Is Joss Whedon trapped in his own mould?

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I have been waiting with great excitement to see what Joss Whedon would do next. I have – with admittedly greater trepidation –  waited to see where the DCEU was heading. That they have converged in making a Batgirl film ought to delight me. Yet I’m rather ambivalent.

That’s partly because there’s a good chance this pairing won’t lead to anything. DC films loses directors faster than my students lose worksheets they are specifically told they will need again. The most high profile case was Ben Affleck departing the Batman but Wonder Woman also had to execute a mid-development switch and the Flash is arguably now on its fourth director.* So if in six months we read that Whedon is off the project then I won’t be surprised.

Even assuming it happens, there would be issues.

For starters, there are broader problems with the DCEU. It keeps turning out awesome trailers and mediocre film. That doesn’t suggest Whedon will be working with the greatest team.

There is also a definite feeling that superhero films with female leads should have female directors. I’m not sure how I feel about that. So I will note it is a potential issue and move on.

What makes me worry is precisely what makes so many people excited: this seems absolutely perfect for Whedon. A guy who is known for making superhero films and projects with strong female characters, now gets to make a superheroine movie. But doesn’t that mean they’ll be a lot of retreading?

I’d argue that we already saw his take on a woman as a superhero. It was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer and there were a 144 episodes of it. Buffy is essentially Peter Parker with stakes rather than spiderwebbing. The show referenced the Marvel universe repeatedly. Indeed, the Avenger’s catchphrase is used more in Buffy than in the entire MCU!

When Whedon became Marvel’s most important writer, he transfused what he’d taken from the Marvel comics of his youth back into the MCU. And as the franchise became the most successful in the history of cinema, the Whedon way of making superhero films became the default template for the genre as a whole. Even after he left the MCU, it still bore his imprint. A scene from Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy feel a lot like Buffy or Firefly with bigger budgets. Combine that with the fact that Whedon seems to have been burnt out by Age of Ultron, and it seems reasonable to wonder if Whedon has given all he has to offer to the world of comic adaptations.

He had been seeming to gravitate towards a very different kind of project. He directed an adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy. He wrote a paranormal romance. And he was at one point talking about his next project being: “a historical fiction slash horror movie about a time when the world was going insane, World War II.”

He described the latter idea as being:

“very different from everything I’ve ever done, except for that it’s exactly the same.”

My fear is that instead of that intriguing prospect, we’re now going to get a film that if not quite ‘exactly the same’ feels a lot like Whedon revisiting terrain he’s already conquered. The result is unlikely to be bad but nor does it feel like a full use of one of nerd culture’s greatest talents.

 

*Given all of this it is remarkable and disappointing that they’ve been unable to lose Zach Snyder

Why the best Korean food comes from the least exciting parts of Korea (Cable from Korea #11)

The Haeundae area of Busan boasts an appealing medley of attractive beaches, impressive skyscrapers and delightful mountains. These impressive assets draw in numerous tourists and make it one of the most desirable places to live in the whole of South Korea.

Ironically, it also has some of the worst food. I say that even though I eat there a fair bit. Like many western expats I go to Haeundae for half way decent burgers or pizza. But, by and large, that’s all you’ll find: fairly expensive meals that are less good than the average restaurant in any town in the US or UK. Look for the cheap and plentiful Korean food that you find in the rest of the country, and you’ll come up empty.

This becomes especially apparent whenever I meet people staying in hotels down there. When a friend from Vietnam visited Busan for an evening and heavy rain stopped us travelling very far, I found myself in the odd position of not being able to find somewhere that did barbeque, bibimbap or kimbap. As around 90% of restaurants in Korea do, this was a) odd and b) frustrating! Even with more clement weather it is still difficult. When my parents were in town, I wanted to take them for ramen but I – and their hotel concierge – simply couldn’t find anything. The nearest substitute they could suggest was massively expensive sushi! I wound up dragging them back out to my commuter, an hour and a half away by subway, to my favourite ramen place.

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It’s not just my opinion that it’s great. No fewer than four people had independently and insistently recommended it to me before I eventually visited. It has featured on Korean TV and people travel down from Seoul to try it.

However, the less remarked on restaurants around it will also do you a stonkingly good meal for the same price as a Starbuck’s coffee.

Tyler Cowen, an unlikely combination of economist and food writer, has explained that there are good reasons for this:

If a restaurant cannot cover its rent, it is not long for this world. According to a 2005 study, more than half of all restaurants close in the first three years of operation, so this is not a small problem. You can lay off kitchen staff when times get tough, or substitute the cheaper tilapia for the fancier and scarcer Chilean sea bass. But rent is a fixed cost, meaning that you have to pay it every month no matter how many customers walk through the door and no matter what ingredients you are serving.

Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values.

In a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show Cowen went further and singled out Korean suburbs as the place where the most interesting affordable food in the whole world is found. Given that Cowen seems to travel the world in large part to eat stuff that is quite a recommendation!

Remainers should take inspiration from leavers

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Article 50 has been triggered. It is still just about possible that Brexit can be stopped. But that seems an extremely remote possibility.

However, Britains who support international co-operation and an open economy should not be despondent. Today’s victors faced a defeat far worse than ours. In 2016, they won the referendum 52%-48%. In 1975 they lost one by a staggering amount: 67% to 33%.

After that they were largely marginalised. The Labour Party continued to oppose EC membership for a while, but it eventually took a hard turn towards Europhillia. At one point it even supported membership of the single currency.

After that the battle for Brexit was largely waged by fringe figures within the Conservative Party and then by the strange band of insurgents that is UKIP.

But now the position has flipped. They are on the fringe and, despite the narrowness of our defeat, we are the fringe.

It is our job to make sure it changes back. When Margaret Mead said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
She probably didn’t have Bill Cash, Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan in mind. But if such an unappealing band can change the destiny of the country, so can we.
So yes, I accept, albeit most unwillingly, that we are leaving. But I see no reason that means we cannot return. The relentless determination of Brexiteers must be an inspiration to us. It took them thirty years to overturn the 1975 referendum. If it takes us as long to reverse the 2016 vote, then we must be equally persistent.

Why both pain and gratitude drive us to pray

A few days back the Rev Giles Fraser had a very good column in the Guardian about praying after tragedies like the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge. In the light of a radio presenter tweeting:

Fraser explains why he opened up his church – only a short distance from the scene of the attack – and invited strangers into pray:

Prayer is not a way of telling God the things he already knows. Nor is it some act of collective lobbying, whereby the almighty is encouraged to see the world from your perspective if you screw up your face really hard and wish it so. Forget Christopher Robin at the end of the bed. Prayer is mostly about emptying your head waiting for stuff to become clear. There is no secret formula. And holding people in your prayers is not wishful thinking. It’s a sort of compassionate concentration, where someone is deliberately thought about in the presence of the widest imaginable perspective – like giving them a mental cradling.

But above all, prayer is often just a jolly good excuse to shut up for a while and think. The adrenaline that comes from shock does not make for clear thinking or considered judgment. Those who rush to outrage say the stupidest things.

Naturally, I agree entirely. The only thing I would add is that because Fraser is writing in the context of a dark incident, he doesn’t touch on a key aspect of praying: being thankful.

Being grateful is really good for you. The Harvard Mental Health Newsletter has reported that:

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

The article goes on to suggest ways of making oneself more grateful: writing thank you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and, yes, praying. When pastors and youth workers teach children to pray, they often use the mnemonic: teaspoon. It helps you remember to say thank you, sorry and please. You see, the Christian tradition demands not only an active prayer life but also one that includes a great focus on being thankful.

There’s been a great deal of research on the objective, scientifically demonstrable benefits of mediatation. That’s led to its repackaging and propogation as mindfullness, a technique that’s now used both as a form of medicine and as an aid to personal development. I wonder if we might see a similar body of research emerge around prayer.

[REPOST] Self-determination is overrated

Secession is a conditional right not an absolute one

An assumption that I’ve seen come up a number of times in the debate around Scottish Independence is that Scotland or any other potential nation has a right to cecede.  While I agree that as a practical matter, Scotland probably can decide to quit the UK and deserves to have that decision respected, that is not a specific example of a general right. I explained why in a post from 2014 written in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

…[l]eaving aside the difficulty of conducting a free and fair election in a region under military occupation, even if a majority of the population in the Crimea legitimately did wish to join Russia this would not in and of itself be enough to legitimate the annexation. For good reasons international law balances the right of a people to self-determination with respect for the territorial integrity of nations.

History furnishes another of good examples of where self-determination was clearly a noxious doctrine. Perhaps most notably the South’s bid for independence during the American Civil War was justified in terms of self-determination. However, virtually everyone would now accept this demand was trumped by concerns for the territorial integrity of the US and the human rights of slaves.

One of the best expositions of the legal issues involved in questions of self determination comes from an opinion delivered in 1996 by the Canadian Supreme Court.* It was asked to deliver a judgement on whether Quebec could unilaterally secede from Canada by voting to do so in a referendum. They argued that international law gave them no such right:

“[A] right to secession only arises under the principle of self-determination of people at international law where “a people” is governed as part of a colonial empire; where “a people” is subject to alien subjugation, domination or exploitation; and possibly where “a people” is denied any meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination within the state of which it forms a part.  In other circumstances, peoples are expected to achieve self-determination within the framework of their existing state.  A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self‑determination in its internal arrangements, is entitled to maintain its territorial integrity under international law and to have that territorial integrity recognized by other states.  Quebec does not meet the threshold of a colonial people or an oppressed people, nor can it be suggested that Quebecers have been denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development.  In the circumstances, the “National Assembly, the legislature or the government of Quebec” do not enjoy a right at international law to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.”

To see why this is almost certainly the right- as opposed to merely the legally correct – position consider the Supreme Court’s Judgement on what allowing unilateral secession would do to the principles underlying the Canadian constitution:

“Quebec could not, despite a clear referendum result, purport to invoke a right of self-determination to dictate the terms of a proposed secession to the other parties to the federation.  The democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole.  Democratic rights under the Constitution cannot be divorced from constitutional obligations.  Nor, however, can the reverse proposition be accepted: the continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.  The other provinces and the federal government would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession should a clear majority of the people of Quebec choose that goal, so long as in doing so, Quebec respects the rights of others.  The negotiations that followed such a vote would address the potential act of secession as well as its possible terms should in fact secession proceed.  There would be no conclusions predetermined by law on any issue.  Negotiations would need to address the interests of the other provinces, the federal government and Quebec and indeed the rights of all Canadians both within and outside Quebec, and specifically the rights of minorities.”

This could be applied to the Crimea in a number of ways. In particular, we should be concerned about what happens to minority populations like the ethnic Ukrainians and Tartars if the province is annexed to Russia.

However, these matters are relevant far beyond the Crimea. For example, they raise questions about the validity of claims for independence by wealthy regions (such as Northern Italy or Catalonia) who resent supporting their poorer compatriots. Therefore, I have sympathy for Madrid’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the proposed referendum in Catalonia.

And while I believe that a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum should be respected, the path to independence would still require negotiation. This means that statements from the SNP about what will happen after independence need to be treated with caution. They cannot dictate the terms on which it will happen and London will have its own objectives in any negotiations.

Self-determination is just one value and it is not (and should not) be some kind of trump card. It has value when it makes democracy possible. However, it is not a valid way for groups to avoid the impact of democratic decisions that have gone against them.

Hat tip: http://opiniojuris.org/2014/03/10/ukraine-insta-symposium-crimea-ukraine-russia-self-determination-intervention-international-law/

Besides the point I made above, I’m unsure how relevant this is to a second Scottish independence referendum. To borrow a phrase from Canada’s Supreme Court justices, I don’t think Britain’s “constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority” of Scots that they wished to leave the UK. And there is no compelling rationale I can see for not respecting their wishes. Scotland is not Crimea, the Confederacy, or even Catalonia.

It does, I suppose, put Theresa May’s decision to delay any referendum until after Brexit  in a more favourable light. If the UK can theoretically block independence altogether, then it stands to reason that it can reasonably have a say in the timing of a referendum to affect it. However, I feel the case here is weak, not least because it seems to deny Scotland the remote possibility of maintaining continuous EU membership.

The folly of English Remainers backing Scottish Independence

Remainers and Scottish Nationalists may have a common enemy in Theresa May’s government. That shouldn’t make us friends.

A few years back, I was an intern at a solicitors firm.* At one point, I was sent to court to help the barrister representing one of our clients in a child protection case. It was a few days. The client was severally depressed and several of her children had already been taken into care on account of her neglect. But she kept having children, and social services was now preemptively applying for them to be taken away from her as soon as they were born. The tragedy was that she wasn’t a bad person and really did want to be a good mother. She just couldn’t manage her own life well enough to care for a child. At the conclusion of the hearing, the barrister clearly sensed that a small proportion of her heartbreak had worn off on me, and took me out for coffee. During the course of it, he made a valiant effort to convince me that family law was not always this bad, which wound up achieving the exact opposite. For example, one of his observations was that “contentious divorce cases are really nasty. They become like knife fights. By the end, both sides are usually bleeding badly”.

Unfortunately, British politics has brought the questions of divorce in the past few days. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced that the SNP will be seeking another independence referendum in the near future.

I regarded the prospect with alarm the last time it was put to vote and was relieved to see my nation survive. It was, therefore, much to my surprise that I found my facebook and twitter feeds filling up with comments from English friends looking to be divorced. They typically said something like: ‘I would have voted no last time, but after Brexit, I feel the Scots should now take their chance to stay in the EU’. Others have gone further and toyed with the idea of a united Ireland, or even an independent London.

At a certain level, I sympathise with this position. Brexit will hurt Scotland, like it will the rest of the UK. And Theresa May, has casually disregarded the views of the almost majority that didn’t want Brexit. Like Cameron before her, when it comes to Europe she prioritises unity in the Conservative Party over unity in the country. I can, therefore, understand a lack of emotional investment in that country on the part of remainers, both in Scotland and beyond.

However, I cannot really empathise. Despite my horror at Brexit, I find the prospect of the dismemberment of my country even worse.

That is partly an expat’s sentimentality for a distant homeland. Leaving Britain for a time has revealed to me quite how British I am. I delight in the delight Koreans and Americans  take in: our accents, our books and TV shows, and in the proudly shown selfies taken in front of our Houses of Parliament. Strikingly, in East Asia the Union Jack has become an omnipresent fashion symbol. It is plastered on clothes, pencil cases and motor bikes. And  each time I see it I smile a little. Or rather, I did. Since Sturgeon’s announcement the sight of my flag has been a melancholy one, for I know the nation it represents will likely only exist for a year or two more.

I do, of course, understand that many feel the same way about other nations. And it is similar emotions about Scotland that turn many Scots into nationalists. However, it is the English remainers that I find inexplicable. How have they concluded that the disaster of a rupture in the European Union is ameliorated, rather than compounded, by also rupturing the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

In the process of repudiating the Brexiteer’s delusions, this group of remainers seems set to replicate them. The process of taking the UK out of the EU is showing that a divorce is never a simple as one would hope: there will be assets to divide, arrangements to be made, and new partners to be located. Which is painful enough if both sides approach it in a practical, good faith manner. But it is the nature of divorces, as my barrister aquintance observed, to turn nasty. They can transform from a search for compromise into a battle for victory. And in the event that happens Scotland and the UK would have plenty of ways to make each other bleed.

If the attempt to extract the UK from a glorified free trade area it has belonged to for 40 years is complicated, imagine trying to break apart two countries that for ten times as long have been part of the same state. The level of integration within the UK massively exceeds that within the EU. You would have to deal with, for example, how to divide up one of the world’s most powerful armed forces, the control of physical territory, and with fiscal transfers an order of mangnitude greater than the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. The morass that Scottish independence could swiftly become far exceeds the potential challenges of Brexit.

Hence when I hear Scottish nationalists asserting that Scotland joining the EU will be a mere formality, or that there will be no border checks between Scotland and England, I also hear the echo of Brexiteer’s glibly saying that the EU will give the UK a deal because they need to sell us prosecco, or that there will be no hard border between the UK and Ireland.

Anger at one act of self-destructive nationalism should not make us into cheerleaders for another. Voting to leave the EU was a mistake, but the price the United Kingdom pays for it should not be death.

 

 

*For non-UK readers: both barristers and solicitors are types of lawyers

 

When politics happens all at once (Cable from Korea #10)

So, what on earth is happening in Korea at the moment?

Rather a lot! Indeed, developments in Korean politics seem to have conspired to happen all at once!

There are three major strands to recent events.

  • Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport. The Malaysian authorities have indicated that he was killed with VX nerve gas and North Korean agents appear to have been responsible. Malaysian nationals in North Korea have been barrred from leaving until Pyongyang is sure that everyone accused by of the murder by the Malaysians is returned ‘safely’.
  • North Korea’s nuclear program continues to agitate its neighbours. Last week it test fired four ballistic missiles. Its capabilities are developing such that, within the near future it will likely be able to target the continental US. Predictably, Washington does not like this. Just a few hours after the latest test, it announced it was accelerating its deployment to South Korea of an anti-missile system known as THAAD. That in turn has upset China, which fears that THAAD’s radar will allow the US to peer into its territory. Beijing has responded by going after Chinese companies doing business in China, and squeezing the number of Chinese tourists going to South Korea.
  • South Korea’s Supreme Court removed the country’s President, Park Geun-hye, from office for “acts that violated the Constitution and laws”, namely encouraging Samsung to pay money into charities controlled by her friend, and purported shaman, in exchange for instructing a government pension fund to vote in favour of allowing two parts of the conglomerate to merge. The news of her final downfall was met by protests both in support and opposition, the latter of which turned violent and resulted in protestors dying.

What connects all this?

I’m hesitant to say anything does. They are distinct phenomenon.

It is tempting for outsiders, to see all South Korean politics through the lense of relations with the North. But domestic factors are at least as important, and Park’s downfall was basically a South Korean affair: her corruption was exposed by other South Koreans, and produced an outcry not only because it was intrinsically objectionable, but also because Koreans had grown frustrated with declining economic opportunities.

Even though it happened thousands of miles away, Kim’s assassination was also basically about domestic politics. It was an act of dynastic housekeeping, that removed a potential rival to Kim Jong-Un, who by the law of primogeniture should have been Supreme Leader.

That said, these developments will feed into each other.

Malaysia is one of the few countries with which the North enjoyed something approaching a normal relationship. Then it used a WMD to kill someone on its territory, and is now holding its citizens hostage to escape the blowback of that decision. Which is the kind of behaviour that leaves you so isolated that you become convinced that you need to build nuclear weapons to survive.

[See also: Setting of a large bomb at one of your ally’s most important monuments]

The South Korean response to that program will probably change along with its president. Park and her conservative party not only agreed to the deployment of THAAD but also tougher sanctions and the closure of a South Korean run industrial park in North Korea. It seems highly likely that her successor will come from a left-wing party and progressive Koreans have traditionally been more sceptical of the American alliance and more willing to gamble on outreach to the North. For example, the front runner in the presidential election, Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in, has indicated that he would ask the American’s to remove THAAD from Korea.

What should I watch for now?

Principally, who becomes the next South Korean president. New elections need to happen within two months. As former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has ruled himself out as a candidate, it seems doubtful that the conservatives have anyone who can stop Moon. Plus, it appears that the right will be divided between pro- and anti-Park parties. It is therefore quite likely that the main obstacle to Moon’s ascension will come in his own party’s primary. If Ahn Hee-jung, a centrist governor who is more equivocal on THAAD, bests him then expect relief in Washington and disappointment in Beijing.

Pyongyang would probably also favour a liberal government in Seoul. So, it will be interesting to see if they act to avoid undermining Moon’s chances. For example, there are indications that the North is preparing for another nuclear test. If it carries it out before the election, then that would indicate that the North either isn’t interested in the party politics of the South, sees its interests differently from how we do, or that the timings of tests are driven by technical rather than strategic considerations.

If Moon or another left-winger wins then relations with Washington are potentially tricky. Trump has previously indicated that he has doubts about the value of the US-ROK alliance. He’s since rode back from that position and its clear that people like his Defence Secretary, James Mattiss, do think that working with Seoul is to America’s benefit. However, I fear that a new left-wing South Korean president might appear ‘insolent’ to Trump, which might bring his petulance to the fore, and could trigger an anti-US backlash in South Korea.

A victory for Moon or another progressive candidate would go against what appears to be the global trend for left leaning parties to struggle. Indeed, combine a Moon victory with Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote in the US, Macron becoming French president, Geert Wilders struggling in the Dutch elections and the Democratic Party retaining power in Italy – all of which seem plausible – then the very existence of the trend would look dubious.

That said the anti-Park movement has been a very populist one, drawing on opposition to the political power of large corporations, so the observation that we are in an age of populism seems vindicated by these events.

Indeed, the often voiced populist demand for politicians and corporate execs to be locked up for their misdemeanours may well come to pass in Korea. Park no longer enjoys presidential immunity, so I would expect charges to be brought against her. Many of her associates have already been indicted. Perhaps more importantly will be the trial of Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung. The conglomerate is the third largest company in the world by revenue, which is a huge deal in a medium-sized economy like South Korea’s, but given the global reach of Samsung’s activities would matter well beyond the Korean peninsula.