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Crocus focus

Crocuses are a lovely reminder that spring is on the way. Both globally and across the UK, purple crocuses are planted to remind us of humanity’s pledge to eradicate polio.

In the years when my parents were born, there were as many as 8,000 cases of polio each year acquired in the UK, leaving many families bereaved and tens of thousands of children with lifelong disabilities. An effective vaccine was developed in the late 1950s, and as a result of the success of its rollout in the UK, there has been not a single UK-acquired case of polio in my lifetime. It’s easy to forget the astonishing and unprecedented progress we made in public health in the twentieth century.

We haven’t eradicated polio worldwide quite yet, though we’re getting close, with only tens of cases reported each year. Two of the three strains of polio have been consigned to the history books. The purple crocuses should remind us that we still need to finish the job.

This post was filed under: Health, .

‘Wicked Little Letters’

Wicked Little Letters is a frothy comedy film that has been heavily trailed for months. As in the trailer, the comedy relies on the assumption that prim and proper 1920s characters using unexpectedly foul language is inherently funny. I think that it is, to a point, though perhaps not funny enough to support a whole film.

To my mind, the stand-out feature was Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score, which lifted the whole production, imbuing it with a sense of drama and emotion even when the script was a bit lacking. Waller-Bridge’s compositions also underpinned some fantastic musical/visual puns that were among the funniest bits of the film.

Unfortunately, the plot is a bit of a letdown. It concerns some expletive-laden poison-pen letters received by Olivia Colman’s character, and whether the police have correctly identified the sender, Jessie Buckley’s character—if not, who might it be? The answer is practically telegraphed from that start, so tension doesn’t really build, and the case is solved on-screen peculiarly early in the film in any case.

Now, I’m hardly the morality police, but allow me a paragraph on the wonky social ethics of the piece. I was irked. The film is written in such a way that we’re clearly supposed to judge the central characters with modern eyes, and sympathise with Buckley’s less buttoned-up, more ‘modern’ character who is harshly judged by the standards of the time. But despite the film being vaguely about the ridiculousness of the patriarchal society of the 1920s, we don’t see the main patriarch (Timothy Spall’s character) suffer any comeuppance for behaviour that—by modern standards—is domestic abuse. The script comes perilously close to making a joke of bullying and controlling familial relationships. It’s as though we’re invited to judge the women by 2020s standards but the men by 1920s standards. It’s uncomfortable.

But look, this is light comedy tosh: I don’t think we’re expected to think that hard. Let’s just laugh at Olivia Colman swearing a bit more. Most of the characters are two-dimensional clichés, as I suppose we ought to expect, and there are a few laughs along the way. Come for the chuckles, stay for the music. It’s fine.

This post was filed under: Film, , , , .

Finding freedom

I read Jacob Stern’s article in The Atlantic about the political controversy in the USA related to specific car manufacturers selling certain models without AM radios.

It made me wonder whether my car has an AM radio. I know it did when I bought it, a little over 14 years ago. I remember occasionally listening to Richard Bacon’s afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live in the car. But I’ve replaced the radio twice since then.

For the last three years, I’ve been using a ‘radio’ which uses Apple’s CarPlay system to stream content from my phone. Since then, I’ve never listened to broadcasts via FM or AM. I knew the system had a ‘tuner’ function, but I wasn’t sure whether it included AM frequencies.

Surprisingly, the ‘radio’ unit I bought is still ‘current’. I found it on sale on a national retailer’s website. Despite the technology now being several years old, the retail price has inflated by more than 11% since I bought it.

The retailer’s website didn’t list whether the ‘radio’ had an AM tuner. I can only assume this must be irrelevant to many people’s purchasing decisions these days.

I consulted the manufacturer’s website, but it wasn’t listed on the main product page there, either. I dug into a separate ‘full specifications and features’ page—lo and behold, there it was!

My car radio does, indeed, have a hitherto unused AM tuner.

Some US commentators appear to believe this to be essential to my freedom. I still don’t think I’m going to use it. Given that my car model isn’t sold in the US, perhaps no one will mind.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, , .

‘The Legacy’ by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

I received this book, the first in Icelandic author Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Children’s House’ series, as a very kind gift. The English translation is by Victoria Cribb. It’s a thriller-ish crime fiction, a Nordic murder mystery. It was a particularly thoughtful present as it’s been a while since I last read a book like this.

Predictably, early in the book, there’s a gruesome murder: truly gruesome, Stephen King-ishly horrific—but written more with a twinkling eye than with a desire to frighten the reader. The only witness is the victim’s young child, Margaret, who is traumatised and didn’t see much in any case. Freyja, who is the psychologist in charge of the ‘Children’s House’—a state refuge for traumatised children—becomes a central character in the novel as she supports the police investigation by coaxing information from the seven-year-old. Newly promoted Detective Huldar leads the investigation, feeling out of his depth and as though he must prove himself.

It’s hard to say much more about this sort of book without spoiling it. Suffice it to say that there are more horrific murders and lots of twists and turns. There are a few introverted teenagers who are into shortwave radio, some coded messages, and some questionable sexual relationships. It’s also redolent of Iceland: some aspects of the plot can only work in that singular country.

The plot was well-constructed with genuinely confounding twists. I didn’t guess ‘whodunnit’. There was interesting character development and a dash of insightful social commentary. The writing was atmospheric and engaging.

The Legacy may be the first of Sigurðardóttir’s novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

Fiddling while Barcelona burns

I was surprised earlier this week to read of the drought in Barcelona, which has been ongoing for the last three years. I don’t think I’ve heard about it previously. Sandrine Morel’s article in Le Monde sets out several drastic actions which have been taken, including painting patches of grass green, restricting the use of showers in gyms and sports clubs, and planning to fill swimming pools with seawater. There’s a concerted effort to hide the problem from tourists, given the degree to which the local economy is reliant on them.

On February 12, Barcelona mayor Jaume Collboni visited the Pedralbes monastery and asked the nuns to pray for rain.

Two new desalination plants will come online in 2028, but I’m sure that feels a long time away for residents who can’t shower after playing friendly football games on the municipal pitches. As the summer looms, there are interim contingency plans to import (relatively small) quantities of water by ship, as became necessary during a less severe drought in 2008. The drought also affects trees: as more of them die off, less carbon dioxide is absorbed, fuelling climate change further.

It continues to be confounding how little impact these sorts of events have on UK politics. We still drown in endless debates about what’s ‘affordable’ in mitigating climate catastrophe, seemingly disregarding the costs associated with the inevitable consequences of inaction. It’s unconscionable that climate change is nowhere to be found on Rishi Sunak’s list of five priorities—though given his singular inability to make progress on his priority areas, perhaps it makes little difference.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , .

The Venerable Bede

From this visit to Saint Bede, I learned that he popularised the use of the Anno Domini year-numbering system, without which it would have been much harder for me to work out that he died 1,288 years ago.

The idea of people still talking about me or visiting my shine a millennium from now is both depressing and terrifying, but the odds suggest it’s really not something worth worrying about.

This post was filed under: Travel, , .

The luxury of time

Trung Phan wrote about the luxury brand Hermès last weekend.

I wasn’t delighted by Phan’s dated and unnecessary gender-jibes about ‘steering’ his wife away from Hermès stores—in our household, it’s me who buys the occasional Hermès item.

I was, however, struck by this particular item in the list regarding what makes a specific type of Hermés handbag a coveted luxury product:

The training to become an Hermès bag maker takes a minimum of two years (often up to 5 years) and the company only trains 200 people per year. Each Birkin bag is made entirely by hand and takes 20-25 hours to make.

It strikes me how unremarkable that is. Many professions require years of background training, and individual jobs often take 25 hours or more, from writing a report to fitting a kitchen. We don’t necessarily regard the outputs as luxuries, and certainly nowhere near as luxurious (or costly) as an Hermés handbag. Perhaps we should.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

Pinging news

I often hear people complaining about notifications from the BBC News app and whether they really represent ‘breaking news’. I don’t use the BBC News app, just the website, and most of the notifications on my phone are turned off, so I don’t spend much time thinking about this. But perhaps I should.

On Tuesday, the FT’s Stephen Bush wrote about the impact of these push notifications on people’s awareness of policies and how this may become more salient in the forthcoming general election. I was surprised to learn that the decisions on which stories get push notifications are ‘made by comparatively low-ranking journalists, certainly compared with the six and the 10 o’clock news.’

But then, I’ve frequently been surprised by the BBC’s willingness to downplay or delegate its most crucial role. The editorial decisions taken by BBC News about what matters in the world—what it puts at the top of its news bulletins, what gets the big slot on the website homepage, what it sends notifications about—are among the most significant decisions anyone in the organisation makes. Yet, too often, the decision is ceded to others: parroting the front pages of openly biased newspapers or perverting the news agenda to promote its own programmes are two common sins. It’s rare to log on to the BBC News website on a Sunday morning and for the ‘top story’ not to be that their political discussion programme is on the air: that’s not news.

This is also reflected in much of the marketing BBC News undertakes: the focus is regularly on ‘news that matters to you‘. But it ought to be the exact opposite of that: the BBC ought to be the source of the news that matters to all of us. The organisation should cherish and embrace its unique position in directing the national conversation. It should talk to us about it.

In the third episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, anchor Will McAvoy gives an on-air speech which includes these words:

From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.

We’ll endeavour to put information in a broader context because we know that very little news is born at the moment it comes across our wire.

We’ll be the champion of facts and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole and nonsense. We’re not waiters in a restaurant serving the stories you asked for, just the way you like them prepared. Nor are we computers dispensing only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity.

You may ask: who are we to make these decisions?

We are Mackenzie McHale and myself. Ms McHale is our Executive Producer. She marshalls the resources of over 100 reporters, producers, analysts, and technicians, and her credentials are readily available. I’m Newsnight’s managing editor and make the final decision on everything seen and heard on this programme.

Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.

I’d love to see that kind of confidence and pluck from BBC News.

This post was filed under: Media, , , , , .

‘The Iron Claw’

When I’ve been cooking recently, I’ve been mildly frustrated by struggling to find the right spices. Spice pots all look the same, and it’s difficult to find the correct one when they’re all stuck on a cupboard shelf. I’ve been wondering in idle moments whether I should buy a spice rack.

There’s a scene in The Iron Claw which features a wall-mounted spice rack quite prominently in the back of the shot. It looked awfully dated. It put me off.

All of which is to say: my mind was wandering as I watched this film. It didn’t hold my attention.

In fairness, it’s another film I picked by time slot, and which I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It’s based on the true—and desperately tragic—story of the Von Erich family of wrestlers. This is ‘wrestlers’ in the sense of American wrestling, not some kind of Greco-Roman oily business.

In a nutshell, Fritz Von Erich—an overbearing father-figure—is a former wrestler who moves into the business side of the industry. He pushes his sons to become wrestlers and to seriously strive for the world title. Various tragedies befall the family. The film ends.

The film has received numerous positive reviews from audiences and critics alike, so don’t let anything you’re about to read put you off seeing the film. I don’t claim to know what I’m talking about, I’m just a bloke who sat in front of a screen for a couple of hours.

This is a story evidently based on tragic real events. Yet, the tragedy didn’t translate to the screen, mostly because it felt like a cast of crudely drawn cartoon characters. I had no emotional connection with any of them.

The film is sold as a reflection on toxic masculinity, but that also didn’t come across for me, for much the same reason. Characters who say things like ‘men don’t cry’ and ‘if we’re the strongest, the toughest, nothing can hurt us’ seem like satirical caricatures, not incisive social commentary. A man crying at the end of the film does not have the redemptive power that the script-writers imagine it has.

The film makes no attempt to reconcile its suggestion of 1980s hypermasculinity with the high camp of the wrestling industry itself. There are balletic scenes in the ring and discussions of choreography before bouts, but the characters discuss them entirely in terms of fighting. The film acknowledges that wrestling is a sort of theatrical performance, but never fully explains itself. This undercuts the main narrative of the film, which is about winning the world title, because we never really get to understand how that is achieved. There’s no explanation of who writes the ‘scripts’, or on what basis, or how our heroes might influence that outside the ring.

There were two stand-out performances.

Maura Tierney, who (despite a dazzling career) I know primarily as Maddie Hayward from The Good Wife, is wonderful. The film hints at an observation about faith—in God or in wrestling—which is achieved entirely through shots of a crucifix and Tierney’s face. The persistence of faith is a rich seam, and I wish they’d leaned into it further.

Michael Harney almost stole the show with a role which I can only assume was a creation for the film, a combination of television sports presenter and business advisor. Harney equipped his character with an unruffled warmth combined with a professional detachment from the emotion of the events happening around him. He became of beacon of sanity and depth.

I’ve noted that others have called this the performance of Zac Efron’s career. I thought his character was too crudely drawn for anyone to be able to perform it greatly. But I did spend a lot of the film marvelling about how much he looked like Rob Lowe, and low-key fantasising about a reboot of The West Wing.

The Iron Claw wasn’t for me, but other people think it’s the bees knees, so maybe you’d enjoy it.

This post was filed under: Film, , , .

From curiosity to business model

Nineteen years ago this week, I blogged about a curious story on the now long-defunct silicon.com website site.

A burglar is today behind bars after picking the wrong house to burgle. His crime was caught in full by a webcam, which the hapless thief stole along with the computer, but not before it had sent pictures of him to a website.

A couple of decades on, it’s remarkable how twee this story seems. These days, there’s nothing remarkable about burglars being caught on webcams: Ring, Blink, Arlo and more have made it their entire business model. There are many millions of webcams set up for this exact purpose.

People often mention the pace of the change of technology, but the pace of change in how we use technology is equally astounding.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Technology.

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