One of our Best Pictures is missing

‘All is Lost’ and not ‘Gravity’ should be in contention for Oscar glory

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They are in many respects very similar films. Gravity and All is Lost both largely consist of solo performances from their leads: Sandra Bullock and Robert Redford respectively. They are about people who find themselves alone and adrift in a hostile environment after their craft is damaged.

A difference between the two is that Gravity has myriad Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. By contrast All is Lost’s only nomination is for sound editing. This is completely the wrong way round.

Gravity prodigiously deserves its technical nominations because its visuals are so amazing. If you didn’t know otherwise you might wonder if director Alfonso Cuaron actually took an IMAX camera into space. I could at a push be persuaded that Cuaron deserves his Best Director nomination for making a film that it feels worth paying extra to see in 3D: the space shrapnel coming at the camera feels real enough that I flinched several times.

The problem is that apart from this the film feels really artificial. The dialogue is corny, the acting is corny and the plot is ludicrous. Just about everything Clooney’s character says is cringeworthy. It feels contrived in the extreme to have Bullock constantly mumbling explanations of the plot to herself or worse still discussing her motivations with an imaginary person. The reveal that her character is grieving for her dead daughter feels like an admission of failure; an acknowledgement that they need to be beat emotional engagement out of the audience with a sentimental sledgehammer. Worst of all it’s really cliché cached: Clooney is on his last mission before retirement, Bullock at one point chooses what button to press by going eeny meeny miny mo, oh and her dad wanted a boy. It’s almost as if having created visuals that let you think you are actually in space, Cuaron decides to remind you are not by making the rest of the film so unconvincing.

By contrast, All is Lost is a superbly naturalistic endeavour. The result is a more engrossing and chilling film. We know next to no details about Redford’s character and he has only a couple of lines of dialogue. Yet such is the integrity of Redford’s performance we feel we know him and care about what happens to him. And that is the key point about the film’s realism. While the ultimate conclusion of Gravity is never really in doubt, we have an entirely realistic dread that the All is Lost’s protagonist won’t survive the film. So despite eschewing histrionics, it’s still one of the tensest films I have ever seen.

If as many people predict the Academy compounds the error of not nominating All is Lost for any major categories by giving Gravity – which is essentially a mediocre film with an amazing set – awards in those categories then as far as the credibility of the Academy goes: all is indeed lost.

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14 years AFTER the disaster at Chernobyl, it was still a working power plant

My younger brother stood in front of (what I am reasonably sure is) Chernobyl's reactor 4

My younger brother stood in front of (what I am reasonably sure is) Chernobyl’s reactor 4. So far he has suffered no ill effects.

The unlikely afterlife of Chernobyl suggests that our nuclear nightmares might be somewhat exaggerated

On 26th April 1986, engineers at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, a Soviet facility that is now in the Ukraine, tested a new cooling system designed to reduce the risk of a meltdown. In a bitter irony, this test actually caused a meltdown. The resulting explosion destroyed Chernobyl’s reactor 4. In the absence of the containment facilities that were standard at Western facilities,  large quantities of radioactive gases began escaping into the atmosphere. The number of casulties that resulted from this accident are still disputed. However, it is universally agreed that it was the worst nuclear disaster in history.

One could be forgiven for assuming that – apart from the clean up, the grieving and the recriminations – that would be the end of the story of Chernobyl. In the popular imagination, the surrounding area was reduced to a wasteland fit only as a setting for zombie movies.

In fact, it was to continue generating power into the new millennium. As already mentioned it was reactor 4 that blew up in 1986. Even after the meltdown, reactors 1-3 remained capable of producing electricity and Ukraine still needed power. So for years afterwards people would come to work in the same plant that had irradiated much of Europe. The plant was given a less communist name, workers could no longer live in the immediate vicinity and work was required to contain reactor 4. But this not withstanding it remained a working power plant.

In 1991, Chernobyl’s dire safety record continued when a fire shut down reactor 2. Reactor 1 continued operating until 1996. The final reactor was eventually shut down in 2000. The process of decommissioning it continues to the present day – including the construction of a massive steel sarcophagus to encase the concrete sarcophagus which encases reactor 4.

I bring this fact up to illustrate that the impact of Chernobyl is perhaps not as apocalyptic as is supposed. As the environmentalist Mark Lynas notes:

In the popular imagination the area around Chernobyl is a blighted wasteland, a mental picture kept alive by the apocalyptic (and superlatively unscientific) myths put about by the likes of Greenpeace. Take the recent piece by the Observer’s Robin McKie, who – as far as I can tell – visited Chernobyl on a stage-managed Greenpeace press tour and penned an obedient piece titled ‘Chernobyl 25 years on: A poisoned landscape‘. Employing the traditional scary imagery, he writes:

The Ukrainian steppe is still frost-burned and the trees leafless at this time of year. There are no buds on branches and little hint of greenery, a combination that only enhances the eerie desolation inside the 30km exclusion zone around the reactor…

But the clue to why McKie saw a ‘poisoned landscape’ lies in the first sentence: he went in winter. When I visited last summer, I saw a very different scene – the vibrant profusion of vegetation was extraordinary, as was the noise of bird calls and buzzing insects. It seemed like life was exploding everywhere.

Lynas goes on to observe that the animals and plants around the site seem not to have suffered adverse effects from the radiation. And that as well as people who work or visit the site – including my younger brother – there is a community of people of people who flout the exclusion zone and continue to live near Chernobyl without apparent ill effect.

Even the fatalities from the accident don’t appear as alarming as might be suggested. The process for achieving the figures quoted by anti-nuclear activists of around a million fatalities has been likened by George Monbiot to those to used to ‘disprove’ climate change. The scientific consensus seems to place the real figure at something in the region of 4000. And these need to be offset against the casulties from the alternative energy source. For example, the World Health Organisation estimates that a million people are killed by coal every year every year.

HAT TIP: the excellent documentary Pandora’s Promise

N.B: The fact this post being about Ukraine is entirely co-incidental

Where did all the Ukrainians go?

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The population of Ukraine has dropped by 6 million since the fall of the Soviet Union. Why does nobody in the media mention this?

The world is currently very focused on the hunt for one missing Ukrainian:  former president Viktor Yanukovych. However, I wonder if when historians look back on recent events they might attach greater significance to the 6 million missing Ukrainians.

This refers to the astonishing demographic decline of Ukraine since it gained independence from the Soviet Union: the “population has shrunk by 6.2mn people from 51.8 to 45.6mn since 1990.”

Euromonitor explains that:

  • Falling disposable incomes and the closure of many childcare facilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had made it increasingly unaffordable for many Ukrainian families to have more than one child. As a result, Ukraine’s fertility rate had been falling throughout the 1990s, reaching an all-time low of 1.1 children born per female by 1999. Although improving economy saw the fertility rate climb back to 1.4 by 2011, this is still significantly below the replacement level of 2.2. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s death rate is the highest in Europe, at 16.1 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2011, significantly higher than its birth rate of 10.5 per 1,000 inhabitants for the same year;
  • Although other European countries, including the Baltics, are experiencing similar demographic trends, it is the size of Ukraine that makes this decline so drastic. Between 1991 and 2011 the Ukrainian population decreased by 11.8%, from 51.6 million to 45.5 million. Falling population has brought with it dire consequences for the state budget and economic output.

Implications

Low fertility rates in Western Europe are often associated with an ageing society. However, this is not the case in Ukraine:

  • High death rates due to smoking, accidents at work and high incidence of suicides affect men in particular before they reach the age of 65. In 2011, life expectancy at birth in Ukraine was only 69.5, compared to 78.6 in the EU;
  • The old-age dependency ratio (the percentage of persons older than 65 per persons aged 15-64) actually decreased from 23.3% in 2006 to 21.7% in 2011. During this period, population aged 65+ fell by 8.1%, from 7.6 million to 7.0 million.
I feel this might have fed into current political events because:

Now I am possibly/probably wrong about all this: I’m not an expert on either the Ukraine or demographics. However, I do feel it’s an issue that should at least be discussed. If I’m wrong I’d like to know that.

I learned this fact not from the news but stumbled across it when I was looking through the CIA World factbook to find out what proportion of Ukrainians spoke Russian. It’s the kind of context the media should be providing but doesn’t. It likes to discuss the flotsam and jetsam of daily political events, while ignoring less visible socio-economic currents moving them. It’s not just our understanding of Ukraine that is impoverished by this tendency.

The supreme court justice who’s been silent for 8 years

Justice Clarence Thomas - the quiet man

Justice Clarence Thomas – the quiet man

Clarence Thomas is a remarkable individual. He was born into creole speaking community in Georgia and raised in poverty by a poor single mother. Yet he rose to become chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then only the second African American ever to sit on the US Supreme Court. He also stands out for being that rarest of breeds in American politics: a black conservative. In fact, by most reckonings he is the Court’s most conservative member.

He’s also remarkable for not saying a great deal. As Jeffrey Tobin of the New Yorker – a persistent critic of Thomas – explains:

As of this Saturday, February 22nd, eight years will have passed since the last time Clarence Thomas asked a question at a Supreme Court oral argument

…………………….

The Court’s arguments are not televised (though they should be), but they are public. They are, in fact, the public’s only windows to the Justices’ thought processes, and they offer the litigants and their lawyers their only chance to look these arbiters in the eye and make their case. There’s a reason the phrase “your day in court” resonates. It is an indispensable part of the legal system. But the process only works if the Justices engage. The current Supreme Court is almost too ready to do so, and sometimes lawyers have a hard time getting a word in edgewise. In question-and-answer sessions at law schools, Thomas has said that his colleagues talk too much, that he wants to let the lawyers say their piece, and that the briefs tell him all he needs to know. But this—as his colleagues’ ability to provoke revealing exchanges demonstrates—is nonsense. Thomas is simply not doing his job.

In fact, Tobin notes that there are two justices – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – who have never heard Thomas take part in a hearing.

How independence could turn Scotland into financial nitroglycerin

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The costs of rescuing its banks in a future crisis could leave an independent Scotland even more indebted than Iceland or Ireland

As the Economist explains:

A sterling zone would resemble the euro zone in some ways, with integrated monetary and banking systems but separate fiscal and political ones. This asymmetry made the euro prone to crisis, so unionists fret about the parallels. Mr Osborne fears that just as Germany had to bail out Ireland, Cyprus and Greece to save the euro, Britain might have to rescue a stricken Scotland to protect the two countries’ shared financial system.

Making matters worse, Scotland is home to two of Britain’s largest banks in Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds, which is based there owing to a quirk of corporate history. If the country became independent it would have bank assets twelve times the size of its GDP. The equivalent multiple for the rest of Britain is below five; for Ireland on the eve of the financial crisis it was about seven (see chart).

In another meltdown, then, Scotland would struggle to rescue its banks. Indeed, although its present fiscal position appears at least as good as that of the rest of Britain, its longer-term prospects are poor. Scotland’s dependence on oil production exposes it to external shocks, and the country is ageing. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, reckons the country will face a larger fiscal gap than Britain even if oil revenues remain strong: 1.9% of national income against 0.8% for the UK.

Mr Salmond was having none of this. In a speech on February 17th he pointed out that a ring fence separating retail from investment banking, due to be implemented by 2019, ought to reduce the chances of another banking crisis. He also said the chancellor had exaggerated the size of Scottish banking assets by including those based in London, such as RBS’s investment-banking arm—implying that an independent Scotland would take little responsibility for them. And the SNP leader predicted that the rest of Britain would surely drop its opposition to a sterling union for fear of the transaction costs—estimated at £500m ($800m)—of separate currencies. He dubbed this a “George tax”.

These reassurances are rose-tinted, to say the least. Splitting investment from retail banking will not abolish banking crises. Nor will it completely absolve sovereigns of liability. Even if the Scottish retail operations of Lloyds and RBS could be hived off during a crisis, someone would probably need to save the banks’ remaining operations. They are globally systemic and remain far too big to fail safely. Scotland would have neither the capacity nor—judging by Mr Salmond’s words—the willingness to save them. The bill would fall to London. Presumably the British authorities would only be willing to shoulder those liabilities if RBS and Lloyds moved their headquarters to London in advance.

The only point I’d add is that if Salmond needs a Plan B on currency, these numbers mean the Euro won’t be it. There is no way that Germany is going to put themselves in the position of potentially bailing out an economy larger than Greece’s. If it can’t get a currency union Scotland would have little choice but to go it alone.

How Richard Dawkins made me a Christian

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At my baptism a few years back, I gave a short testimony. It explained my path to becoming a Christian and how a reaction against new atheism was a catalyst. I’ve reproduced it below:

My being here today taking part in this ancient Christian ceremony would be a surprise to many people who’ve known me over the years, because for most of my life I have been a strident unbeliever. From a pretty early age I had fixed onto the idea that believing in God was as silly as worshipping Zeus, Ra or Thor, because to my mind science had shown that there was no need for any of them. And this was not a view I was embarrassed to share with anyone who would listen, and indeed with many who wouldn’t.

Such was the ardour of my atheism that it survived undented the fact that for most of my teens my best friends were not only believers but the sons of the Baptist ministers, with the result that I spent more time at church events than many Christians. In his testimony at his own baptism, one of these friends would say he knew was a Christian after an experience I witnessed. Some of us from the Church’s youth group were sat around in a circle, our heads bowed in prayer – or to be more exact they were sat in a circle praying, while I sat upright looking bored – and whoever was saying prayers at that point asked God to give us faith. At which point – a – gentle – but – unmistakable breeze – started – blowing – through – the – room. Pretty weird huh? Well I didn’t think so; I set off in search of a more “rational” cause and came back a few minutes later very pleased with myself for having discovered that the breeze was in fact nothing more than a draft created by somebody opening a door.

Now, confronted with such human conceit, God did what he often does and sent a messenger to confound it. Admittedly these messengers are seldom Richard Dawkins, but the evangelical atheist had the paradoxical impact of turning me away from his creed. The picture he painted of believers as dogmatic, delusional and even dangerous ran counter to my own experience of Christians, who had tolerated and indeed welcomed an at times rude and disrespectful unbeliever into their community.

This discordant note made me listen with fresh ears to debates I had thought closed. I began to wonder if evolution and its miraculous life giving power, far from negating the need for a creator strongly suggested the likelihood of one. And as I looked into scripture for its own value rather than as a source of debating points, I realised the reams of antiquated, barbaric injunctions that fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists alike had led me to believe would be there, simply weren’t, and instead there was an altogether more appealing system of ethics built around just two positive, powerful commandments: love your God and love your neighbour.

This re-evaluation meant that by the time I had come to Oxford I was looking for a community where I could worship my God and after some searching I found it here at Wesley Memorial. This is warm, welcoming and wonderful church and to be accepted into membership here is a great honour.

So let me conclude with this, I am only here today because of people, who instead of telling me about God’s message of love, showed me it in their own lives. Their kindness was such an articulate argument, for the Christian message that it swayed even a sceptic like me. I am blessed to have known them, I am blessed that through them I know him, and I am SO blessed that he has given me you, the best friends and family I could ask for.

What’s a liberal? A conservative or a socialist who realises they might be wrong

The always insightful David Boyle writes on his blog about why liberals should take Karl Popper seriously. Boyle explains the link between Popper’s philosophy of science and his views on politics:

You may not be able to prove what you believe about the world, no matter how often an observation or experiment takes place, but you can disprove it.

Popper used the example of swans. It doesn’t matter how many white swans you see, it still doesn’t prove that all swans are white. But if you see a black swan, then you know they are not.

Popper was writing during the Second World War, his home city was in the hands of totalitarians, and he quickly found himself applying this insight to politics too. In doing so, he produced one of the classic twentieth century statements of philosophical liberalism, The Open Society and its Enemies.

He said societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. This has huge implications, not just for effective societies, but for effective organisations too.Popper was flying at the time in the face of the accepted opinions of the chattering classes. They may not have liked the totalitarian regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but people widely believed the rhetoric that they were somehow more efficient than the corrupt and timid democracies.
Popper explained why they were not, and why Hitler would lose. Anybody who has read Antony Beevor’s classic account of the Battle of Stalingrad, and the hideous slaughter and inefficiencies brought about by two centralised dictators who had to take every decision personally, can see immediately that Popper was right.
I’d argue that what defines liberalism is taking seriously the possibility that you are wrong. Liberals may not read Popper as much as Boyle would like. However, we are instinctively drawn to institutions like localism, proportional representation and a free press that allow people to articulate (and indeed sometimes implement) alternative approaches to the government – including potentially a liberal one.
This seems like the right approach. Human societies are almost impossible to understand: each individual is complex and paradoxical, so when millions of them interact the uncertainty is mind blowing. The communities we live in are subject to an extraordinary amount of diversity and butterfly effects. Oh and this is a system we are part of, so are denied the opportunity to look at from the outside. With all this mind, it is best to suppose – as liberals do – that we are wisdom consists of knowing how little we know….Well Probably!
Hat tip: Stephen Tall