Film Review: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

This British documentary directed and narrated by Mark Cousins looks at the history of film making around the world starting from 1888, looking at them from the point of view of the social context of films, the times in which they were made, what they were trying convey, their innovations, the techniques that were used, and how they influenced each other. The scope of the documentary is of the entire history of film over the entire globe, and includes explorations of the work of lesser-known (to me at least) directors, including those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The documentary lasts 15 hours in total that are spread over 15 episodes. It is interspersed liberally with clips from many films in order to make its points. Despite its length, some selectivity is of course essential. Cousins focuses on the creative aspects of films and thus the work of directors and, to a lesser extent, screenwriters and cinematographers. Cousins is clearly partial to the realist school of filmmaking and to those directors who took risks and made experimental films that pushed the boundaries of the craft or showed their societies in a realistic and hence unflattering light and thus risked repercussions from their governments. Such directors are less well-known outside the cognoscenti because their films were usually not box office hits. You will find few mentions of the big Hollywood blockbusters unless they used some innovative techniques or are used to contrast with more realistic depictions.

The documentary is presented largely chronologically, except when jumping from one era to another in order to show connections. I think that the more attuned you are to the aesthetic of cinema, the more this will appeal to you. Even though I am somewhat of a low-brow film viewer, I still found the documentary engrossing.

Here’s the trailer.

The pandemic is over – or not

President Biden created a bit of a stir when he said in an interview that the pandemic is over but “We still have a problem with covid”. Is he correct? And what exactly does he mean? Public health experts have criticized his remarks as premature, saying that it might discourage people from getting vaccinated or boosted and encourage risky behavior, thus possibly triggering the emergence of yet another variant.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization has also been optimistic, saying that the end “is in sight” but refrained from declaring the pandemic over.

It is undoubtedly true that the public is tired of taking pandemic precautions. Also, many have got covid and that may make them feel that they have paid their dues in some way and are now past it and are entitled to live normal lives, though one can get covid again, and some have had it multiple times. The problem is that the definition of a pandemic is not unambiguous so that there is no marker that will indicate that it is formally over. Hence each person will decide for themselves whether it is effectively over and whether they will continue taking precautions or not, which will be the ultimate determinant of whether the pandemic is ‘over’. But the transition to that state will be gradual.

The numbers of deaths and infections in the US are dropping but still a little too high for me for comfort. The US is averaging 400 deaths and 60,000 new cases per day. Covid is still the fourth leading cause of death in the US, after after heart disease, cancer, and accidents, but ahead of stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and flu. If it reaches the level of flu, that would be a good indicator that the pandemic is over.

So right now, I am still in the pandemic frame of mind and avoid as much as possible indoor public places and if I cannot, wear masks when I enter them. I am not sure when I might give up masking. I will be taking the omicron booster in a couple of weeks and will decide after that depending on the numbers, whether for me personally, the pandemic is over.

John Oliver on the weirdness of the funeral coverage

Seth Meyers asked this anti-royalist for his reaction to the news coverage of the funeral. Oliver describes an innocuous but wry comment he made that was censored by Sky TV that broadcasts his show in the UK. He also says that a supermarket chain there muted the beeps that its scanners make as a mark of respect. He was pretty funny.

Incidentally, whenever I ridicule the absurd extent of the coverage and its hagiographic nature of non-news like Queen Elizabeth’s death and funeral, I inevitably get comments to the effect that by writing thus, I am contributing to the coverage, implying that I am being inconsistent. This puzzles me. Of course I am referring to the same event. That is obvious. But there is a difference between covering an event and making fun of that coverage. The point of making fun is to try and ridicule such coverage out of existence. It may or may not work but staying silent will definitely not bring about any change.

When confronted with pompous nonsense, the best thing to do is laugh at it.

Two more cases brought against Trump

Letitia James, the attorney general for the state of New York has announced the filing of a civil lawsuit against Donald Trump and his family and associates for fraud.

In a statement, the attorney general said the suit was filed “against Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, senior management and involved entities for engaging in years of financial fraud to obtain a host of economic benefits.

“The lawsuit alleges that Donald Trump, with the help of his children Donald Trump Jr, Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump, and senior executives of the Trump Organization, falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to induce banks to lend money to the Trump Organization on more favorable terms than would otherwise have been available to the company, to satisfy continuing loan covenants, induce insurers to provide insurance coverage for higher limits and lower premiums, and to gain tax benefits, among other things.”

James also said investigators believed “the conduct alleged in this action also violates federal criminal law, including issuing false statements to financial institutions and bank fraud”.

She said: “We are referring those criminal violations that we’ve uncovered to the United States attorney for the southern district of New York and the Internal Revenue Service.”

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Cheating at chess?

The chess world has been rocked with a potential cheating scandal with the world champion Magnus Carlsen, playing white, withdrawing two weeks ago from a tournament after losing against Hans Niemann, and then posting a cryptic tweet that observers interpreted as suggesting that Nieman had somehow cheated.. Then two days ago in a different tournament, this time played online, Carlsen, playing Niemann again, resigned after just one move, delivering another shock to the chess world.

On the surface, one would think that chess would be one of the hardest games at which to cheat. And that was undoubtedly true back in the day when there was no internet or cell phones and chess algorithms on computers were not that good. But nowadays powerful chess engines can quickly arrive at the best move in any situation, so much so that they are better than the best human players. when spectators follow chess matches, they get immediate information on the quality of a player’s moves against that of the chess engine.

The trick then is to convey that chess engine move move to the player. While various precautions are taken to prevent such communication, they are not foolproof.
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Morning Edition goes over the top with funeral coverage

Since I get my news online, I have managed to avoid coverage of the non-news of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. My morning routine is to listen to the news headlines on NPR and the news program Morning Edition while I prepare and have my breakfast. I listen online instead of on the radio and yesterday (Monday) when I scanned the show’s website, I found that 16 out of the 20 items were about the funeral. Only one item, lasting about three minutes in the two-hour program, dealt with hurricane Fiona that was hitting Puerto Rico hard, dumping a lot of rain, cutting off all power to the island, and causing catastrophic damage.

So I listened to a podcast of This American Life instead.
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I was a target of the ‘pig butchering’ scam

Readers may recall a couple of posts earlier this year about me receiving cryptic text messages on WhatsApp from people who seemed to have reached me by mistake and whose profiles were those of attractive young Asian women. I did not respond because it looked like a scam and with a little investigation discovered that indeed it was.

The investigative journalism outfit ProPublica has published an article that reveals that this is part of a huge operation known to the authorities with the somewhat unsavory name of the ‘pig butchering’ scam. The article describes how it works and how to recognize it so as to avoid falling into the trap.

If you’re like most people, you’ve received a text or chat message in recent months from a stranger with an attractive profile photograph. It might open with a simple “Hi” or what seems like good-natured confusion about why your phone number seems to be in the person’s address book. But these messages are often far from accidental: They’re the first step in a process intended to steer you from a friendly chat to an online investment to, ultimately, watching your money disappear into the account of a fraudster.

“Pig butchering,” as the technique is known — the phrase alludes to the practice of fattening a hog before slaughter — originated in China, then went global during the pandemic.

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What determines if a presidential order should be obeyed?

In November 2018, Donald Trump was considering general Mark Milley for the position of chair of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest military position, and an article in the New Yorker by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker (based on their book The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021) describes the conversation Trump had with Milley in which he expressed concern that Milley was ‘weak’ on transgender issues because Milley had spoken out against the banning of transgender troops. Milley supposedly replied, “No, I am not weak on transgender. I just don’t care who sleeps with who.” Milley also reportedly told him that if he was selected, “I’ll give you an honest answer on everything I can. And you’re going to make the decisions, and as long as they’re legal I’ll support it.”.

Milley and many others already had concerns about Trump’s reckless decision making and hence his qualifying his support for them by conditioning it as long as they’re legal. It is not clear that this caveat registered at all with Trump who clearly seemed to think that anything he said and did was legal.

But this raises an important and unresolved question about how one judges the legality of any order or action by the US president. Since the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has the right to issue orders to the military and expect them to be carried out. So in a sense, other than ask someone to commit an actual crime, any order issued by the president has to be considered legal, at least in a technical sense. So what gives Milley, or any other member of the military, the right to question the legality of such an order? What Milley seemed to be suggesting is not legality per se but whether he was obliged to obey any order however reckless and dangerous it might seem. In short, are there any safeguards at all to prevent, or at least avoid, a catastrophe caused by an order from a reckless president?
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Political regression in Sri Lanka

Readers may recall some of my earlier posts about the dramatic developments this year in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy went into a deep dive, with essential supplies such as fuel for vehicles and cooking and medicines becoming unavailable, the prices of food skyrocketing, and inflation soaring. This caused massive hardships for almost everyone in the country, except of course for the very wealthy, with people waiting in long lines, sometimes for days, in order to get even the smallest amount of essential supplies.

The proximate causes of all this were two major decisions taken by the government: one to suddenly ban the import of chemical fertilizer, which devastated agricultural yields, and the other was the decision to pass a massive tax cut accompanied by printing money to cover the resulting deficit, leading to high inflation. The ultimate causes, though, were the long standing corruption and nepotism and incompetence that had been going on for decades but became most pronounced in the last government in which the president and prime minister and two cabinet members were all brothers of the same Rajapaksa family and another cabinet member was the son of the prime minister. Other members of the family were also given government positions, making the government essentially a family fiefdom.
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