Saturday, May 23. 2015
Much like the last film I watched Mad Max: Fury Road ticks all the boxes it has to tick. Admittedly the boxes are rather different - Max is suitably mad, still a loner and a road warrior. The film pretty much opens with him driving off with his iconic car and supercharger in fact. On top of this there are lots and lots of car chases, car fights, explosions, fights on cars and an oil tanker this time and all the rest. There’s a big, nay huge, dessert landscape and water being hoarded forms a core part of the story. Add in a despotic warlord who hoards fertile women even more jealously than he hoards water and some rather roughly sketched out death cult that essentially worships him and obeys his every whim and there’s the makings of the latest society Max is unlucky enough to meet.
In this film, Max is probably shown as madder than in the earlier three films. He clearly suffers from PTSD, complete with flashbacks and for added fun he hears voices too! While I’m not sure it’s a good way to show even the forms of PTSD that have flashbacks it is certainly incredibly effective within the film and it’s pretty crippling at various points which is a novel, but nice, touch.
Much has also been made of the fact that this film, in contrast to so many others these days, largely uses practical effects rather than CGI. I have to say it is noticeable, the colour tone of this movie is brilliant and strong throughout, with a few moments (like the sandstorm that you see in the trailer) and a longish night chase where that’s not true. But it actually looked to me as if they shot at night and that works too. Having a trailer for Jurassic World and all its CGI effects before Mad Max started just highlighted the difference. And it was much more startling on the big screen than watching it on a website.
Much has also been made of Charlize Theron’s role as a bad-ass female action figure. While Tom Hardy is playing the title character, both names are on the same screen: it is impossible to tell who is being touted as the star. Max is much more of an anti-hero than in previous films and certainly much more of a bastard and undoubtedly more selfish than she is on a number of occasions. Furiosa, possibly the Fury of the road in the title (this film is really about her journey), is much less ambiguously a hero both throughout the film and in her final moments. There are some sad muppets out there who don’t like this element of the film but I think it’s all good. Theron plays the role she’s given brilliantly, Furiosa and Max play brilliantly alongside each other as foes and later as allies and it works wonderfully as far as I’m concerned.
The muppets in particular seem to focus on the scene when Max and Furiosa fight, complaining that a woman could never stand up to man in hand-to-hand combat like that. Given the society they live in and her role in it, Furiosa is clearly a trained warrior so it’s eminently possible he shouldn’t win. It’s still possible that Max at full strength ought to be able to beat her - at the moments it’s down to the two of them and sheer muscle he tends to do well. But did all the moaners and shouters miss the interference of the other people in the fight which certainly played a significant part? And the fact that Max had been donating blood for an undisclosed period before the fight and was therefore certainly not at his best? No, of course not, they just shouted and ranted.
Those who have worried and screamed about Charlize Theron as an action hero should be much more worried about something else I think. There were a LOT of female roles in this film, several of them in big, or at least long parts. I’m not sure what the last film I saw with this many chunky roles for women in it was. (It beats Pitch Perfect on numbers and leaves it standing on proportions and that probably comes closest.) One really interesting thing that did pop up, all of the big characters, male and female, had their moments of weakness in different ways. Max actually had many of them when his PTSD caused problems. But they all, in a crunch had their moments of absolutely critical strength too. Max and Furiosa had more than anyone else but it’s anyone’s guess, without keeping score, who did better out of the two of them. Yes, the gender of each of these characters was essential for the story. But past that the characters were written with a weakness and some strengths. It didn’t matter if they were male or female, they were all good at something or just coped with all the random shit going on around them spectacularly well and they all had moments when they went wibble and lost it. In other words they were all interesting in their own right and they all contributed at different times. Also, in the week when Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she’s too old to be the love interest of a 55 year old man (she’s 37) a number of the women in this film are in their 70’s! And they’re sitting there shooting and riding motorbikes and all the rest. It seems odd to say a Mad Max movie, petrolheads and explosions and fights and all should be held up as one of the least sexist and ageist pieces of movie writing I’ve ever seen but I honestly think it is. To my mind it’s not a feminist call to arms, or it shouldn’t be, but it appears to be simply because it’s lacking the amount of sexism we normally see in film.
All of that political stuff aside, there’s actually very little plot here. But there’s enough to tie together the chases and fights. There’s lots of cars and fights and bangs and effects. Many of them are truly spectacular, all of them are at least very good. Overall I found it to be a load of fun. It’s not a movie to watch again and again and tease out the nuances and so on. But, much like The Mummy it’s got enough entertainment value that it just doesn’t matter. You don’t need a particularly twisty plot and all the rest when it’s put together right and the elements mesh in such a fun way as this one. I can imagine in 10 years time quite happily half-watching this much as I half-watch The Mummy now while I’m doing other things. It’s fun enough to do that and simple enough it doesn’t matter if I’ve seen it 20 times and walk about for 10 minutes in the middle to do something more important right then.
While many of the stunts are spectacular and highly skilled and all the rest and there is something fun about high octane car chases, motorbike stunts and so on, for me there’s always something more special about seeing people doing crazy things. For that reason, although some of the other stunts might be bigger bangs and more spectacular for you, the chase and fight scenes with the pole-cats - men (I think they were all men) on the top of poles on speeding cars, swinging around to land on the tanker, snatch people up and so on is probably the most impressive single element of the whole film. You see a tiny clip of them in the trailer but in the film there’s much more and they’re much more impressive.
One final note, on the lighter side. If you’re going to have a Mad Max movie in all it’s high-speed fury I think you need a speed metal sound track. The main warlord of the bad guys agrees and part of his battle train is the band-wagon. That’s a wagon with a rack of drummers on the back, and a speaker stack on the front with a guitarist suspended in front of them. The guitarist isn’t completely defenceless though, get some good riffs going and his guitar spouts flames. Charge into battle with your own live music!
Bechdel test. Yes, absolutely. There are a shedload of named female characters (I think 15 but I didn’t count it on IMDB so I might have missed some). They talk about all kinds of things in small groups, big groups and so on. Perhaps the most affecting conversation is about killing people and then the treasure trove of seeds that she plants and hopes will take root.
Russo test. No. No one identifies as LGBT. The Clan of the Many Mothers is all female and if you really want to read L themes into their actions you probably could (there’s a lot of man hating and mutual support and touching) but it’s really not laid out in any clear way. It could be long friendship and support on the battlefield for a comrade in arms, nothing more.
Friday, May 22. 2015
In terms of the boxes it had to tick, Pitch Perfect ticks them all perfectly well. There is a lot of a cappella singing, and if that’s your thing you’ll be very happy. There are lots of styles of song chosen too so while you might not like some of the music the chances are you’ll like some of it. There is some serious choreography going on too at various points and that’s nicely worked into it.
It’s also a college-based movie so we have the inevitable growing-up, seeing things as an adult story line and it ticks that box too. There’s a young love story in there as well.
There’s plenty of PYTs whether your gaze skews male, female or you’re happy to take them both. We spend more time with the women, Anna Kendrick is the star for one thing and it’s her story and her time with the Barden Bellas we follow, but I suspect the marketers thought this would skew female in the audience so there’s a fair chunk of male eye-candy moments.
As this film was released 3 years ago, a quick synopsis is in order and not really breaking my no-spoiler rule. Fresher Beca wants to be a DJ and doesn’t want to be at college. She agrees to try and join something and give it a go for a year to appease her dad and is overheard singing in the shower by one of the a cappella women and is recruited. They compete and come second in the local contest to the much more dynamic boy group the Treblemakers from their own university but advance to the regionals (a semi-final in effect). Meanwhile Beca is working at the radio station and making friends with a cute boy from the boy group who would clearly like there to be more going on. There is, in true movie fashion, a failure at the semi-final stage a ‘magical’ reprieve and a fight for the ‘soul’ of the Bellas that leads to them doing something radical, new and ultimately winning (and beating the Troublemakers). This includes moving from a set where they basically sing three or four songs back to back to a set where they put together a much more modern mix, moving between songs and singers smoothly. It certainly helps that Beca (Kendrick) is an aspiring DJ and her mixes are good enough that she gets a break on the student radio station ages before anyone normally does. She also wins the fight for the soul of the Bellas and leads this new way.
The problem with Pitch Perfect is really deeply ironic. Initially the Bellas are, with the best will in the world, also rans. They do everything well, well enough to get to the regional finals but their performances are safe, predictable and don’t really connect with the audience while being technically very hard to fault. This film is rather like the Bellas before the fight for their soul. It does everything well but to my mind it was staid and predictable. Every emotional beat was nicely acted, don’t get me wrong, but I knew when it was coming and what it was going to be so there was no sense of drama. The writers, as I’ve already foreshadowed (a technique they missed out on) could have done with learning the lesson they made their characters learn.
In fairness, because they have to fit big chunks of singing, or singing and dancing into the film they were constrained in what they could do because it wasn’t a musical and so they couldn’t fit the big beats into the singing. Some of the stories clearly take time to develop: you can’t have the “You don’t have to rescue me, you’re not my boyfriend” fight scene if they haven’t spent enough time together to him think there might be some chance she might be interested. But one element that marched to a different rhythm, one part that didn’t run exactly as expected exactly when it was expected to, just like their final performance, that would have made the film itself as well as the singing and dancing much more enjoyable, at least for me. There are chances for this, Beca could have taken a chance on wild sex with Jesse, or at least with making him her boyfriend early. She didn’t have to grow up and understand her dad. Her dad could have understood her moment of youthful rebellion better. But no, technically hard to fault but lacking in soul, at least to my mind.
Bechdel Test: Yes. There’s an all-women singing group that is front and centre for most of the film. They are all named, they talk about singing a lot and boys surprisingly little.
Russo Test: Pitch Perfect passes step one, Cynthia is a lesbian. However, this is asserted early by another, confirmed late by Cynthia. Given how little is made of it, it clearly passes step 2. It’s hard to say if she’s there as the token lesbian for authenticity but since her outing as gay is “I’ve had a serious gambling problem for the last two years since my girlfriend left me” it’s hard to say she’s set up for just a punchline so I’ll say a borderline yes to step 3. So that’s a pass. My second of the year and, ironically enough BOTH films not released for the cinema this year!
Although not relevant for most of you, I had to crank the volume way up and still found it hard to hear the dialogue in most of this film, although the singing came through loud and clear.
Friday, May 15. 2015
Paste is a tool that, as you might guess from its name helps with pasting things. In fact it’s a clipboard manager for the Mac. There are a few of these around and I’ve looked at several over the years but they’ve always disrupted rather than helped my workflow and so they haven’t survived which is the acid test.
Paste just unobtrusively (or otherwise, by default there’s a sound effect that I found annoying but you can turn it off) copies things anything you copy to its list too. You can choose how long you want this stored list to be. I’m currently going for 50 items. If you want to cut and paste normally, you can, just like normal. If you want to invoke Paste though, you hit your chosen shortcut (or there’s a menubar icon) which can be just about anything as long as it doesn’t contain Cmd-V and your desktop recedes and blurs out and the snippets in the Paste memory appear along the bottom of the screen as a nicely presented visual list. You can scroll along them, find the one you want and double click it. This will put it to the left hand edge of the Paste queue and into your clipboard so you can just hit Cmd-V to paste it. You can also use the preferences to have it automatically paste it; I’ve only just started using that, I wanted to get used to the rest of it first, but as with everything else it works as smoothly as you would expect. Note, it doesn’t work the very first time because you have to give it permission to install a script somewhere and so there isn’t an active app for it to paste into when you come back from doing that. But that one little wtf moment aside, every time after that it works just fine.
Although most people probably won’t need it (I don’t), you can also right click the managed items to get extra options such as paste without styles or sharing via Messages and Mail, or to delete an item.
The menu bar icon offers the sorts of things you’d expect like quit and access to preferences with options to set apps which will not have their contents added to the history when copied (Keychain Access is there by default), to set the size of the history (number of items stored) and to clear the pasteboard history (only likely to need this if you set an unlimited Paste history). So far I’m happy with 50. It gives me a balance between the amount I’m likely to need in any working day and the amount it’s convenient to search. Yes, I’m likely to be able to use more than that in theory but there’s a point where it’s just as easy to retype or copy again as it is to scroll through dozens of items in the clipboard history. If I worked in a different job that number might be different: if I was pasting a load of images around a lot for example with a lot of repeated elements then I might want more, but for what I do 50 works nicely. You can have an unlimited clipboard history at which point the ability to clear it is almost certainly important.
As you would expect from a clipboard manager this works for all items, images, text etc. Paste also adds a “header” that shows you the app you copied it from and the nature of the contents (text, image, link etc.) and then a body that shows either a thumbnail of the image or the start of the text (about 10 lines although if you’re pasting from a word processor document you won’t see 10 full lines of that as you a number of thumbnails (I get nine but I assume it depends on your screen size and resolution and so on)). Images are nicely resized so you get a proper thumbnail, not a section of the image. I haven’t really tried copying and pasting audio and video clips because that isn’t something I have to do that often. So I tried a video and audio file just for completeness - you get “file” as the type of a video file and the still of the first frame. For audio files you get a similar thing and any image information associated with it - that might be album artwork if it’s an iTunes file or the normal audio file icon otherwise. (Having them show as “file” might be affected because I was picking them from Finder though.) But Paste will handle them just fine.
It’s rare that I’d say an app fits in so well that Apple should really just buy it and incorporate into their OS (I would add PopChar to that list, I’d honestly forgotten you could do something similar with Apple’s Keyboard Preferences but PopChar does it a lot better). But, to be honest, Paste is another one of those. It works beautifully and simply and doesn’t interfere with the normal way cutting and pasting works but adds extra functionality if you want it smoothly and simply.
Sunday, May 10. 2015
iZombie really epitomises a modern trend from a different sort of medium: the mashup. As you might guess from the title there’s a zombie, so we’re fairly firmly in horror territory - brain eating and all. Adding the iModifier gives us a clue it’s going to be modern but it’s also an indicator it’s about a self-aware zombie which is unusual, and important. What isn’t obvious from the title, but is rapidly established, is that there’s a strong tie to the police procedural and a crime (and indeed murder) of the week structure. There is also a fairly broad strain of humour. That’s not to say the jokes are crude, they’re often subtle in fact, but they throw in a variety of pop/geek culture references sufficiently organically that if you don’t catch them you aren’t left going WTF? but if you do you’ll probably laugh, smile wryly or something in between. At least that’s how I find it.
Structurally, the murder victim provides a brain for our protagonist and alters her personality somewhat, as well as giving her flashbacks to the murder which help with solving the crimes. This could be annoying, sometimes it is deliberately pretty annoying, but because it is such a central part of the show it has been carefully thought through in terms of how it is presented and that works nicely as does the central conceit even when the personality is annoying. It certainly helps that the star of the show is capable of pulling off these changes in personality and yet maintaining a sense of continuity through them all. I won’t go into details but we don’t go to the extremes of Dollhouse which blanked its dolls and put an entirely new personality in, this is a more carefully crafted emphasis of certain traits plus adding a temporary new skill set which helps keep the story moving I feel.
Unlike a lot of police procedurals iZombie has strong character development. It’s uneven so far, inevitably. Obviously the star gets more time than supporting cast and the supporting cast are getting different amounts of time but some of those supporting characters were fairly interesting in their own rightfrom the start while some were decidedly bland and stereotypical. Time has been spent on them all but now most of the bland ones have been made decidedly more interesting as the series has gone along.
The other thing iZombie has which distinguishes from a typical police procedural, but which has more in common with the horror TV series, is a strong season story arc. There is a well-defined bad guy, we see his character developing as well as his plot being established. We also see it tying back to various of the other characters in various interesting and often unexpected ways. Without going into a lot of spoilery detail this helps create suspense about the role of some of the characters while other forms of threats and doubts swirl around various others. Yes, in another show you’d simply say that’s good story management and you’d be right. But other shows don’t typically juggle the demands of a police procedural and crime of the week into that level of story arc development. iZombie, like Orphan Black, has a lot of balls in the air. Like Orphan Black there are times when I’m left thinking “Arc X is being left out in the cold a bit.” But, although iZombie is much more light-hearted than Orphan Black, and a lot newer, I already enjoy it and I trust the team to pick it up and develop it at the right point for them. I’m prepared to let it come along when they think it’s right.
Your tastes may vary, but although we’re only halfway through a short first season, I’ve found iZombie varies between the very good and the “merely” good. It’s had a short sample so far and it could still misstep horribly
Saturday, May 2. 2015
This film really ought to be easier to like. It gets a load of more or less likeable big characters, throws them together in a team that worked well last time so ought to work well this time, puts them up against a big baddie and lets them loose.
Some of the elements, particularly those when the characters aren’t fighting but are talking, relaxing and the like, or when they’re flying home after a fight work really well in my opinion. Some of the one-liners in the fights are good too. This quieter time gave us a good chunk of backstory for Hawkeye and made him a much better character for it. At the end of the film the Avengers are doing hero-type things and trying their utmost to rescue as many civilians as they can from Ultron. Hawkeye thinks it’s all done and is on the lifeboat and then he sees a little boy still in the rubble. Knowing what is going on in his personal life and just how dangerous it is makes that moment when you see him acknowledge he must go and rescue the boy and run off the lifeboat to do the right thing yet again have some emotional weight. There was some backstory for Black Widow too but not as much and while she’s somewhat of a stereotype still, she was never as weakly drawn a character.
Some of these team-bonding moments, my story-structure mind suggest, were largely included to try to make Tony Stark’s fear that we’re shown early in the movie (and which is essentially the plot’s driving force) ring more powerfully true, However, it didn’t really work for me because Stark is such an individualist it’s hard to see the death of the team as even part of his biggest fear. It was also meant to make the later attempts to divide and conquer the team have more dramatic impact. Again, I felt it was not hugely successful. It was clear to me (and I assume everyone, it wasn’t subtle) what was going on and while there was a consequence of the divide and conquer tactic (fanboy service in the form of a Hulk v Iron Man fight) it didn’t seem that effective in any other way - the bad guys still limped away because the damage was done before the mojo took effect, and the Avengers also limped away but regrouped fast enough, maybe even too fast. About three-quarters of the way through the film there is a huge face-off between various groups of Avengers led by Captain America and Tony Stark that is ended dramatically by Thor and then by Mjolnir and a very nice call-back to an earlier scene. This is essentially only followed by the final battle. None of that confrontation and resentment has lingered at all. I assume this is due to the requirements for forthcoming films (I’m informed by the internet that the next Captain America movie is a fight between Iron Man and Captain America, I guess they’re having them starting as allies and then falling out all self-contained) rather than the internal logic of this one because other elements of emotional burden that come from this one remain and are carried through logically and sadly. Yes, I am thinking Natasha staring at that wall.
Despite that missed beat about Stark and Captain America, the actual plot more or less hangs together I think, on a big scale. The set-up basically leads into the middle which more or less leads to the ending. Look closer though and there are times where I look back at it, where I looked at it during the film even, and wonder why they’re doing that. I won’t pull out particular examples because it will result in a list of spoilers but there were a number of occasions where I was left thinking “Um, why?” or worse “NO! Don’t do that! Do it like that you morons!” One little comment I will throw in because it’s not really a spolier: I doubt Tony Stark has records, even from his dad, left on paper and not digitised. That sort of thing was rife and I felt it was a big step down from the first film too. In that one they got a lot of the smaller plot details right too.
And then there was Ultron. Trying to follow Loki as the baddie is always going to be a hard thing. For me, Ultron failed dismally. There were also a lot of pointers in the film to the idea that Ultron was essentially an evil version of Tony Stark. But actually for most of the film, Tony Stark was a bad version of Tony Stark - he’d lost any semblance of charm and replaced it with him at his most douchebag, he’d lost anyone who would (or perhaps could) act as a moral compass with the absence of Pepper. This was Tony at his most arrogant “I will do this because I can” making a poorly realised version of him that was “I will do this because I’m only speeding your inevitable death anyway.” Charisma-lacking, arsehole Stark, making even more charisma-lacking, evil arsehole robot-Stark. Really not good enough for the big bad.
But, beyond a simple lack of charisma for a cgi robot, there was another issue that I think was even bigger in a tentpole movie. In Avengers Assemble there was a variety of enemies so the various members of the Avengers could usefully contribute against different sorts of baddies. This time, all the baddies were Ultron, and although it had been said several times Ultron could and had invaded everything he had basically a very standard set of bodies. Why not build automated tanks and the like? This standardised body plan meant even Hawkeye and Black Widow had to be able to hold their own. Yes, Thor could take them out a dozen at a time, more if they clustered, while Black Widow and Hawkeye were more one-on-one. I understand all of that. Although the fights usually looked suitably spectacular and had the required booms, bangs and so on, and were certainly well choreographed, they lacked real impact. I think that was because Ultron wasn’t dangerous enough to the Avengers to make it a real threat, just an impediment, and so there wasn’t much emotion, it was spectacle without engagement.
In fact many of the best moments around the fight scenes for me were the small moments when the heroes took time off from making impeccably choreographed cgi scrap metal and mounted some form of rescue of an individual. I’ve mentioned one of those above. Another good one was Hawkeye’s pep-talk to Scarlet Witch and then going out the door to step back into the fray. Quiet moments without robots (although I’m quite sure that cars off the bridge rescue had a shed-load of cgi). There were good moments in mid-fight too but again, for me, they were largely the smaller moments. Thor’s distraction speech and finally running out of things to say was funny (deliberately so), and an excellent follow up to his (also played for laughs) speech meant to soothe Banner’s guilt. (Chris Hemsworth is just meant to be Thor and really lets rip. When he gets too old to play the part, if the Marvel movie juggernaut is still churning them out, they’ll have a job on their hands to replace him.) Scarlet Witch’s vengeance scene wasn’t at all funny but it had emotional heft for her character and it worked too because it came through as mattering to her and so it felt important unlike most of the rest of it. I was engaged for those few moments.
If you’re a fan of gratuitous cleavage shots, and they were completely gratuitous, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch (once she decides to join with the Avengers) seem to be competing for who can get the closest to flashing nipple without quite showing any. However, Elizabeth Olsen seems to have forgotten about chewing her lip since Godzilla, or perhaps somewhat mad, bad and dangerous to know is a happier place for her to act than hero’s bimbo girlfriend. From a technical perspective that was nice to see.
I wanted to like this film more than I did. On reflection, I’d have been happy if they’d edited out all the stuff that actually made it a summer blockbuster: Ultron, big fights etc. and given us a nice 90 minutes of the characters of the Avengers kicking back and having fun together. It would have pissed off all the fanboys out there, but I think it would have been a much better (and much cheaper) film to make. If you’ve got to have a baddie, I hope they pick one that really works well as a challenge for the team in a way that Ultron just didn’t for the next movie.
Russo test: Unless I blinked and missed it, no, not at all. Although I imagine there will be some Scarlet Witch/Black Widow femslash doing the rounds, and Black Widow paid lip service to the Captain America/Tony Stark slash fans.
Bechdel Test: Yes. There are multiple named female characters, many of them interact and have chats, albeit often short. Most obvious and prolonged is Natasha and Hawkeye’s wife, Laura but there are others, such as Scarlet Witch/Wanda and Dr. Cho.
Monday, April 27. 2015
How much should we trust the opinion polls?
I’m worried about the election prediction sites and their processes - there are three I’ve come across Election Calculus, Election Hustings (which basically agree that Labour and the Conservatives will both win about 278–283 seats and the SNP around 45, the numbers fluctuate a bit as new opinion polls come in currently one says 281 each, the other says Lab 282, Con 280) and Election Forecast which makes two predictions but generally has the Conservatives doing quite a little bit better (around the 285 mark) and Labour doing quite a bit worse (around the 265 mark) and the SNP around the low 50’s (53 atm) and the smaller parties doing somewhat better (the LibDems not getting wiped out as badly, to Labour’s expense).
But I’m more worried about the underlying data they’re all using - the opinion polls. This bit of the wikipedia page on the current opinion polls details the methodology of the different polls. To quickly summarise:
Now, I don’t have an issue with the adjusting the sample to the demographics of the population. The statistics for doing that, and the data for the population are well known. However, since the last election, the rules about registering to vote have been changed - each person has to register instead of the household registering. The electoral commission says this has disenfranchised many people. Has it perhaps disenfranchised women? Black and Asian voters? There certainly seems to be evidence it has disenfranchised younger voters. Has it distorted voters by earnings and employment? Because this change in the registration rules is new, the compensation rules (i.e. the way the pollsters convert their sample to represent the voting population rather than the whole population of the UK) will be out of date and probably wrong. There is a truism that old, white folks vote Tory. If the young and the Black and Asian vote are unusually disenfranchised by these rules then you would assume this would help the Tories. How valid an assumption that is I don’t know, at the moment I can’t test it, but it is a clear possible source of error that the model must account for without really good evidence.
Likewise, basing votes on previous voting patterns is tricky in this election:
All of these movements have to be modelled by the pollsters and there’s no reliable data. In other words they’re guessing. They’re educated guesses, they may well be excellent guesses but we won’t know until it can be tested, that is until after the actual election and the way people voted and the psephologists have done their work on the data about who voted as well.
How far out could they be? We just don’t know. But, in 1992, the pollsters confidently predicted a Labour win and, instead, John Major won. (This was the point at which pollsters started introducing past voting as a guide to likely future intentions.) They were out quite spectacularly - by about 8.5% in the end. Lets say they’re out by that 3% I suggested the flow was wrong for Tory -> UKIP defections. That would make Labour comfortably 20 seats bigger than the Conservatives (although still short of a majority), assuming the SNP still do as well as expected in Scotland. UKIP still only get 2 seats though. If we make it an 8.5% swing Tory -> UKIP, then UKIP are suddenly challenging the LibDems as the fourth party (they both have about 25–30 seats), but Labour get a clear majority (even without the Scottish seats) of about 5. 8.5% is a historically rare but actual error. Make it a 10% error and Labour have a majority of 20. Make it some other swing - under estimate the Tory vote by 8.5% again, at UKIP’s expense only, and they could have a majority of about 50. Both UKIP and the LibDems would get practically wiped out.
I expect the errors to be closer to the 3% size than the 10% size, simply because the people doing this job have a lot of accumulated experience in it but there’s something else. In previous elections there have been small differences between the various polling methods - usually 1 or 2% in the lead at most, and that could be sample error or changes over time since the samples aren’t necessarily taken at the same time.
But not this time. If you look at the polls for this election, there are a cluster of polls, ICM, Survation and ComRes which pretty consistently give a Conservative lead of about 2–6%. YouGov is more variable (it’s also published more often which probably accounts for this variation) but usually has a Labour lead of about 2–3%. There’s a spread, often on the same day, of 8% or more in the lead being reported and quite typically over 5%. I’d expect the error’s to roughly cancel out, so somewhere between 2.5% and 4% with some polls on each side of the true value - another reason why I think a 3% error is pretty likely. But, it’s not impossible that the most extreme of these (usually ICM or YouGov) is the closest to being right but is too conservative (small-c note) in its modelling and the others are just plain wrong by a lot. That is, whatever model they use for their predictions that makes them predict more Tory or more Labour than the others is right, but not strong enough. We could have instead of a 4% Conservative lead (the last ‘big’ figure for them) we could easily have a 7% or even a 12% Conservative lead. Instead of a 3% Labour lead we could easily have a 6% or even an 11% Labour lead simply because the models are broken. All those factors I listed above about why the models aren’t as reliable this time are just stacking up and the adjustments from the pollsters aren’t the right ones. Those differences, if the models really are that badly out mean we really don’t know what we’re going to get - and a hung parliament isn’t a guaranteed outcome.
There is also thought to be a large undecided proportion of the electorate in this election. The various pollsters try to account for that in various ways (this may account for a chunk of the differences in the results, YouGov discounts them, most others weight them to their previous votes and a history-based belief that floating voters that vote decide to vote 2:1 for the incumbents - but this time there are distinct new realistic choices in several places) and if that’s true and a lot of voters make their minds up at the last minute, that could also change the outcome markedly - although there is still over a week for some of those to make up their minds of course.
Roll on May 8th!
Thursday, April 23. 2015
I wonder if George Osborn regrets mentioning Deutsche Bank in his interview on Today this morning? He was the ‘big interview’ at 8:10 and depending on where you live you may be able to listen to the interview if you wish. In the interview he lists a number of companies whose analysts say that sticking with the current (Coalition according to me, Conservative according to him) economic plans is a Good Thing™ and the guessed at Labour+SNP plans (actually he insisted on calling them Ed Milliband + SNP plans) would cause economic chaos. One of the half a dozen or so companies he mentioned that backed his plan so prominently was Deutsche Bank.
A few hours later, but still on the same day, Deutsche Bank is hammered with a record $2.5bn fine over interest rate manipulation. While I appreciate this may be a different group of people within the same organisation, it’s definitely doing a lot for the sense of financial probity and trustworthiness. “These people like our plans and predict good things if you elect a Conservative government.” “Oops, these people have just been hit with the biggest ever fine for financial misconduct.”
There were other interesting things too. The financial recovery relies on electing a Conservative government, as does the last five years. He seems to have forgotten there was a coalition government and that although no poll suggests a Labour majority government - a point he was keen to stress - no poll suggests there will be a Conservative majority either - a point he was all too keen to ignore. But that’s just political posturing. If the Tories don’t form the next government (in coalition or otherwise) he’ll be out of a job and what he said about his policies won’t matter. That’s how the system rolls. He’ll probably, as the person in charge of the election campaign, be so tainted he’ll be out of the running for the next leader of the Tories too. But all of that pales into insignificance with choosing to use Deutsche Bank to support your plans on the day they get fined $2.5bn for cheating the financial markets.
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.
If you would like some data rather than just my opinion on the likely link between sanctions, austerity and the rise in food bank usage and the like you might like to read report into the food aid landscape (PDF) or the accompanying press release or, if you have access, this BMJ article (PDF).
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.
Syndicate This Blog
Last entry: 2015-05-23 08:56
842 entries written
238 comments have been made