How and Why to Rate Books and Things

Here’s the image that inspired this post:

Now, there’s an awful lot of political catnip in that post, but I’m actually going to ignore it. So, if you want to hate on Captain Marvel or defend Captain Marvel: this is not the post for you. I want to talk about an apolitical disagreement I have with this perspective.

The underlying idea of this argument is that you should rate a movie based on how good or bad it is in some objective, cosmic sense. Or at least based on something other than how you felt about the movie. In this particular case, you should rate the movie based on some political ideal or in such a way as to promote the common good. Or something. No, you shouldn’t. ALl of these approaches are bad ideas.

That's not how this works

The correct way to rate a movie–or a book, or a restaurant, etc.–is to just give the rating that best reflects how much joy it brought you. That’s it!

Let’s see if I can convince you.

To begin with, I’m not saying that such a thing as objective quality doesn’t exist. I think it probably does. No one can really tell where subjective taste ends and objective quality begins, but I’m pretty sure that “chocolate or vanilla” is a matter of purely personal preference but “gives you food poisoning or does not” is a matter of objective quality.

So I’m not trying to tell you that you should use your subjective reactions because that’s all there is to go on. I think it’s quite possible to watch a movie and think to yourself, “This wasn’t for me because I don’t like period romances (personal taste), but I can recognize that the script, directing, and acting were all excellent (objective quality) so I’m going to give it 5-stars.”

It’s possible. A lot of people even think there’s some ethical obligation to do just that. As though personal preferences and biases were always something to hide and be ashamed of. None of that is true.

The superficial reason I think it’s a bad idea has to do with what I think ratings are for. The purpose of a rating–and by a rating I mean a single, numeric score that you give to a movie or a book, like 8 out of 10 or 5 stars–is to help other people find works that they will enjoy and avoid works that they won’t enjoy. Or, because you can do this, to help people specifically look for works that will challenge them and that they might not like, and maybe pass up a book that will be too familiar. You can do all kinds of things with ratings. But only if the ratings are simple and honest. Only if the ratings encode good data.

The ideal scenario is a bunch of people leaving simple, numeric ratings for a bunch of works. This isn’t Utopia, it’s Goodreads. (Or any of a number of similar sites.) What you can then do is load up your list of works that you’ve liked / disliked / not cared about and find other people out there who have similar tastes. They’ve liked a lot of the books you’ve liked, they’ve disliked a lot of the books you’ve disliked, and they’ve felt meh about a lot of the books you’ve felt meh about. Now, if this person has read a book you haven’t read and they gave it 5-stars: BAM! You’re quite possibly found your next great read.

You can do this manually yourself. In fact, it’s what all of us instinctively do when we start talking to people about movies. We compare notes. If we have a lot in common, we ask that person for recommendation. It’s what we do in face-to-face interactions. When we use big data sets and machine learning algorithms to automate the process, we call them recommender systems. (What I’m describing is the collaborative filtering approach as opposed to content-based filtering, which also has it’s place.)

This matters a lot to me for the simple reason that I don’t like much of what I read. So, it’s kind of a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. 5-star books are rare for me. Most of what I read is probably 3-stars. A lot of it is 1-star or 2-star. In a sea of entertainment, I’m thirsty. I don’t have any show that I enjoy watching right now. I’m reading a few really solid series, but they come out at a rate of 1 or 2 books a year, and I read more like 120 books a year. The promise of really deep collaborative filtering is really appealing if it means I can find is valuable.

But if you try to be a good citizen and rate books based on what you think they’re objective quality is, the whole system breaks down.

Imagine a bunch of sci-fi fans and a bunch of mystery fans that each read a mix of both genres. The sci-fi fans enjoy the sci-fi books better (and the mystery fans enjoy the mystery books more), but they try to be objective in their ratings. The result of this is that the two groups disappear from the data. You can no longer go in and find the group that aligns with your interests and then weight their recommendations more heavily. Instead of having a clear population that gives high marks to the sci-fi stuff and high-marks to the mystery stuff, you just have one, amorphous group that gives high (or maybe medium) marks to everything.

How is this helpful? It is not. Not as much as it could be, anyway.

In theoretical terms, you have to understand that your subjective reaction to a work is complex. It incorporates the objective quality of the work, your subjective taste, and then an entire universe of random chance. Maybe you were angry going into the theater, and so the comedy didn’t work for you the way it would normally have worked. Maybe you just found out you got a raise, and everything was ten times funnier than it might otherwise have been. This is statistical noise, but it’s unbiased noise. This means that it basically goes away if you have a high enough sample.

On the other hand, if you try to fish out the objective components of a work from the stew of subjective and circumstantial components, you’re almost guaranteed to get it wrong. You don’t know yourself very well. You don’t know for yourself where you objective assessment ends and your subjective taste begins. You don’t know for yourself what unconscious factors were at play when you read that book at that time of your life. You can’t disentangle the objective from the subjective, and if you try you’re just going to end up introducing error into the equation that is biased. (In the Captain Marvel example above, you’re explicitly introducing political assessments into your judgment of the movie. That’s silly, regardless of whether your politics make you inclined to like it or hate it.)

What does this all mean? It means that it’s not important to rate things objectively (you can’t, and you’ll just mess it up), but it is helpful to rate thing frequently. The more people we have rating things in a way that can be sorted and organized, the more use everyone can get from those ratings. In this sense, ratings have positive externalities.

Now, some caveats:

Ratings vs. Reviews

A rating (in my terminology, I don’t claim this is the Absolute True Definition) is a single, numeric score. A review is a mini-essay where you get to explain your rating. The review is the place where you should try to disentangle the objective from the subjective. You’ll still fail, of course, but (1) it won’t dirty the data and (2) your failure to be objective can still be interesting and even illuminating. Reviews–the poor man’s version of criticism–is a different beast and it plays by different rules.

So: don’t think hard about your ratings. Just give a number and move on.

Do think hard about your reviews (if you have time!) Make them thoughtful and introspective and personal.

Misuse of the Data

There is a peril to everyone giving simplistic ratings, which is that publishers (movie studios, book publishers, whatever) will be tempted to try and reverse-engineer guaranteed money makers.

Yeah, that’s a problem, but it’s not like they’re not doing that anyway. The reason that movie studios keep making sequels, reboots, and remakes is that they are already over-relying on ratings. But they don’t rely on Goodreads or Rotten Tomatoes. They rely on money.

This is imperfect, too, given the different timing of digital vs. physical media channels, etc. but the point is that adding your honest ratings to Goodreads isn’t going to make traditional publishing any more likely to try and republish last years cult hit. They’re doing to do that anyway, and they already have better data (for their purposes) than you can give them.

Ratings vs. Journalism

My advice applies to entertainment. I’m not saying that you should just rate everything without worrying about objectivity. This should go without saying but, just in case, I said it.

You shouldn’t apply this reasoning to journalism because one vital function of journalism for society is to provide a common pool of facts that everyone can then debate about. One reason our society is so sadly warped and full of hatred is that we’ve lost that kind of journalism.

Of it’s probably impossible to be perfectly objective. The term is meaningless. Human beings do not passively receive input from our senses. Every aspect of learning–from decoding sounds into speech to the way vision works–is an active endeavor that depends on biases and assumptions.

When we say we want journalists to be objective, what we really mean is that (1) we want them to stick to objectively verifiable facts (or at least not do violence to them) and (2) we would like them to embody, insofar as possible, the common biases of the society they’re reporting to. There was a time when we, as Americans, knew that we had certain values in common. I believe that for the most part we still do. We’re suckers for underdogs, we value individualism, we revere hard work, and we are optimistic and energetic. A journalistic establishment that embraces those values is probably one that will serve us well (although I haven’t thought about it that hard, and it still has to follow rule #1 about getting the facts right). That’s bias, but it’s a bias that is positive: a bias towards truth, justice, and the American way.

What we can’t afford, but we unfortunately have to live with, is journalism that takes sides within the boundaries of our society.

Strategic Voting

There are some places other than entertainment where this logic does hold, however, and one of them is voting. One of the problems of American voting is that we go with majority-take-all voting, which is like the horse-and-buggy era of voting technology. Majority-take-all voting is probably much worse for us than a 2-party system, because it encourages strategic voting.

Just like rating Captain Marvel higher or lower because your politics make you want it to succeed or fail, strategic voting is where you vote for the candidate that you think can win rather than the candidate that you actually like the most.

There are alternatives that (mostly) eliminate this problem, the most well-known of which is instant-runoff voting. Instead of voting for just one candidate, you rank the candidates in the order that you prefer them. This means that you can vote for your favorite candidate first even if he or she is a longshot. If they don’t win, no problem. Your vote isn’t thrown away. In essence, it’s automatically moved to your second-favorite candidate. You don’t actually need to have multiple run-off elections. You just vote once with your full list of preferences and then it’s as if you were having a bunch of runoffs.

There are other important reasons why I think it’s better to vote for simple, subjective evaluations of the state of the country instead of trying to figure out who has the best policy choices, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.


The idea of simple, subjective ratings is not a cure-all. As I noted above, it’s not appropriate for all scenarios (like journalism). It’s also not infinitely powerful. The more people you have and the more things they rate (especially when lots of diverse people are rating the same thing), the better. If you have 1,000 people, maybe you can detect who likes what genre. If you have 10,000 people, maybe you can also detect sub-genres. If you have 100,000 people, maybe you can detect sub-genres and other characteristics, like literary style.

But no matter how many people you have, you’re never going to be able to pick up every possible relevant factor in the data because there are too many and we don’t even know what they are. And, even if you could, that still wouldn’t make predictions perfect because people are weird. Our tastes aren’t just a list of items (spaceships: yes, dragons: no). They are interactive. You might really like spaceships in the context of gritty action movies and hate spaceships in your romance movies. And you might be the only person with that tick. (OK, that tick would probably be pretty common, but you can think of others that are less so.)

This is a feature, not a bug. If it were possible to build a perfect recommendation it would also be possible to build (at least in theory) an algorithm to generate optimal content. I can’t think of anything more hideous or dystopian. At least, not as far as artistic content goes.

I’d like a better set of data because I know that there are an awful lot of books out there right now that I would love to read. And I can’t find them. I’d like better guidance.

But I wouldn’t ever want to turn over my reading entirely to a prediction algorithm, no matter how good it is. Or at least, not a deterministic one. I prefer my search algorithms to have some randomness built in, like simulated annealing.

I’d say about 1/3rd of what I read is fiction I expect to like, about 1/3rd is non-fiction I expect to like, and 1/3rd is random stuff. That random stuff is so important. It helps me find stuff that no prediction algorithm could ever help me find.

It also helps the system over all, because it means I’m not trapped in a little clique with other people who are all reading the same books. Reading outside your comfort zone–and rating them–is a way to build bridges between fandom.

So, yeah. This approach is limited. And that’s OK. The solution is to periodically shake things up a bit. So those are my rules: read a lot, rate everything you read as simply and subjectively as you can, and make sure that you’re reading some random stuff every now and then to keep yourself out of a rut and to build bridges to people with different tastes then your own.

Fisking Slate’s Non-Review of Gosnell

When Walker saw Slate’s non-review of Gosnell, his response was admirably succinct:

Oh, is Slate Slating again?

Me being me, I went on a smidge longer, and Monica asked me to turn my comments into a post. So, here they are.

Ruth Graham’s hit piece is so by-the-numbers that it serves as a great template for how to dodge an accusation that you really, really don’t want to address head-on. For that reason, even though fisking[ref]That’s the name for the type of post where you quote a piece at length and then rebut it.[/ref] is usually not my thing, I couldn’t resist in this case. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Be vaguely dismissive

That’s even more impressive considering what the movie is: a gory legal thriller about abortion.

Most readers aren’t going to get past the first paragraph (if they even get past the headline), so you’ve got to lead with something that will effectively change the subject. Characterizing the film as a “gory…thriller” is a masterstroke. It fictionalizes the very real horror of Gosnell’s crimes, putting the film in the genre with the Saw franchise instead of real-crime, where it belongs.

Step 2: Seize the moral high ground

It’s true that many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long. And it’s also true that some of the obstacles Gosnell has faced are plausibly evidence of institutional discomfort with the film’s subject matter.

For the rare readers that make it this far, it’s time to switch to defense in depth. That requires occupying the high ground by giving the appearance of a reasonable concession. The appearance alone is enough to make you seem fair-minded and reasonable, but you don’t want to actually concede anything. This means you can either pick a few innocuous, specific aspects of the accusation or some benign generalities and then make a show of conceding them.

Then, having planted your flag on Mount Moral Superiority, you can then proceed with the rest of the piece as though nothing had happened. You can keep this up even if some of your subsequent points contradict–or at least directly relate to–the faux concession that you led with.

Step 3. FUD as far as the eye can see

In August, he said, executive producer John Sullivan inquired about purchasing a sponsorship spot on Fresh Air. An NPR representative told him he would have to edit the ad copy to call Gosnell simply a “doctor,” rather than an “abortionist” or an “abortion doctor.” But NPR’s own reporters had used the phrase abortion doctor in straight news stories, including stories about Gosnell. Gosnell’s producers ended up pulling the ad. (NPR told the Daily Beast, which reported the claim in September, that “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”)

The more valid the accusation, the harder it is to rebut specifically. So don’t try. Just fall back on good, old-fashioned FUD: fear, uncertainty, and denial. FUD isn’t a rebuttal, which is a based on providing contradictory information, but rather a “disinformation strategy…to influence perception by disseminating negative and dubious or false information.” [ref]Wikipedia, emphasis added[/ref]

In other words, don’t contradict the accusation directly. Just throw up a bunch of stuff that kind-of, sort-of seems to contradict the accusation but really just trail off into suggestive innuendo.

Did NPR request changes to the copy that would have contradicted their own journalistic standards? That’s the important question, and we’re left with the impression that it was addressed… but it wasn’t.[ref]Not only did Graham not press NPR on the point, she didn’t even ask them. She copy-pasted Buzzfeed’s softball question and called that good enough. This is journalism today, I guess.[/ref]

When they struggled to find a distributor, they called it a “media coverup.”

Well… was it? This is what I mean about the fake concession. Graham stated right at the outset that “many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long” and that there is “evidence of institutional discomfort”. Yet here were are, at the very heart of the issue, and those earlier statements have disappeared down the memory hole. Now we’re putting “media coverup” in scare-quotes as though it were some wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

When some theaters dropped the film in its second weekend—not an unusual occurrence—they suggested it was ideologically driven “suppression.”

Is it an unusual occurrence for films that have cracked the top 10 box office to get dropped? Did “some” theaters drop Gosnell, or was it more widespread? All the quantitative information–information that movie reviewer should have at hand–is conspicuously absent here and what we’re left with is one of the most dishonest sections in the entire article.

Step 4. Attack the accuser

This is what we’ve been building up to. In an honest article–one where you actually tackle the accusations head-on–this is just an afterthought. Maybe you get around to supplying an alternative theory and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already dealth with the accusaion itself. Going after the accuser is optional.

But in a dishonest article like this one, you haven’t really dealt with the accusation at all. And so attacking the accuser isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. In fact, it’s the whole point. Everything else–the moral high ground, the FUD–just lays the groundwork for the real payoff: an ad hominem response.

In 2015, he staged a drama in Los Angeles based on grand jury testimony from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that suggested the shooting was justified. When some actors in the show requested changes, and others quit, McAleer claimed censorship and requested more donations on his crowdfunding page. When your audience thrives on stories of its own oppression, it’s easy to turn stumbling blocks into stairs.

See? The Gosnell film and all the controversy around it are just a plot to milk an unwarranted martyr-complex for fun and profit. Also: racism. This is an article about conservatives in Slate, after all. We had to get that in there somehow. It’s in their journalistic policies handbook.

Let me wrap up by getting more specific about the “accusation” that pro-choice folks, like Ruth Graham[ref]No, I didn’t look it up. I don’t have to. When you assume a journalist is pro-choice, the odds are always in you favor.[/ref], want to make go away.

You see, the entire Kermit Gosnell situation is basically a worst-case scenario for pro-choice Americans, because it exposes and then explodes basically all of the myths that the American abortion industry is built on top of.

For starters, there’s the humanity of unborn human beings. The pro-choice lobby likes to focus on the early stages of conception because the issues seems ambiguous and they can get away with “clump of cells”-style rhetoric. Gosnell’s penchant for performing “abortions” by delivering live, late-term fetuses and then severing their spinal cords with scissors makes it just how obvious how arbitrary and capricious the whole born/not-born distinction is while simultaneously underscoring the basic humanity of all human beings, even the unborn.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact of late-term, elective abortions happening in the United States. Folks like Ruth Graham–liberal journalists who have never had to leave the comfort of their warm, cozy liberal womb echo-chamber–like to look to Europe as a breacon of sane, common-sensen social liberalism. And yet, America’s abortion laws are dramatically out of step with Europe’s. As an example, consider abortion in France:

Abortion in France is legal on demand up to 12 weeks after conception… Abortions at later stages of pregnancy are allowed if two physicians certify that the abortion will be done to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; a risk to the life of the pregnant woman; or that the child will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognized as incurable.[ref]Wikipedia[/ref]

A law like this, one that is typical for “liberal” Europe could never be enacted in the United States. Not without overturning Roe v. Wade. The fact that Gosnell could routinely perform late-term, elective “abortions” without running afoul of American laws underscores how extreme the American abortion regime really is. Only a handful of countries in the world have laws that allow abortion as broadly as ours do. Protecting Roe v. Wade isn’t about protecting common-sense, basic feminism. It’s about protecting a radical policy that is wholly out-of-step with the rest of the developed world.

Then there’s the fact that Gosnell operated a filthy shop of horrors while pocketing millions of dollars from his (often poor, desperate) “patients” underscores another major pro-life argument: legal, elective abortions aren’t a way of empowering women; they are a means of victimizing and subjugating them. Pro-choice activists will tell you that legal abortions are safe abortions, but the fact is that Gosnell operated entirely without any competent medical oversight whatosever because any scrutiny could be seen as violating the pro-choice ethos of protecting abortion at all costs, including costs to women’s lives.

For all the talk about abortion empowering women, it is in fact a part of a systematic transfer of all the burden and costs of casual sex onto the shoulders of women without even the compensation of having those frightful costs acknowledged. In the US, we expect women to be sexually available for men no matter what it costs them, and the same people who prop up this misogynistic exploitation want to lecture us about “rape culture.” Rape culture didn’t aid and abett Kermit Gosnell, pro-choice culture did.

And look, if that seems a little too extreme for you[ref]For the record, I wasn’t being provocative for the sake of provocation. That is what I actually believe pro-choice culture does to our society.[/ref], the final fact that Gosnell killed some of his patients (the adult ones) makes it really hard to perpetuate the myth that legal abortions are safe abortions.

These are the accusations that the Kermit Gosnell episode raise. And these are the reasons that pro-choice Americans desperately, fervently want the entire thing to go away. They emphatically don’t want to talk about a major, successful, independent film that draws heavily from transcripts of the court case to bring these issues front and center. So, this is what you do instead. You write a dissembling, dishonest non-review following this playbook and somewhere along the way you manage to change the topic from, “These guys accuse us of bias for sweeping this under the rug” to “These guys are racist profiteers.” Does that answer any of the questions raised by Gosnell or the secondary questions raised by the refusal of the media to cover Gosnell? No, it does not.

It was never supposed to.

A Silent Voice (2016)

This is part of What I’m Watching.

Image result for a silent voice

Your Name set me on the path for highly-emotional, heart-tugging anime. A Silent Voice (also translated The Shape of Voice) has had some buzz surrounding it[ref]It recently won the Japan Movie Critics Award for Best Picture.[/ref]  and I’ve been waiting excitedly for it to become available. The story follows Ishida, an isolated and (at least briefly) suicidal teenager who is weighed down by remorse for his past bullying of former deaf classmate Nishimiya. His bullying eventually resulted in her transferring schools, leading Ishida’s friends and classmates to ostracize him despite their own participation in the bullying. In an effort to atone, he meets Nishimiya again and offers friendship. This sets them down a path of redemption, exploring themes of loneliness, bullying, friendship, forgiveness, suicide, and the deep-seated need for human connection.

I relish the way many anime enhance (exaggerate?) displays of human emotion. Even more so, I love the way I can be captivated by the most mundane aspects of everyday life and the small moments that build relationships. While there is a slightly romantic vibe in A Silent Voice between Ishida and Nishimiya, that’s not the focus (even though the trailer below makes it look like a teenage romance). At the beginning of the film, Ishida is shown blocking out the faces and voices of others, portrayed through the visible “X”s over people’s faces and the symbolic gesture of covering his ears.

Image result for a silent voice ishida

The film is less about romance and more about the healing between people and allowing oneself to become vulnerable enough to truly see and hear others. While it’s a tad too long and some of the characters remained underdeveloped, I found A Silent Voice incredibly moving. I was a blubbering mess by the end. Definitely worth checking out.

What I’m Watching

Related image

Last year, Difficult Run started “The DR Book Collection” as a way of letting readers know what the DR editors were reading while providing some informative reviews/videos about the books themselves. Aside from the Goodreads-like sharing, the Collection in a sense acts as a window into the intellectual worldviews of the various editors.

But along with serious reading comes a Netflix binge or two. Our “What I’m Watching” section will be the place where DR editors share what new TV obsessions they’ve discovered, what movies moved them like no other, and what series have eaten away many precious hours of their fleeting lives.

Basically, this is where we invite you to join us on the couch in pop-culture nirvana and veg.

May 4, 2017: Erased (2016)

May 10, 2017: Death Note (2006-2007)

May 19, 2017: A Silent Voice (2016)

Sept. 13, 2017: Anime Catch-up

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006, 2009)

One-Punch Man (2015)

Attack on Titan (2013, 2017)

One Week Friends (2014)

Your Lie in April (2014-2015)

The Devil Is a Part-Timer! (2013)

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009-2010)

Scum’s Wish (2016-2017)

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (2013, 2015)

Haikyuu!! (2014-2016)

Top 10 Films of 2016

Image result for oscar

The Oscar nominations for 2016’s Best Picture have been announced. I’ve seen all the nominees and while my list is very similar, I have a few changes. Here is my top 10 list for 2016:[ref]Based on what I’ve seen, obviously.[/ref]

*Update: I’ve changed the order since the original posting, moving Your Name to the top. I saw it for the second time this week since it was released in the U.S. over the weekend. Not only was it the best of 2016, but it’s one of the best films of the 2010s.*


1. Your Name: One of the most unique films I’ve seen in some time, mixing elements from romantic comedies, coming-of-age dramas, fantasy, and disaster films. The film is gorgeous to look at and the meditations on time, longing, and connection stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

2. Manchester by the Sea: A quiet, humorous yet heart-wrenching look at grief, love, and family. Affleck’s subtle, aching performance is fantastic as he navigates this case study of the fractured human condition and the burdens of mortality we all have to bear.

3. Moonlight: Much like the two films above, this explores the desire for human connection and, with it, the need for identity. The brokenness of the main character’s life–from adolescence to adulthood–triggers our own cravings for belonging and awakens us to the completion and healing we find in even the most unlikely of people.

4. Zootopia: Tackles the subject of prejudice—from the explicit to the more subtle—and the barriers and suspicions it creates: all done with humor, emotion, superb animation, and a message of inclusion and friendship. A thoroughly entertaining and moving slam-dunk from Disney.

5. La La Land: A charming, nostalgic homage to classic musicals with a modern twist and uncommon finale (for Hollywood musicals, at least). Gosling and Stone both give strong performances, exuding wonderful chemistry. Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score is both foot-tapping and grand, complementing the more fantastical elements of the movie.

6. Arrival: A thinking person’s sci-fi movie exploring the themes of language and communication. Drawing on the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the film probes questions about how language shapes our understanding and experience of the world around us and our interpretations of those different from us. Less about aliens and more about us.

7. The Wailing: This disturbing South Korean film is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. Most modern horror films rely on cheap scares, rehashed plots, and/or an excessive amount of gore (“torture porn”). This instead offers an atmospheric slow burn wrapped in a foreboding sense of dread and haunting ambiguity, driven by powerful performances, particularly those of Kwak Do-won and Kim Hwan-hee.

8. Lion: An uplifting true tale of courage and resilience that doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of poverty and child homelessness in India. The two strikingly different halves are woven together by the concepts of home and identity, resulting in a tear-inducing, ultimately satisfying whole.

9. Silence: The majority of modern Christian films–Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, Left Behind–are superficial fluff; the equivalent of what Jeffrey Holland referred to as “a kind of theological Twinkie.” But Martin Scorsese’s latest engages subjects like faith vs. doubt, discipleship vs. orthodoxy, belief vs. action, and the problem of evil. In essence, it’s what lived religion looks like.

10. Hidden Figures: No doubt sentimental and perhaps formulaic, this is nonetheless an incredibly well-done, feel-good, family-friendly film. Henson, Spencer, and Monae each deliver stirring performances, which in turn bolster the already incredible story. While it doesn’t break new artistic ground,[ref]New ground isn’t always good ground.[/ref] it’s about as pitch-perfect as a lighthearted crowdpleaser can be.


And there you have it. Go watch them.

Honorable Mentions:

Train to Busan


Hacksaw Ridge

A Monster Calls

Sing Street


The Witch

Rogue One

Still Need to See:

The Nice Guys

Midnight Special


The Edge of Seventeen


The Handmaiden

Beyond Star Trek (About the New Star Trek Trailer)

So there’s a new Star Trek trailer out, and people are mad. As far as I can tell, everyone is mad.[ref]Sample size of about 6 from my Facebook feed.[/ref] And they’re general reaction is: “this isn’t Star Trek.”

747 - Star Trek Whiners

Me? I’m too busy feeling smug to be mad.

When I complained about little details like long-distance transportation in the first rebooted Star Trek and the all-around plot confusion of the second, other Star Trek fans called me a whiner. But I could see what they couldn’t see (yet): the reboot isn’t really Star Trek.

What do I mean by that? Well, here’s what Keith Phillips had to say about the first movie back in 2009:

It is, undeniably, a reconsideration of what constitutes Star Trek, one that deemphasizes heady concepts and plainly stated humanist virtues in favor of breathless action punctuated by bursts of emotion. It might not even be immediately be recognizable to veteran fans as Star Trek. [emphasis added]

So, to every Star Trek fan who told me I was being too critical: I. Told. You. So.

Now, the second reason I’m not mad is this: the movie looks like it might be fun! See, here’s the rest of Phillips’ quote:

But they’ll have to actively tune out Abrams’ eagerness to entertain not to enjoy the ride.

For me, this comes down to how you define science fiction. The definition that means the most to me is the idea that science fiction is “the literature of ideas.”[ref]Attributed to sci fi author Pamela Sargent[/ref] This is often linked to science, and it was Isaac Asimov who wrote that sci-fi was “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings” [ref][/ref] That’s a good description of what was being written by serious sci-fi writers in the 1960s and 1970s, but it mistakes the tool with the goal. Extrapolating scientific advances to create new situations has always been primarily a method to ask philosophical “what-if” questions. It’s the what-if that really matters. The extrapolated science was just a way to get there, and it ended up not being the only way.

This is why I stand by my designation of Frankenstein as the first real work of sci-fi. You can find older texts with, for example, trips to the moon in human-created craft, but in Frankenstein Mary Shelley wasn’t just postulating some advanced medical technology for the sake of a good story (although there’s that too), but also using those imaginary inventions to ask questions about creation and responsibility that you couldn’t get to in any other way. The philosophical aspects of the work were at least as important as the scientific ones.

That, to me, is the heart of sci-fi. And it’s what Star Trek has always done when it is at its best. The science in most Star Trek is ridiculous technobabble nonsense. But the world–and the individual episodes–were crafted to ask meaningful questions. That’s where the romance of the world came from.[ref]Even if, on closer inspection, the whole United Federation of Planets is a kind of creepy fascist state.[/ref]

This new Star Trek? Not only is it not recognizable Star Trek, but it’s not even recognizably science fiction in the “literature of ideas” sense of the word.

But there has always been another definition of sci-fi living side-by-side with the “literature of ideas” version. The other definition is all action and adventure, and instead of Frankenstein you’d think of something like Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series. This view of sci-fi is just action-adventure with lasers and rocket ships instead of handguns and airplanes. And you know what? I like that kind of sci-fi, too.

Of course in practice, these two views of sci-fi not only live side-by-side in the same bookstores, but often in the same books. Lots of people–myself included–find spaceships to be fundamentally romantic. We like them in the same way that other people really like tall ships. And so you can see a series like the Vorkosigan saga or the Honor saga as really just Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series or C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series… but in space.

And that’s OK!

In other words: I gave up on the Star Trek reboot as “literature of ideas” sci-fi back when the first one came out. I’ve had time to get over it. And so I’m ready to watch a new Star Trek movie as what the reboot series clearly wants to be ray gun and spaceship sci-fi. And who knows, on that basis? It could be really great.

Clever Isn’t a Substitute for Good

756 - Star Wars Ring Theory

So here is an interesting article I have come across: star wars ring theory.

“Ring theory” definitely sounds cool. It’s got a vibe that says cutting-edge and sophisticated, probably because it’s just a couple of letters away from “string theory.” And the site itself has no shortage of grandiose rhetoric, describing why the Star Wars prequels are not so bad after all because really George Lucas was using an “ancient technique” that allowed him “to reach a level of storytelling sophistication in his six-part saga that is unprecedented in cinema history.”

I’m pretty sure they’re serious.

Now, this isn’t the first defense of the prequels I’ve seen recently. You can basically assume that whenever society seems to be headed one way, a couple of intrepid bloggers are going to try to make a name for themselves by going the exact opposite direction out of sheer contrariness. As a curmudgeon myself, I can appreciate that.

That doesn’t mean they actually have a point, however.

Now, this article was pretty disappointing from a standpoint of “storytelling sophistication.” In fact, I can’t think of anything less sophisticated than the actual theory which they kind-of, sort-of explained. It boils down to: the prequels and the sequels recapitulate a lot of the same elements. Which is not actually surprising at all if you understand the idea of the hero’s journey[ref]AKA the “monomyth” if you want to sound impressive.[/ref] The whole point of the theory is that there’s one archetypal adventure, and all our stories are echoes of the Platonic ideal of adventure[ref]I’m mixing philosophical metaphors here, I know.[/ref] Now, if there’s any validity to that notion at all, and in particular if George Lucas was a devotee of that theory (which he was) then isn’t it rather obvious that his stories–which are designed to be expressions of a particular template–are going to have a lot of similarities?[ref]Just check out this list from IMDB of 66 different movies that play out the monomyth. If you can find parallels between Pride and Prejudice and Guardians of the Galaxy, I don’t think you’re going to have a hard time finding parallels between Star Wars and, uh… more Star Wars[/ref]

2013 02 28 Heroesjourney

But let’s assume for a moment that George Lucas really was being super-sophisticated. Is that actually a really good defense of the prequels? I don’t think so.

When I was an undergrad we had a pair of required courses called the core courses: sort of a combination of a literary survey with some philosophy and intellectual history. (Works I can remember reading: The Gospel of Mathew, Things Fall Apart, and On the Origin of Species.)[ref]I think the idea of these classes is fantastic, btw.[/ref] Well, somewhere along the line we were also required to attend a concert on campus. If I recall, the title of the contemporary (modern? post-modern?) symphony was “Frankenstein” or something very similar. The music was pretty awful (which goes without saying), and the presentation was quite odd: the casually-dressed orchestra alternated playing instruments with whirling various toy music-makers over their heads and there were also lots of snippets from popular culture like Mighty Mouse or the old Batman TV show that played at various parts as well.[ref]The whole thing was a bit of a disaster. The students were incredibly rude and talked and joked through the entire performance. But it’s not hard to see why: an orchestra in jeans and t-shirts is subconsciously projecting an image that says “rehearsal” instead of “performance.”[/ref]

In class the next day, the professor pushed us pretty hard to try and understand the piece. I quoted Robert Heinlein at him and called the work “pseudo-intellectual masturbation.” The quote comes from a scene in Stranger in a Strange Land:

“Jubal shrugged. “Abstract design is all right-for wall paper or linoleum. But art is the process of evoking pity and terror, which is not abstract at all but very human. What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation. . . whereas creative art is more like intercourse, in which the artist must seduce- render emotional-his audience, each time. These ladies who won’t deign to do that- and perhaps can’t- of course lost the public. If they hadn’t lobbied for endless subsidies, they would have starved or been forced to go to work long ago. Because the ordinary bloke will not voluntarily pay for ‘art’ that leaves him unmoved- if he does pay for it, the money has to be conned out of him, by taxes or such.”

“You know, Jubal, I’ve always wondered why i didn’t give a hoot for paintings or statues- but I thought it was something missing in me, like color blindness.”

“Mmm, one does have to learn to look at art, just as you must know French to read a story printed in French. But in general terms it’s up to the artist to use language that can be understood, not hide it in some private code like Pepys and his diary. Most of these jokers don’t even want to use language you and I know or can learn. . . they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we ‘fail’ to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything- obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence.”

After a while, however, a light began to dawn on me. Frankenstein’s monster is created from patched-together body parts. The monster is large because Dr. Frankenstein had to use body parts from large human beings in order to be able to more readily work on them. So you have s shambling imitation of a human being created out of a patchwork of larger-than-life bits and pieces. Well, that’s exactly what the symphony was: the pop-culture snippets were all related to superheroes of one kind or another, and so you had this musical patchwork of larger-than-life pop-culture snipped together into a monstrous mockery of music.

The professor sat back in his chair with a smug look when I shared this insight. “Now what do you think of the piece?” he asked.

I told him I still thought it was pretentious drivel. Every word of Jubal’s / Heinlein’s critique applies just as well after you crack the code and get the secret message as before. Clever is nice, but it isn’t a substitute for good.

I’m not saying there’s no room for cleverness or subtlety. I like cleverness and subtlety. One of my biggest complaints about most TV shows is that they over explain everything to be sure even the dimmest audience member splitting their attention between the show and Twitter won’t miss any important bits. But that doesn’t mean that just because you make your movie / book / TV show / symphony an enigma wrapped in a mystery concealing a riddle that it’s going to be any good.

Ring theory isn’t impressive. Even if it was, it wouldn’t make the Star Wars prequels any good.

About That Star Wars Racism Fiasco That Isn’t

You may have heard about a controversial new hashtag: #BoycottStarWarsVII. In case you haven’t, the Daily Show has a pretty hilarious report on it:

The problem is that the alleged movement to boycott Star Wars VII doesn’t actually exist. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, National Review has a pretty funny article explaining the alleged movements non-existence: The Twitterverse Strikes Back against the Phantom Menace of Anti–Star Wars Racists!

You might be wondering, of course, if this thing doesn’t really exist, then why are people sharing it? Why are we hearing so much about a controversy that doesn’t exist?[ref]I mean, other than the fact that it’s the Internet…[/ref]

Short version: it’s a sign of the End Times. We’ve got two polar opposite tribes coexisting in the United States, and they have so little actual interaction that they believe the darnedest (and silliest) things about each other. For example, a perfect mirror opposite to the whole #BoycottStarWarsVII is the equally non-existent #PissForEquality movement. Judging by disreputable right-wing sites like InfoWars, a bunch of Internet trolls suckered mushy-brained liberals into wetting themselves (literally) in the name of gender equality. There were all kinds of apparent photographic evidence to bolster the claims, and for a while you couldn’t swing a kitten meme on Facebook without running into a conservative guffawing at those dumb liberals who will do anything in the name of social justice. Except, as abundant follow-up reporting soon showed, all those pics of women wetting themselves in the name of equality were traced back to mysteriously brand new Twitter accounts with no followers. In other words: they were fakes. Thus you had articles like this one from Vice stating quite plainly: “none of it was real.”

Well, none of the #BoycottStarWarsVII thing is real either.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be surprised if you can find one or two real racists buried in there somewhere, but not enough to count for anything.[ref]Some of the skeptical followup coverage of the #PissForEquality meme made the same concession: one or two of the photos might have been from folks legitimately fooled by the hoax, but not enough to amount to anything.[/ref] Here’s how Larry Correia–best-selling author and the originator of the notorious Sad Puppies movement–described it on Facebook:

So at the end of the day, 99.999999% of the “boycott” hashtag is dumb asses posting about how they once saw the Loch Ness Monster too, a few dudes from 4 Chan who are having a laugh, and four actual racists, all of whom are named Jimbo.

So you might be wondering: if there is literally nothing to this, then where did it come from? I will explain, but you’ll have to be patient enough to endure some nerd-talk here.

Here’s the thing: the Imperial stormtroopers of the original films are shown in the prequels to have originated from an army of clones. That’s why the second movie was called Attack of the Clones. Because it had a lot of clones in it. These soldiers, who wore white combat armor very similar to the later stormtroopers, were called (imaginatively) clone troopers, and they were all carbon copies of one man: Jango Fett.

784 - Jango Fett

That’s actor Temuera Morrison, by the way. He’s a New Zealander with Māori, Scottish, and Irish ancestry. That movie showed what all the clone troopers looked like: lots and lots of copies of Jango Fett. Lots of people assumed that, since the clone army was clearly the origin of the Imperial stormtroopers, that this meant the Imperial stormtroopers were still populated entirely by Jango Fett clones.

783 - Lots of Jango Fetts

So, when the first teaser for Star Wars VII came out and showed John Boyega in stormtrooper armor, people were confused. because they thought that all stormtroopers looked like Jango Fett under the helmets. (Since they were his clones, after all.)

785 - John Boyega Stormtrooper

It turns out the confusion stemmed from ignorance, however. Existing Star Wars lore says that–while the white-armored soldiers from the prequels were all clones–by the time we get to the stormtroopers of the original movies (you know, the real Star Wars) things had changed.

By the time the Galactic Civil War began in earnest, Jango Fett’s clones were heavily supplanted by clones based on a variety of templates . . . followed shortly after by enlisted Humans. Thus, the Fett clones were ironically reduced to a minority status after years of virtually filling the stormtrooper ranks in its entirety. According to a stormtrooper’s entry log in the 501st Journal, none of the Fett clones were ever truly able to come to terms with serving alongside recruits and different clones, all of whom were disdainfully dubbed as the “new guys.” (Wookiepedia)

Even if you throw out all that lore[ref]Which you kind of have to do, since the Expanded Universe has been officially demoted and is now no longer canon, which makes me wonder what will happen to sites like Wookiepedia.[/ref], the confusion is still not very well-grounded. Episode VII takes place a few decades after Return of the Jedi which in turn took place a few decades after Attack of the Clones, so there isn’t any solid reason to expect all the stormtroopers to still be look like Jango Fett. At this point, any given stormtrooper could look like absolutely anybody, and so why not look like John Boyega? There’s no reason not to.

It’s worth pointing one more thing out about that first trailer, by the way. The thing that really upset most Star Wars fans was the unorthodox triple-bladed lightsaber. I was one of them: Force Awakens Trailer and Lightsaber Crossguards: I am Dissappoint.

2014-11-28 Useless Lightsaber Crossguard - ZOOMED

And keep in mind, it’s not like John Boyega was the first prominent Black character in Star Wars. We had Billy Dee Williams playing Lando Calrissian starting in The Empire Strike’s Back (1980) and Samuel L. Jackson playing Mace Windu in the prequels (1999). Calrissian was one of the heroes of the first trilogy (he led the fighter attack on the second Death Star) and Mace Windu was the most powerful Jedi in the prequels (the only Jedi more powerful was Yoda: neither white nor human).  It doesn’t seem at all reasonable to believe that large numbers of Star Wars fans who loved Williams as Calrissian and Jackson as Windu suddenly flipped out when they learned Boyega was going to be a lead in the new trilogy.

So now you know where this story originated. And here’s my last observation. It’s really sad to live in a country where not only are we divided by politics as deeply as we are, but that each side is so willing–so eager–to believe the worst about the other. That’s why we get nonsense like the #PissForEquality hoax and the #BoycottStarWarsVII hoax. Because we just want to think the worst of each other, and we want to be validated in our superiority.

And that’s sad.


The Martian is Awesome, Humanity Less So

826 - The Martian

If you haven’t heard of The Martian yet, you’re in for a treat. The self-published novel by Andy Weir was a sci-fi phenomenon when it came out in 2011 and lots of people (myself included) were irritated that it couldn’t be considered for the Hugo award when it was republished in 2014. There’s already a movie–directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon–slated for release in the US on October 2, 2015. It also looks fantastic.

Epic, am I right?[ref]You know I’m right.[/ref]

An article from goes even farther, however, and argues that “The Martian Heralds A New Era Of Realistic SciFi.” Here are some thoughts about this story, about sci-fi, and about humanity.

First, the book was great, but even as I was reading it I was pretty sure it would make an even better movie. It is really well-suited for visuals and would retain all of its punch even when shortened and simplified for screen. So, yay.

Second, I do hope that it heralds the dawn of some more realistic sci-fi. Don’t get me wrong: alien invasion stories are fun and FTL and artificial gravity[ref]The two most essential non-existent technologies used in most sci-fi.[/ref] are fine and dandy as plot devices go, but at a certain point I feel that scientific pseudobabble[ref]Looking at you, Star Trek[/ref] can kind of lead to all-around laziness. I mean, universal translators? They don’t even make sense conceptually. Sure, it may have been necessary for Star Trek, but it’s all the imitators who take the same liberties that drive me nuts. It’s not hard to see a trend from Star Trek to the absolute nadir of big-budget science fiction film (and the worst movie I have personally seen in my life): Wing Commander.

Finally, I also hope that realistic and popular sci-fi might lead to some renewed interest in space exploration. Because as it stands today, humanity kind of sucks on this front. No human being has been beyond low earth orbit in my lifetime. That’s really, really frustrating and should be a species-wide source of shame and humiliation. It’s not even close, by the way. That last time we (meaning: anybody) sent an astronaut outside of low earth orbit was Apollo 17. That’s 1972, people. Nineteen seventy-two. We’rec coming up on a half century since venturing outside of our atmosphere.[ref]OK, rovers are pretty cool. But not the same thing.[/ref]

You really need to see a picture to understand just how pathetic this is, so here you go:

826 - LMH Earth Orbits

That tiny smidgen of blue hugging the surface of the earth? That’s LEO. The green stuff is medium earth orbit. The red is high earth orbit. The moon–which, remember, we’ve been too once or twice–is way, way out beyond that. That’s how far we were able to go 50 years ago. And that’s how far we haven’t gone in my lifetime. And we call ourselves explorers? Adventurers? It’s a disgrace.

Oh, and while I’m venting, I may as well not hold back on this either. From the MoviePilot post:

There’s something simply satisfying about a survivor tale, and the idea of being marooned has intrigued writers for centuries. The Martian takes this concept and runs with it, propelling the age old tale to a new era by placing it in an interstellar setting. And with NASA scientists advising the screenplay, could The Martian help put the realism back into sci fi? [emphasis added]

The word “interstellar” has a meaning. It means “between stars.” Does Mars orbit a different star? No, it does not. So The Martian is interplanetary, not interstellar. In any other article I would have just rolled my eyes, but come on! The thesis of this article was realistic sci-fi and the very next sentence talks about “NASA scientists advising the screenplay,” but you could even get the word “interstellar” right?

OK, I’m going to go see if there are any kids on my lawn I can shake my cane at.

Four Lessons on Emotions from Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’

I’m a huge Pixar fan. Have been ever since 1995’s Toy Story. One of the best books I’ve read this year is Pixar founder Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. The studio’s film quality is highly consistent[ref]There are exceptions like Cars.[/ref] and their latest Inside Out is no exception. This film tackles the complicated subject of human emotions (in the form of a little girl named Riley) and does so extremely well.[ref]I was holding back tears the final 20 minutes.[/ref] Their ability to handle the subject of emotions so delicately and accurately was likely aided by their scientific consultants, one of which is director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Because the film presents a healthy understanding of emotions, parents should seriously consider taking their children to see it and use it as a teaching tool. Here are four lessons kids (and adults) can learn from Inside Out:

1. Happiness is not just about joy

[B]y the end of the film, Joy [Amy Poehler]…learns that there is much, much more to being happy than boundless positivity. In fact, in the film’s final chapter, when Joy cedes control to some of her fellow emotions, particularly Sadness, Riley seems to achieve a deeper form of happiness.

This reflects the way that a lot of leading emotion researchers see happiness. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the best-selling How of Happiness, defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (emphasis added) So while positive emotions such as joy are definitely part of the recipe for happiness, they are not the whole shebang.

2. Don’t try to force happiness

Thank goodness emotion researcher June Gruber and her colleagues started looking at the nuances of happiness and its pursuit. Their findings challenge the “happy-all-the-time” imperative that was probably imposed upon many of us.

For example, their research suggests that making happiness an explicit goal in life can actually make us miserable. Gruber’s colleague Iris Mauss has discovered that the more people strive for happiness, the greater the chance that they’ll set very high standards of happiness for themselves and feel disappointed—and less happy—when they’re not able to meet those standards all the time.

…What’s a more effective route to happiness for Riley (and the rest of us)? Recent research points to the importance of “prioritizing positivity”—deliberately carving out ample time in life for experiences that we personally enjoy. For Riley, that’s ice hockey, spending time with friends, and goofing around with her parents.

3. Sadness is vital to our well-being

…Sadness connects deeply with people—a critical component of happiness—and helps Riley do the same…In one the film’s greatest revelations, Joy looks back on one of Riley’s “core memories”—when the girl missed a shot in an important hockey game—and realizes that the sadness Riley felt afterwards elicited compassion from her parents and friends, making her feel closer to them and transforming this potentially awful memory into one imbued with deep meaning and significance for her.

With great sensitivity, Inside Out shows how tough emotions like sadness, fear, and anger, can be extremely uncomfortable for people to experience—which is why many of us go to great lengths to avoid them…But in the film, as in real life, all of these emotions serve an important purpose by providing insight into our inner and outer environments in ways that can help us connect with others, avoid danger, or recover from loss.

4. Mindfully embrace–rather than suppress–tough emotions

At one point, Joy attempts to prevent Sadness from having any influence on Riley’s psyche by drawing a small “circle of Sadness” in chalk and instructing Sadness to stay within it. It’s a funny moment, but psychologists will recognize that Joy is engaging in a risky behavior called “emotional suppression”—an emotion-regulation strategy that has been found to lead to anxiety and depression, especially amongst teenagers whose grasp of their own emotions is still developing. Sure enough, trying to contain Sadness and deny her a role in the action ultimately backfires for Joy, and for Riley…Toward the end of the movie, Joy does what some researchers now consider to be the healthiest method for working with emotions: Instead of avoiding or denying Sadness, Joy accepts Sadness for who she is, realizing that she is an important part of Riley’s emotional life. 

Emotion experts call this “mindfully embracing” an emotion. What does that mean? Rather than getting caught up in the drama of an emotional reaction, a mindful person kindly observes the emotion without judging it as the right or wrong way to feel in a given situation, creating space to choose a healthy response. Indeed, a 2014 study found that depressed adolescents and young adults who took a mindful approach to life showed lower levels of depression, anxiety, and bad attitudes, as well as a greater quality of life.

Everyone should go see it.