Don’t fly Chinese

August 19, 2013

Were you frustrated by airline delays or airport inefficiency this summer? I know I was. But any problems surely pale in comparison to those facing the Chinese flier, if this report by Time magazine is anything to go by. The stats speak for themselves:

According to data provider FlightStats, all of the  world’s 10 worst airlines for timekeeping in June were Chinese. FlightStats also  notes that China’s airports — also operated by the state and bereft  of customer-friendly facilities like decent restaurants or shopping — are  prime offenders for tardiness. A paltry 18% of flights from Beijing’s Capital  International Airport took off on time this June — the worst record of any major  airport anywhere in the world. And Beijing is far from China’s only  laggard. No. 2 on the FlightStats’ global offenders list? Shanghai.

The reasons for this woeful state of affairs apparently include military dominance of airspace (restricting the freedom of passenger planes), the inertia of a small number of government-owned dinosaur airlines (three firms alone account for 80 per cent of the market), and overly-stringent air traffic control restrictions. But passengers are fighting back – impressive in this most restrictive of regimes – and in July an entire planeload of frustrated travellers simply refused to disembark upon landing because of being delayed for so long.

The chance of positive change currently seems to be slim, however: according to Chinese media reports, airports are attempting to avoid angering travellers by… simply not announcing delays at all.


The two men in the red corner

August 19, 2013

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza thinks the fault lines of the Republican Party can be personified in the towering figures of two men: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul. A bold claim this far out… but party poll data do emphasise how neatly the Party is bifurcated. Here’s Cillizza’s main argument (full article here):

The political reality is that Christie and Paul almost certainly can’t peacefully coexist within the Republican Party — which has lost the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections and finds itself on the wrong side of the shifting demographics of the country — because they represent such divergent views on the right way to move the party forward.

Paul sees principle at the root of the Republican renaissance, a core set of beliefs grounded in libertarian principles of keeping the government out of people’s lives and fundamentally rethinking the way American military might is used abroad.

Christie is openly dismissive of the “college professors” in the party who would rather win arguments than win elections. He is a political and policy pragmatist who is explicitly positioning himself as the guy best able to break the Republicans’ White House drought.

And this is the polling data:

Fifty-four percent of respondents believe the party needs to be more conservative; 40 percent believe it needs to moderate. On abortion, 26 percent believe the party isn’t conservative enough while 25 percent think it’s too conservative. Ditto gay marriage, with 31 percent describing the GOP’s position as too conservative and 27 percent saying it isn’t conservative enough.

Are older people deserting the Republican Party?

August 14, 2013

If they are, it would be a really big deal, not least because ‘seniors’ are amongst the voters most likely to actually vote. The Atlantic has this story which suggests it’s happening quickly and dramatically. It stems from a national survey by ‘respected on both sides of the aisle’ Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg, although a national survey with a comparatively small – for the US – sample size of 841 likely votes (in 2014).

But the drop in support does seem big even if you stick to comparing to an earlier Greenberg poll, taken at the start of 2011:

Just 28 percent of voters 65 and older had a favorable view of the Republican Party in a national survey conducted last month by the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, versus 40 percent who had a positive view of the Democrats. That’s a reversal from a poll Greenberg conducted in early 2011, when 43 percent of seniors saw Republicans favorably and 37 percent saw Democrats that way.

What are the reasons for this? Probably a mix of reaction against Republican plans to change healthcare funding, more positive feelings about Democrats’ ability to run the economy, and ever-increasing frustration at GOP obstructionism in Congress. Interesting stuff.

Netflix knows too much

August 14, 2013

I both enjoyed and was slightly unsettled by this, spotted by the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman (full column here):

“A lot of people tell us they often watch foreign movies or documentaries,” Carlos Gomez-Uribe, Netflix’s algorithm chief, tells Wired magazine. “But in practice, that doesn’t happen very much.” If you’ve ever wondered why Netflix recommends so many films with low star ratings, meanwhile, it’s the same phenomenon at work: people give high ratings to critically acclaimed movies and lower ones to mass-market trash – but it’s the trash they more frequently watch. “We know that many of the ratings are aspirational, rather than reflecting your daily activity,” says another Netflix executive, diplomatically.

The grunt work of carving out a TV episode

June 25, 2013

I loved this quote from David Chase, the brains behind The Sopranos, featured in a longer GQ article about James Gandolfini:

“Other people have good ideas. And they’re hard to come by. But in another sense, they’re a dime a dozen,” he tells me. “Turning an idea into an episode—that’s the grunt work. The organization can rest for a day or so, secure in the notion that we’ve got an idea. But eventually the showrunner’s the one who has to look at his watch and say, ‘How do we fill up forty-two minutes?’ We can all sit around and decide we want to make a Louis XIV table, but eventually somebody has to do the carving.”

RIP James Gandolfini

June 20, 2013

As for everyone who loved fine acting and great, great dramatic television – most of the people I follow on Twitter by the look of it – news of James ‘Soprano’ Gandolfini’s death came as a huge, horribly sad shock. Here’s a beautiful little vignette about the respect and joy he inspired, from Armando Iannucci’s account of filming In The Loop, in which Gandolfini starred.

We start off with the UK government, and then we see a whole new cast of American politicos at the US State Department, and follow their own office politics. So I had to bring in a whole new team of actors I hadn’t worked with before. James Gandolfini was someone I’d spoken to several times about an HBO project I’m working on, and he mentioned how much he enjoyed and “got” The Thick of It. When we wrote the part of a Pentagon general who sounds like he can talk the talk but never really manages to walk the walk, I instantly thought of him, simply because it was casting a little bit against type. I liked the idea of him being authoritative but pointless. And, it turned out in rehearsal and the shoot, James is very, very good at slapstick. He’s a natural comic performer, with a deep love of WC Fields. For many on set, though, he was their hero from The Sopranos and I’ll never forget the look on people’s faces when James turned up in the middle of the wet north London car park where we were all stationed, with a basketball, asking if anyone wanted to shoot some hoops with him. Suddenly, even the most unsporty nerd within a mile had developed a passion for the art of basketball and queued up to play. It was great to see excitement detonate so instantly over that wide a radius.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Colston Hall, Bristol

June 2, 2013

I’m writing this on the last train back to Swindon having seen musical/lyrical hero Elvis Costello and his Imposters at the Colston Hall in Bristol (although unfortunately having had to leave before the encore, thanks to a train timetable that seems expressly designed to make gig-going as impractical as possible). So in the spirit of semi-live blogging, here are a quick three personal takeaways. In no particular order, the gig was…

Fun – and this was, I’ll admit, something of a surprise. Not that I wasn’t expecting an enjoyable evening – I was – but I hadn’t expected Elvis himself to be having so much fun. You see: without much concrete evidence (aside from all those songs of bitterness and heartbreak of course) I’d formed an image of the man behind those famous specs as a pretty tortured fellow. And yet here he was as literal ringmaster of a stage bedecked with circus-themed props including a strengthometer, massive spinning songwheel and caged dancing showgirl. Inviting audience members up to grip the wheel and spin, thereby choosing the next song for the band to play whilst – on two occasions – gyrating alongside the sequinned dancer in her cage. The audience members that is, not Elvis (I didn’t mean he was having quite that much fun). And in amidst the songs chatting away about their origins, about Bristol, and about the rules of the whole spinning thing.

Strong – the Imposters are a four piece, with Elvis on vocals and sole guitar (and the other three on drums, bass and keys respectively) but make a pretty colossal racket. Steve Nieve pounds piano, then Hammond, then synth; often all within the space of one song. And as other bloggers have noted Elvis’ guitar work is blistering, but delicate and dextrous as well, when playing folkier acoustic numbers. Which brings me to number three…

Fresh – this gig really brought home to me how well Elvis’ more recent material (everything from 2004’s rootsy return to form The Delivery Man onwards, say) stands up against Classic Costello. And in fact my one critique of the set is that the band’s volume and apparent over-familiarity with the older tunes – Alison, Oliver’s Army and so on – rendered these segments a little blastingly indistinguishable, with one footstomping 70s/80s anthem blurring into the next. The more modern songs on the other hand were subtler, often beautiful: Bedlam, A Slow Drag With Josephine, and Jimmie Standing In The Rain (the last two from the excellent 2010 album National Ransom) were knockout.

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