Sunday, 22 December 2013

Bits and Bobs

I moved flat this weekend - for the fourth time this year! But this time it's for good (at least for a very, very long time). All this moving is exhausting. I'm glad to have moved in time for Christmas though - it means I can enjoy Christmas day with my family without worrying about flat stuff. The new flat doesn't have the internet though which is pretty painful for me. How am I supposed to know what's going on in the world without the internet?

Well, here's what I've been reading this last week:

- This live, worldwide wind simulation is pretty awesome (and oddly therapeutic). Position the globe so that the Antarctic is in the centre of your screen and it looks pretty cool.

- Here's a fascinating article about putting a sculpture on the moon. It's a shame that the whole endeavour became marred with politics, money and scandal because I love art and I love the idea of art being a part of the space programme.

- Life-size Origami elephant?! Yes please!

- This article articulates what I have thought for a long time regarding the Lord of the Rings and, more recently, the Hobbit films - New Zealand, while beautiful, doesn't look like the Middle Earth that I had in mind when reading the books. Peter Jackson should have stuck with the landscapes that Tolkien had in mind when filming: the dank and old countryside of Yorkshire and Ireland.

- I love this article about writing about women in science. By focusing on their gender, we do a disservice to their contributions to science. This is obviously applicable to women in all male-dominated fields but this article is wonderfully argued.

- I've often heard/ read that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14. Usually this little factoid is trotted out every time someone wants to say something about body acceptance or the need for greater diversity in Hollywood or fashion. However, as someone who has seen numerous Marilyn outfits at assorted Hollywood costume exhibitions, I know that this is a lie. Marilyn Monroe was tiny! Here's an article looking at the myth of Marilyn's body size and why her love of books is more important than her dress size.

- There are so, so many articles every week about Millenials. However these articles are always about the Millenials living in the Western, liberal world (mostly America) and lack any kind of global context. This great (and somewhat depressing) article tries to remedy this oversight by looking at the Millenials coming of age in Syria.

Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Criticising the Hobbit and Exploring Tolkien's Feminist Credentials

I saw the new Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, yesterday and I, unsurprisingly, have opinions. I’m a huge fan of Tolkien’s books and I think when you’re a fan of a book you can have two responses when that book is then adapted into a film: either you hate it irrespective of quality because no film can ever compare to the film that played out in your head when you were reading OR you love it despite its flaws because you’re just so pleased to return to a world that engrossed you for hours. I suspect that I probably fall into the latter category because I could tell that the film was flawed (so very, very flawed) but I still found myself enjoying it.

The first Hobbit film was infamous for making people sick with its super high definition, frenetic camera work and its frantically paced action scenes. This film is definitely an improvement in this regard but Peter Jackson still makes some odd choices with the shooting of certain scenes.

The constantly moving camera in some sections is disorientating. The camera will sweep, while pivoting, over characters as they move through scenes, making it virtually impossible to follow the characters or the action. I don’t remember this being a problem for the Lord of the Things trilogy but the swooshing, swirling camera is frustratingly persistent here. Why has Peter Jackson suddenly decided that dizzying camera movements are the way forward?

And when did Peter Jackson get so keen on close-ups? There are so many shots of people’s faces really, really up close and I can’t quite figure out what these shots are supposed to show except that Peter Jackson has a really nifty camera.

Cinematographic criticism aside, what about the actual story? After the first Hobbit, I don’t think anyone was really surprised that this second film is not particularly faithful to the book. I personally don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, starring Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller, is such a poor adaptation of Jane Austen's novel that I tend to think of it as ‘inspired by’ the novel rather than an actual adaptation. I can still enjoy it as an Austen-inspired, regency romp, just not as a book adaptation.

I think it’s best to view the Hobbit films in the same way. The original book is pretty short so by making the decision to turn it into three films, it is inevitable that there’s going to be a lot of additional stuff thrown in there. Most obviously, a lot of characters that were not in the original book have been added to the films, like Radagast the Brown, Galadriel and Legolas. But for the Desolution of Smaug they have not only added Tolkein characters where they don’t belong, they’ve invented a whole new character! A lady elf!

The introduction of a new female character was a welcome move to me. As much as I love Tolkien’s books, they are woefully devoid of female characters. I was really surprised while reading an interview with Hobbit screenwriter, Philippa Boyens, when she said that, “Tolkien writes brilliantly for women.” Really?! Has Philippa Boyens actually read Tolkien?

When the Lord of the Rings books were made into a film trilogy, the female characters of the books were all substantially bolstered. This makes sense because modern audiences and critics expect the inclusion of female characters, even if they are often rather shallow. A lot of time and energy is spent dissecting the portrayal of women in films and Swedish cinemas have just introduced a film rating that judges a film on its gender bias. So Peter Jackson wisely took the virtually non-existent female characters from the books and made them into actual characters.

Out of all the female characters, Arwen is the one that is altered the most from books to films. That epic horse chase with Arwen carrying an ailing Frodo away from the Nazgul? Not in the book. Arwen’s internal conflict over whether she should go with her fellow elves to Valinor or stay in Middle Earth? Also no. Arwen is a complete non-entity in the books. Other characters mention her and how beautiful she is but that’s pretty much it. So I have no problem with Peter Jackson plonking her in an action sequence and giving her an internal conflict over her future.

Galadriel’s role is essentially the same in the books and the film. Galadriel is adored because she’s beautiful – that’s pretty much it.

And then of course we have Eowyn. Eowyn is a sword wielding, Witch-King killing badass in both the books and the films, it’s just that her part is obviously bolstered in the films. Eowyn feels stifled by the gender expectations of her society, she’s good with a sword, and she defies her father to go to battle. So you could perhaps argue that Eowyn shows that Tolkein can write feminist characters but you would be wrong. At the end of Return of the King, Eowyn meets Faramir, they fall hastily in love, and Eowyn declares that her days of shield maiden-ing are over. The book makes it sound like being a badass is just a phase that women go through while waiting for the perfect man to turn up.

Peter Jackson made the right choices in the Lord of the Rings films in bolstering the roles of the female characters and I think the introduction of the female elf character, Tauriel, in the Desolation of Smaug was a good idea as well. And they haven’t just added a token female character; she’s actually quite interesting. She’s a competent fighter who can hold her own like any of the male characters and she’s conflicted in her responsibility to her people vs her desire to help the people beyond the borders of her home. Since the Hobbit films have A LOT of characters, she’s about as developed as she could be. I just hope she’s developed through the next film and not just sidelined and forgotten.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Bits and Bobs

This Bits and Bobs post is a little late because I spent the weekend with friends in Nottingham and didn't touch a laptop or peruse the internet once (which was nice for a change). It is perilously close to Christmas - trying not to panic about all the things I still need to do. Here are some interesting things from the last week to check out:

- This 1993 article about Osama Bin Laden is mental

- Here's a fascinating article looking at male friendship and why men don't have close friends in the same way that women do.

- These ice sculptures and ice buildings are amazing!

- I love these very classy, very French posters giving instructions on how not to be insufferable on the underground

- Read this article if you've ever told anyone that the Oxford comma is unnecessary.

- This folk cover of Katy Perry's 'Roar' is great - I wish it was the whole song and not just the first verse.

- Perusing the Everyday Sexism Project website can be pretty disheartening but these comebacks to harassment are hilarious. I am definitely going to try the last one.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Is Smog Egalitarian? Chinese State Media Seems to Think so

China as depicted by Disney World - it may be fake but at least my lungs are safe...

There’s been a lot of news coverage recently of the terrible pollution problem being endured in a number of Chinese cities. On 6 December, the highest possible health warning for Shanghai was issued, with pollution levels reaching 20 times what the UN deems safe for humans to breathe in. Flights were cancelled, children were forced indoors and visibility was reduced to mere metres.

To put a merry spin on this epic public health crisis, CCTV, the state television network, has published a column outlining five ‘unexpected gains’ brought by the smog. These include: smog has united the public against a common enemy, it’s given the nation time to reflect on the consequences of its economic boom and, my personal favourite, everyone’s sense of humour is coming out as people turn to jokes and sarcasm to deflect from the crisis. Western media outlets are finding the whole list a bit hilarious since it seems somewhat absurd to think that health-ravishing haze is improving Chinese people’s English-language skills (number five on the list).

Out of all the points though, for me, the most interesting was number two: the suggestion that air pollution is a great equalizer, poisoning the lungs of both the rich and the poor. The idea that massive environmental catastrophes are egalitarian is one that I’ve encountered numerous times, most notably in the work of esteemed sociologist, Ulrich Beck. However despite this argument being quite widespread, it’s also incorrect.

In Beck’s renowned book, Risk Society, he defines the current late modern age as one in which human and technological productivity has led to the reduction of material need. However the growing productive forces of modernisation have also unleashed new hazards and potential threats. The threats that characterise late modernity are things such as radioactivity, toxins and pollutants that evade human perception. They cause systematic, geographically dispersed harm but are mainly invisible. So, for example, while a volcanic eruption is a highly visible and localised event, radiation is invisible and its effects far-reaching.

In agreement with the Chinese television network, Beck also argues that late modern risks are egalitarian. As he pithily surmises: “poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic.” Smog clouds don’t distinguish between rich lungs and poor lungs, they poison each equally. Beck concedes that wealth and class do play a part in the distribution of risks. For example, risks from radiation and toxic chemicals are connected to working in industrial plants, work associated with the lower classes. However, ultimately, the risks of late modernity are unavoidable irrespective of class due to their invisibility and their wide reach.

Beck makes a good point that working in certain industries will increase your exposure to risks and that these occupations tend to be dominated by the lower social classes. However I think Beck understates the ability of wealth to mitigate risk. Beck argues that, “in the water supply all the social strata are connected to the same pipe.” But what about all the rich people who can buy and import bottled water? Or all the rich people who can move away from areas with toxins in the water or pollutants in the air or encroaching sea levels, living instead in plush chalets on idyllic mountain-sides? And while it’s true that smog poisons the rich and poor equally, the rich can afford significantly better healthcare and thus the consequences of the smog are reduced. Not only are risks not evenly distributed but their consequences are not universally endured either.

I realise that the CCTV column is just a light-hearted attempt to bring some optimism to a grave situation but by describing environmental disasters as egalitarian, it absolves the originators of risks of their responsibility. The late modern, Western world creates most of the world’s pollution and yet it’s the poorer countries that are paying for it. While America and Europe unthinkingly pumps CO2 into the air, Bangladesh and Thailand are struggling to cope with ever-rising sea levels and increasingly catastrophic natural disasters. Describing environmental catastrophes as equalisers suggests that we all bear equal burden for resolving the disaster but it’s the wealthy, polluting nations that are creating the risks and therefore they should be the ones striving to nullify them.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Why The Hunger Games are a Terrible Method for Political Control

Foucault is judging you Susan Collins...

So I saw the latest Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, this past weekend. As someone who dislikes children and loves war, this is pretty much the ideal franchise for me. I also love a good dystopia. In fact I think dystopia may be one of my favourite genres. But while I think the films are great, the actual Hunger Games, as a method for political control, are a terrible idea.

For those who haven’t seen the Hunger Games films or read the books, the continent of Panem is run by a totalitarian regime centred at the Capitol and surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. As punishment for a past revolt, every year a boy and a girl ('tributes') are picked at random and sent to the Capitol to fight to the death in the titular Hunger Games.  

This is an utterly ridiculous method for maintaining political control. Why take children as tributes? Why make them fight to the death? Why have a victor rather than just killing them all?
To answer these questions, lets take a look at the sociologist, Foucault, who wrote a lot about punishment and systems of power.

According to Foucault, for executions to be effective as political tools, they require three things: 
  1. A public confession of guilt. Punishment cannot be seen as random or capricious; it needs to be linked to the guilt of the perpetrator. 
  2. Linking the punishment to the crime. So, for example, scaffold for hangings was constructed near or at the location at which the original crime had taken place, thus linking the punishment with the crime geographically. Another method for linking the punishment with the crime was the use of ‘symbolic’ punishment. Blasphemers had their tongues cut out or murderers had a hand removed. 
  3. Spectacle; It was important to see the criminal suffer.

So obviously the Hunger Games has the spectacle part sorted. The games are televised and there’s a big build-up before the games with processions and tv interviews. The tributes have their own stylists and they are tarted up and paraded in front of the frothing spectators of the capital. The Hunger Games themselves are also spectacular in their raw brutality. Foucault explains that the spectacle of the public execution has an obvious political use because it shows that the sovereign is all-powerful and capable of unleashing his or her mighty wrath upon the guilty. When a criminal breaks the law, it is not just a crime but an attack on the sovereign whose responsibility it is to introduce and uphold law and order. A punishment is therefore an act of the sovereign and a public punishment is a visible demonstration of the sovereign’s power.

But the other two components are largely absent from the hunger games.

There is no confession of guilt because the children cannot possibly be guilty for a rebellion that happened 70 odd years ago. The tributes are also picked at random which further diminishes their culpability for the crime for which they are being brutally punished. Punishing the children can therefore only ever be seen as unfair. You could argue that the districts have some sort of collective guilt that’s passed through the generations but this implies a superstitious or religious society (i.e. a belief that there is a ‘soul’ or some other ethereal entity beyond the physical body which can be tainted) which doesn’t fit with Collins’s portrayal of Panem as a largely secular society.

Finally, there doesn’t seem to be a particular link between the punishment and the crime. There certainly isn’t a geographical link because the location of the games changes each time. You could maybe argue that it’s fitting for the districts to be forced to fight each other since they tried to fight the Capitol but this seems a bit of a symbolic stretch. The format of the games seems to be completely divorced from the rebellion for which they are apparently a reminder.

So the hunger games only fulfills one of the three essential elements that Foucault lists for a politically effective execution.

In the first film, there is a scene between President Snow and Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker, where they discuss why the hunger games are used. President Snow says something about how giving people hope, but not too much hope, is what keeps people in line. He offers no evidence or reasoning behind this somewhat bizarre claim and were I Crane I would have insisted that Snow provided a more detailed explanation of his theory (ideally with appropriate citations and references). 

Unfortunately, Crane does not challenge Snow into providing a more intellectually rigourous explanation for his seriously underdeveloped theory of political control. Instead Crane changes the rules of the game so that two tributes can win the games instead of one. Thus Peeta and Katniss can both win. This is, ostensibly, to give people hope because everyone loves a romance story. But the rules are then inexplicably rescinded right at the end of the games so that one of them has to kill the other. What is this madness?! There is no way you could make this sort of last minute rule change without invoking everyone’s collective ire. Having changed the rules to allow for two victors, you can’t just change the rules again because this kind of capricious application of rules just offends people’s socially conditioned sense of fairness.

So I guess the conclusion is that the Hunger Games is a great film about a highly flawed political tool. Perhaps President Snow should take a gander at Foucault, then he would know that, “the great spectacle of punishment runs the risk of being rejected by the very people to whom it is addressed.”

Go read Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish' - it's awesome...

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Bits and Bobs

This last week has been pretty grim but I'm sure next week will be better. I have my first ever Office Christmas party, which I think will be fun (free food!), and then I've taken the second half of the week off so I can frolic in London's fairy-light festooned streets. I am yet to start Christmas shopping - beginning to panic a little.

- Want to see famous art galleries recreated in gingerbread? Yeah you do! Traditional gingerbread houses will now forever disappoint you.

- Check out these amazing photos of the Grand Canyon filled with fog - apparently a pretty rare occurrence requiring very specific weather conditions.

- Here's an interesting article about fact checking online media and whether we are seeing a drop in journalistic standards now that new sites are just copying stuff off twitter rather than carrying out traditional investigative journalism.

- I thought this was an interesting comparison: over at The Cut they have photos of women draped and camouflaged in their homes whereas at The Guardian, they have photos of women hidden behind curtains to get their children to stay still for photos. I thought it was interesting how very similar these two sets of photos are despite having two very different intents. Maybe it shows that homes and children are both equally capable of making women invisible.

- You have to see these photos of monkeys relaxing in a hot spring in Japan - genuinely made my week.

- Why are computer games the domain of men? Slate looks at home limited marketing budgets in the early days of computer consoles forced companies to focus on only one demographic and so they emphasised the masculinity of games. Now that women are increasingly playing computer games, marketing is having to change to accommodate this change.

- This report about so-called 'natural' differences in the brains of men and women has been popping up all over the internet this week. This article is probably the best critique of the report I've come across. It's always good to remember not to just accept scientific reports as fact just because we put a lot of stock in the infallibility of scientists.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Why is J Crew so Popular? Bloomberg Businessweek gets it wrong

This article came out a week ago but I've only just discovered it and it has made me grumpy. So J Crew has just opened its first store outside the US in good ol' London-town. As a lover of overpriced preppy clothing, this was pretty exciting for me. Bloomberg Businessweek's magazine covered J Crew's London opening as its cover story for this week and I think it's pretty poor.

The first paragraph describes the store's opening night party and the people seen perusing the bejewelled cashmere and velvet loafers. In describing the British shop patrons, Emma Rosenblum comments that everyone's hair "is chicly disheveled, as are their teeth." Oh, how amusing! It's a joke about British dental care! Well that's original... Once Rosenblum has got the obligatory, 'hilarious' national stereotype joke out of the way, she can move on to discuss fashion while demonstrating no understanding of the history or context of the fashion industry. 

Rosenblum goes on and on about J Crew's 'American Style' and how grateful Londoners should be now that J Crew has decided to export its 'American Style' to the fashion deprived shores of Europe. This is obviously madness. J Crew's style is so British it's utterly ridiculous to suggest that J Crew is bringing a new style of American garb to London. What typifies the J Crew style? Generally - tweed jackets, leather boat shoes, Oxford shirts, cable-knit jumpers and schoolboy satchels. Essentially, J Crew shoppers want to dress like they attend a British boarding school. So how is this an American style? Rosenblum even mentions hand-knit Fair Isle sweaters as a staple of the J Crew style; she realises that Fair Isle is in the UK right?

What also annoyed me, and which shows a worrying lack of market research from a company planning on embarking on a sizeable expansion in the UK, is the suggestion that J Crew is bringing a better shopping experience to the UK. According to the article, J Crew suffered 'staffing issues' with their new UK stores. J Crew prides itself on the 'store experience' and, apparently, it has been hard to find the right salespeople in the UK. In the Bloomberg article, Jenna Lyons (J Crew's Executive Creative Director) elaborates on these issues by saying that for a superior store experience, sales assistants need to be more proactive. Assistants can't just stand around; they need to suggest alternative items and encourage shoppers to check out stock online. Therefore the team has imported staff from America to train British employees how to be more engaging with the customer. I find this frustrating because American salespeople are unbearably irritating. It's impossible to go into a shop in the US without being immediately surrounded by pushy, chattering, grinning shop assistants. No, I don't want you to "set up a dressing room" for me. No, I don't need help with sizing. Just bugger off and let me shop in peace! And I don't know a single other British person who doesn't find American shop assistants clingy and invasive. So I'm sorry J Crew but you do not offer a superior store experience, at least not to grumpy Brits who like their personal space and strongly dislike talking to strangers.

I don't want to belittle the amazing success of J Crew. I love J Crew and it has unquestionably become incredibly successful over recent years. But this article doesn't really explore what actually makes J Crew so popular. The article suggests that J Crew's success comes from the fact that it's selling a style that is completely new and American. J Crew is actually selling a fun, modern twist on old-fashioned European classics. J Crew sells traditional European garb (British and Scandinavian knitwear, Oxford shirts, British Saville Row suit tailoring, Italian leather shoes) but with quirky, modern touches. So you have your tweed jacket that looks like you just stepped off a Norfolk farm, but it has fluorescent pink piping and jazzy buttons. You have your Oxford blouse, but it has a jewelled collar. America is currently having an Anglophile moment. The raging popularity of Downton Abbey, Benedict Cumberbatch and pretty much anything produced by the BBC shows a definite trend in American culture of idolising Britishness. The article even compares J Crew to Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, two other labels that use an olde English aesthetic as their main selling point. I'm sure this trend will pass but for now, brands like J Crew are capitalising from America's yearning for a a whimsical interpretation of British heritage.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Bits and Bobs

This Bits and Bobs post is a little late thanks to a pretty hectic weekend. My American flatmate has brought Thanksgiving into my life and we spent all Saturday preparing for an epic feast (then Sunday sleeping it off). The turkey was perhaps the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Succulent, butter-roasted poultry aside, here are some interesting things I've read this week:

- A little confused about the recent negotiations with Iran? This article provides a nice summary.

- The Atlantic has a really interesting article discussing how our environment can make us more prosocial, compassionate individuals.

- When watching Mad Men I can't help but be distracted by just how much everyone's smoking. Want to see the cigarettes in Mad Men replaced with party blowers? Of course you do!

- Are you excited for the new Hunger Games film? Here's an article looking at whether the economy of Panem is feasible in real life. And if that's not enough to satisfy your Hunger Games cravings, here's a really great interview with the costume designer for Catching Fire.

- An opera was staged inside an LA train station - the pictures look epic.

- I love Doctor Who with a fiery passion. In honour of the recent 50th anniversary, here's a great article looking at the top 25 Doctor Who moments from the last 50 years

- Mental health and artistic genius seem to come hand in hand. But what about physical health? This fascinating article looks at how lead poisoning affected the great art legends.

- Now that it's December, you may be planning on escaping the chill with a Christmas holiday. If you are, take a look at these pictures of the scariest airport in the world and be thankful that Heathrow, while crowded and grim, is not perched precariously on a mountain.

- Remember when Rush Limbaugh thought that Batman: The Dark Knight Rises was an anti-capitalist, liberal conspiracy? Well that was clearly madness. Didn't he realise that the hero of that film is an entrepreneurial millionaire whereas the ones fighting the banks are the villains? How is that undermining capitalism? Anyway, I was reminded of Limbaugh when I read this article discussing Superheroes and why they are fascists

And here's the most beautiful turkey I have ever encountered to explain why I was too busy this weekend (first too busy eating and then too busy in a food coma)...