How George Lucas would have ruined the Force Awakens

In my review of the teaser trailer for the Force Awakens, I opined that while Lucas ‘might have a genius for universe building’ he, in sharp contrast to JJ Abrams, doesn’t understand the human element necessary for good storytelling. This deliciously mean parody of the teaser trailer illustrates this by imagining what Lucas would have done with the new film:

Unnecessary CGI, unwanted Hayden Christensen and unbearable droning about ‘trade negotiations’!

Stop sharing those stupid empty Commons photos. They are FAKE!

A reminder that just because someone has posted something on social media that doesn’t mean it’s true.

To be clear these were not mistakes. The people who made them knew they were fibbing. They had to take a screenshot of PMQs or MPs debating tuition fees in 2004 and write a caption below it saying it was a discussion about MPs pay or expenses. So if you share this kind of stuff without checking it you are helping to perpetuate a deliberate deception.

Honest Movie Posters

Posters for awful films should be required to include quotes of Mark Kermode slagging them off

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For me as a Christian, the Gospel of Mark is a book in the New Testament written by Saint Mark. As a film fan, however, they are Mark Kermode‘s reviews. I don’t think he’s not always right, I’m no fundamentalist and he think Twilight is good, but more often than not his reviews are the most interesting ones out there.

He’s also famous for gloriously splenetic rants about certain films. Buzzfeed have come up with the wonderful idea of using quotes from these to replace the usual misleadingly edited words from the Milwaukee Herald you find on movie posters.

So, for example, here’s their new poster for the worst film I’ve ever seen:

The Da Vinci Code , 2006.

And the most caustic quote of all:

Keith Lemon: The Film , 2012.

My reaction to the Force Awakens teaser trailer

So there’s an outside possibility that you might have noticed this already but the trailer for the upcoming Star Wars film has arrived:

This must be fast becoming some of the most closely analysed 90 seconds of footage ever. Despite this it’s hard to tell too much about the final film from it. This is the most teaser of teaser trailers. We get only one small snippet of dialogue and next to no plot details. And crucially, we don’t get any insight into how the characters from the original trilogy will mesh into this new film. As Den of Geek puts it this trailer is ‘fanfare’:

It may not tell us too much – other than that the Rebels, the Empire and the Sith are back, which is plenty to be getting on with, admittedly – but it’s a rallying call for the saga’s legion fans. Star Wars is back.

And in that regard it seems to have worked. Fans seem (even more) excited by what they have seen. That, however, seems mostly to be on account of the cool stuff in it: the new improved stormtrooper uniforms, the new improved X-Wings, the new improved Millennium Falcon and that adorable droid football thing.

As nice as these are to see, and the aesthetic is to look at in general, I don’t think this is the most encouraging thing about the trailer. If one looks back to the first trailer for the Phantom Menace, an experience which brings back painful memories but which is nonetheless instructive, you’ll see plenty of cool stuff there: Darth Maul wielding a double bladed lightsabre, podracing, Samuel L. Jackson as a jedi master and YODA!!!

The problem was that Lucas was really good at coming up with cool things to fill a universe with hopelessly inept at using them to build an engaging story. Watching the Phantom Menace one feels that not only were the special effects computer generated but that the plot and dialogue were too. It’s lifeless and lacking in pathos.

Compare that with the shot of John Boyega that opens the trailer:

His expression, the sweat pouring from his face and his isolation all combine to make one feel his utter terror. This single shot generated more empathy from than anything in the entire prequel trilogy let alone the Phantom Menace trailer.

It’s a demonstration of director JJ Abrams’ prowess as a storyeller. That’s something that Lucas, despite his genius for universe building, always lacked. It was this absence that became so evident in the prequels. But give Abrams Lucas’ universe to play with and we just might be about to see something special.

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very vague boy

Why the prophet of a more compassionate Christianity leaves me feeling decidedly uncharitable.

Rob Bell is a guy I really ought to be more impressed by than I am. He’s pretty much single-handedly made it respectable for evangelicals to believe in universal salvation, an idea which is central to my understanding of Christianity. Yet I’ve never found his presentation of it (or of much else) terribly convincing.

A large part of why is captured in an excellent article by Meghan O’Gieblyn in the Guardian. She describes how grappling with the notion of hell eventually pushed her out of the evangelical faith she grew up in. One of its strengths is that it tougher on those Christians who dodge the notion as on those who proclaim it loudly. Foremost in the former camp are the new, and often very successful, brand of evangelicals who hope that the relentless use of syrupy songs about love can make the bitter message that most of humanity is facing damnation palatable. She’s also pretty brutal about Bell:

In the spring of 2011, I was browsing through a crowded airport newsstand when I glimpsed an issue of Time with the headline “What If There’s No Hell?” The subhead elaborated, “A popular pastor’s bestselling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation, and judgment.” The book in question was the modestly titled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who’s Ever Lived, and the pastor was Rob Bell. Bell wears hipster glasses and black skinny jeans. Most of his congregants were generation Xers who had difficulty with the Bible’s passages about absolute truth, certainty and judgment.

I found a copy of Bell’s new book at that same airport and blew through it during my three-hour flight to Michigan. It was a light read. Bell sets out his prose like a free-verse poem, and roughly half the sentences are interrogative, a rhetorical style that seems designed to dampen the incendiary nature of his actual argument. He does not, as the Time headline suggests, make a case against the existence of hell. Rather, he argues that hell is a refining process by which all of the sins of the world, but not the sinners, are burned away. Those who are in hell are given endless chances throughout eternity to accept God’s free gift of salvation and, because this gift is so irresistibly good, hell will eventually be emptied and collapse. Essentially, this is universal reconciliation – the idea that all people will be saved regardless of what they believe or how they conduct themselves on Earth.

Love Wins created an uproar in the evangelical community. Zondervan (basically the Random House of Christian publishing), which had published Bell’s previous books, dropped him upon reading the proposal. After it was published, Albert Mohler Jr, a prominent pastor, called the book “theologically disastrous” and thousands of Bell’s congregants left his church in protest. At the same time, a lot of evangelicals who seemed to have been harbouring a private faith in universal reconciliation defended the book. In the secular media, the theology of Love Wins was lauded as visionary. “Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility,” Time magazine wrote, “Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America.”

“Rethinking” doesn’t feel as accurate as “rebranding”. Throughout Love Wins, Bell seems less interested in theological inquiry than he is in PR. There was one moment while reading Love Wins where it seemed as though he might initiate a much-needed conversation about the meaning of hell. Toward the end of the book, he begins to mobilise a more radical argument – that heaven and hell are not realms of the afterlife but metaphors for life here on Earth. He recalls travelling to Rwanda in the early 2000s and seeing boys whose limbs had been cut off during the genocide. “Do I believe in a literal hell?” he asks. “Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” Here, I brightened at the idea that perhaps Bell was out to make a statement as bold and daring as [Megachurch pastor] Hybels’s 9/11 sermon [about his own desire for revenge], using hell as a way to talk about the human capacity for evil.

But no such moment came. As I read on, it became clear that Bell wasn’t actually looking for a way to talk about the darker side of human nature. Soon after he posits the possibility of a metaphorical hell, he glosses over its significance by suggesting that the “hells” of this Earth are slowly being winnowed away as humans work to remedy social problems like injustice and inequality.

Love Wins succeeded in breaking the silence about hell, and its popularity suggests that a number of evangelicals may be ready to move beyond a literalist notion of damnation, reimagining hell just as God-fearing people across the centuries have done to reckon with the evils of their own age. At the same time, the book demonstrates the potential pitfalls of the church’s desire to distance itself too quickly from fire and brimstone. Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil. Along with hell, the new evangelical leaders threaten to jettison the very notion of human depravity – a fundamental Christian truth upon which the entire salvation narrative hinges.

This resonates pretty strongly with my feelings toward Bell. I first came across him when he was one of the big names speakers at the Greenbelt festival. He delivered an affirmational pep talk replete with pat anecdotes yet lacking much reference to the Bible, God or anything else that couldn’t have equally been used by a lifestyle coach or new age guru. Nonetheless, I gave Love Wins a chance. Or rather I did for the first 100 pages after that I gave up. Never has such a short and breezily written book seemed longer. He just wouldn’t come to a point – any point in fact. It was as if he’d anticipated the backlash and hoped to avoid it by burying his message under reams of platitudes. This was not only infuriating for anyone who likes their writing reasonably direct but seemed to negate its value as evangelism. How was anyone new to Christianity supposed to detect that within this book was something new. Rob Bell obfuscating about there being no damnation must sound an awful lot about an Alpha Course avoiding discussing the opposite.

Why focusing on benefit tourism will actually reduce public faith in the immigration system

Left Foot Forward has an insightful review of David Cameron’s speech on migration. It highlights that many of the proposed measures such as stopping people claiming child benefits for children living outside the UK. But there’s a fundamental mismatch between the limited scale of benefit tourism and what Cameron claims to be able to achieve by tackling it:

It isn’t credible to say numbers are the problem and then tout a benefit crackdown as the solution

This goes back to the first point: if you want to bring down the numbers coming to Britain, and if very few of those coming to the country are claiming benefits, then it follows that a crackdown on benefit tourism isn’t going to significantly reduce immigration. In the long-run this kind of rhetoric increases public distrust in politicians: the public may have a slightly distorted interpretation of how many migrants do claim benefits but they aren’t stupid: they do understand that people overwhelming come to the UK to work.

Crackdowns on ‘benefit tourism’ have become almost a bi-monthly phenomenon; and yet the number of migrants entering the country continues to rise. At some point the public will put two and two together. Nick Clegg is right to say that ‘over-promising and under-delivering’ does damage to public confidence in the immigration system.

To help the world’s poor we need to think small

A roundabout water pump. This superficially appealing notion has become a standard example of the naivety and hubris of many Western interventions in poorer nations.

Why do so many aid projects that seem so impressive at a small scale, fail so spectacularly when they are scaled up?That’s the subject of one most interesting and important articles I’ve read in a long time. In it the aid worker Michael Hobbes reflects on his profession. What he recounts is not pretty: expensive medical equipment sent to villages without the electricity to operate it, small studies in Kenya used to justify not giving Indian children textbooks and charities that plunge themselves into chaos by slashing their internal administration so they can claim to have low overheads. Hobbes suggests that all these examples arise from the development sector’s pursuit of a single formula for lifting people out of poverty which can be rolled out wherever people are in need. This, Hobbes argues, is unrealistic: poor societies are complex and varied, and will respond in a highly individual fashion to interventions. This leads him to a sobering conclusion:

I’ve just spent thousands of words telling you all the ways the incentives of donors, recipients, and NGOs contradict each other. Why not just scrap it altogether?

Because I don’t think that’s the conclusion these examples suggest. I think they suggest something much less dramatic: It’s not that development is broken, it’s that our expectations of it are.

First, let’s de-room this elephant: Development has happened. The last 50 years have seen about the biggest explosion of prosperity in human history. China, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, Mexicothese aren’t the only countries where you’d rather be born now than 50 years ago. Even the poorest countries in the worldBurundi, Somalia, Zimbabweare doing way better on stuff like vaccinations and literacy than they did earlier in our own lifetimes.

You sometimes hear this Cambrian proliferation of well-being as an argument against development aid, like: “See? China got better all by itself.” But the rise of formerly destitute countries into the sweaters-and-smartphones bracket is less a refutation of the impact of development aid than a reality-check of its scale. In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?

Development, no matter how it happens, is a slow process. It wasn’t until about 30 years after Mao’s death that China’s per capita GDP reached lower-middle-income status. The country’s growth is arguably the fastest of any country’s since we, as a species, started gathering economic statistics. Even in the most cartoonishly successful scenario imaginable, countries like the Central African Republic (per capita GDP: $700, adjusted for purchasing power), Burundi ($600), and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($400) will take decades just to reach the point where China is now.

The ability of international development projects to speed up this process is limited. Remember how I said the deworming project had a 60-to-1 ratio between the price of the pills and the increase in wages for the kids who got them? The increase was $30. Not $30 per year. The kids earned $30 moreover their lifetimes as a result of the deworming treatment. You find this a lot in the development literature: Even the most wildly successful projects decrease maternal mortality by a few percent here, add an extra year or two of life expectancy there.

This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers. Leave the leaps and bounds to computing power. If a 49-cent deworming treatment really does produce a $30 increase in wages for some of the poorest people on Earth, we are assholes for not spending it.

And this is where I landed after a year of absorbing dozens of books and articles and speeches about international development: The arguments against it are myriad, and mostly logistical and technical. The argument for it is singular, moral, and, to me anyway, utterly convincing: We have so much, they have so little.

If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits (direct cash payments, which have shown impressive results in Kenya and Uganda, are a great candidate for the kind of deliberate expansion I’m talking about). NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.

Is he correct? I don’t know enough about development to say. However, the notion underlying Hobbes argument that societies change slowly and unpredictably is one I would endorse. Economic changes often have roots that are centuries old. For example, it seems that the fact that the industrial revolution happened in Europe and not Asia can be traced back to the demographic impact of the Black Death way back in the fourteenth century. We might not want to wait centuries for our efforts to transform the lives of planet’s poorest and it may be that with deliberate planning and greater resources we can do better. However, Hobbes makes a compelling that patience will always be a prerequisite for social change.