2015: Europe Awakens

It would be pointless to pretend that 2015 was not the darkest year in living memory. 2001 was dark, but that darkness was more America-centric than many would dare admit publicly. 2015 pulled the rug of complacency out from under European feet in so many different ways, the events of this year are likely to affect the region for decades to come. At the start of the year there was the calculated atrocity of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, followed closely by the seemingly random pointlessness of the GermanWings plane crash. While Europeans grasped the complexity of both these events, their currency was in jeopardy as the looming sovereign default of Greece edged dangerously over its precipice. As it edged closer, Greece was pulled back decisively, but at a cost that will be felt by the Greeks forevermore. As holiday season began, the Tunisia attacks took place, as European tourists were massacred on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. By August, most of these events were forgotten, and then the photograph of a toddler’s corpse on a Turkish beach was published, capturing in stark imagery just how desperate the migrant wave towards Europe had become. This, and the discovery of a van parked in sleepy Austria filled with the suffocated bodies of 71 migrants (who each had paid handsomely to be smuggled into the EU for protection from certain death) caused a monumental response in welcoming the newly dubbed ‘refugees’ into our borders. While some countries (the UK and some Eastern European nations) were decisively anti-immigration, the consensus was that this was an issue that needed to be solved, and solved together as a group rather than individual nation states. That was until the Paris Attacks on November 13, when Europeans were shown exactly how safe they really were.

These are dark days indeed, and they are not likely to lighten up anytime soon. That’s not to say the world isn’t getting better. Catholic Ireland voted in favour of Marriage Equality, transsexual people finally have a champion (even if she is a quasi-Kardashian), and Ireland qualified for the European Championships in 2016. None of the terrible things that happened in 2015 were solely manifested within that year, 2015 was merely the year that we all woke up to these massive threats and problems that we have ignored for so long. 2015 was the year that Europe awoke to the 21st Century, and finally recognised that the actions of our complacent community have consequences. 2015 will be known as the year that Europe woke up to its place in the modern world, as an actor rather than a passive journeyman. In this line of thought, there is a sliver of light to be found in the darkness of events this year, and this is as good a time as any to bridge into my usual annual review of entertainment nonsense that occurred this year. The connection I think is that this might be a hopeful year despite everything, and we all need cheering up in the meantime. I shall definitely clear all this up in the editing process before publication. As ever, I aim to make this particular post as interactive as possible, so there is clickable goodness available wherever necessary (all links open in a new tab), as well as some embedded content that drove me absolutely mental trying to get into WordPress. Anyway, enough paragraphs: enter the listicle.

 2015 europe

THE YEAR IN MOVIES!

Movies of the Year (unranked): Whiplash, A Most Violent Year, Youth, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, The Force Awakens, The Hateful Eight*, Steve Jobs*, Black Sea, Beasts of No Nation.

*Big thanks to Hive-CM8

Biggest Let-Down: Aloha. Cameron Crowe is one of my favourite directors (I even liked Elizabethtown), but his past two movies suggest he is past it.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year: Furious 7. Garbage, filthy garbage, but it knows what it is.

The “Lesser of Two Evils Award” for which movie was the better of two movies that had exactly the same plot: Starred Up was the best movie this year about a teenager going to prison and meeting a father figure who is serving a life sentence. Son of a Gun, with Ewan McGregor, was most certainly not.

The Official Verdict On the new Star Wars (Spoiler Free): It was a good movie, and a great Star Wars movie. Undue pressure is put on Star Wars sequels, since its first sequel happened to be one of the best movies of all time. The Force Awakens, not The Empire Strikes Back, should be the new benchmark from what to expect from a new Star Wars movie. It took me a while to get here, and just for those who like clicking on arrows, here’s a(n interactive) history of my relationship with new Star Wars, through the medium of Facebook posts over the past three years. The movie script is in development.

THE YEAR IN TV!

TV Show of the Year: Mr. Robot. This let me down a bit in the final two episodes, but it still deserves it based on what went before. Watch an episode of the show, and then afterwards remind yourself that the story was mostly told through the voiceover musings of the main character.

TV Discovery of the Year: Halt and Catch Fire. A stylish 1980’s mash-up of Mad Men and Silicon Valley, this almost got TV Show of the Year (I had it typed and everything), but its second season this year (for all its female empowerment) just wasn’t as good as the first. In coming seasons this show will gain a stronger cult following and eventually break into the mainstream, just like Breaking Bad. I only wish I hadn’t discovered it so early, as now I have to wait so long for new seasons and episodes.

Sitcom of the Year: Bojack Horseman. One of the smartest sitcoms out there, animated or not.

TV Disappointment of the Year: The Man in the High Castle. A very interesting premise realised as a very dull mystery thriller. I got two episodes in, and am satisfied reading the plot synopses of the remaining episodes on Wikipedia.

THE YEAR IN MUSIC!

Song of the Year: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Song!

Yes I am old and have no clue about modern music, but that is not to say the greatest TV theme song since The Simpsons should not be recognised in its own right. Not only is it extremely inventive (the song is an autotuned remix of an interview from the very first scene of the first episode that explains the plot of the show), but it is actually impossible not to sing along to. Uuuuuun-BREAK-able…………………

Here’s some 2015 music that I actually listened to and liked. Note the brevity of this playlist: I’m getting old. Plus, two of the songs were added simply because they were popular: can you guess which two?

It is late, and the Spotify embedded playlist is not working yet, so it is available here should it not work for you: https://open.spotify.com/user/116764751/playlist/2kIJ2pV0EOgEW1jJzCtjyN

THE YEAR IN SPORTS!

Game of the Year: Ireland 1-0 Germany. Because f**k you, Germany! One Long ball punt up the field and that World Cup trophy has lost a bit of its lustre.

Goal of the Year: Shane Long, Ireland v Germany. Because f**k you, Germany.

Transfer of the Century: Anthony Martial, Monaco-Manchester United, €80m. This deal was so bad that Manchester United originally tried to conceal the full fee by proclaiming it as €40m plus add-ons. That these add-ons turned out to be playing for the club a few times and scoring a few goals for France implies United are quite embarrassed about the full fee. As well they should, paying €80m for an unknown French teenager. I don’t care if he ends up being their record goalscoring legend and captaining the club to successive Champions Leagues: the fee is still ridiculous, and has distorted the transfer market for the foreseeable future.

Sports Disappointment of the Year: Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. No further comment necessary.

 

THE YEAR IN INTERNET!

App of the Year: Anything that can use the Chromecast. If you have a TV and wireless internet, just buy a Google Chromecast.

Meme of the Year: Confused John Travolta. Is it me or have good, long-lasting memes disappeared? Everything is a meme nowadays, and then vanishes after less than a day. Anyway, this one is just a month or two old and seems ok. Who cares anyway?

Stupidest Meme of the Year: Condom water balloon. Again, nobody cares, so why not?

“Grandpa Award” in recognition of a Youth Trend That I Don’t Understand: I’m kidding no one: I don’t understand anything anymore. To me, anyone under 27 is a baby talking nonsense.

Thing of the Year: European Borders. They’re back, and they are angry. Due to the Schengen Agreement, in mainland Europe we have come to take the free passage across borders for granted. This year was a rude awakening to the idea that when it comes to social constructs, none are better constructed than territorial borders.

THE YEAR IN REALITY!

People of the Year: The Heroes of the Thalys Train Attack. Failed terrorist attacks obviously do not get the same media attention as successful terrorist attacks. The attacks that succeed have thousands of stories, as thousands of lives were affected forever by what had occurred. The attacks that don’t succeed have only one story: and this one is a remarkable story of bravery, quick-thinking, and luck. If you haven’t heard of these guys, it’s because in the space of about 45 seconds, they reduced the amount of possible stories told about that train ride from thousands to just their one.

Idiots of the Year: Anyone, anywhere, who engaged in Tragedy Shaming. A dark year was turned into a stupid game in the wake of the Paris Attacks, as people online who read the news suddenly became offended that terrorism in France is worse than terrorism in Lebanon. I’m gonna put it out there: terrorist attacks in Paris are undertaken for very different reasons than those for terrorist attacks in Beirut. All people are equal, yes; all deaths are equal, yes; but this is an entirely different issue from treating all terrorist attacks as equal. The tragedy shaming sensation is part of a broader online trend of aggressive (and ignorant) political correctness, and this is set to increase in 2016.

Special Award for Billionaire Pornography of the Year: Mark Zuckerberg. In the birth of his first child, the Facebook founder this year found the perfect crux in his mission to rebrand himself as a real person following the release of The Social Network five year ago. That movie used verbatim legal depositions from Zuckerberg and others as the basis for its script, portraying him as more of a bitter, sociopathic monster rather than the cute, cuddly, Social Justice Warrior that we are now presented with on his Facebook Timeline. Mark is a nice guy because he has a dog. Mark is a good person because he looks after his baby. Mark is a hero because he pledged to give away 99% of his wealth to charity. I am not going to get into the controversy of the Charitable Foundation debate, but I will say that he had already pledged to basically do what he said in that letter, over 3 years before.

And Finally….

The “Kardashian Award” for News We Shouldn’t Care About But Was News Nonetheless: That Apparently Famous Australian Instagram Girl who Quit Instagram. I don’t know her name, and I am not going to google her. Please don’t google her. I don’t want to be responsible for more clicks for her new website. I should really just not mention this at all.


But What’s Next?

That’s all for 2015, but 2016 promises much. In Ireland, we will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which was the starting point for our nationalist movement, resulting in the Irish War of Independence and subsequently the Irish Free State and finally the modern Irish Republic. Other notable commemorations include the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Moores Utopia, which is seen as the key foundation stone of our modern understanding of the idea of progress. Also celebrating its 500th Anniversary is the 1516 Purity Law, which has defined the craft of German beer brewing ever since. And if you think there isn’t a blog entry coming up of me trying to link German beer purity to Utopia, then you don’t come here too often. Happy 2016 everybody, and thanks for reading!

Advertisements

Star Wars: A Newer Hope

I am part of an aging generation that still remembers when there was a movie that was actually called Star Wars. Before Disney, before the prequels, before the special editions, the first way that George Lucas began to tinker with his legacy was by gradually changing the name of the movie originally released as Star Wars in 1977 to initially Star Wars: A New Hope, and finally by 1981 the movie was officially Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. None of this mattered however, as in the early 1990’s when I was growing up and becoming aware of the film series, no one paid any attention to the word “episode” in what was then the Star Wars Trilogy, and the movies were simply known as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Despite the marketing and rebranding attempts of Lucasfilm over the previous decade and a half since the now “Original Trilogy” ended, it was not until the late 1990’s that the word “episode” became forever associated with the franchise. This was because a movie marketed as Episode I appeared, and now it is commonplace to refer to the movie formerly known as Star Wars as Episode IV. As I grew up calling the movie Star Wars, it has been difficult for me to make the transition to calling it Episode IV, or even A New Hope. Since there are now 7 movies in the series, and the promise of many more to come, it is difficult to call the movie Star Wars and have people understand which specific movie you mean, therefore it is inevitable that the movie’s title will finally be specified as what Lucasfilm always wanted it to be.

I first saw the movie I then knew as Star Wars on television, which in the days before the internet was the primary way of finding out about anything. On television it was punctuated by commercial advertising breaks, which were very annoying, so I asked my parents for the VHS of the movie that Christmas and could therefore watch uninterrupted. In 1997, it was the 20th Anniversary of the movie (and Lucasfilm needed to remind younger viewers of the series since they had Episode I in production), so they released the so-called ‘Special Editions’ of each of the Original Trilogy into cinemas over the course of three months. I went to see all three. Later that year, the Special Edition Trilogy was released on VHS, and I bought that too. As technology moved away from magnetic media and towards digital, the trilogy was released on DVD in 2004, and I bought them then too.

A Newer Hope

Now, I count watching a movie with ad breaks in the middle as paying to watch it, so therefore by my count I have paid to see Star Wars (and the other movies in the Original Trilogy) five times, and bought the damn thing three times. I am not even going to list here all the Star Wars merchandising I have bought during my lifetime, as it would probably run into four figures, and probably funded the purchase of a single green screen in the production of the prequel trilogy. I really have thought about this a lot over the past two weeks or so, as in the build-up to The Force Awakens I wanted to rewatch the Original Trilogy so as to be able to recognise details in the new movie that referenced its predecessors.  Yet the last time I bought Star Wars was in 2004, and the world is now a very different place. First of all, I have bought a total of one DVD since 2005, when broadband internet finally made it possible to download files of 700mb+ in a reasonable amount of time. I have three copies of Star Wars in my bedroom, yet my bedroom is 2,166km away from where I currently live. Also, I currently possess the technology to play only one of the three different versions of that movie that I own (VHS tragically died sometime in the last century). I obviously feel like I have rewarded the creators of that movie enough and paid them accordingly, so I had absolutely no qualms about downloading it illegally via torrents.

I was fine with that, and they would never know, so it was all good. Then I was searching on YouTube for the trailer for The Force Awakens, and saw this in the search results.

Starwars

For those who don’t speak German, or can’t work things out based on context, it is the option to watch Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for €16.99, on YouTube. This annoyed me on several levels. Firstly, €16.99 for an almost 40 year movie, to watch in a web browser must surely be a joke. This is the equivalent of two months of unlimited Netflix streaming, or the cost of a 3D IMAX viewing of the newest movie of the franchise. If you go further into the ‘offer’, you will find that this copy you paid for will be owned by you, unlike the Netflix content that you simply borrow. So for €16.99 you can own the right to access a YouTube video whenever you want, which sounds suspiciously like YouTube not understanding what the internet is.

The cost aside, the main thing that annoyed me about this was that just like me, basically anyone over the age of 25 has already paid to see Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) at least once. Anyone around the age of 50 paid to see it in the cinema, anyone around the age of 40 watched it on TV and suffered through the ad breaks, and anyone under 40 more than likely had a video or DVD copy too. The only people who have never paid to see those movies are probably under 15, and therefore incapable of paying for anything. In all honesty, on rewatching the original Star Wars movie this month, I found it has dated terribly and most of its enjoyment nowadays comes from nostalgia, and therefore no child will be convinced to engage with the franchise from that movie alone. The scale is small, the acting is old-fashioned and the pacing is more like a 1970s detective drama rather than a modern blockbuster. Even I found it boring at times, let alone a millennial child raised on the Transformers and Avengers movies.

So what is to be done? Any adult buying a digital copy of the original Star Wars movie will feel cheated because they have probably paid for ownership of the same product multiple times over their lifetimes (and probably feel that more iterations are still to come), and any child will not be satisfied watching a movie that was the spaceship of its day, but is now nothing more than a slowly paced taster of things to come. At this stage, almost 40 years after it was made, I think the time has come for the powers that be to put the oldest Star Wars movie out to pasture and release it into the public domain. That movie should be free for anyone to watch anytime. Most of us grew up with Star Wars shoved down our throats: it is impossible not to be aware of it, and that is especially apparent in the past few weeks during the build-up to the release of The Force Awakens. Everyone knows Star Wars, everyone gave money to Star Wars, and through constant discussion of the movies everyone advertises Star Wars. Children buy the toys, play the videogames and watch the animated TV shows that expand upon the original story, so there is no excuse for trying to milk them of every last bit of money by forcing them to pay for a movie they won’t enjoy. Similarly there is no reason to lie to older Star Wars fans by telling them if they buy a particular version of the movie, they will own it: we all have owned it, and we all know now that there is no such thing as owning a piece of media.

The makers of the movie I originally knew as Star Wars have changed practically everything about the film since I have been alive, even so far as to dictate to us a new name that it must be called. They re-released it multiple times and charged me for the privilege of possessing each version. They diluted the franchise (probably irreversibly) by producing prequels to explain plot points that nobody needed explained. The least they could do is stop trying to extract money from us for the dated masterpiece that started it all.

Ideas & Institutions

One of the most debated and controversial economic policies of the 21st Century has been the concept of ‘trickle-down economics’. According to the theory, the unconstrained free-market capitalism of the super-rich will eventually lead to more investment, more entrepreneurship, and more jobs, and that these actions will cause the previously concentrated wealth to ‘trickle down’ to the middle classes and eventually the poorest of society. It argues that the current level of inequality in the world is a good thing, as the money is now concentrated in the hands of a few exceptional individuals who will use their business acumen to make the world a better place, in a way that no government could or should. Trickle-down economics reframes the current wealth gap as merely the starting point of a new age of billionaire-led growth and prosperity, rather than the more obvious analysis that would argue the wealth of the world is being sucked up by a new world economic elite. It is an undeniably attractive argument, backed up by easily understandable logic and explanatory metaphors, and it is no wonder that trickle-down economics has been trumpeted by politicians in the more unequal, capitalist-minded democratic societies such as the USA. Leave the billionaires alone, keep taxes low, and the rich people will shower money on everyone.

The problem is that there isn’t much evidence that trickle-down economics actually works. In fact, leaving the super-rich alone to do their own thing probably increases inequality, as the rich get richer but the money never quite seems to trickle down to the lower socioeconomic levels. The idea of trickle-down economics is perfect and watertight, yet somehow something happens when this idea is applied to the real world. Something gets lost in translation from the ideal of billionaire-led growth to the actual result of richer billionaires and a comparatively worse-off everyone else. This something is the fact that ideas like trickle-down economics are devised in a theoretical, perfect and unconstrained world, while in order to exist here on earth they must be implemented through the very real, very constrained and very imperfect institutions that disseminate and organise ideas to society as a whole. In the case of trickle-down economics, the idea was sound, yet the implementing institution was the complex and far from perfect entity known as “the economy”. The idea didn’t really take into account that very very rich people will do absolutely anything to save even a little bit of money, such as moving operations and factories overseas to save on labour costs rather than staying put and investing locally, yet in the real world institutions of national and international economies, these things are everyday occurrences. The idea was divine, yet the institutional reality was all too imperfectly human.

ideas

Yet still, when you watch an American news show where trickle-down economics is being debated, you will have conservative commentators touting the ideals of the concept, using metaphors of money raining down on everyone, from rich to poor, and how this is the way to a stable recovery from global crisis. Opponents will attack the concept with evidence from the real world with figures of more people falling into poverty, yet the response will always plead to the side of theory. This phenomenon is not limited to just this issue, but found all across the spectrum of societal debate. In this world, we defend things we like with theoretical ideals, and we attack things we don’t like with criticism of the actions of their institutions. When a politician speaks about democracy, he or she will speak about the ideal of every citizen having a say in who runs the country and having a voice, and not about the institutional and administrative nightmares that conspire to prevent real democracy in nearly every democratic country in the world. Yet when a politician, particularly in the United States, talks about communism, the discussion is about famine, corruption, and poverty: all the institutional failings that occurred in communist countries during the last century. The discussion is completely earthbound, there is no reference to the abstract ideals of Marx and Engels, but limited to simply dirty, human failures. Democracy is defended with ideals, and communism is attacked for its institutions. In a similar way, in the West, capitalism is defended through its ideals of giving everyone a chance to succeed, rather than how the concept is applied through our institutions. Socialism in the US is attacked not through such philosophical debate, but through quoting the high tax rates and entrepreneurship statistics of selected socialist countries. It is clear that we prefer debating the ideals of things we like, and the institutional the reality of things we don’t.

The most glaring expression of this mistranslation of ideas through institutions is probably in religion. When debating religion, care is taken to avoid attacking the beliefs of others, and it is acceptable to attack the actions of the governing religious institutions, while at the same time defending our own beliefs with ideals and abstract concepts. I’m sure there is no global religion that doesn’t have something worthwhile to say about humanity, and whose teachings don’t inspire a person to lead a better life. Setting aside religious mythology and world creation stories, the core ideas of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Scientology all give profound guidelines on what it is to be a highly thoughtful, sentient being living in a highly imperfect world, and how to make the best of the experience. How each of these ideas are beamed into reality by the institutions that govern each of these religions is of course something entirely different. Scientologists have organised their religion as a profit-driven Ponzi scheme, Judaism at the highest level is nothing more than a geopolitical bargaining chip, and the interpretation of Islam by certain splinter groups is quite diverse and harmful to the entire world. The institutions of Christianity have not been great either, with the corruption of the papacy and local Churches wielding much political power worldwide throughout the ages, and also the child abuse and paedophilia scandals that have finally ruined the reputation of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the United States and elsewhere. All of these religions started as some sort of moral compass in a world full of morally ambiguous life paths, yet all of them have been translated through human institutions as something harmful, to members and non-members alike.

Ideas are born in heaven, while their implementation down here on earth through imperfect, corrupt institutions is depressingly human. No idea, no matter how simple or innocuous is immune from the harmful effects of institutional mistranslation. Even atheism, with its core belief being an absence of belief, is an ideal that suffers when applied to the real world. Atheism simply rejects the idea of religion, and puts faith in scientific and societal developments as means to lead a good life here on earth, rather than believing in something supernatural that rules us all. Atheism says nothing about becoming a condescending asshole and mocking other people as stupid and unenlightened simply for having beliefs based in other religions, yet this is how atheism has often manifested itself in its (admittedly highly disorganised) institutional form. There is a disconnect there between the ideas and the institutional manifestation of these ideas, just as occurs when any idea is applied to the real world.

All ideas work in theory, all ideas are good in theory, and all ideas can be argued incessantly through theory. The problem with any idea occurs when it has to leave theory behind and become a reality in our complex and imperfect world, and it becomes subject to the petty and morally ambiguous whims of complex political and social institutions. In the same way we rationalise our own personal actions by our intentions while judging the actions of others by their outcomes alone, we champion our favourite ideas through theory, and attack conflicting ideas through their institutional failings. All ideas are perfect, and all institutions are depressingly imperfect. All of us in our lives forgive our favourite ideas for their institutional failings, while simultaneously ignoring the ideals of conflicting ideas and instead focusing on their failures in reality. The compromise position is admitting that no idea, no matter how theoretically perfect, can possibly translate perfectly into our imperfect world, and that institutions simply do the best they can to translate an idea into reality.