Magnetic Chernobyl

Before 26 April 1986, Chernobyl was the name of a city in Ukraine. It was also the name of a nuclear power plant close by, near the city of Pripyat (population 49,000). I can’t imagine many people in the West would have heard of it. After 26 April 1986, that all changed, of course.

In 2014, Danny Cooke and a documentary crew spent some time there, and showed us around.

Eerie drone footage shows Chernobyl from above
“We spent the week together exploring Chernobyl and the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat. There was something serene, yet highly disturbing about this place. Time has stood still and there are memories of past happenings floating around us.”

Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl

Its radioactive magnetism keeps pulling us back.

Chernobyl’s horrifying realism merits its place as TV’s top show
It’s this combination of forensic attention to detail and chilling terror that has made Chernobyl, now IMDB’s highest-rated TV series of all time, so compelling. Creator Craig Mazin has captured why, 33 years after it occurred, Chernobyl continues to grip the public’s imagination, and why the event has become a metonym for grand-scale, human-induced suffering: the prospect of nuclear disaster still makes for the ultimate horror story.

HBO’s Chernobyl vs Reality – Footage Comparison

Pripyat may be a ghost town, but it’s not empty.

Meet the dogs of Chernobyl – the abandoned pets that formed their own canine community
After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Pripyat and the surrounding villages were abandoned, and residents were not allowed to take their pets to safety. Chernobyl Prayer, a devastating oral history of the period, tells of “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.” There was no mercy. Squads were sent in to shoot the animals. But some survived and it is mainly their descendants that populate the zone.

[…]

While the dogs get some food and play from the visitors, their health needs are met by Clean Futures Fund, a US non-profit organisation that helps communities affected by industrial accidents, which has set up three veterinary clinics in the area, including one inside the Chernobyl plant. The clinics treat emergencies and issue vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. They are also neutering the dogs. Lucas Hixson, the fund’s co-founder, says: “I don’t think we’ll ever get zero dogs in the exclusion zone but we want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them.” This makes Chernobyl safer for the dogs, but also for the workers and visitors.

‘Visitors’. They’re not to be called tourists, that would be too- … crass?

As seen on TV: Fans of HBO series flock to Chernobyl, Geiger counters in hand
Fallout zones don’t usually make popular tourism attractions, but tour agencies are reporting as much as a 40 percent jump in daytrip bookings to the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident since the debut of the hit HBO miniseries Chernobyl, according to Reuters. More than six million people watched the series finale last Monday, so there’s every reason to expect the tourism boomlet will continue.

[…]

Scientists have estimated that it will not be safe for humans to live in the 770-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for up to several hundred years, given that contamination levels are not consistent in the surrounding area. Still, the Ukrainian government opened Chernobyl to tourists in 2011 and about 60,000 tourists visited Chernobyl last year, noted local tourism official Anton Taranenko at a recent press conference.

Milka Ivanova, from Bulgaria, and Dorina-Maria Buda, from Romania, were five years old in 1986. They’re now academics at Leeds Beckett University. Here, they share their perspective.

Chernobyl: we lived through its consequences – holidays in the fallout zone shouldn’t be a picnic
As I write this – decompressing my memories and digging up those of my family back in Romania – there’s still a heaviness in my chest. Milka and I channel our anxieties over Chernobyl and life in communist eastern Europe into our research. To overcome the restraints of those days, I have travelled, worked and studied in eight countries on four continents. My published work deals with psychoanalytic theories of the death instinct, trauma and nuclear tourism – the industry that monetises a fascination to visit places where nuclear accidents have laid waste to people and their communities. The Fukushima disaster of March 2011 in Japan created the most recent entry in this list of tourist hotspots.

Interestingly, 2011 was also the year that Chernobyl was officially declared a tourist attraction. The HBO miniseries has generated interest in nuclear tourism, but this fascination with our communist history is nothing new among western tourists.

We’re all plugged in

Earlier this year I linked to research from Ofcom on children’s use of technology and media. Here’s their report on the rest of us.

Adults’ media use and attitudes – Ofcom
The annual adults’ media use and attitudes report provides research that looks at media use, attitudes and understanding, and how these change over time. The report also includes a particular focus on those who tend not to participate digitally.

Basically — phones. They’re everywhere. We’ve tried to dumb them down, we’re trying to reduce screentime, but there seems to be no stopping them.

media-literacy

Adults: Media use and attitudes report 2019 (pdf)

Key findings

• Mobile phones are increasingly integral to everyday life and half of adults now say, of all devices, they would miss their mobile phone the most.

• One in three adults never use a computer to go online and one in ten only use a smartphone, an increase since 2017.

• Video-on-demand and streamed content is becoming a central part of adults’ viewing landscape.

• Social media users are less likely than in 2017 to see views they disagree with on social media.

• Compared to 2017, internet users are more likely to have encountered hateful content online, however most didn’t do anything about it.

• Although most internet users are aware of at least one of the ways in which their personal data might be collected online, less than four in ten are aware of all the ways we asked about.

• There has been little change in critical awareness in the past few years, with many still lacking the critical skills needed to identify when they are being advertised to online.

• One in ten internet users say they don’t think about the truthfulness of online content, although those who do are more likely than in 2017 to make checks to verify the information.

• Thirteen percent of UK adults do not use the internet, unchanged since 2014; those aged 55 and over and in the DE socio-economic group remain less likely to be online.

• One in seven adults of working age in DE households do not go online, and when they do, one in five only go online via a smartphone.

It’s still 1984, and always will be

It’s 2019, but are we any further on?

Nothing but the truth: the legacy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Orwell was both too pessimistic and not pessimistic enough. On the one hand, the west did not succumb to totalitarianism. Consumerism, not endless war, became the engine of the global economy. But he did not appreciate the tenacity of racism and religious extremism. Nor did he foresee that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is about many things and its readers’ concerns dictate which one is paramount at any point in history. During the cold war, it was a book about totalitarianism. In the 1980s, it became a warning about technology. Today, it is most of all a defence of truth.

Speaking of liars.

Boris Johnson may be the UK’s next Prime Minister, but he’s up on criminal charges for Brexit “Battle Bus” lies
Ball’s complaint claims that Johnson knew that his NHS promises were lies, and as evidence, cites instances in which Johnson used accurate figures. The complain calls for a criminal sanction as remedy for these lies, because “lying on a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics.”

There will be preliminary hearings tomorrow, and then one of four things may happen: Johnson may appeal, the Criminal Prosecution Service may allow Ball to continue with his own private proceedings, or the CPS may take over the proceedings, or they may shut them down on the basis that the prosecution is not in the public interest.

George Orwell jumped ahead 36 years. With his new TV series, Years and Years, Russell T. Davies only leaps from five to 15 years ahead, but his vision of the future feels likelier and far scarier as a result. Why do we, the audience, keep doing this to ourselves?

From Years and Years to Bird Box: why we turn to dystopian dramas in a crisis
Right now, it’s hard to think of a more prescient film than the 2006 thriller Children of Men with its depiction of environmental catastrophe and xenophobia; call me naive but not in a million years did I think we’d get so close to Alfonso Cuarón’s vision. Great art is supposed to reflect life, or so we are told. For me, the power of Years and Years lies not in its moments of high drama but in its more subtle drawing of the growing tensions between families, generations and cultures, and the line the series draws between now and the years to come. The future is here on TV, but the question is: have we got the stomach for it?

Years & Years (2019): Official Trailer

So, farewell then, 80s icons

Some sad news from earlier this month.

Magenta Devine, presenter of Network 7 and Rough Guide, dies aged 61
In addition to her TV work she was appointed as a UN Goodwill Ambassador in 1998, heading a campaign for women’s equality and reproductive rights. In the 1990s she was treated for a heroin addiction and declared bankruptcy in 2003. In a 1996 interview with the Guardian, Devine was asked how she would like to be remembered, replying: “Brilliant, witty, clever, beautiful, generous, sexy, wise. Well, that’s what I’d like …”

Magenta Devine: an 80s TV icon of effortless style and substance
Certainly, the moral effect her shades had on her was impressive. Unlike later yoof TV presenters such as Amanda De Cadenet she was never exposed as poorly briefed, gormless or self-absorbed. I was interviewed by her myself while working for Melody Maker (for an item about George Michael) and was impressed by her methodical calmness and discreet, unflappable intelligence. This could have been Joan Bakewell. Whether reporting from the frontline of an acid house event, or presenting an informative item on Dublin in her Rough Guide series or calmly putting a typically blustery, snarky John Lydon in his place, she was the appropriate frontperson for a style of TV which, initially at least, sprang from a good countercultural place, genuinely wishing to inform rather than patronise young people.

Later, of course, Yoof TV mutated into the dismal The Word, a braying freakshow for the Friday night back-from-the-pub crowd. But Devine had largely disappeared from our screens by then. She was very much of the 80s, stylish, attractive but never an object of the sort of boorish, sexist attention of the laddish 90s. She was forgotten; now that she has gone, however, she should be remembered as a representative of a lost era of TV idealism, when style and substance went hand in glove.

I’d forgotten all about Network 7 and just how much I loved it.

Magenta Devine, TV presenter, dies aged 61
According to Guha, Devine was representative of the “yoof” TV genre, “a new kind of television that had attitude, irreverence and a commitment to telling it like it is”. “I knew she was ill, but her death is a body blow,” he went on. “I have lost a soul mate and a partner in adventure.”

so-farewell-then-80s-icons-1

And news of another iconic sunglasses wearer from the 80s.

Mark Hollis, lead singer of Talk Talk, dies at age 64, reports say
Hollis’ influence has often been referenced by musicians, including Elbow’s Guy Garvey. “Mark Hollis started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability,” he told Mojo. “To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings for me.”

Talk Talk – Life’s What You Make It

What a song, so deceptively simple. Here, writer and musician Tom Maxwell gets to grips with Mark’s later work.

Remembering Mark Hollis of Talk Talk
Songwriter and Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis died in late February. He was 64. I would love to say that I knew the man’s work beyond the 1984 synth-laden hit “It’s My Life,” but like many people, that was not the case. Knowing how much extraordinary music is available to audiophiles, as yet unheard, can be a concern as much as a comfort. It’s wonderful when a new star appears in your musical horizon, but how many are yet to be seen? Anyway, it’s doubly sad when an artist’s death is what leads you to marvelous art.

Kids and screens

There’s a lot of talk about today’s children oversharing on social media. But what kind of example are the parents setting?

When kids realize their whole life is already online
While many kids may not yet have accounts themselves, their parents, schools, sports teams, and organizations have been curating an online presence for them since birth. The shock of realizing that details about your life—or, in some cases, an entire narrative of it—have been shared online without your consent or knowledge has become a pivotal experience in the lives of many young teens and tweens.

It seems we’re all on our screens, all the time. That plural is key, though, isn’t it? It used to be that there was only the one screen at home — the TV in the living room — but now everyone has their own screen and we sit and watch them all separately.

Here’s a report on research Ofcom carried out on what children are watching, and what they’re watching it on.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why
The evidence gives a sense of what attracts them to online video rather than traditional TV – and just how much has changed in the course of a generation.

We’ve got a couple of teenagers in the house, and so some of these conclusions struck a nerve. Here’s an extract about live TV.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why – A report for Ofcom (pdf)

What role does live TV play in children’s lives?

Key findings

• Most children viewed live TV as a family ritual, often watching programmes routinely every year (e.g. Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!)

• Parents welcomed live TV as an opportunity for “family time”, and were often actively encouraging their children to join them for communal TV watching

• Children were often using live TV as ’background noise’ while doing another task or to fill time while they were waiting for something

• Most live TV viewing was on a communal screen or device and therefore usually it was a compromised choice between those watching (e.g. parents and siblings)

[…]

Conclusions

The children loved being able to find whatever they wanted, whenever they liked. As YouTube responds to demand, it can offer a seemingly limitless choice of content. YouTube offers everything they could possibly want, and then allows them to easily access more of what they like the most. […]

Live TV is explicitly thought of by the children and their parents as an opportunity for “family time”, when they all sit down to watch something together. However, the children tended to feel that they weren’t choosing the content themselves, or it was a compromised choice. At other times children put live TV on for a few minutes as a ‘time filler’ while they were waiting for something or had a few minutes to spare. Overall, children seem most attracted to content that they can view on their own device, over which they can exercise maximum choice, and which directly feeds the things that interest them.

I think I miss that “family time”. It feels less natural now than it did when the kids were little.

TV’s golden, black and white age

A TV Licensing report out recently revealed that there are still 7,000 households watching TV in black and white. You might wonder why. Stuart Jeffries from the Guardian has a theory.

Black and white TVs are a lo-fi rebuke to a world gone wrong
One champion of black and white, TV historian Jeffrey Borinsky, asked rhetorically yesterday: “Who wants all this new-fangled 4K ultra HD, satellite dishes or a screen that’s bigger than your room when you can have glorious black and white TV?” Viewed thus, black and white TV is like craft beer, lo-fi reproof to a world gone wrong.

It’s a good point. Technological “progress” often just gives us more of what we don’t want. Endless choice is misery-making rather than liberating. No wonder the 7,000 rebel against colour TV’s gimcrack lunacy of red buttons; endless channels screening nothing worth watching; the binge-based death-in-life of modern viewing, and the whole lie that having access all the time to everything will make us happy rather than confused and sad.

The report doesn’t break down the demographics of those 7,000 into lavishly bearded, vinyl-collecting, folk-loving, vegan hipster devotees of the slow movement; but it’s my guess that this group is well represented.

I doubt it. Perhaps the sets (or their owners?) are just simply dying off. As the Guardian says elsewhere,

7,000 UK households still watching TV in black and white
Regular colour broadcasts began on BBC Two in July 1967 with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The number of black and white licences issued each year has since been in steady decline since. In 2000, there were 212,000 black and white TV licences but by 2003 that number had shrunk to 93,000. By 2015, the number had dipped below 10,000.

I did remind me, though, of the old black and white portable I had in my student days. And specifically, of watching a strange little art film about television, starring solely the voice and face of the newsreader Richard Baker. I can’t find anything about it on the web now, or really remember much about it at all. Just a close up of his face, in grainy, flickery black and white (to me, anyway), intoning, “This is my voice. This is not my voice, merely a recording of my voice. This is my face. This is not my face, merely a recording of my face.” Or something.

Watching it on a rickety black and white portable TV set really brought home the artificiality of the medium: the people on your screen are not really there, they don’t actually exist as we imagine them too – it’s all mediation. I wasn’t so much watching television as looking at a site-specific installation which included a TV screen and a recording of one of the most trusted voices in Britain.

Richard Baker: The birth of TV news
“All I did in that first programme, at 7.30pm on 5 July 1954, was to announce, behind a filmed view of Nelson’s Column: Here is an illustrated summary of the news. It will be followed by the latest film of happenings at home and abroad.”

“We were not to be seen reading the news because it was feared we might sully the pure stream of truth with inappropriate facial expressions, or (unthinkably) turn the news into a personality performance.”

tvs-golden-black-white-age-1

Simon Stålenhag’s sci-fi to hit our screens

I was happy to read that the work of sci-fi illustrator Simon Stålenhag may be on our screens, in the not-too-distant future.

Simon Stålenhag’s dystopian art to come to life in a new Amazon sci-fi TV series
Its eight-episode run will tell the tale of the town of people who live above ‘The Loop’, a machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe. A cast hasn’t been announced, but we do know Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Know) will be directing the pilot, while Legion‘s Nathaniel Halpern and Planet of the Apes sequels director Matt Reeves are on board as executive producers.

They’re talking about his book Takes From The Loop, but my money’s on his other work, The Electric State, being the bigger winner. As I mentioned before, this one may also make it to the big screen, if the Amazon page for its Kindle edition is to be believed.

Be mindful, watch more TV

This is great. There are so many mindfulness and relaxation apps out there, this one fits right in.

Multimedia artist Stine Deja satirises the commodification of mindfulness
“I was inspired by the over-branding, commercialisation and digitisation of relaxation. You can literally buy everything and I thought it would be interesting to push the idea of commercial wellbeing to the max,” Stine explains. Her idea came to her after she read a study that showed people to be more relaxed when watching television than when sleeping. The 4K Zen hat, which works like a portable darkroom, is symbolic of more than commercialised mental happiness. It also visualises an ideal of wellbeing as one of isolation, where the user escapes into a virtual universe inhabited only by them.

The TV times are a-changing

A potentially depressing look at the impact that new television technologies are having on family life.

The end of watching TV as a family
For the first time, children aged five to 16 are more likely to watch programmes and videos on devices such as laptops and mobile phones, rather than on television screens. It means that watching television within families is becoming a private activity, individual and solitary. It’s wearing headphones in the bedroom rather than sprawled together in front of the box. It’s Netflix on the mobile rather than a Sunday afternoon television movie. Homes are places where people are alone together.

As a parent of teenagers, that’s something I’ve noticed too; there’s no rush to switch the telly on as soon as they get home from school like we used to. But perhaps we should put our rose-tinted glasses down and not be too quick to equate ‘different’ with ‘bad’. Yes, things have changed but it’s how we, as parents, deal with that change that matters.

Farewell then, John Berger

05/11/1926 – 02/01/2017

Adrian Searle on John Berger: ‘Art for him was never apart from being alive’
He was a natural and one of the reasons Ways of Seeing was so good was that he never came over as the patrician smart-arse superior critic. He made you feel he was thinking on his feet, right there in front of you. John would screw up his face and affect an expression somewhere between bewilderment and anguish, before launching into an argument that seemed to arrive fully formed. He was enormously compelling.

How John Berger taught us to see
Talking with John is enormously pleasurable but quite strenuous. There is no bullshit. He has changed his life so radically and so often because he cannot bear idle conversation. Suddenly everything you say becomes more weighted because John is a great listener. You talk and he listens and, often quite slowly responds. But both the listening and the response are so charged that you feel you are in a heightened form of conversation and that John’s attention makes you more intelligent, more consequent.

John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 1 (1972)

Netflix-like algorithm drives new college-finding tool

“PossibilityU’s data-driven approach to college matching isn’t new, but Mr. Jarratt’s recommendation algorithm is unique. Rather than starting with a list of questions about what students are looking for, PossibilityU asks users to enter up to three colleges that they are interested in. It then spits out a list of 10 other, similar colleges to consider. A premium paid subscription allows students to compare an unlimited number of colleges and provides application deadlines and other advice. It’s kind of like Netflix’s movie suggestions”

http://chronicle.com/blogs/data/2014/01/23/netflix-like-algorithm-drives-new-college-finding-tool

Your New TV Ruins Movies

“Maybe you got a new TV for Christmas. Or maybe you just got one recently. Maybe you are thinking of buying one. Whichever is the case, take heed: your TV will try very, very hard to make whatever movies you watch on it look not just bad, but aggressively, satanically, puppy-drowningly bad.” …

Your New TV Ruins Movies