Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s alright. I suppose.

My spoiler free review of Batman v Superman.

I tried to go into Batman v Superman without having seen any reviews. I already knew I was going to see it, so there seemed little point in doing so with someone else’s preconceptions in my head. That proved to be impossible. The avalanche of critical disdain was strong enough to sweep into the mainstream press and social media and was near impossible to avoid. I therefore, went into the cinema knowing that a lot of people were decidedly unimpressed.

I can definitely see where they are coming from. Batman v Superman, provides plenty of material for a bad review. The plot is disjointed, the first half has its moments but is quite a slog and Wonder Woman’s role feels rather tacked on. Some scenes are baffling. There’s a decided lack of subtlety and the film takes itself more seriously than it has any right to. Oh and it has more endings than bloodly Return of the King.

Frankly, director Zack Snyder had $250 million and some of the most iconic characters ever created at his disposal. He had the material for an amazing film but only made something passable.

That does not, however, make it the disaster a lot of reviews have presented it as. Far from it. It’s generally quite enjoyable, at least once it gets going. Snyder’s visual style may be over the top but they do impart grandeur to the proceedings. The Batman-centric action sequences are more brutal than anything this side of Daredevil and possess an engaging physicality. That makes them not only entertaining in their own right but also a valuable counterpoint to the CGI heavy battles that revolve around Superman. The battle between the two of them is quite remarkable. What follows after that doesn’t match it but it’s good enough to keep you satisfied through the multiple false finishes.

Crucially for Warner Bros, who are using this film as the launch pad for a whole fictional universe, the characters worked. Sure, Cavill is a bit bland as Superman but frankly unless you are Christopher Reeve (or Chris Evans?) it’s hard to make a paragon interesting. Fortunately, Amy Adams is there to do a lot of heavy lifting in his sections of the film. And they play into the Batman half of the film in an interesting. I liked Affleck’s older, more grounded and nastier take on the character. Like Keaton and Bale’s version, he is dealing with trauma. However, this time his temptation is not madness or despair but cynicism and cruelty. That allows Superman’s monotonous nobility to serve a purpose: this alien messiah is a prerequisite for Bruce Wayne’s re-enchantment with humanity.

As I’ve already mentioned, I felt Wonder Woman’s presence was rather perfunctory and could have been lost without unduly diminishing the film. Indeed, had this been a Marvel film I suspect she would have turned up in the post-credits sequence rather than the film itself. But while she was there, she was good value. Her entry into the final battle with Doomsday – accompanied by music that sounds like it was composed by the Doof warrior from Fury Road – is the film’s only airpunching moment. Her lack of dramatic moments makes it quite hard to judge how well suited Gal Godot is to the role but at least she projects the right air. And the effect of underusing the character in this film is that I’m intrigued by her solo outing. And that may well have been the idea. It’s also possible that her true identity was supposed to come as a shock but the marketing department blew it.

Summary: 6/10 – Yes, it’s a disappointment. No, it can’t hold a candle to the Avengers or the Nolan Batman films. But it’s not the disaster you’ve probably read that it is. In fact, it’s a pretty creditable blockbuster. Nonetheless, it’s well past time to replace Snyder as director. Nobody loves what he’s done with the franchise but plenty of people hate it.

The most surprising poll I’ve seen in ages

After Bernie Sanders surprising victory over Clinton in the Michigan Primary, the New York Times reported:

No Democratic presidential candidate had campaigned in Traverse City, Mich., in decades until Senator Bernie Sanders pulled up to the concert hall near the Sears store on Friday. Some 2,000 people mobbed him when he arrived, roaring in approval as he called the country’s trade policies, andHillary Clinton’s support for them, “disastrous.”

“If the people of Michigan want to make a decision about which candidate stood with workers against corporate America and against these disastrous trade agreements, that candidate is Bernie Sanders,” Mr. Sanders said in Traverse City, about 250 miles north of Detroit.

Mr. Sanders pulled off a startling upset in Michigan on Tuesday by traveling to communities far from Detroit and by hammering Mrs. Clinton on an issue that resonated in this still-struggling state: her past support for trade deals that workers here believe robbed them of manufacturing jobs. Almost three-fifths of voters said that trade with other countries was more likely to take away jobs, according to exit polls by Edison Research, and those voters favored Mr. Sanders by a margin of more than 10 points.

The Clinton campaign has been sufficiently worried that Sanders is profiting from his protectionist stances that she’s come out against the Trans Pacific Partnership that she negotiated as Secretary of State. Now that’s not that unusual: Democrats have traditionally been the more sceptical of the two parties when it comes to free trade.

What is weirder is that the Republicans are getting in on the act. Trump is border-line obsessed with the idea the trade deals the US has negotiated with Mexico and China put it at a disadvantage. Ted Cruz seems to be following his lead.

Given this upsurge in the political power of anti-trade populism, I’d assumed: a) that the American electorate was generally hostile to free trade and b) had become more hostile of late.

That was until I saw this article by Matthew Yglesias. He looks at the Gallup polling on American attitudes to trade and finds that since 2012, Americans have gone from being more or less evenly split on whether it was a ‘threat’ or an ‘opportunity’  to a clear majority saying the latter.

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What has changed is that “over the course of the Obama administration, Democrats and independents have become more enthusiastic about trade than ever before, while Republicans have developed mixed feelings“.*

If I had to speculate what was going on, I might suggest that this represents an economic issue being subsumed into the cultural divide between the party. Increasingly being a Democrat means being cosmopolitan and perhaps that primes them to look favourably on building trade links with foreign countries.

 

*I slightly disagree with Yglesias’s reading of this. My cursory look at the data suggests that the balance of opinion on trade among Republicans is roughly the same now as it was at the start of Obama’s presidency. The fall off in their support seems to have happened in the Bush years. Nonetheless, the switch in relative positions between the Republicans and the Democrats is clear enough.

A sugar tax probably would work and indeed has worked

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Don’t argue about the sugar tax like it’s never been tried before.

I have seen a number of articles about the sugar tax that argue or even assume that it will fail to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. What these arguments tend to overlook is that these kinds of taxes have been tried in other jurisdictions. The Economist reported last year that:

Some worry that retailers may absorb the tax rather than passing it on to customers, thereby obscuring the signal governments are trying to send; others, that higher prices will not lead to a change in behaviour, but will simply sap the incomes of the poor in particular.

A working paper by economists at the French central bank, the Sorbonne and the University of Paris-Est Créteil found that retailers passed on nearly all of the French tax. A working paper on the Mexican tax by Raymundo Miguel Campos-Vázquez and Eduardo Medina-Cortina of the Colegio de México, a university, finds that retailers there went even further, raising prices for soft drinks by 30% more than the real value of the tax.

Higher prices, in turn, do seem to have crimped demand for fizzy drinks. FEMSA, Coca-Cola’s Mexican bottler, blamed declining sales in 2014 on the price jump that followed the introduction of the tax. A monthly manufacturing survey found that overall sales of fizzy drinks fell by 1.9% in 2014, having increased by an average of 3.2% a year over the previous three years (see chart). Another study, based on household surveys rather than industry data, shows an even stronger effect: it found that consumption of sugary drinks fell by 6% relative to pre-tax trends over the tax’s first year. Some data suggest that Mexicans switched to healthier alternatives. The manufacturing survey shows that sales of bottled water jumped by 5.2% in 2014.

It is also worth noting that taxation appears to reduce alcohol and tobacco use. Of course these precedents imply rather than prove that a sugar tax will reduce demand but you can’t just ignore them if you don’t like the policy.

Face it Sanders fans: your guy is on the mat

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I spent much of the early stages of the Democratic Primary blogging about how Sanders was a much less formidable opponent for Hilary Clinton than much of the media coverage suggested. I confidently predicted that he had basically no chance of winning the nomination and would be lucky to win anywhere other than than small states in New England with lots of white liberals.

As it turned out he has got lucky. He’s now bested Clinton in 9 states, the majority of them outside New England. Equally importantly, he’s expanded his base to include the low-income white voters who were resolute Clinton supporters in 2008. I clearly underestimated him and I think for that reason I stopped writing posts dismissing his chances.

But the time to begin again has arrived. I do this as a service to my Sanders supporting friends.* Every good result he achieves seems to send them rushing to Facebook to announce that this showed the momentum was with Sanders and that the only reason the media…sorry the corporate media…couldn’t see that his victory was a realistic prospect was their willful blindness. Are they really saying that he’s doomed when he’s winning Maine by a 30% margin or triumphing in big swing states like Michigan?

To which I reply: indeed I am. Far from the gaining momentum, he’s fallen behind and is running out of ground over which to make up the distance.

He may have won 9 states but Clinton has won 19. And while he has won in big states and won by big margins, he’s never won by a big margin in a big state. Clinton has done so repeatedly. Clinton’s lead amongst Texan delegates is almost three times larger than the total number of delegates from Maine. That means Clinton is currently is not only ahead, she’s ahead by a lot – like 300 delegates worth.

And because a chunk of states have voted already, things are actually worse for Sanders than you many would assume. He not only needs to start winning more delegates than Clinton, he needs win enough to erase the delegate lead she’s amassed in the states that have already voted. Vox’s Andrew Prokop sized up the mountain he has to climb thus:

Here’s how rough the math is for Sanders going forward: to win a majority in pledged delegates, he needs to win 58 percent of those remaining.

That might not sound so bad. But because all the Democratic contests allot their delegates proportionally, it’s actually punishingly difficult.

It means Sanders has to beat Clinton by around 58 percent to 42 percent pretty muchconstantly. And that’s just incredibly implausible given what’s happened so far, and especially given what’s happened tonight.

Even unexpected wins for Sanders in big states like California, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey — already unlikely — wouldn’t be enough. Sanders has to win those states by enormous margins.

And there are still a great deal of delegates left in states and territories with large nonwhite populations — states with demographics similar to those that have favored Clinton so far. These include Maryland, Arizona, New Mexico, and even Puerto Rico (which Clinton won in a blowout in 2008).

Which is not to say it’s impossible. Stranger things have happened. Like say Donald Trump being the Republican frontrunner. And even if Sanders doesn’t win, he will have palpably altered the terms of the debate within the Democratic Party. And given that his young supporters are likely to be voting for a long time to come, they may well reshape the party in his image.

But back here in the present, Sanders is  clearly not beating Clinton, nor is he gaining on her, his chances are fading fast.

I underestimated the man but I wasn’t wrong about him. Part of the reason I was so sure in my initial assessment was that I had a huge margin of error. Sanders could substantially outperform my expectations and still lose. That’s what we are seeing come to pass.

 

*What you don’t believe me? You dreadful cynic!

Cables from Korea #4: my brush with North Korea

 

2016-02-26 11.27.02.jpgGenerally, the end of the Cold War has made many international borders considerably less dramatic. There was a time when going between East and West Berlin, or Mainland China and Hong Kong meant facing the risk you’d be shot. I’ve done both journeys on the metro without any special paperwork. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula is an exception.

It is generally a mistake to see the frozen conflict between the Koreas as an extension of the Cold War. Rather than being the Stalinist holdover North Korea is often assumed to be, it makes sense to see it as a replica of Imperial Japan: a totalitarian state obsessed with racial purity and built around a hereditary figurehead who is treated as divine. Nonetheless, when you go the border who really do feel like you’ve stumbled into the Bridge of Spies. There are guard towers, razor wire fences and even a Checkpoint Charlie.

As you might imagine the experience of visiting the nascent battlefields of a potential third world war can be both disturbing and surreal. The most obvious and brutal irony is that the 250 km long Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that splits the Korean peninsula is enveloped by three of the largest armies in the world. A fact you are aware of throughout the trip. Our coach was regularly sandwiched between trucks packed with gun wielding soldiers. Our passports were probably checked half a dozen times. Where you can take photos is severely restricted, apparently for fear North Korean spies get hold of them. Many of the roads were lined with heavy blocks and ‘Czech hedgehogs’ that make them impassable for tanks. On a similar theme, the American soldier who accompanied us for part of the trip told us that some of the bridges we were driving over were rigged with C4, so they could be destroyed if that proved necessary to prevent the North Koreans crossing them.

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Offsetting all of this is the strange fact that the DMZ is in effect the world’s largest bird sanctuary. Humans stay out, so wildlife gets the chance to thrive. I’m no birdwatcher but I nonetheless managed to spot some impressive eagle and cranes.

The most disturbing fact about it all is that it’s less than hour’s drive from Seoul. Indeed the anti-fence that keeps out North Korean infiltrators begins before the city ends. That one of the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world is 30km from a totalitarian nightmare is not only a brutal irony but makes you fear for what would happen if there ever is a war.

During the day my group saw a number of things:

  • One of the tunnels the North Koreans dug to try and get under the DMZ;
  • The Bridge of No Return over which the prisoner exchanges at the end of the war were conducted;
  • The Dora observatory from which you can – using binoculars – see into North Korea and the Kaesong industrial complex that was mothballed followed the recent nuclear tests; and
  • And final South Korean stop on the dormant Seoul-Pyongyang rail line.
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Note the contradiction between the two boards.

However, the most evocative place was the Joint Security Area (JSA). As its name implies the rival militaries generally have to stay out of the DMZ. But in the JSA they come face-to-face. Literally so; the American and South Korean soldiers based there have to wear sunglasses because this stops them making eye contact with their North Korean counterparts and thereby reduces the number of fights that break out.

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The conference rooms at the JSA. The building in the background is North Korean. If you look closely you can see a North Korean soldier in the doorway.

From a tourist’s point of view, this is your opportunity to actually see North Koreans. While you are kept a fair distance away, you can nonetheless spot North Korean soldiers standing sentry in front of their base. According to the GI showing us around, while American and South Korean soldiers are rotated every few hours, the North Koreans have to stand guard for 24 hours at a time without a break; a small but telling example of the disregard with which the system treats the individuals within it.

At the JSA there are a couple of conference lines which span the border line. They exist to allow the two sides to hold meetings. But they also give tourists a chance to go ‘into’ North Korea. That’s of course true in only the most technical sense. A South Korean soldier enters the room before you do and locks the door from the inside. They then stand guard to prevent you from trying to get through into North Korea properly. Nonetheless, for a moment you are north of the border line and therefore in territory that is in some sense North Korean.

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North of the border line

As artificial experience as this clearly is, it’s nonetheless humbling. Talking about ‘the line between freedom and tyranny’ seems uncomfortably George W. Bush like to me. But in Korea such a line is very real and in the JSA you can not only see it but actually cross it.

Put the Now Show out of its mediocrity

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The show was great but is now banal and complacent. It’s time for Radio 4 to ditch it.

I can understand why the commissioners at Radio 4 want to keep the Now Show going. It’s an institution. It began airing when Clinton was in the White House and has clocked up a remarkable 44 series since. It is one of the channels most recognisable programs and the live recordings are very popular. And most of all it has produced some phenomenal comedy.

Take this wonderfully vitriolic skit about BT by Marcus Brigstocke:

Or John Finnemore cutting to the core of the Eurozone crisis in the funniest way possible:

Or loads of stuff from Mitch Benn:

Nonetheless, the show’s existence should not be dragged out into a second Clinton presidency. When I listen to new episodes my main impression is how stale it’s become. After two decades, Punt and Dennis seem to be on autopilot and lacking in new ideas. A joke whose punchline can’t be guessed by the halfway point is a rarity indeed.

I meant to write this piece a week ago. However, last week’s episode made so little impact that by the time I began drafting, I’d forgotten what was in it. So this week I made a particular effort to remember what I heard. And you know what? I still can’t find much to say about it. It keeps going for half an hour because it needs to not because it wants to. The best part was Mitch Benn returning for a song about the recent spate of celebrity deaths but it felt like something produced by a Mitch Benn tribute act rather than the man himself. In recent years the best parts of episodes have often been the guest comedians. This week Jessica Ransom had some good material about Sam Smith incorrectly claiming to be the first LGBTQ person to win an Oscar and she was the only person to bring any sense of freshness (or indeed diversity to the proceedings). But she meandered and was undermined by her doubts about whether or not to skewer her subject. For the remaining twenty or so minutes Punt and Dennis just seemed to be avoiding dead air. They seemed out of their depth trying to do a Stewart/Colbert style interview with an academic expert on AI. Overall, it just reinforced my impression that the show now aims for polite chuckles rather than proper laughs, and can only get those with jokes that are apparently delivered by rote.

Despite this the Now Show remains one of the greatest shows in Radio 4’s history. Nonetheless, if something has ‘Now’ in the title, it can’t seem stuck in the past. If Punt and Dennis have mentally checked out, they should be encouraged to actually do so. The Now Show might seem like a dependable staple but these days its achieving consistency mostly in mediocrity. It’s time for the BBC to go on the hunt for a new format with some new talent and a renewed edge.

Cable from Korea #3: decidedly fishy

Visiting Jagalchi fish market

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When I was eight or so, I insisted on my parents decorating my bedroom with fish wallpaper. They agreed to this, presumably in part because they loved me but I suspect mainly because it was an easier request to comply with than getting me a pet shark – which I was also constantly asking for. Suffice to say my younger self was really – and randomly – into marine biology. I wish I could have taken him to Jagalchi fish market.

Strangely given that I live in the mountains, it is a little odd that I can get there on the metro. But while Busan may reach up into the mountains, it’s the sea that defines it. For example, the roads are packed with lorries carrying shipping containers bound for places like Barbados. It even has a Maritime Museum. So it’s fitting that one of the main tourist attractions is somewhere selling fish.

 

Like an enormous amount of fish. There are dozens of stalls on two floors (plus the streets outside) each with shelves, tanks and boxes jammed with all kinds of aquatic life. As well as the kind of things that come to mind when someone says fish, I also saw octopuses, lobsters, crabs the size of coffee tables, plaice, eel and some rather gross looking sea worm things. There’s also a floor of seafood restaurants and a whole other market devoted to dried fish. But that’s less interesting because by the time fish are dried they don’t squirm, gulp or in the case of one enormous crab appear to be climbing out of their tank.