Star Wars Review – the Profiteer’s Awaken

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I got to see Star Wars over the holidays and unfortunately it confirmed what I’d feared, J. J. Abrams has made an even bigger mess of the Star Wars universe than the mess he made of the Star Trek universe. How can he do any worse than blowing up Vulcan you say? Well let’s just say he likes to blow up planets! The plot was way too predictable, almost a remake of the first film….and by that I mean a New Hope.

And its not as if they were short of good material for a more interesting script. One key question for the fans was whether the new film would tie into the so-called “Expanded Universe”of star wars. This relates to a large volume of material built up by other projects, TV series, web series, computer games and the novels of authors such as Timothy Zhan which expands beyond the films. The Zahn novels in particular extend matters 25 years past the battle of Endor. In these novels he introduced a number of new characters, such as Han Solo and Leia’s children, Mara Jade (who initially starts off as an enemy of Luke, but eventually becomes his wife, making her a much more credible character compared to the “good/bad guy” template of most star wars characters) or Admiral Thrawn (a military genius and major villain in the post-Emperor era).

So clearly had they simply adapted some of the expanded universe material, or built on it, a much more compelling script could have been established. And in some respect’s I would argue that what they did was simply plagiarise the Expanded universe….badly! Kylo Ren is clearly based on Darth Caedus of the expanded universe, Rey is clearly based on Raina (oh! Spoiler alert, this means they may be shown to be related in the next movie!) and the “first order” is clearly based on the Imperial Remnant of the novels.

I can only assume the plan was to rip off the expanded universe to save them the bother of having to write a script, but change enough to save them having to pay royalties to the likes of Timothy Zahn. It is, to say the least, strange to be trying to avoid spending a little bit more on a script for a film with a budget in the hundreds of millions. Its like doing the Harry Potter films, but to avoid paying J. K. Rowling her cut, changing his name to Parry Hotter and his adventures in Doghorts university and his sidekicks Helminey Vixen and Dom Working-class-weasel.

This isn’t going to go down well with fans because one of the nice things about the expanded universe is that made some attempt to fill in the enormous plot holes in the movies (some of my favourite ones here). e.g. why did the Empire collapse so quickly just because the Emperor died?

Well in the expanded universe the Empire faced almost as many internal threats from rogue Admirals and corrupt Grand Moff’s as it did from the rebels. Recall the main reason the Emperor wanted the Death Star was to keep his own minions in line. At the same time as the battle of Endor, the aforementioned Admiral Thrawn was hunting down the rogue Admiral Zaarin who had attempted to usurp the emperor’s throne. So two of the Empire’s most elite units were too busy fighting each other to fight the rebels. Inevitably, with the Emperor and Vader gone, there was nothing to hold the Empire together and it gradually disintegrated. In the Expanded universe, it didn’t disappear straight away, it took the rebels several years to push them out of the core systems and a large Rump state called “the Imperial Remnant” still existed 25 years after Endor.

Okay, still a bit rusty, but better than the movie explanation, death star blows up… likely killing all the Ewoks (a primitive race of spear throwers who managed to take on an army with tanks and guns? don’t get me started!) and rendering their planet uninhabitable….empire over, cut to the after party.

But suffice to say that the new movie has opened up so many obvious plot holes its going to be impossible to fill. Once I saw Chewbacca it was obvious that the Expanded Universe had clearly just been flushed down the toilet (oh, spoiler alert, he’s supposed to have died 5 years prior to the events in a Force Awakens…so presumably he’ll be killed off in the next movie). And the plot of the new film is so formulaic and predictable I could pretty much tell you the plot of the next two films right now.

This is unfortunately the consequences of the modern mass media. Where the plot is altered for marketing purposes (why do you think they put all those Ewoks and Droids in? So they could sell toys!). Consider the changes already made to the original Star wars films. Indeed the reaction of Star Trek fans to J. J. Abrams first film has been to devote more efforts towards “fanfiction”, essentially the fans have taken over the story.

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Such films are getting ever more elaborate. A major Star Trek feature film called Prelude Axanar” is actually being produced via kickstarter funding, which the studios are trying to stop for violating copyright.

This suing your fans is generally a bad sign. It reminds me of the fate of TSR. They were a wargaming company whose products were very popular in the 80’s, but not very profitable. Anyway a number of suits took the company over and began to aggressively market their products, including sending out cease and desist notices to fans who published their own content for free on the internet. Needless to say they quickly alienated their best customers and eventually the company collapsed, being rescued by a rival, whose first course of action was to introduce an open gaming license on their products.

The Force Awakens is therefore another example of a script written by corporate marketeers and a triumph of style over substance….not that there was much substance in Star Wars anyway, which has always been more space opera rather than science fiction (hyperdrives? The force? Blasters? And don’t even get me started on exhaust ports!). But suffice to say the next two films will be more of the same, big explosions lots of CGI, until audiences loose interest.

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weekly roundup

Been ill with a cold and now the flu :oops:, tiss the season I suppose! Anyway, a round up of a few of the week’s stories.

Syriza
Its worth reflecting on the victory of Syriza in the recent Greek elections. Radio 4’s John Humphry‘s, who has a son in Greece, has done a number of pieces on the hardship of ordinary Greeks in recent years. If you’re wondering why so many Greeks voted for Syriza, its worth having a listen.

As I’ve been saying since the beginning of this crisis there has been a distinct lack of leadership within the EU. The EU’s one shot solution to all ills has been, until very recently, austerity with much tightening of belts and privatisation of public services. The end result is that listening to the ECB has tended to remind me of that scene in father Ted where they organise a disco and play the same record over and over again. Needless to say the Greeks have decided the time has come to change the record.

In part this has to be blamed on the German Chancellor Angel Merkel, who is a fairly risk adverse and unimaginative politician. To Merkel doing something radical would involve changing her brand of toothpaste, living dangerously would count as having cornflakes for breakfast rather than porridge! Also there has been a tendency to not consider the economic and political consequences of austerity, which has seen much hardship for ordinary Greeks and a rise in support for many radical parties.

Ultimately, the concept of solving Greek’s debit crisis using austerity alone was flawed from the beginning, as this assumed that Greece would one day be in a position to pay off its debts. As Syriza have been pointing out there seems to be no economist in the world who believes that was ever going to happen. This was an unspeakable truth that nobody in the EU, nor the Greek government would say , because they feared the consequences.

It is for example worth reflecting on the differences with the Greek bailout and, say the bailout in Ireland. In Ireland, it was never the Irish governments debt that was the issue. It was the huge amounts that Irish people had privately borrowed (approximately ten times Ireland’s GDP! as compared to an Irish government debt a tenth of that!) from banks and international lenders to fund the property bubble. Prior to the crisis the Irish government had been posting surplus budgets year on year, even when Germany and the UK were reporting deficits and doing so despite a string of tax cuts over the course of the boom.

In essence the Irish bailout was a case of a bridging loan to tide the Irish government over until it de-toxified the private debt mountain, and got people working and paying their taxes again. In theory, this should enable the Irish to pay off its debts, although the crash has left a lot of Irish in a precarious financial situation.

The situation in Greece however was very different. And given that the Greek debt has actually increased since the bailout its quite clear that austerity isn’t working and never was going to work. If this was an individual or a company, then this is the point where bankruptcy proceedings would start. Creditors need to realise that lending money involves an element of risk, after all why else do they get to charge interest? So in such a situation, Greece would settle its debts to the best of its ability, paying off what it realistically could, with the rest of the debt being written off.

However, this hasn’t happened in Greece, there’s been some debt write down, in the form of a “debt swap” back in 2012 , but that’s about it. Previous Greek governments feared heading down this road as it could lead to them being kicked out of the Euro. While the rest of the Eurozone feared that it would undermine the credibility of the currency, quite apart from the fact that the bulk of those euro’s are owned to other parts of the Eurozone.

So in short, anything Syriza does can’t be any worse that what the prior regimes have done. My concern however is that I’m worried if they understand the risks they are taking, or the consequences of engaging in what will effectively be the negotiated bankruptcy of a country. Particularly as Syriza has made various populist, but outlandish promises, ranging from creating hundreds of thousands of jobs to free electricity to cutting property taxes (the sort of thing left wing governments are usually imposing!).

How exactly the Greeks will be able to afford these measures isn’t explained. They could only do so by borrowing money, at least in the short term. But in the event of a debt write down, nobody, not even their eurozone allies, are going to be willing to lend them money. This again, is normal in any bankruptcy proceedings, nobody is going to lend you money (other than Wonga) if you’ve a pile of CCJ’s to your name. That’s why you should generally avoid going bankrupt at all costs! As Robert Peston at the BBC points out, the speed at which the Greek economy could collapse, if the ECB cut off the life support, is pretty swift.

The Greek’s could leave the eurozone and return to the Drachma, then simply print money, but that would wipe out the pensions and savings of most Greeks, as well as bring down their entire banking sector, quite apart from the normal problems caused by hyper inflation. I don’t want to have to be avoiding Ryanair flights to Greece because I can’t squeeze all the Drachma’s I’ll need for the taxi to my hotel into my hand luggage!

Inevitably there’s going to be a need for compromise. The Troika need to realise that holding Greece over the fire is not going to result in them paying anything, when they clearly don’t have the means to do so. There is a need for a little bit of European solidarity here. But equally, a need for a bit of realism from the Greeks. They can hardly be expected to see money lavished on them at the same time their creditors are having to take a fairly hefty hit.

My concern is therefore, what happens if one or either side refuses to compromise. The consequences are likely to be Grexit. And while I tend to doubt the more extreme UKIP fantasies of what happens after that, it is likely to have a pretty disastrous effect on the Greek economy (out of the frying pan and into the fire) and a knock on effect on the European economy, including the UK.

Syriza also have this strange thing about Russia and Putin, which is not entirely explained.

Rise of the Populist parties?
The victory of Syriza has also had the media speculating that this might signal a radical change in European politics, whereby new parties populist parties begin to take over from the old guard of politics.

I think its important to remember however, that there is nothing new about Syriza. They are pretty much saying the same things they’ve been saying since before this crisis even began, its just the presentation is a little different and given the massive mess Greece is in, more are willing to listen.

Similarly, as I discussed recently, there is nothing new about UKIP. Their message isn’t that much different from that of the likes of the BNP or the EDL. The presentation might be different, they tend to prefer talking in code, rather than being more openly racist. But essentially dress Enoch Powell up in a cheap suit, put a pint in his hand, make him laugh occasionally and you’ve got Farage.

And Sinn Fein, who have gained a lot of support recently, as I discussed in a prior post, haven’t changed their message or core policies since 1920. The reason for this upsurge in support is driven by a lot of angry and confused people, taking it out their frustrations on a ballot box.

So yes its possible we’ll see populist parties figure in future governments. But its worth remembering that they are advocating polices that are actually quite old and not very new. So anyone expecting instant miracles is going to be sorely disappointed.

Election debate
Cameron and the Tories appear to be running scared from any debates in the run up to the next election. It started off quite amicably, once they learnt UKIP would be invited, they insisted the SNP would be included. Okay, makes sense, would be silly to exclude the ruling party of Scotland, particularly if the debate was held in Scotland, or the topic of Devo Max is likely to feature.

Then Cameron insisted that the Greens come along. Again, fair enough, they represent an obvious counter to Farage. While I won’t expect them to feature in every debate, but then again I’d be against the SNP, UKIP or the lib dems being invited to all of them either. But its reasonable to include them to some degree.

However now Cameron wants ALL the major parties to be invited, the Unionist, Sinn Fein, SDLP, the Welsh Nationalists, etc. I mean while we’re at it why not invite the Monster raving loony party, or how about George Galloway? By the time they all introduce themselves the debate will be over. I also have this vision of Galloway getting Farage in a headlock while Nicola Sturgeon tries to give him a Glasgow smile, as Miliband and Clegg take it in turns to give Cameron wedgie’s and the Unionists try to march their “traditional route” past the podium of Martin McGuinness, while the Welsh and the Greens sit in the corner discussing rugby and minted lamb :)).

The reality is that debates run counter to the Tory election plan. To those on the right they plan to point out that Farage is an insane racist and a fan of Enoch Powell. And to those who don’t read the Daily Mail, the Tory message is to point out that Cameron looks much better while eating bacon rolls….assuming they put some caviar in it first!

The danger with a TV debate is, that there’s likely be many “I agree with Miliband/Farage moments” and as a result they are very likely to lose support, no matter how the debate goes.

Education woes
One of the battle grounds in the election could be education. This doesn’t bode well for the Tories, as there is a growing view that their policy of favouring academies has not had the benefits that the Tories claim.

This is important, given that the Tories policy is to push any school that is “failing” into the category of an “academy” or “free school”. This robs the school from any local government control and hand that control over, more often than not, to various Tory party cronies and public school boy chums. It kind of makes Thatcher’s great milk snatch pale in comparison, given that they now seem to want the entire school.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has also been proposing a cut in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. I would dismiss criticism of this policy from various overpaid “Jonty De Wolfe” types in academia, who are clearly more worried about the gravy train they’ve profited from coming off the tracks, than student welfare. Much as we can ignore the opinions of a tax dodging head of Boots.

However the BBC’s Sean Coughlan has a more intelligent criticism of this policy. He points out that its the issue of student loans to pay for maintenance, plus the fact that said loans seldom cover all a student’s living costs, that is the major cause of stress on household budgets. In other words, cutting fees may not deliver all the benefits that Labour, or their supporters in student unions, suggest.

Not an issue
Those on the right have been making hay out of the brutal beating of a university law lecturer by POLISH criminals 88|. However, if you’re wondering why the Daily Mail hasn’t been interviewing him, its because he doesn’t agree that this the attack on him should be seen in that context, that it has little to do with immigration. There is a need yes, to deal with criminals crossing borders. But the solution to this (as he sees it) is more co-operation with EU partners not less.

Churchill
Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the funeral of Winston Churchill….and no I’m not talking about the dog from the insurance ads! ;D Inevitably, the Tories, who have a nasty habit of excessive hero worship, tried to make a big deal out of it.

Such behaviour is dangerous as it often leads to a warped tabloid style view of history. To say that Churchill had his flaws is to put it mildly. He was, as some critics have pointed out, a racist who considered non-white races (or Catholics) as inferior. The first gassing of the kurds may well have been launched by the British in the 1920’s, not Saddam, acting under orders from Churchill, who endorsed the use of gas to put down rebellions in Afghanistan and Kurdistan, as well as against Russian forces during the civil war.

It is perhaps ironic that he is known as a great war time leader. In the first world war, his actions led directly to the disaster at Coronel. This occurred because Churchill vetoed the sending of reinforcements to the British forces in the Falklands, against the advice of the admiralty. Churchill seemed to be more worried at the time in preventing a German born aristocrat friend from loosing his job at the Admiralty than fighting a war. Fortunately, after the battle, the RN was able to rush several ships south to save the Falklands before the Germans could attack the Islands directly. Churchill was also involved in planning of the mess otherwise known as Gallipoli.

And he only became PM in 1940 because of the British military mess in Norway ….that again had Churchill’s finger prints all over it! This would be a bit like G. W. Bush resigning in the middle of the financial crisis only to be replaced as President by Alan Geenspan!

And above all else, there was his role in Ireland. As I discussed in a prior post, he was involved in undermining the case for Home rule by loudly proclaiming that Westminster would renege on its pre-WWI commitments to implement it after the war was over (playing right into the hands of the IRA). The Black and Tans who terrorised Ireland were also his idea.

This behaviour had many long term implications, Irish independence became a matter of time rather than a possibility. Britain’s credibility was undermined in many corners of Empire, which probably played a role in the break up of the Empire later. Irish neutrality in WW2 was largely a consequence of the Irish seeing an alliance with the man responsible for the burning and looting of Cork as being little different from that of an alliance with Hitler.

Churchill has his high points but its also important to remember he had his flaws and certainly made many mistakes, as is the case for many historical figures. There are, for example, many Irish who hold up De Velera in the same light as Brits look on Churchill. However, to describe Dev as a “flawed” character is to put it mildly. One could argue the Irish civil war was largely a consequence of him putting his pride before country (he refused to sign the oath of allegiance…until it became politically convenient to do so!). He also often seemed to be more interested in scoring political points against his rivals (such as Churchill!).

If you want to promote a one sided propaganda version of history, then I recommend you watch the film “Churchill – the Hollywood years”….with Churchill played by…Christian Slater….well its got a good song!

The Fat Dictator

The big pre-Christmas story is of course the distinct lack of Christmas cheer coming out of North Korea. The hermit state is accused by the US FBI of instigating a politically motivated hack attack against the Japanese company Sony, in order to pressure Sony into halting the realise of the satirical film “the interview”.

The situation has now brewed into a full blown political crisis, with insults being traded by both sides and North Korea making its trademark threats of “terrible consequences” if the crazy little cheese munching dwarf in Pyongyang doesn’t get his bottle. Unfortunately, while Pyongyang denies it, the facts do tend to stack against them, notably given that the language used by the hackers, sounded suspiciously like the stuff we’re used to hearing out of the NK propaganda ministry.

Of course Sony, a company not exactly famous for brilliance in cyber-security, has hardly escaped criticism. The information leaked by hackers included e-mails which revealed Sony’s policy of unequal pay, less than gratifying comments about leading celebrities and mismanagement of employee’s personal details, something that’s likely to lead to class action lawsuits.

Sony claims that they cancelled the film due to fears over “safety” and that theatres were refusing to show it. But this is contradicted by a number of independent cinemas. Not only were they prepared to show the movie, but when Sony showed reluctance, they proposed showing instead “Team America – World Police, in order to give the two fingered salute to “the young general” and his cronies…only for Paramount (owner of the copyright) to close ranks with Sony and effectively censor a film that’s been on general release for nearly a decade.

In short, its very probable that, Sony’s real motivation for cancelling the release of the interview was simply a way of making all these negative stories just go away. As the vulture put it “The Interview was no longer the hill that Sony wanted to die on”.

Indeed, some of the leaks revealed Sony were nervous about the film, even before the hacking started. Leaked e-mails show back and forth exchanges between Seth Rogen and Sony management, regarding the final death scene of Kim Jung-un, something Seth has himself commented on prior to the hack. It seems that Sony wanted him to tone it down a tad.

Unfortunately, Sony didn’t count on this act of intellectual cowardice provoking an even bigger backlash. Making fun of vane dictators is a tradition that goes all the way back to the day of Charlie Chaplin’s “the Great Dictator”. Kim-Jung-il was himself mercilessly satired as a platform shoe wearing, ronery, alien coachroach in disguise. Saddam was the main object of ridicule in the Hot Shots films, Frank Drebin took down the Ayatollah and Gorbachev in “Police Squad: the Naked Gun”. And the satirical puppet show Spitting Image was well known for mocking many dictators (notably Gaddafi) as well as western politicians (notably Gaddafi’s nemesis, Ronald Reagan).

Sony’s climb down, along with prior backtracking and self-censorship by newspapers over the whole cartoons of Mohammed fiasco, means that now all any totalitarian dictator needs to do is issue some random threats via some anonymous e-mail account and criticism of his regime will be swiftly silenced. In effect the reach of police states such as NK and Saudi Arabia now extends right up the White house lawn and across the grass of parliament square.

Indeed another film about North Korea has also been cancelled by another Hollywood studio as a consequence. It is thus for good reasons that this incident has to be seen in serious light, as it represents a roll back of artistic freedom to a pre-1930’s level.

Fortunately Sony, realising they’ve vastly worsen their position by acting so cowardly, are talking about releasing the film on “other platforms”. As a consequence Kim Jung-un might be on course to learn a lesson in the so-called “Streisand effect”, whereby a film that would have probably been overlooked by many, will now gain a wider audience.

And that’s bad news for him, as there were many reasons for North Korea to want to suppress this film, not least of those being that Kim Jung-un is not in as a secure position as his predecessors. There would be a certain irony of course if the Kim regime were brought down by a mere movie, given how enthusiastic his predecessor was in his support for NK’s film industry.

That said, NK has long engaged in a policy that the CIA insiders often refer to via the acronym CFC – Crippled, Fearsome, Crazy. Knowing they could never win a conventional shooting war with South Korea, let alone the US and its allies, the Pyongyang crazy gang have long embarked on a strategy for survival which involves appearing to be dangerously unhinged, thus convincing the west to leave them putter in their poverty stricken sand box.

So while its possible, they tipped their poker hand bluff a little too heavily this time, it might be worthwhile considering this incident along those lines.

Blogging Catch up

As always, a busy time for me, had to go travelling for a bit to meet students on placement, one or two job interviews, some conferences, etc. So no time for blogging, so time for a catch up…

How can 4,352,251 people be so dumb?
Of course the big political story of the last few weeks was the European parliament elections. The results showed a jump in support for UKIP. Of course this had the tabloids (who are largely to blame for this given their tendency to blame foreigners for everything) both dancing a jig, but also having kittens over the obvious threat this poses to the Tories chances of re-election, given that the main loser to UKIP was the Tories.

Of course inevitably the result will be the Tories panicking and inventing more laws to clamp down on the perceived threat of “migration”. Of course as I pointed out in a prior post, its questionable if the UK has anything to fear from migration (the tabloid myths simply don’t stack up when you examine the statistics) and indeed that UKIP’s solution (leaving the EU) is unlikely to have any effect in curbing it.

One has to consider the negative economic effects. Migrants into the UK tend to be of working age who contribute more to the UK economy in taxes than they take out in the form of services, so the consequences if lots of them leaving is likely to be a drop in economic activity, tax take and inward investment.

And similarly the effect on the UK economy of the UK leaving the EU is likely to be negative. And far from this restoring powers to parliament, the result would be that the EU will continue to pass many of the UK’s laws, except now the UK government will have no authority to overrule or veto those laws, as it will have to implement them without question in the interest of maintaining a free trade agreement with the EU. And even before the UK was out the door, its likely the EU would have its pound of flesh by imposing “crippling” terms on such a deal to the detriment of traders in London (this probably explains why UKIP did so badly in the capital itself!).

And as I previously mentioned the integrity of the United Kingdom itself could be threatened by a “in/out” referendum. Euro-scepticism is a largely English phenomenon, its interesting to note the marked difference between polls in England and those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where UKIP did not do nearly as well. UK independence Party? They should call themselves the English Bankruptcy Party.

And of course, contrary to what the tabloids would have you believe there seems to have been no real change in Brussels. The EPP (centre right) will, looking at the results, likely form an alliance with the liberals and centre left and carry on regardless. Indeed given that the pro-EU parties (of both right and left) will now need to co-operate more rather than squabble, the chances of the euroskeptics or the Tories getting their way is actually reduced. The EPP is proposing to make a Federalist the new EU commission president.

In part this is because politicians in Europe understand what is going on here far better than those in Britain. A good deal of UKIP’s support is the usual anti-establishment populism which has been seen in other EU countries before. Generally such parties do well, until they get the slightest whiff of power….and then collapse! Obviously it’s easy to throw rocks when you’re the guy outside the glass house. Furthermore as I’ve illustrated many of UKIP or the other far right parties proposed policies are simply unworkable and would be hugely unpopular with the very people who support them (next time someone says we should have an in/out referendum point out to them that this means taxes going up, you’re mortgage or rent going up, cuts to pensions and the NHS, etc.).

Indeed one need only look at the drumming the previous flavour of the month that was the BNP took in this election (losing both they’re seats), to see what’s in store for UKIP longer term.

But in short the many who voted for UKIP perhaps need to take stock of their actions. Where you really voting for further xenophobia and bigotry? Did you really want it made harder for the UK to negotiate with the EU? And do you really want these sorts of nutters we see in UKIP as you’re local councillor? Already one’s gone due to racist remarks he made :crazy:.

We had the same thing happen in Ireland last election. Many didn’t want to vote Fianna Fail (the party in government) due to the mess they’d gotten the country into. So many went and voted for Sinn Fein. When asked why they didn’t vote for someone sensible like the labour party or Fianna Gael instead they’re response was “oh they’re too left wing”…so they voted instead for a party to the left of not just the labour party but many of the socialists instead !?! :??:

Cleg Phobia
Of course a perfect example of how this anti-government populism can backfire when said party gets into government can be demonstrated by the liberal democrats… although we should really now refer to them as the liberal democrat (note lack of plural!) as they’re down to just one seat in the EU now.

“Cleg mania” seems to have been replaced by “Cleg phobia”. There’s been calls from within his party to resign and even a very typically liberal attempt to oust him which amounted to fisty cuffs at ten paces.

Would the lib dem’s do better in the next election without Nick Clegg? I doubt it. The problem is that they are the victims of the Tory policy of using them as a shield against public opinion. Of course several years means that this shield has now been cut down to a small buckler.

If the lib dems are to survive the next election, they need to set out their stall and put clear blue water between themselves and the tories. I’d even consider, if I were them, challenging the Tories on some issue (say bankers pay or the 50p tax) and essentially either forcing the Tories into a climb down or walking out of government and triggering an early election.

Housing bubble
There is more evidence of a growing housing bubble within the UK. Prices are set to rise, which risks worsening already dangerous inequality within the housing sector, between the “have’s” who got on the ladder at the right moment and the “have not’s” who for various reasons didn’t. This situation will only get worse with new lending rules which make it harder for anyone without a fixed income, such as those on contract type jobs, to get a mortgage, even if they are actually better paid than someone on a regular salary. And of course if this bubble bursts the consequences will be another recession and a crash, except this time there will be no bailout.

And it seems likely the Tories are deliberately provoking this bubble in the hope of creating a spurt of short term growth to make their numbers look good before the next election…even if the whole economy crashes shortly after. While they’ve been keen to claim that their help to buy scheme isn’t contributing to the bubble, there’s lots of things they are doing which clearly are contributing.

A policy of very low interest rates and quantitative easing into infinity for example. This means that anyone putting money into savings is getting hammered. I was slow to set up an ISA this year and then realised I shouldn’t have bothered. I would have actually been better off just converting it all into Euro’s and putting it into my current account in Ireland. As the Euro is gaining value against the pound, this would have netted a better return than the interest on any British savings account. With these realities facing them it explains why many have been putting money into property instead.

The government’s options (labour, tories or the lib dems) unfortunately are either to be a little unpopular now or very unpopular tomorrow. They have to either interfere to try and stabilise the property market, even try and bring down the costs of homes (by for example mandating that a certain percentage of all housing developments in London must be either council flats or affordable homes sold off at a discount) or try and discourage the sort of “casino landlords” who now dominate the housing market. And of course, raising interest rates would help by both making buy to let’s more expensive and risky, but also encouraging savings.

The only other alternative is wait for the crash and face the situation we face in Ireland (or in places such as Spain and Greece), where many live in negative equity, tied to property they can’t sell (without losing hundreds of thousands) and can’t rent out without supplementing the mortgage from their own income….which means they can’t retire, even if they’re past retirement age!

More bad news for universities
One thing that gets to me as a lecturer is how universities have become ever more commercially orientated to the point where some are probably more corporate, greedy and money grabbing than many corporations, led by an increasingly unacademic corporate culture.

And one of the areas where we see this at its most ferocious is the issue of student recruiting. While most of my students are pretty good, I sometimes wonder where the university finds some of them. Some have dubious if not non-existent qualifications, can’t do the basics such as applied maths (critical for an engineering degree) and no motivation to work.

Well the Guardian has a piece out demonstrating some of the practices of recruitment teams at a London university. This includes recruiting people who can barely read and write, or have zero computer literacy skills or indeed hanging around outside job centres or tube centres like a bunch of spiv’s. A previous expose from the Guardian talked about lecturers giving classes to virtually empty classrooms (paid for by the taxpayer) as part of some elaborate student loan scam.

The student fees policy has had many negative effects. Its led to much inequality, with a divide between those who can afford to go to uni via the bank of mum and dad, those who will have to scrape by on a student loan (they’ll likely never repay) and those who can’t hope to ever go to uni regardless of how bright they are. But this corrupt commercialisation of universities is actually the thing that worries me the most, as it threatened to kill the golden goose which the UK’s universities have been for the country.

I’m sometimes tempted to invent a new sport, university executive fights. It works much like cock fighting, you put two university vice chancellors or recruitment agents in a cage, toss in a fiver and watch them tear each other apart for it! :))

Noah
I missed that film Noah the other month, although that’s probably just as well. The idea of Russell Crowe as Noah makes about as much sense as casting Bruce Willis to play Jesus (Die Hard with a Crucifixion? :>>) or Schwarzenegger to play Moses (Hasta la vista Pharaoh? :)) ).

Oddly enough this film was criticized by both the religious right and the atheists. Naturally the Richard Dawkins brigade were against anything remotely religious as a theme for a movie. On the other hand the religious right criticised the film for NOT mentioning God. They also felt that the film pandered to namby pamby environmentalism, which they are effectively allergic too.

Of course one has to bring up the matter of the Ark itself. As others have pointed out, the idea that you could get by with just two of every animal ignores everything we know about genetics and evolution. And the ship Noah would need to hold all those animals, insects, plants (trees wouldn’t survive being submerged underwater), fish (ditto fresh water fish) and birds would be colossal, bigger than any ship ever built to date (nevermind how they all got to the ark…trees and fish can’t walk and kangaroos can’t swim!).

Indeed even building the much smaller boat mentioned in the bible would have represented a serious engineering challenge. Wooden hulled boats like the Wyoming (largest wooden ship ever built), built with modern techniques, iron reinforcing and steam driven bilge pumps still foundered in far more timid conditions than any Ark would have endured (even though it was about 2/3’s the size of Noah’s supposed Ark).

Now the response of the believers in the Ark myth is to paper over these cracks by repeating the phrase “god dunnit” until blue in the face. But one has to consider that he’d have had to bend and twist the laws of physics and reality so severely that if all he wanted to do was kill off a few million naughty people he could have easily had a plague wipe them out, or got them addicted to junk food or something.

…Or perhaps a more realistic appraisal is to realise that at the time the bible was written allegorical literature was very common. One would often tell a tale which would make a good story in of itself, but which carried a moral point. Thus when Jesus brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan, he wasn’t making bigoted comments about Samaritans (in truth there probably was never any guy by the side of a road, no Samaritan nor anything else, it was just a story). It was a tale with a moral point.

However for bible literalists, accepting that the bible isn’t literally true isn’t an option. Thus they are forced to support utterly implausible propositions such as Noah’s ark or the world being created in 6 days or even a pre-Copernican view of the universe. Which is why I’d argue they aren’t really Christians to begin with as the simply don’t understand the point of the bible.

MH 370
With no sign of the missing Malaysian airways flight, the mystery of what happened to it deepens yet further. The latest from the searchers is that if there’s one thing they are sure of, its that the plane ISNT in the area where they’ve been searching.

I’ve talked to one or two colleagues who are experts on aviation and they can only think of a handful of scenarios that would explain this ranging from pilot suicide to a failure of the Aircraft’s air supply system (this would cause the crew to first turn around when they realised the danger, but also to act erratically, possibly turning off things they shouldn’t have before losing consciousness as the plane continued on autopilot till it ran out of fuel).

However they would be keen not to put too much weight to either theory. Past experience has seen many strange aircraft disappearances where the actual causes turned out to be radically different. Take the story of Air France flight 447. There was much speculation regarding this plane’s disappearance, which later turned out to be not true, once the black box was recovered. So it is like I said a mystery, one which may never be solved.

Glasgow Art school fire
It was sad to see one of Glasgow’s most iconic buildings going up in flames over the last week . I used to live around the corner from this Art school and would go past it often on my way to work. And spare a thought for the students. Many were setting up their final year portfolios at the time the fire started and saw their whole course worth of work going up in smoke.

Word is the building might be restored, but it is still a bit of a loss for the city.

The Jaffa School of Marksmenship

I’ve been catching the odd episode of Stargate SG-1 on pick TV the last few months and I think I would rate the “Jaffa” (that’s the minions of the Goa’uld, the main “bad guys” of the series) as the worse and least credible of Sci-fi “cannon fodder” units.

I mean they have all the survival instincts of the “red shirts” of Star Trek (you know how Spock, Kirk, Bones and some guy in a red shirt called Ensign Ricky would beam down do planet and 5 seconds later ensign Ricky’s is “he’s dead Jim“). And the Jaffa have aim that is worse even that the Stormtroopers of Star Wars. It seems that below the “stormtrooper school of marksmanship” there is a grade called “Jaffa school of stupidity“.

Then again, I reckon the reason the Empire lost in Return of the Jedi was because the Emperor was a Tory. Think about it, he spends a vast fortune of many hundreds of Quadrillions on a death star but then goes all corner cutting, leaving out important things, such as an armored grille over exhaust ports, or hand railings around the edge of bottomless pits (its a elf’n’safety nightmare that death star!). He also clearly cut back on proper training and vital equipment for his gunners (there’s one scene in the original version of star wars where you can see a gunner holding his hands over his ears, clearly Palpatine was too penny pinching to buy him a pair of ear defenders) and the number of fighters to protect the death star was clearly cut back significantly (just 3 it would seem!)…kind of like the UK government’s current spending plans regarding the future carriers which apparently won’t have any aircraft operating off them and we’ll have to borrow the carriers off the French three weeks in advance if we want to have a war ;D.

But I digress, how bad are the Jaffa? Well, in one episode a while ago a unit of them took off in pursuit of the SG team. This led them to a point where they walked across a large open field, bold as brass (fully aware that they were in pursuit of an armed enemy who could be lying in wait in the bushes and high ground) and when inevitably the shooting started they just stood there making the odd random off target shot back while they were easily picked off one by one :roll:.

I mean they could have A} not walking into an obvious ambush but gone around or used covering fire to flank the SG team B} fallen to the ground and returned fire from the prone position C} called in air support or heavy fire support….then again the fire support of Jaffa “death gliders” is pretty piss poor, they tend to perform worse (again randomly shooting the ground nowhere near the enemy), despite superior tech than a WW2 fighter. And despite their superior Goa’uld technology, they haven’t apparently used it to develop something like a tank or an APC or heavy support weapons (there are good tactical reasons why armies in the real world use these things, just ask any poor Squadie forced to drive around in an unarmored land rover through mine laden Afghanistan).

In other scenario’s the SG-1 team have easily infiltrated goa’uld ships/bases without any complications (pretty much knocked on the door and walked in!). I mean you would think they would have any entrances heavily guarded and monitored 24/7 by CCTV. You would also expect the most basic security measures, such as doors with controlled access on them (and alarms that go off when people fiddle with the locks), more CCTV watching all corridors, motion sensors, computers that require a login password to access, regular security patrols and alarms that go off when loud noises (such as gunfire) are detected or when a patrol doesn’t check in within a certain period of time. I mean my uni has better security than a Goa’uld mother-ship!

Okay, I’m taking this a bit too seriously, but the serious point I’m making, is that about when writing stories making sure you’re villains or heroes are credible. The “evil genius school of villainy” sort of wears thin after awhile, as most people recognise that it is fairly unlikely that any evil genius smart enough to build a mega death ray, would capture the hero, then rather than executing him on the spot, instead give him a ten minute powerpoint presentation of his plans, then leave the hero in a situation where he can easily escape from with plenty of time to thwart said plans :no:.

Similarly few real heroes match up to Raglan’s “the hero tradition (a system for rating heroes from folklore out of 22 points, father was a king, origins or birth unusual, fights an epic battle, etc, Oedipus gets all 22, Hercules 17, Robin hood 13 & Jesus 19 88|!). Just read the accounts of Victoria cross winners over the years.

By contrast in “proper” fiction, such as the “Game of Thrones” series (and the books its based on) or a number of the characters in Ian Banks novels (both the sci-fi and fiction), the line between “villain” and “flawed hero” is extremely blurred. And as a result its difficult sometimes to tell who is the hero and who is the villain, which makes such stories much more interesting, believable and engaging.

The Force, George, but not as we know it

I haven’t been blogging for a while, as I’ve been mega busy workwise. Anyway, one of the stories this week was the purchase of Lucasfilm (the company behind Star Wars) from TcF by Disney with the view to making more Star Wars films.

While this has sent some Star Wars fans into euphoria about another trilogy of films, others do worry. Will Star Wars be star wars without George Lucas at the helm? Although he is penciled in as a “creative consultant” it is unclear what direction the new films will take the Star Wars franchise.

Some fans may well hope that the films take on the post-Endor story line as covered in the Timothy Zahn novels (Thrawn Trilogy or the Dark Empire novels). Already, I suspect some fans are speculating about who will play Mara Jade (Luke Skywalkers future missus). However, these novels are probably a little too dark for the Disney company and younger audiences, so its possible they may try and reboot the franchise with a new film. That will probably be not to the liking of fans, no more than the whole business of Stallone taking his helmet off in Judge Dredd. Alienating the fans could easily kill the franchise.

Also there is the commercialism. Many fans felt that Lucasfilm overplayed that with the new films way too much (or indeed with Return of the Jedi). Indeed interesting aside, Fox had such little faith in star wars that they signed over most of the merchandising rights to Lucas….was this the same exec who cancelled Star Trek by any chance?

Star wars fans, as I mentioned in a prior post (Hans and Silent Darth Strike back), were also none too pleased with the editing of the original series to make them more commercially pleasing. Naturally, we can assume that this will apply doubly to a Disney film.

In the future Star Wars film will Luke skywalker be using GE brand lightsabres and eating Soylent Green in Mc Donald’s?

I sense great danger ahead!

Hans and silent Darth strikes back

Those with a “real life” who don’t really care who Luke Skywalker’s old man is might want to skip this article. But there has been an interesting summary on the Beeb arts page regarding the fight between Star Wars fans and George “tinker’in” Lucas.

When the digitally re-mastered version was released, some fans just groaned a little, but they were outraged by it when they realised that GL had altered the critical confrontation when Hans Solo shot Greedo (the funny looking alien bounty hunter he shoots in the Cantina). The new version has Greeto shooting first. GL’s position is that he was trying to emphasis that Hans had no choice but to shoot Greedo. Fans say that he’s lay’s it on way too thick and is tinkering with a movie classic. The cultural equivlent of drawing a smily face on the Scream.

Anyway, it now seems he’’s at it again. A key scene in which Darth previously remained silent, now the Blue-Ray disk version has Darth Vader screaming like a sissy girl. Naturally the fans are appalled at this turn of events.

My take? Well I know what I saw when I saw the film the first time and that’s what counts. And I’’ve a copy of both the original and re-mastered at home so GL can ruin the film to his heart’s content, I’’ll just not be buying a copy of that Blue-Ray disk. What I’m not going to do is put on a tinfoil hat.

What I will say is that there’s now a huge amount of “fan fiction” out there and thus fandom has moved well beyond that of the original film.

Update!
Also I would note that there is nothing strange about an artish returning to a work and producing several versions of it. There are for example multiple versions of “the Scream” and Van Gogh’s “sunflowers“. What is uncalled for, is George Lucas attempt to rewrite history and suppress the previous versions of his work. I mean he could make a ton of money if he was smart selling the alternative versions of the SW Hexalogy to fans and Blue-ray provides the perfect means for him to do it. Although I do understand his desire to suppress all knowledge of the “star wars holiday special” :oops:. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to see it you’ll understand where he’s coming from. I include a link to it here, but with a health warning, it really is very, very bad, and I mean bad enough to make people ill, so don’t blame me (or GL) if you’re foolish enough to click on the link above.

The Patriot Tax

I did an article for Green-blog a few days ago, called “the Patriot tax”. This details the fact that the wealthy will have to accept paying much higher taxes in future, if the current deficit crisis is not to become much more serious. This would not only be the essence of patriotism (saving ones country from ruin) but also financially sensible, given that if major nations do get into financial difficulty it will be the rich who will loose the most.

http://www.green-blog.org/2011/08/28/the-patriot-tax/

In short it is necessary for certain people to overcome their aversion to paying taxes, particularly wealthy Americans. Casing point, they’re filming a movie here in Glasgow (something about Zombies) which is supposed to be set in Philadelphia, but they’re filming it here for “tax reasons”. They’ve had to transform parts of Glasgow city centre into a US city complete with US style street signs, traffic lights, and vehicles. All shipped over from the US. All this to avoid paying a tiny bit of tax!

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2027940/Brad-Pitt-brings-World-War-Z-Glasgow-Scottish-city-transformed-Philadelphia.html

Ironically enough, there was another film a few years back set in Scotland, which was mostly filmed in South Africa (ya that looks so much like Scotland). I can’t remember the name of it (Dooms day?), same story thought (man meets girl, girl get her kit off, turns into zombie and eats his brains…usual Hollywood stuff!). Again one of the reasons for moving some of the filming to SA was “tax”.

I don’t know how the IRS collect taxes off of movie studios but I assume it involves the use of a pliers and a blow torch if they’re prepared to go to such extreme measures to avoid paying tax.

Anyway, have a read of the article on Green-blog if you’re interested!

NEDS…..the Terror begins

I went to see the film NED’s this week. Jasus! You almost needed subtitles, and I’ve lived in Glasgow for 6 years! And don’t know what they’re going to do in American, given that I’m not sure exactly how you translate “You’s going it chibbed by the way”:## into more polite American English. Gritty, depressing, violent, but still very watchable film. A slight SPOILER alert, there is a dream sequence where Jesus gets chibbed, should that be the sort of thing that will upset you’s. I’m surprised the Church didn’t complain…..then again, I think they’ve long worked out through bitter experience that by putting guys waving crucifixes and placards with “Careful Now” and “Down with this sort of thing” outside cinemas will just increase sales, not reduce them>:XX.

It’s also interesting to explore the theme behind this film, the rise of the Glasgow NED culture (or Chav’s as they or known in the rest of the country, or Norries back in Cork). The Ned’s came about as a result of the large scale redundancies of the major manufacturing industries during the 1970’s to 1990’s. This led to increasing poverty in (former) working class communities, broken homes, increased social problems (alcoholism, drug abuse, watching of Daytime TV), which in itself led to a rise in gang culture among disaffected youths, whose parents were either unwilling (alcoholic), or unable (too busy trying to make ends meet, arguing, or watch Daytime TV….while arguing….or arguing on daytime TV) to keep them in check.

Of course the then Tory government not only failed to prevent this slide, because it went against what was written in their good book (the Gospel’s according to Gecko), but they actively encouraged the collapse of many critical heavy industries as they feared the powerful Unions. Now granted, it is clear that some (Bolshe) unions at the time were using strike action not to settle genuine grievances with they’re employers :crazy:, but as a means of brining about social(ist) change, which is not what unions are meant to be doing (if they want to bring that about, found a party and stand in election, spilt into 5 separate parties who all then vote Tory to stop the others getting in). The Tories would incidentally point to globalisation and how many manufacturing jobs moved to low wage economies in the Far East. Not entirely true, most of the ship building jobs in Glasgow & Newcastle for example went instead to places like France, Finland, Germany, South Korea and Japan, mostly to unionised highly paid workers. It is only very recently (the last decade) that substantial ship building activity has started in places like China and India, thought they are rapidly making up for lost time.

The fact is the Tory governments of the era could have averted the collapse of heavy industry but they took a conscious choice not to do so. I would put it to any Tory supporter that you have to acknowledge that even the most Bolshe Glasgow shipyard workers or Welsh miners of the 70/80’s did do his job (when not on strike) earn a wage, pay his taxes, support his family and contribute to his community….fast forward and some areas of what were once working class suburbs of industrial/mining towns are now basically welfare colonies. Large numbers of the inhabitants therein (i.e not all, lets now start making unfair generalisations) are totally dependant on welfare (paid for by taxes), and these areas have become breeding grounds for Ned’s & Chav’s who have zero respect for society and often a criminal record, which of course means increased costs to the taxpayer in terms of policing & social care. Quality of life has also tumbled, plus life expectancy as well as the health costs brought on by these many social ills.

So when the Tories talk about “Broken Britain” lets not forget who did the breaking. It’s about time they acknowledge that the Sun does not indeed shine out of Maggie Thatcher’s ar$e. Her political legacy on this country is basically what you see wandering down the streets in a Burberry cap with a Buckie bottle, and its going to be a lot harder to fix these social problems than she and her predecessors created, than it originally was to create them.

And the Tory polices cited for fixing the country might sound like a great idea in Middle England garden parties, but they just aren’t going to work in the real world. For example they’ve been talked about welfare chain gangs – making people work for they’re benefits. Now, aside from the fact that most people who are unemployed are in this position not by choice, and are often rather busy looking for another job, the problem with Ned’s is getting weapons off them, I don’t like the idea of the government issuing them with pickaxes and shovels :>…not unless you want to see a few coppers disappear…we’ll have to deploy the SAS to guard them while they work ;D! In any event, have you ever hear the expression “if you don’t want to be asked to do a job a 2nd time, do it badly the 1st time”. I’m quite sure the Ned’s have! And in fairness to the Ned’s, its not so much a case that they’ve abandoned all respect for authority (as right wing newspapers will often state), no its more a case of the authorities abandoning them. Until the government gives the right incentives to these areas, in other words good well paid jobs (like say building offshore renewable energy systems), things are not going to change. Like I said, its harder to fix social problems that it is to create them, maybe if past Tory governments had been a bit more forward thinking they won’t have sat on their hands while Britain was reduced to a 3rd rate industrial power.