soul, even himself if needs be, certainly the truth and anything else can go by the wayside in order to get the win. He’s a brilliant character to read about. But for a TV show he’s really not your typical central character - compared to The Flash and Arrow he’s a bastard - in fact he’d probably be a villain on either show. He’s even less typical as a lead character than Dexter was. In fact Dexter at least tried to act honourably and only hunt down distinctly bad people. He didn’t do that because of any moral code but because he’d been told to, so he was likely to be hunted by the police himself, but his actions put him in the hero mould as much as Arrow and The Flash and far more clearly than John Constantine’s actions. Yes, John saves people but the collateral damage is huge and John - it’s not true that he doesn’t care but he accepts it and shrugs and moves on. It’s not your typical viewing material.
I hope NBC brings Constantine back in some form or another. But a move to SyFy, which is rumoured, might be a smart move. The SyFy audience is likely to have a much higher proportion of comic book fans than the general NBC audience and who will like Constantine as he’s meant to be rather than a traditional hero. A mainstream channel? In the UK we can cope with less archetypal heroes. That isn’t particularly because we’re more sophisticated but because we don’t have such long seasons as the US. TV shows still have to do well to keep coming back, but in the US, the numbers and the lengths of the seasons tend to force you towards a more clear heroic mould, at least on the mainstream channels.
And if they do pull the plug, well kudos to NBC. They tried a brave show and they backed the creative team to make a challenging character the central character of the show. John Constantine must have been a tough sell but some of his silver tongue must have been working for whoever went to bat for him, because in 2014–15 we had 13 episodes of a hard-smoking, twisted, bastard who would sacrifice just about anything on TV and they didn’t back away, didn’t flinch and went for it. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste but they made a fine TV show and a mighty fine adaptation of the Scouse bastard magician. So I’d like to say thanks to everyone involved for what you have given us. Here’s hoping there’s a trick hiding under that trench coat and you get the chance to give us more.
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