Will Terminator: Genesis be the most pointless film ever?


Even in an increasingly risk averse Hollywood, a reboot that doesn’t even change the lead actor is a new low

We live in an era in which original films are a rarity. Only one of them, Gravity, made it into the top ten highest grossing films of 2013. Studios have become very reluctant to risk money on new concepts, and as a result sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and adaptations reign.

I genuinely thought we’d reached the nadir of this trend with the Amazing Spider Man. It was a soulless and unimaginative project, made to seem all the lamer by the fact it was released just five years after the final film in the series it was supposed to be rebooting. All of which seemed to justify the suspicion that this was a film made solely to prevent rights to Spiderman reverting from Sony to Marvel. However, rebooting the Terminator films seems like an even greater waste of time and money.

Which is not to say I don’t like the original Terminator films – I’d give the first two 5 stars without a second thought. But that’s precisely the problem. With such good source material, it is hard to see what the new films will add. Alan Taylor seems like a good director and the magnificent Emilia Clarke has been cast as Sarah Connor. But the originals had an excellent director and a formidable Sarah Connor. These decision as good as they are – don’t indicate that Terminator: Genesis be adding much value.

The first year economics student in me finds the idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make a film with Arnie playing the T-800 when we already have two greats ones to be hideously inefficient. Why not just re-release the originals?

That’s a semi-serious suggestion on my part. We often see films reissued with the justification of some kind of technical change. For example, 3D of films we see or the Star Wars special editions that introduced me to the trilogy. And before videos and DVDs became popular, popular films would often have multiple runs.

So if Hollywood is not prepared to risk making more original films, why not save the massive expense of making generally inferior remakes/reboots and at say 10/15 year intervals re-release classic films.

Update (07/07/2015): I’ve now seen the film and actually I liked it and thought it justified its existence. You can read my review here.

The high cost of social jetlag


Maria Konnikovan – the author of the rather good Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes – has written an article for the New Yorker which looks at the challenges of having our sleep regulated by actual clocks rather than our body clock. It includes some rather startling facts about just how dangerous this can be:

Roenneberg and the psychologist Marc Wittmann have found that the chronic mismatch between biological and social sleep time comes at a high cost: alcohol, cigarette, and caffeine use increase—and each hour of social jetlag correlates with a roughly thirty-three per cent greater chance of obesity. “The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times,” Roenneberg says, “could be the most prevalent high-risk behaviour in modern society.” According to Roenneberg, poor sleep timing stresses our system so much that it is one the reasons that night-shift workers often suffer higher-than-normal rates of cancer, potentially fatal heart conditions, and other chronic disease, like metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Another study, published earlier this year and focussing on medical-school performance, found that sleep timing, more than length or quality, affected how well students performed in class and on their preclinical board exams. It didn’t really matter how long they had slept or whether they saw themselves as morning people or not; what made a difference was when they actually went to bed—and when they woke up. It’s bad to sleep too little; it’s also bad, and maybe even worse, to wake up when it’s dark.

The death of a Reading institution


My hometown of Reading is about to lose one of its most distinctive shop. The Jackson’s department store was recently used as a location for shooting an episode of Endeavour, the 1960s set Inspector Morse prequel. I can’t think of much that would need to change to make it work for the period. The Economist accurately describes Jackson’s like this:

[I]t would be hard to find a store more authentic than Jacksons, a 138-year-old emporium in Reading, west of London. The shop’s fittings—glass counters set before wooden shelves—belong to an era before stores let shoppers loose to examine merchandise for themselves. A system of pneumatic tubes whisks money from customers to a central cash office. Receipts are hand-written. Jacksons puts visitors in mind of “Are You Being Served?”, a 1970s sitcom that mocked a way of retailing that was outmoded even then. The staff take that as a compliment.

And is equally accurate on its problems:

Yet on Christmas Eve the store will close and its 60 employees, many of them part-time, will be out of a job. The Oracle, a shopping mall that opened in 1999, gradually sucked trade away from Jacksons’ end of the shopping district, says Brian Carter, who belongs to the fourth generation of family proprietors. Jacksons clung on, largely by outfitting successive cohorts of Reading school children. But that did not stop the greying of its customer base. Its premises are a hard-to-manage, multi-level labyrinth. Its old-fashioned approach to customer service is labour-intensive. The “coup de grâce”, says Mr Carter, was the news that the shop needs to replace its rotting roof for £60,000 ($98,000). An investor has bought the building.

I’m hugely affectionate towards Jacksons and am sorry to see it go. However, the last time I shopped there was six years ago: I needed a white bow tie for my sub fusc. That seems aptly old fashioned. I’m not unusual in this regard – in my nostalgia not in buying a white bow time which is very weird. Elsewhere in this week’s Economist it was noted that in general consumers “regret the decline of traditional family run businesses but increasingly shop in one-stop supermarkets and with online giants like Amazon.”

The minimum wage in theory and practice


Economics is a subject that combines the abstract and the empirical.* It both builds mathematical models and uses statistics. And it needs to know how to balance the two. The danger of one approach predominating is illustrated by the issue of the minimum wage.

There is a pretty strong economic reasoning for saying that unemployment will rise if you raise the cost of labour. That leads many free marketeers to oppose the minimum wage.

The minimum wage makes some workers, those with the lowest skills, more expensive than they otherwise would be. When things get more expensive, people look for ways to avoid that increased expense. In the case of the minimum wage, employers try to substitute machines and technology for workers, or use higher-skilled workers who are already paid above the minimum instead of lower-skilled workers. It doesn’t require any extreme assumptions about the labor market being in equilibrium or that the demand curve is derived from the marginal product of labor. It’s just that there is some demand for labor and that it slopes downward. All that means is that when workers get more expensive, you try to avoid paying those costs. This is a not neoclassical or neoliberal or Chicago view of the world. It’s everyone’s view of the world.

I understand the force of this logic – I subscribed to it myself for a while. However – as the author of the above extract – has to admit the empirical evidence does not bear this out. As Laura D’Andrea Tyson a former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors writes at Economix:

a raft of meticulous economic research, including work by David Card and Alan B. Krueger, who served as chief economist at the Labor Department in the Clinton administration and more recently as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, has decisively demolished the old shibboleths. The weight of the evidence consistently finds no significant effects on employment when the minimum wage increases in reasonable increments.

For a good overview, look to a paper by Arindrajit Dube of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; T. William Lester of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Michael Reich of the University of California, Berkeley. Using two decades of data and side-by-side comparisons of bordering counties in the United States, they find that higher minimum wages raise the earnings of low-wage workers and have negligible effects on employment levels. According to their estimates, an increase of 10 percent in the minimum wage would have a statistically negligible effect on employment in industries and occupations employing minimum-wage workers.

In 1996, the prevailing view among economists was that an increase in the minimum wage would reduce employment. But opinions have changed in response to the evidence. In a recent survey of a panel of leading economists, only a third expected that an increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour would make it “noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment,” and nearly half agreed that the economic benefits of raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation would outweigh the economic costs.

So following the approach of John Maynard Keynes that: “when the facts change, I change my mind,” I’ve come round to the idea of a minimum wage and even campaigned for a living wage. However, I don’t imagine that we can push the minimum wage up indefinitely. For example, part of the recent difficulties of Puerto Rico seems to have been combining a Caribbean labour market with the US Federal minimum wage.


* Yes you’re right that doesn’t really distinguish it from other subjects

The sex lives of the Romans and Early Christians


One of the most read posts on this blog was about the difficulty of constructing a genuinely biblical view of sexuality. I posed questions without having answers.  I still don’t but thanks to the historian Peter Brown’s review of From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper, I do at least have some context.

Harper’s From Shame to Sin brings its own fresh wind to the subject. For instance, in his first chapter, “The Moralities of Sex in the Roman Empire,” he firmly takes his distance from a recent tendency to minimize the role of eroticism in second-century upper-class marriage and in society in general.

Harper will have none of this…He points to very different, more full-blooded bodies of evidence. He provides a commentary of admirable warmth and humanity on the sexual codes implied in the great Greek novels of the time, especially the Leucippe and Clitophon of Achilles Tatius. He also reminds us of the obvious—the overwhelming testimony of the erotic scenes on terra-cotta lamps that reached a height of production at just the time when sex was supposed to be frosting over in Rome. Those energetic males and their plump Venuses tumbled, in innumerable positions, beside every bedside. Philosophers might advise couples to blow out the light, but Romans not only had sex with the lamps on—they had sex in the flickering light of lamps that had images of them having sex by lamplight on them!

So do we blame the Christians for bringing down the curtain on those merry scenes? Yes, but against a background that comes as a chill reminder of the lasting strangeness of the ancient world. If one asks if women in these scenes were free persons (and even how many of the men were free, for some might be slave gigolos), the unexpected answer would be: far fewer than we would wish to think. Many of the women were slaves. The jolly free-for-all, which we like to imagine as forming a timeless human bond between us and the ancients, was based upon the existence of a vast and cruel “zone of free access” provided by the enslaved bodies of boys and girls. Slavery, “an inherently degrading institution,” was “absolutely fundamental to the social and moral order of Roman life.”


This view could lead to a banal conclusion. Sex was shocking to the early Christians. Sex in the Roman world was intimately linked to slavery. Ergo: Christians, once they came to power after the year 312, predictably hammered the sexual codes of a society glutted on the ready availability of servile bodies and even cut away (if somewhat more tentatively than we might wish) at those parts of the slave system—such as prostitution—that fostered sexual indulgence.

But Harper realizes that this is too facile a conclusion. The excitement of his second chapter, “The Will and the World in Early Christian Sexuality,” lies in the manner in which he traces the sheer fierceness of Christian attitudes toward sexuality back to how sexual morality merged with the charged issue of freedom. Christians rethought these ideas in profound alienation from a society that took unfreedom for granted. They also dissociated themselves from a view of the cosmos that seemed to support a chill “indifference toward the brutalities accepted in the name of destiny.”

This is the second grand theme in Harper’s book. From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.

5 reasons we’ll miss Borgen


This evening BBC4 screened the last ever episode of the political drama Borgen. Here’s some reasons that’s such a loss.

1. It was smart and warm

Even in translation the intelligence of the story and its characters comes through.

2. It was a realistic view of politics

In House of Cards there’s no idealism. In the West Wing, it tends to win out because that’s the right thing to do. By contrast, Borgen showed us that there is idealism but was realistic about the barriers it faced.

3. It made centrist politics cool

The part of the political spectrum where the most constructive things are done is the most difficult to dramatise. Yet Borgen managed it.

4. It put a women aged more than 40 in the central role

Yay for a great role for this neglected group!

5. We’ve run out of decent Danish drama

Danish TV has been a remarkably invigorating find for British viewers. Alas that now seems to be at an end. Forbrydelsen ended a year ago and all we’re left with is the underwhelming and derivative Bridge.

Might 3D have a future after all?

Does the success of Gravity mean that 3D cinema might just survive after all?

3D cinema is in trouble: audiences have been turning against it, so rather than being the financial saviour of cinemas it’s now looking like a liability.

One of the harshest critics of 3D has been the Guardian and Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode. As early as 2010 he wrote:

3D exists not to enhance the cinematic experience, but as a pitiful attempt to head off piracy and force audiences to watch films in overpriced, undermanned multiplexes. It is a con designed entirely to protect the bloated bank balances of buck-hungry Hollywood producers. It is not a creative leap on a par with the advent of colour or sound, as demonstrated by the fact that the so-called “3D revolution” has already faltered on several occasions (the first 3D movie patent was filed in the 1890s and studios pushed the format in the Fifties, Seventies and Eighties to little effect). I know it, you know it, but fewer and fewer people are able to say it thanks to a multimillion dollar campaign which has fostered the lie that only wonky-eyed old farts don’t get 3D. Before you buy into this myth, take a look at what the champions of the format have to say.

Top of the pile is James Cameron who, to give him his due, really seems to believe in 3D. He went to great lengths – and costs – to design and shoot Avatar in 3D and is genuinely passionate about its merits. Yet as anyone who has watched Avatar in both 2D and 3D versions will know, the wow factor of this sci-fi Smurfahontas is more the result of adventurous digital landscaping than any forced stereoscopic illusion.

Plus, thanks to the unavoidable 30% colour loss which comes with 3D (along with the added joys of those damned glasses), the film is just far sharper in 2D. If you don’t believe me, try taking the glasses off in the middle of a 3D screening and see how much brighter the future looks, even when it’s out of focus.

He also points out it tends to miniaturise images such that in Jaws 3D “audiences were threatened not by a Great White but a Gawping Guppy.” And he’s especially scathing of retrofitted 3D “just makes a load of “flat” elements look like they’re floating around on opposing planes of flatness.”

Then this happened:

And he’s right. I found myself flinching and ducking as space shrapnel whooshes past the camera, and the 3D does enhance the scenes of hopping between shuttles and satellites. And I’m not alone in thinking that: Gravity has been one of the hits of the year.

But Kermode is also right to say in his full review that Gravity is probably exceptional: it’s an unusually kinetic story and it being set in space means the light loss is not as obvious as it normally would be.

Still it does demonstrate that in theory there might be a case for 3D after all.

P.S. check out this Gravity parody that substitutes space for IKEA.

John Kerry’s next big headache – the US’s travel ban on the next PM of India?


Narendra Modi

Earlier this week, I blogged about the challenge that a new Hindu nationalist government might pose for the West. Potentially the trickiest of these issues is how the US deals with its travel ban on Narendra Modi, the man whose very likely to be the next prime minister of India for his role in anti-Muslim pogroms in his homestate of Gujarat. Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog explains the dilemma:

“If he becomes prime minister, the U.S. will have to find a way to do business with him,” Tanvi Madan, director of the Brookings Institution’s India Project, told The Cable. “The question is whether or not to do something before next year’s election.”

Both options present risks.

If the United States continues to restrict Modi’s travel and freeze him out of diplomatic discussions at the ambassadorial level, it risks alienating an important partner on everything from trade to security to finance to diaspora issues. By contrast, the European Union, Britain, and Germany have all engaged in ambassador-level discussions with Modi. This status quo also risks insulting hundreds of millions of Indians.

“The travel restriction has created resentment amongst the leadership and some amongst the rank-and-file BJP party workers,” said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We’re talking about a three-time incumbent chief minister. He hasn’t been found guilty by any court of law, he’s not under indictment for any crime, and there hasn’t been a smoking gun in their view. So how can you, the United States, prevent this guy from coming to your country?”

But not everyone agrees with the BJP’s interpretation of history. There is currently a trench war playing out on Capitol Hill over Modi’s legacy. Anti-Modi groups, such as the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), promise to name and shame anyone supportive of Modi, whom they consider a genocidal Hindu supremacist. IAMC has hired the lobbying firm Fidelis to advance its goals on the Hill, including a resolution critical of violations of minority groups in India that was introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA).

The Cable has learned that anti-Modi groups are also planning a legal challenge against the chief minister should he ever travel to the United States. “Some of us are working with the next of kin of victims of the Gujarat 2002 violence living in the United States,” Shaik Ubaid, founder of the Coalition Against Genocide, said. “We will be ready to file criminal and tort cases against Modi should he try to come to the United States.”

Pro-Modi groups, such as the Hindu American Foundation, have accused these anti-Modi groups of slandering the reputation of India and its leaders. “It is certainly disappointing to see Indian- Americans hiring an American lobbying firm to advocate for a deeply flawed and insulting American resolution critical of India,” said the Hindu American Foundation‘s Jay Kansara.

The pro-Modi camp has courted high-profile Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Aaron Schock, but to varying degrees of success. After heaping effusive praise on Modi following a 2013 visit to Gujarat, McMorris Rodgers denied association with him in November after anti-genocide groups complained about an invite for Modi to talk to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill via video link. “They don’t have a relationship,” a congressional aide told The Cable.

Technically, it would not be difficult for Foggy Bottom to resolve Modi’s travel status. Although the department originally determined that Modi was ineligible for travel under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it’s not bound by that earlier decision.

“Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant,” Harf told The Cable. “That review will be grounded in U.S. law.”

However, Modi is unlikely to reapply for a visa between now and the 2014 elections.

Alternatively, the United States could implement a half-measure, such as issuing a statement that clarifies that America would never bar the leader of India from entering the country. But even that poses problems.

“Friends at the State Department say they’re hyperaware of this issue but constrained because of the elections,” said Vaishnav. “They don’t want to be seen as endorsing a candidate or meddling in Indian politics. The State Department doesn’t want to be on the front page of Indian newspapers.”

Madan agrees. “Any sign of foreign interference would be taken extremely negatively in India,” she said. “The Congress party would latch onto that, saying the U.S. has endorsed Modi.”

By and large, Foggy Bottom is boxed in on the issue. “There is little doubt that this poses a dilemma for the State Department,” said Madan. “Modi is a major figure in Indian politics. It’s impossible to imagine that they haven’t thought through the various scenarios, but it’s unclear what they’ll do.”

Which Minion are you?

Me - apparently!

Me – apparently!

Dear reader,

I have been remiss of late. I know that you expect I high level of Minioness from this blog and frankly of late I’ve not been delivering. It’s been almost two months since we last had a Minion post.  Frankly that’s not good enough.

So by way of recompense here’s a a Facebook quiz that allows you to find out which minion you are:

I came out as Kevin:

Kevin is known best for being a right-hand man. He is often at the forefront of new ideas or exploration, including Gru’s announcement to steal the moon. One of Kevin’s strongest qualities is his ability to bounce back from almost any situation, including getting shrunk down to a miniature minion by the shrink ray. Kevin maintains an extremely positive, can-do attitude no matter what happens during his day, with energy to spare to play around the water cooler anytime.

Newt Gingrich – anti-apartheid hero!?


There’s not much to be said in favour of Newt Gingrich. He’s the man who justified his numerous ethics violations by saying:

There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.

However, he has the odd partially-redeeming feature. For example, he made the right call on apartheid when many of his fellow Republicans didn’t:

Newt Gingrich was among a cadre of conservatives who opposed the mainstream conservative stance on apartheid and ultimately helped override Reagan’s unconscionable veto of sanctions. At the time, Gingrich was allied with a group of young conservatives including Vin Weber looking to challenge Republican orthodoxy on South Africa. “South Africa has been able to depend on conservatives to treat them with benign neglect,” said Weber. “We served notice that, with the emerging generation of conservative leadership, that is not going to be the case.”

So unsurprisingly he was one of a number of politicians to pay tribute to Mandela last week. This provoked a curious response from some of his Twitter followers. Take the following:

Newt, I was rooting for you to win the primaries and become the next president; please tell me your joking!! Mandela was a commie murderer!!

That elicited a surprisingly forthright response from Gingrich:

Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.

Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.

I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.

So all credit to him for that.