If you look hard enough all history eventually becomes geography

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Black & blue: 2016 electoral results in Alabama. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Here’s a curious angle on today’s glorious electoral upset in Alabama, courtesy of Quartz:

Black voters typically support the Democratic party, which is popular in Alabama’s middle districts. That vote shows up in electoral maps as a stripe running straight through the GOP stronghold: The black belt.

Contrary to myth, the “black belt” does not refer to the large African American population living in the area—or at least it didn’t originally.

“Black belt” refers instead to the quality of the soil of the area. Tanks to ancient marine deposits, the soil of that area is rich in nutrients, extremely fertile and, indeed, black. And there is a direct link between the color of the soil and the political leaning, too: Cotton.

As biology professor Allen Gathman shows by overlapping Alabama’s cotton production by county in 1860 (when the production was heaviest in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) with the 2016 presidential election results, the areas with historically strong cotton cultivation, and therefore a historically large population of black laborers in the second half of 1800s correspond to Democratic votes today.

So, you can explain where Democrat support in Alabama is located in the present by looking at the race of voters. In turn, you can explain the racial makeup of the state by looking at the economy (and specifically where cotton production was located) more than a century ago. And that in turn is explained by the nutrient content of the soil.

These kind of geographic/geological factors tend to wind up underlying everything else. Indeed, the very first lecture of my history degree began with this map and the rather startling conjecture that it explains most of global inequality.

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The lecturer used it to illustrate Jared Diamond’s argument that:

Continents that are spread out in an east-west direction, such as Eurasia, had a developmental advantage because of the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude.

Continents that spread out in a north-south direction, such as the Americas, had an inherent climatic disadvantage. Any crops, animals, ideas and technologies had to travel through dramatically changing climatic conditions to spread from one extreme to the other.

Technologies such as gunpowder were able to migrate 6,500 thousand miles from China, where they originated, to Western Europe, where they reached their apogee, in a matter of centuries. The wheel, on the other hand, developed in southern Mexico, never even managed the 500-mile journey south to the Andes.

This generally isn’t what we like to focus on when we contemplate history. Individuals and movements are more relatable. However, it pays to be aware of the context in which individuals and movements operate and how powerfully that is shaped by geography.

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Without Charles Dickens there probably wouldn’t be a galaxy far far away

Star Wars and the pleasure of serials

As I strategise how to see the Last Jedi on the day it’s released, as well as going to Bible Study and…ya know…work, now seems a good time to ponder the appeal of serials.

They are so ubiqitous that it is easy to forget that they not only constitute a genre in their own right, but a genre that had to be created. Amongst the people who did that, this video from Nerdwriter argues that Charles Dickens was pre-eminent:

I must confess a love for serials. Far from being the cheap art form snobs sometimes suppose, they are precisely a case in which investment and deep engagement with material is rewarded. Serials give the audience an expansive world and lots of space for characters and plots to develop. One positively has to spend time with and pay attention to a serial to appreciate it properly.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that  there is the added bonus of the pleasurable anticipation of awaiting the next instalment!

 

Also worth reading:

Vulture’s account of the choreographing of the Phantom Menace‘s climatic lightsaber fight AKA the only good part of the movie. Unsurprisingly, it appears that a prerequisite for its success was George Lucas’ benign neglect.

Vietnam: optimism nation

HT: Forbes

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This tallies with my own experience. While I would prefer to live an already rich but slow growing country like the UK rather than a poor but rapidly growing one like Vietnam, there are definitely advantages to being among people who are generally confident that their lives are improving. An air of positivity is pleasant.

Related posts

Besides being unusually optimistic, the Vietnamese also stand out for being – ironically given its history and system of government – especially pro-capitalist and pro-American.

Nerds are thinking about a Disney/Fox deal the wrong way

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The possibility that Disney may buy part of Fox – including crucially in this context its movie studio 20th Century Fox – has excited the attention of the geekier parts of the internet for one specific reason:

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For those of you who are not familiar with the landscape of superhero movies, let me recap quickly. Both the X-Men and the Avengers were characters that originated in Marvel comics. However, you do not see them on the big screen together because in the 1990s, Marvel was losing money and to stay afloat it sold the movie rights to its most popular characters. Fox bought the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and has been making movies featuring those characters ever since. Then in the 2000s, Marvel began producing its own movies based on the characters it hadn’t sold the rights to. Against the odds these second-tier hereos like Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow proved to be the basis for the most profitable franchise in movie history. Then Disney bought Marvel. The result was that the movie versions Avengers and the Fantastic Four wound up owned by two different companies, each making its own movies, set in its own fictional universe. If one company attempted to use the other’s characters in its movies it would be sued for breach of copyright.

However, this would all change if 20th Century Fox became part of Disney. The problem is – as Scott Mendelssohn of Forbes – notes is that it would also change a lot of other things and not necessarily for the better:

Last year, Walt Disney had a jaw-dropping 26% of the domestic box office while Fox had 13%. With Fox and Disney combined into one entity, it’s plausible to see Walt Disney’s theatrical output controlling close to 40% of the theatrical business. With that kind of hold, the Mouse House could essentially rewrite the rules for how its movies are seen in theaters (higher ticket prices, higher percentages back to the studios, exclusive auditorium control, etc.) in a way that wouldn’t remotely help the likes of Universal or Warner Bros.

Disney has already gotten heat this year for somewhat more draconian terms for domestic theaters planning to show Star Wars: The Last Jedi (because it knows that much of the money isn’t going to come from the overseas business). It justifiably got torn to shreds for blacklisting Los Angeles Times journalists from Thor: Ragnarok press screenings after the paper reported unfavorably on Disneyland’s tax-related relationship with Anaheim. While Disney relented quickly, arguably because Coco needed the critical buzz more than Thor, such a move could well be solidified with that much control of the market.

And while Walt Disney is a publicly traded company and not a charity, this wouldn’t necessarily be good for the overall industry. Fewer major studios mean fewer places for artists to pitch their work, and thus potentially a less diverse slate of movies and television shows. Less competition could also drive down compensation for said artists, and Disney would be powerful enough to (if it chose to) essentially set the status quo for compensation for the next round of union negotiations. But at least we’d get a decent Fantastic Four movie, right, guys?

To this list of worries, I would add a concern that a larger Disney would have more political power. Given the company’s role in, first, turning American copyright law from a useful system for incentivising creators into a means for large companies like Disney to monopolise the use of valuable characters for generations, and then, lobbying for trade treaties that globalise this perversion of the system, that’d probably be a malign development.

Besides all this, I’m not even sure the massive superhero team-up fans want is really desirable. The MCU seems to be going along fine. Fitting the X-men and mutants in would require a lot of – probably detrimental – crowbarring. Better to let Fox try and make its properties work in isolation. Logan showed that can lead to interesting results.

Best things I’ve read recently (06/12/17)

The tough situations at work edition featuring harassment, emotional labour and when tattoos become a matter of life-and-death.

Sexual harassment: You too? by Eduardo Reyes (Law Gazette)

“In resigning as secretary of state for defence, Sir Michael Fallon observed that what might have been acceptable 10 or 15 years ago is clearly not acceptable now. Or did he mean 110 or 115 years ago –when Irish nationalist Constance Markievicz grabbed and held aloft the wandering hand of the older man sat beside her at dinner. ‘Just look what I have found on my lap!’ she declared.”

Politeness isn’t enough; we now demand friendliness. And it’s destroying authenticity by Olivia Goldhill (Quartz)

“It can sound miserly to complain about being friendly, but the implications can be quite harmful—especially for those who are experiencing strong negative emotions. Recently, when I had a major physical trauma and significant psychological fallout, I became increasingly aware of and distressed by the insistence on happiness. It felt profoundly wrong to buy food in between hospital visits, say, and be told to have a great day. Other demands for gregariousness were more relenting. In an Uber from my therapy session, for example, the driver repeatedly tried to make pleasant conversation. This was a time when I could barely talk to my closest family, and I was simply incapable of making chitchat with a stranger.”

Unconscious Patient With ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ Tattoo Causes Ethical Conundrum at Hospital by George Dvorsky (Gizmodo)

“Typically, DNRs are formal, notarized documents that a patient gives to their doctor and family members. Tattoos, needless to say, are a highly unorthodox—but arguably direct—means of conveying one’s end-of-life wishes. That said, this patient’s tattoo presented some undeniable complications for the hospital staff. Is a tattoo a legal document? Was it a regretful thing the patient did while he was drunk or high? Did he get the tattoo, but later change his opinion? On this last point, a prior case does exist in which a patient’s DNR tattoo did not reflect their wishes (as the authors wrote in this 2012 report: “…he did not think anyone would take his tattoo seriously…”).”

Tweet of the week (2):

Amusing video of the week:

HT: Nerdist

Cute video of the week:

HT: Also Nerdist

Podcast of the week:

Alphachat’s three part epic on the sociologist Albert O. Hirschman, who seems to be one of that exceptionally interesting generation of European political thinkers, who stared into the abyss of world war and totalitarianism, and came up with profound visions for a humane alternative.

Justice is served lukewarm

I suppose I should post something about Justice League. I mean, I write a blog of which commentary on superheroes films is a staple. It would seem like a missed opportunity not to, but dear reader I struggle to muster the enthusiasm. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the film. I did. Indeed I can’t improve on Scott Mendelson’s summation that it’s “a bad movie but a great time at the movies.”

The problem is that anything that requires me to think about Justice League more, leads to me liking it less. Even passing contemplation makes it apparent that it should have been more impressive than passing fun. Even judged simply as a simple diversion, the very act of judging shows it, reveals what a flimsy edifice it really is. Everything from the VFX, to the plotting, to the soundtrack feels rushed and unfinished. It does a good job of matching cast to characters, but then takes these potentially interesting depictions nowhere. Ponderously set-up story points – from both Justice League and its predecessors – are paid off with a whimper. It all seems like a rote recitation of the Marvel formula, only without that studio’s flair or willingness to experiment with that formula. The result is that it feels more like a generic Marvel movie than any actual Marvel movie. With a $300 million budget, decades of backstory, and some of the most iconic characters in the world as inputs, Justice League is a truly meagre output.

In the rear-view mirror

That it is so generic is especially galling because when this franchise began it did have a distinct vision. In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and his collaborators were trying to create a version of Superman with credibility, much as the Nolan brothers had done with the Dark Knight trilogy. In Batman v Superman, this was allowed to congeal into sullenness that was so self-conscious it became absurd. But for the first instalment of the DCEU that meant telling Superman’s story not as the tale of a superhero, but as a piece of science fiction about an alien raised as a human, who must choose whether to save his original or his adoptive people. When superpowered aliens do battle in Man of Steel it doesn’t seem like two actors in spandex having a punch-up, but a horrific conflict that leaves behind rubble and collateral damage. That was a lot for some people to take. Many never forgave Man of Steel for not being an updating of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve films. But we’ve already seen that film – it was called Superman Returns – and frankly it was boring. It was a good call on DC’s part to aim for something more interesting than a retread.

It didn’t quite work. Problematically for a film aspiring to a naturalistic note, the cast seemed stiff and uncomfortable in their roles. The story was also a tad convoluted and reliant on co-incidences. And once the full destruction of third act was unleashed, Snyder never really found a way to modulate the sound and fury. But these were all problems with execution not with the fundamental vision.

Indeed, one of the advantages of making films as part of a franchise with an in-built audience is that there is an opportunity to fix errors. If the first instalment of a franchise doesn’t quite work out, future outings for the same characters can serve as something of a do-over. The MCU emphatically does this and as a result improves over time. There was no inherent reason Warner Brothers could not do the same with the DCEU, taking Man of Steel and improving on the formula it provided until they had something special.

Done right

In fact, if you look around the Superhero genre, you will see a number of movies that succeeded where Man of Steel failed. Using superhero franchises as a framework in which to deliver genre movies has become the norm. The MCU has now has comedies (Guardians and Ragnarok), a political thriller (the Winter Soldier) and a high-school coming of age story (Homecoming) that happen to have protagonists with superpowers. Fox is – if anything – more reliant on this strategy. Logan is essentially a pastiche western, whilst Deadpool is a frat comedy living inside a parody of the superhero genre.

Perhaps even more saliently, Warner Brothers proved themselves capable of making a film that realised Man of Steel’s potential. It was called Wonder Woman. It also told the story of a non-human with incredible powers living amongst humans, discovering our species’ good and bad sides, and ultimately deciding to save us despite our flaws. Despite the story beginning on a mythical island, once it moves to WWI era Europe, we see a serious attempt to show us – somewhat realistically – a character raised in a harmonious society contending with a world riven by the direst conflict. And in so doing, it moves into a particular genre: the war film. It is not a film like Captain America: the First Avenger, that happens to take place during a war. It is about war. Armed conflict defines each character’s struggle, embodies its themes and drives the plot. The most pivotal moments happen on battlefields. Apart from Themyscira, virtually every set looks more like something out of a war film than a superhero film. It seems to consciously eschew not only anything futuristic but also any steam punk. That serves to keep out any element that is not true to either the WWI or Ancient Greek setting. Myriad aspects of the film from its pacing to its colour palette are more like a war film than the Avengers. Heck, the antagonist is actually war himself (AKA Aries AKA Mars)!

Back to the beginning but worse

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Sadly, the kind of rich, interesting yet entertaining filmmaking that Man of Steel hinted at and Wonder Woman exemplified have largely been missing from the rest of the DCEU. Warner Brothers response to the underwhelming reaction to the franchise, was to heavy handidly correct a series of very specific mistakes, while leaving the broader issues untouched. Audiences complained about civilians being killed in Man of Steel’s violent finale. Therefore, Batman v Superman belaboured the point that its fight scenes were happening in deserted areas. Audiences complained that Batman v Superman was morose. Therefore, Suicide Squad was packed with pop music and jazzy graphics. Audiences complained all of these films were too dark. Therefore, Justice League looks like someone has stuck a colourful Instagram filter over it. Notably absent from these efforts was any sense on Warner Bros part that they needed to slow down, consider carefully the story they were trying to tell, the kind of films they wanted to make and the director they were relying on to set the tone.

Instead, they waited for Zack Snyder to step aside of his own volition after a personal tragedy. And began trying to force his version of Justice League to become the Avengers. Even going as far as hiring the director of the Avengers to finish the project after Snyder’s enforced departure. But whereas you could really feel the love and care that went into the MCU’s first big team-up, Justice League feels rushed, shoddy and above all unimaginative. I really struggle to think of anything that feels fresh or novel in the whole film. Its most blatant borrowing is from the Avengers, from which it takes its premise, structure, style of humour and – let’s not mince words – its plot from the Avengers. However, you spot elements of other films along the way too: ‘oh, that shot is a reference to the Burton Batman films, that one the Nolan ones, that battle sequence comes from Wonder Woman, that reminds me of Watchmen and it’s slow-mo like Days of Future Past’. These elements pilfered from other superhero films are thrown together to form a creation that rather ugly and hard to love, but does still lurch forward rather effectively.

In one sense, this takes the DCEU back to where it started. We’ve passed the low of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad and the high of Wonder Woman, and returned to the kind of serviceable 6.5/10 movie-making we got from Man of Steel. But while in and of themselves, the first and the most recent instalments may be of about equal quality, Man of Steel hinted at future potential, which Justice League lacks. My concern is that now Warner Bros have a template for making serviceable entertainment that avoids Suicide Squad-esque disasters, it’s will become what the DCEU will be like from here on in. Justice League there by represents the franchise finding its voice only to have it say “honestly…we also wish this was a Marvel movie.

Would I recommend Justice League?

If you were walking around thinking ‘I’m bored and have nothing to do for the next two hours’ and at that moment the breeze blew a ticket into your hand, then I’d say go for it. It’s kinda fun. If you have to sacrifice actual money and time you could be doing something else to see it, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

The best advocates for migrants are migrants

In July 2015, Angela Merkel was speaking a town hall style event on the “Good life in Germany” at a secondary school in the coastal town of Rostock, when:

Reem, a Palestinian, told Merkel in fluent German that she and her family, who arrived in Rostock from a Lebanese refugee camp four years ago, face the threat of deportation.

She said: “I have goals like anyone else. I want to study like them … it’s very unpleasant to see how others can enjoy life, and I can’t myself.”

Dr Merkel is indisputably a very skilled politician. However, in this situation she floundered:

…saying she understood, but that “politics is sometimes hard. You’re right in front of me now and you’re an extremely nice person. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if we were to say you can all come … we just can’t manage it.”

Not unsurprisingly this answer reduced Reem to tears, and Dr Merkel was left stroking the crying girl’s shoulder, whilst lamely reassuring her that she had presented herself ‘extremely well’. As well as being a bad look for the Chancellor, it seemed to affect her personally.  Less than a month later, she made the momentous decision to open Germany’s borders to over a million Syrian refugees.

This incident came to mind as I was reading a column by Simon Kuper in the FT about how cosmopolitans can stop losing the communications battle to populists. Among his suggestions is that we:

Don’t use elite spokespeople. The gay-marriage campaign — a rare liberal persuasive triumph — showcased ordinary couples in love. Likewise, the best spokespeople on migration may be ordinary integrated immigrants. On issues of migration, more Britons would trust a migrant who has been in the UK 15 years than would trust any party leader, reports British Future.

Immigration activists in the US have quite explicitly modeled their approach on the equal marriage movement:

Gay-marriage campaigners have long favoured unthreatening, often grey-haired monogamous gay couples as spokesmen (the “lesbians next door” gambit, as a study of the cause dubbed it). Immigration reformers promoted Dreamers: young campaigners named after the DREAM Act, a proposal to offer fast-track legal status to migrants brought to America as children, as long as they go to college or into the armed forces. Advocates such as Mr Sharry credit the prominence of wholesome, college-bound Dreamers with helping reshape the national debate.

Perhaps for that reason, the Obama administration’s first major action was to protect Dreamers from deportation. Despite the Trump administration’s hostility to immigration, even it was hesitant to rescind these protections and dithered before doing so. That decision proved unpopular even with some generally pro-Trump Republicans and it seems possible/likely that legislation will eventually reinstate those protections.

We have also seen this approach used in the UK. For example, the I am an Immigrant poster campaign:

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Immigration advocates have to wrestle with powerful preconcieved notions. The combination of our inherent prejudices against the unfamiliar and years of conjuring by tabloid bile merchants has created a powerful, emotionally resonant negative image of immigrants. Trying to slay these monsters with a stream of counter-vailing information seems likely to backfire. A better way to show voters the reality of migration is to show them real migrants. As Angela Merkel discovered, it is hard to defend our inhumane migration when face-to-face with an actual decent human being it’s hurting.