BBC 2024-02-23 16:31:47


Valencia fire latest: Death toll rises after fire in Valencia apartment blocks

Nearly 24 hours after fire ravaged a Valencia apartment complex, there has been no confirmation of how it started.

Residents and neighbours of the 14-storey apartment block in Campanar, on the city’s west side, have all confirmed the rapid progress of the fire, which devastated the entire block within a matter of hours and has killed 10 people.

We know the fire broke out in an apartment on the fourth floor at around 17:30 local time (16:30 GMT) on Thursday.

Many eyewitnesses have confirmed that it was a windy afternoon in Valencia, with the Spanish weather service AEMET stating the port city was experiencing gusts of up to 60kmph (40mph) at the time. This may well have contributed to the ferocious trajectory of the blaze.

Elsewhere, experts have linked the fire’s rapid spread to the use of flammable cladding materials on the exterior of the building – although this remains unconfirmed.

An investigation into the blaze has begun. Although the building is still very hot, firefighters have been able to enter the lower floors and begin searching for the missing people

With up to 15 missing people still unaccounted for following the fire, three days of mourning has been declared in the city.

Meanwhile Spain’s prime minister has promised the full support of the state – for both the victims, the rescue operation, and for any future investigation into the fire’s cause.

Israel’s PM Netanyahu lays out Gaza plan for after the war

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has laid out his vision for a post-war Gaza.

Under his plan Israel would control security indefinitely, and Palestinians with no links to groups hostile to Israel would run the territory.

The US, Israel’s major ally, wants the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) to govern Gaza after the war.

But the short document – which Mr Netanyahu presented to ministers last night – makes no mention of the PA.

He has previously ruled out a post-war role for the internationally backed body.

He envisages a “demilitarised” Gaza; Israel would be responsible for removing all military capability beyond that necessary for public order.

There would be a “Southern Closure” on the territory’s border with Egypt to prevent smuggling both under- and overground.

And “de-radicalisation” programmes would be promoted in all religious, educational and welfare institutions. The document suggests Arab countries with experience of such programmes would be involved, though Mr Netanyahu has not specified which.

  • Why is the Gaza war happening?

Under the plan Israel would also maintain security control over the entire area west of Jordan from land, sea and air.

Mr Netanyahu has been under pressure – at home and internationally – to publish proposals for Gaza since he began his military operation. He is keen to restore a crumbling reputation as a leader who can keep Israel safe and will want to appeal to right wing hardliners in his coalition government.

A spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, said Mr Netanyahu’s plan was doomed to fail.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh said: “If the world is genuinely interested in having security and stability in the region, it must end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and recognise an independent Palestinian state.”

Mr Netanyahu repeated his rejection of any unilateral recognition by Western countries of a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile negotiators trying to broker a temporary ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages are expected to meet in Paris.

The US wants a deal in place before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in just over a fortnight.

And, as the humanitarian situation worsens in Gaza, there is international pressure too for the war to end. The Hamas-run Ministry of Health reports that more than 29,500 people, mostly women and children, have been killed since the war began in October.

Israel’s military offensive was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on 7 October in which gunmen killed about 1,200 people – mainly civilians – and took 253 back to Gaza as hostages.

Overnight the head of the UN body responsible for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) warned that Gaza faces a “monumental disaster with grave implications for regional peace, security and human rights”.

In a letter to the president of the UN general assembly, Philippe Lazzarini said the agency “has reached breaking point, with Israel’s repeated calls to dismantle Unrwa and the freezing of funding by donors at a time of unprecedented humanitarian needs in Gaza”.

Some of Unrwa’s biggest donors suspended funding for the agency last month after Unrwa sacked several of its staff amid allegations by Israel that they had participated in the October attacks.

Mr Netanyahu aims to close the agency as part of his post-war plan and replace it with – as yet unspecified – international aid organisations.

And he has insisted that he will continue his war until Israel has dismantled Hamas and Islamic Jihad – the second largest armed group in Gaza – and all Israeli hostages are returned.

At the end of 2023, Mr Netanyahu warned the war could go on for “many more months”.

Alexei Navalny: Putin critic’s mother ‘given hours to agree secret burial’

Alexei Navalny’s mother has been told to agree to a “secret” burial for the Putin critic within three hours, his spokeswoman says.

If Lyudmila Navalnaya did not agree, he would be buried at the prison where he died a week ago, the spokeswoman said a Russian investigator had told her.

On Thursday, Ms Navalnaya said she was made to sign a death certificate saying her son died of natural causes.

Mr Navalny’s widow has said he was killed by Russian authorities.

The Kremlin has denied the allegations, calling Western reaction to the death “hysterical”.

Mr Navalny died in a prison colony in the Arctic Circle on 16 February. Prison officials said he had fallen ill following a “walk”.

But Yulia Navalnaya has claimed that he was killed on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and vowed to continue his struggle.

Separately, Mr Navalny’s team has offered security officers €20,000 ($22,000; £17,000) in reward and assistance in leaving Russia in exchange for information about the Russian opposition leader’s death in prison.

On Thursday US President Joe Biden met Mr Navalny’s widow Yulia and his daughter Dasha Navalnaya in San Francisco.

“The president expressed his admiration for Alexei Navalny’s extraordinary courage and his legacy of fighting against corruption and for a free and democratic Russia,” the White House said in a statement.

A day later, the US announced more than 500 new sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and Mr Navalny’s death.

These include measures against Russia’s main card payment system, financial and military institutions, and officials involved in Navalny’s imprisonment.

  • US targets Russia with more than 500 new sanctions

The EU has also announced new sanctions on access to military technology.

For years Mr Navalny was most high-profile critic of the Russian leader.

In August 2020, the former opposition leader was poisoned using the Novichok nerve agent by a team of would-be assassins from the Russian secret services.

Airlifted to Germany, he recovered there before returning to Russia in January 2021, where he was imprisoned.

Attempts at commemorating his death have been met by a heavy-handed response from Russian authorities, with makeshift monuments cleared and hundreds arrested.

The Last Airbender is the worst of remake culture

The new live-action adaptation of the massively popular animated fantasy exists to exploit people’s nostalgia, rather than working on its own terms.
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Watching the Netflix-produced, live-action remake of hugely-popular noughties animation Avatar: The Last Airbender brings to mind an astute recent piece by Dazed writer James Greig, which posited that pop culture is pandering to people’s desire to remain in a perpetual childhood. At their worst, remakes of beloved works indulge this infantilising impulse, satisfying urges to make everything old – that audiences loved when they were younger – new again. Based on the show created by by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for Nickelodeon – which imagined an intricate fantasy world with different nations named after the elements fire, earth, water and air, and select people with the ability to “bend” them – The Last Airbender is a rather unholy combination of this cheaply-nostalgic drive and the worst vices of live-action remakes of animations.

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Though remakes in general are not always a bad or ignoble idea, live-action remakes of animations often feel doomed from the start. Right away, there’s a specific tension that comes from replicating drawings in live-action. Animation has visual flexibility; characters can transform in myriad ways as the scene requires. Therefore the same scenes or character design choices won’t necessarily work in the same way, because there are two kinds of expression at work; the animation needs to be adapted, not just lifted.

(Credit: Netflix/Alamy)

It’s unfortunate, then, that this Airbender feels designed simply to be “that show you remember, but what if it was real”, trading in the original’s visual expressiveness for more dour scenery as it plays up the harshness of its war story – a story which might have more of an impact if everything didn’t feel so detached. All the lavish VFX in the world can’t undo boring direction, its action sequences made with a confounding sense of space, its long conversations full of listless shots against blurry, unconvincing backdrops, the lines delivered with rather subdued energy that the camerawork doesn’t compensate for or emphasise in a meaningful way. Even at its most expensive and polished, the show lacks a sense of visual character that the animation had in spades. It feels like someone transported Airbender over to some kind of generic “Netflix World” – and this isn’t the first time that has happened with beloved animations. 

The streamer has made it something of a business practice to buy up licenses of popular animation and turn them into live-action series, with an adaptation of Mobile Suit Gundam still on the way. But Netflix’s 2021 version of anime Cowboy Bebop, for example, felt like it used the original as a worksheet, rather than clocking its influences (film noir, westerns and yakuza flicks among them) and adding some of its own. Like Airbender, it would constantly and aggressively call back to its animated predecessor without truly engaging with it, floundering in its attempt to distill the original’s larger-than-life characters into what has become the streamer’s modus operandi: a coupling of muted colour palettes with flat lighting and composition, and an assumption that familiar imagery will conjure the same feeling, regardless of style.

Avatar: The Last Airbender barely even attempts to reevaluate the material it’s recreating, In some respects, it is regresses from it

Airbender barely even attempts to reevaluate the material it’s recreating, In some respects, it regresses from it. The second episode, Warrior, is the most egregious example, replicating a story from the animation but avoiding depicting the Water tribe warrior Sokka as sexist. It takes away the challenge to his belief system, and gives the impression that the writers don’t trust that the in-fact older audience – which it seems to be targeting through its more severe tone – can understand the nuances of the story being told.  

It’s representative of the show’s approach, visually and tonally styling itself as a more mature take on the same material, while it balks at anything resembling moral ambiguity. As a result this version makes little justification for itself. Does it exist it to bring on board a new audience? Yet the original is already massively popular (it’s still sitting comfortably at number seven in IMDb’s Top 250 TV shows ever, as rated by the site’s users) and available on the very same service.

The live-action remakes that have got it right

When it comes to live-action remakes of popular animations, a handful of people have got them right. The 2008 film version of Manga series Speed Racer, although a commercial flop, was artistically rich. It carried forward the stylings of the anime into its own visual language, with Lana and Lily Wachowski saying in interviews that they applied the principles of cubist art to their approach. It had an idea about what Speed Racer is, and used strong stylisation to overcome that gap between the cartoonish and the real that proves fatal for so many animation to live-action remakes.

(Credit: Netflix/Alamy)

Even Netflix has got it right on occasion. Last year’s One Piece, based on the pirate-themed manga series, allowed itself to embrace the earnestness of the original and the writer Eiichiro Oda’s cartoonish aesthetics, and the show has gone over well with new fans and old fans alike. It felt sincere, where Airbender feels cynical.

Indeed as much as remakes more generally may often be sneered at by critics and general audiences alike, the remake doesn’t necessarily have to be a product of moribund nostalgia. That much is true across mediums: only this coming week, the second instalment of the Final Fantasy VII Remake trilogy, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, is being released on PlayStation 5. Game remakes have different motivations – the promise of improved graphics and mechanics, and the originals’ scarce accessibility among them. But the Final Fantasy VII Remake games’ narrative invention and admirably wild twists stand out in relation to the live-action Airbender’s dull facsimile. The characters in the FFVII Remake instalments fight against the idea that their path is predetermined – and so the games confront the idea of the remake itself. Why retread old ground, it asks? If you already know where a story’s path leads, wouldn’t it be more exciting to see a new one? 

There is a place for both remakes, and live-action takes on animation, but only if they have a clear vision of why the thing exists, beyond blankly giving people more of what they liked. The new take on Avatar: The Last Airbender doesn’t work as an entity of its own, not just due to its strange, stilted visual appropriation of animated craft, but also because of its refusal to move on from the past – in other words, it’s a show that has resolutely failed to grow up.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is streaming on Netflix internationally now

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How an Antarctic base got its own accent

Antarctica is a bleak, remote and dark place during the winter, but a handful of people each year brave the conditions to live in almost totally cut off from the rest of the world. The experience can change how they speak.
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It was a suitably icy farewell salute: a handful of snowballs arcing through the sky towards RSS Ernest Shackleton as the ship slipped away from the wharf. The vessel was setting out across the stormy Southern Ocean, leaving 26 hardy souls behind on a snowbound island at the frozen tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Those waving goodbye from the shore were watching their last tangible link to the rest of the world glide off through the bitterly cold water. Ahead of them lay six months of winter, effectively marooned, in the coldest continent on the planet.

“They say it is quicker to get to someone on the International Space Station than it is to medically evacuate someone from Antarctica in the winter,” says Marlon Clark, one of those 26 international researchers and support staff left behind at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, just to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula in March 2018. Antarctica is the least-inhabited continent on the planet – it has no permanent human population – with just a handful of research stations and bases scattered across the 5.4 million sq mile (14 million sq km) frozen landscape. “So, you’re isolated,” says Clark. “There’s a lot of mystery and lore about ‘a winter in Antarctica’. Anticipation was the strongest feeling as well as realising, ‘OK, this is real, I’m going to be here for a long, long time’.”

Over the following 26 weeks of near perpetual darkness and harsh weather, Clark and his fellow inhabitants at Rothera would work, eat and socialise together with barely any contact with home. Satellite phone calls are expensive and so used sparingly. With just each other for company and limited entertainment on the base, the “winterers”, as they are known, would chat to each other – a lot. 

“We would be talking to each other while working, on our breaks, playing pool or in our rooms,” says Clark, who helped coordinate the collection of the winterers recordings. “We got to learn each other’s stories pretty quickly. There were a lot of conversations about weather – these crazy winds we’d get, the sea ice, icebergs, clouds. We were very comfortable with each other.” Their common language was English, sprinkled with slang words unique to the Antarctic research stations – more on this later. 

Amid all that conversing, something surprising was happening: their accents were changing.

Although the snow and sea can disappear during the summer months at Rothera Research Station, in winter it becomes effectively cut off (Credit: Alamy)

Clark and his colleagues did not notice this at the time. All they knew was that they were taking part in an unusual experiment, which involved tracking their own voices over time. This was done by making 10-minute recordings every few weeks. They would sit in front of a microphone and repeat the same 29 words as they appeared on a computer screen. Food. Coffee. Hid. Airflow. Most were words they used regularly during their day and contained vowel sounds known to differ in English accents.

When the recordings finally got back to a team of phonetics researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich in Germany for analysis, they discovered that the pronunciation of some of the words had changed ever so slightly. What they were seeing was the beginning of a new accent emerging.

On a grand scale, the Antarctic accent experiment can provide insights into why American and British English has diverged in the way it has

The Antarctic experiment offered a snapshot of something that has happened innumerable times throughout human history, as groups of people have become cut off from others, leading their accents, dialects and even languages to diverge from each other. On a grand scale, the researchers say it can provide insights into why American and British English has diverged in the way it has.

“We wanted to replicate, as closely as we could, what happened when the Mayflower went to North America and the people on board were isolated for a length of time,” says Jonathan Harrington, professor of phonetics and speech processing at Ludwig-Maximillians-University of Munich. “Six months isn’t very long, so we saw very, very small changes. But we found some of the vowels had shifted.”

One of those changes was the “ou” sound in words such as “flow” and “sew” that shifted towards the front of the vocal tract. They also saw some of the winterers beginning to converge in the way they pronounced three other vowels.

The reason for this shift reveals a possible basic mechanism for how we pick up accents throughout our lives.

“When we speak to each other, we memorise that speech and then that has an influence on our own speech production,” says Harrington. In effect, we transmit and infect one another with pronunciations every time we interact with others. Over time, if we have regular and prolonged contact with someone, we can start to pick up their sounds.

There are no permanent settlements in Antarctica but a handful of research stations that are inhabited by visiting researchers and staff (Credit: Marlon Clark)

For people living in an isolated community – perhaps a village in a remote valley, or a settlement on the other side of an ocean – this would lead to accent drift as quirks or misperceptions of speech become exaggerated. But this can take time as accents are produced by extremely fine control of the vocal organs in order to produce the shifts in sounds such as nasalised vowels that characterise certain accents like American English.

In Antarctica during the winter of 2018, there was another factor at play too – the diversity of the winterers’ backgrounds.

Among those staying at Rothera that winter were a couple of Americans, an Icelandic mechanic, a few Germans, some Scots and a Welsh speaker.

“The UK bases in Antarctica are quite unique in how welcoming they are, so you end up with a real melting pot of people from different backgrounds,” says Clark, who helped to coordinate the collection of the recordings made by the winterers.

Harrington and his colleagues used computational models to predict how this melting pot of winterers might influence one another. The model used recordings made before the winterers left to simulate what might happen to their accents as they spent time together.  Their prediction was unerringly accurate, even if it did exaggerate the effects compared to what happened in real life. The winterers themselves wouldn’t have noticed either as they happened over time. But when the sounds were analysed the changes could be seen within the acoustic waves.

“It was very subtle – you can’t hear the changes,” says Harrington.

But Clark says some of those staying at the base that winter underwent far more dramatic changes in the way they spoke.

“One of my friends there spoke Welsh as his first language and had a really strong accent when he spoke English,” he says. “By the end of our time there his accent had become more like scouse [an accent from Liverpool in England].”

Although his Welsh friend wasn’t involved in the accent study, a German woman was. Her accent became more like a native English speaker as she practiced with those around her, according to Harrington and his colleagues.

New accents in London and Berlin

This mix of people from different cultural backgrounds, languages and accents is not only characteristic of far-flung research stations. It can also be found – on a much larger scale – in modern cities. And just like the Antarctic linguistic microcosm, those big, multicultural cities have been producing their own new dialects and accents, research suggests.

In the southeast of England, one example of this is the development of Multicultural London English, also known as MLE – a dialect that began to emerge in the 1980s in areas of the city where there were high levels of immigration. It is thought to have emerged as East End Cockney blended initially with Jamaican Patois and later other languages from among the 300 or so spoken in London.

Antarctica is of intense interest to researchers as it has a widespread effect on our planet’s climate and ocean (Credit: Alamy)

Among the influences were the large number of people in London who are learning English as their second language, says Eivind Nessa Torgersen, a professor of English language at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who has studied MLE along with colleagues Jenny Cheshire and Susan Fox at Queen Mary, University of London. 

“A number of the MLE speakers have other first languages and grow up using both English and another home language,” says Torgersen. “An example is the use of ‘wasn’t’ – as in ‘I wasn’t, you wasn’t, we wasn’t, they wasn’t’.” Older speakers in inner London and young speakers elsewhere in southeast England tend to use “weren’t”, he says.

“We have seen similar developments in other very large cities in Europe with high levels of migration,” he says, giving the examples of a new kind of German in Berlin and a new Swedish dialect in Stockholm. “These contact, multicultural varieties have similar features: dialect and language contact, second-language learning, loan words from other languages. What made MLE different from other multicultural varieties, at least until recently, was that we didn’t find many word borrowings from other languages.” That, he says, could be in part due to much of the immigration to London coming from Commonwealth countries where people spoke a variation of English.

For accents to develop to the point where they are noticeable, it really takes a generational change – Jonathan Harrington

How to say ‘nice day’ in Antarctic 

In the case of Antarctica, residents at the research bases have not only been subtly changing their accents. They have also been developing a kind of Antarctic research slang: a baffling array of words that mean little to those from the outside world. Perhaps surprisingly, some of these words have nothing to do with science, or Antarctica. 

“There is a weird, nuanced vernacular that people develop when you’re down there,” says Clark. “If it is a nice day, you have a ‘dingle day’ or if you are going out to pick up rubbish, you are doing a fod plod. You pick it up quickly and it becomes very normal.” 

Even so, Antarctica is still some way from the kind of accent divergence that occurred following the colonisation of North America, Australia and New Zealand.

“For accents to develop to the point where they are noticeable, it really takes a generational change,” says Harrington. “Children are very good imitators, so that process of memorising each other’s speech is magnified in children. If the winterers were to have children, like the settlers on the Mayflower when they went to America – the accent would become more stable.”

A sudden rush of pregnancies in one of the most inhospitable places in the world is unlikely to be something the British Antarctic Survey would encourage (nor do other bases on the continent).

But on the other hand, it would certainly give the winterers something else to talk about other than the weather.

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