Capitalism and Value

July 10, 2020

I was thinking about this while walking around doing errands earlier this week, and something struck me about how capitalism relates to value and, specifically, about how it relates to what we value. The most extreme views — positive and negative — of capitalism place all value in terms of money and capital. Gaining money is what we should all aspire to, and that’s what has unadorned value. Negotiations are supposed to be conducted in a way to maximize money, and a good deal is the one that brings one side (generally) the most monetary value for their services. We report business deals by quoting breathlessly ever-increasing monetary totals in the millions and note that smaller deals aren’t worth talking about. We quote net worths in dollars and tend to think that a person who has that — even if it’s just the value of stock and properties that they can never actually sell to get that — has been a full success, and rank our successful people entirely by how much money they have, with the implication that they haven’t just succeeded in business, but succeeded in live as well.

The problem is that capitalism itself cannot work with money as its highest value.

The idea behind capitalism and specifically about supply and demand is that each individual decides what they value and how much, and only then do they decide what monetary value those values roughly map to. Producers attempt to produce things that consumers will value enough to make it profitable for them to sell it to them for what it costs to make it, and consumers look for products that they value enough for a price that they can afford. The first step is to decide what people value — and if you are a consumer, what you in particular value — and then let the market decide what it would cost to provide what people value and if that cost will be low enough so that those who value those things will be able to afford to get those values satisfied by the market. This is entirely what the market is for: producers offer to satisfy values for people and hope they can do it for a price that the people who value those things are willing to pay.

So it’s clear that the first step in making any capitalism work is for people to work out what it is that they actually value. Then, once they decide that, they need to decide what they are willing to pay to get those things. Then, they look in the market to see if they can get what they value for the price they’re willing to pay. On the other side, producers who are just starting out look for values that they can satisfy for a price that people are willing to pay, and put that out on the market in the hopes that people will pay it. Sure, for reasons of efficiency consumers would like to pay as little as possible and producers would like to charge as much as possible, but at the end of the day both producers and consumers are really trying to get things that they value that are not not money. Consumers do that by buying them directly. Producers do that by trying to earn money that will allow them to be consumers and thus to purchase the things we value.

And yet we’ve made money the highest capitalist value, overriding all other concerns … and then wonder why capitalism isn’t working.

The only reason to accrue money in a capitalist society is as a means to the end of achieving the things you really value. As such, if someone is accruing money for the sake of having money itself they at a minimum have an exceedingly impoverished set of values (sorry, Kevin O’Leary!). If one is guaranteed enough money to achieve that which they value then they don’t really need to seek to accrue money anymore. Moreover, since some values are things that cannot be purchased we know that we cannot subordinate all our values to money, which suggests that people may attempt to accrue money in a way that frustrates or conflicts with the things they really value. If they attempt to accrue money anyway, then they are being irrational and wrong. Money is a means, not an end, and is certainly not something to sacrifice ends for.

This actually also applies to businesses, or at least to businesses as applied to business owners. A business, like a job, has as its primary purpose the generation of money. That’s why both are there and why we create them, for the most part. But as people we cannot escape our values, and so in both cases if the business or the job is generating enough money to cover the needs of the person or company then accruing money in and of itself provides no further benefit. At this point, we can all look to see if further attempts to accrue money will clash with our values, or with proper values, and so can decide how we want to live. To claim that they simply want to have more money is not a rational reason for working overtime, nor is it for them stealing from the company or shafting people over, and it’s not a rational reason for a business to do the same thing. And yet our notion that money is the end in itself for capitalism suggests that such a thing is not only the only rational thing to do, but is mandatory. But in so doing, we leave ourselves with no values of our own to pursue, and thus no way to actually contribute to capitalism.

The idea of “voting with your dollars” in fact highlights this idea, and is precisely why, right now, that idea doesn’t seem to work. When we attempt to vote with our dollars, what we are really trying to do is simply put our dollars into the things that we value most over the things that we value less. So if we care about the exploitative policies of a company, it’s entirely reasonable for us to decide to go to their competitor, even if the company is the most “efficient” for us in that we can get what we value from them for less money than we can get it from their competitor. Our values as a set are what we are trying to satisfy, and sacrificing other values to save money is not the way to do that. The same applies to if we care about the environment, or about local employment, or about, well, anything else. If we don’t like something, we can and really should decide to not purchase it no matter how cost-effective it is when compared to the alternatives. And yet, much of the time we get sucked into looking at the cost effectiveness of the product rather than how buying it fits into our values. When we do that, we elevate money to our highest value and cease to make any meaningful contribution to capitalism.

The main ills of our current capitalist age are all about companies and individuals seeking cost effectiveness as their highest value and ignoring everything else. Everyone wants to pay less and get more, from multi-national corporations to the person buying a pack of gum. And this obsession has caused all of them issues that they complain bitterly about but never seem to grasp that a large reason those issues exist is precisely because of their mistake in placing money as their highest value and letting all of their other values be subordinated to it.

Capitalism is not struggling because capitalism is bad and needs to be replaced with something good. Capitalism is struggling because we no longer have sufficiently developed senses of value to keep it running. The problem is in ourselves, and the more we ignore that the more problems — and not just with capitalism — we’re going to have.

Thoughts on “Get Out”

July 9, 2020

This movie is a rare horror movie for me, as it’s one that I had definitely heard of before buying it. While I didn’t do a lot of research on it before watching it or before sitting down to write this, my impression was that it got most of its attention for being a movie tying into the experiences of black people and not for being a particularly good horror movie. This, if I was just watching for fun, would pretty much put me off watching the movie. As a movie to comment on that facet made it a little more appealing … but I still waited until I could get it really cheap and waited to watch it until a point where I figured that I really should just go ahead and get it over with.

As it turns out, it’s not a particularly good movie.

I actually think it has the same flaw as “Leprechaun in the Hood”, precisely because of the attempts to comment on the experiences of black people in society. It is clear that this is what they are trying to do, as they have a number of scenes that seem to be there for no other reason than to show common racist experiences (like a cop pulling someone over and asking for ID and asking questions only because the person is black). While some might think that this in and of itself is my problem with the movie, it’s not. It’s that they mix it with a rather improbable horror plot. Or, rather, at least here it’s that they don’t get how horror should generally work when it comes to experiences that are close to real-life. The key to that sort of horror is to make things very much like how the world actually is, but then add very subtle hints that things are not right, and hints that lead to the actual situation that provides the horror. But as far as I can tell, most of the events focus on the racist behaviour and seem to be just things that happen frequently to black people (or so I’m told). This seems to hold right up until the main character meets his friend who is acting completely differently from how he normally acts. But this is a jump in strangeness, not minor and subtle strangeness. It’s possible that there would be more subtle changes to someone who was black, but this would be a weakness with the movie that most movies like this will avoid by making the experience mostly universal and lampshade odd things. And a movie that failed to do that wouldn’t be a good horror movie regardless of what experiences it was focusing on.

So it seems to me that the movie wants to portray the real experiences of black people in its social commentary, but this stops it from taking on the sort of tropes that would make the horror part work. Like “In Tha Hood”, it really should have chosen one or the other. As a pure social commentary, it could have been very interesting to watch the interactions between the protagonist and the almost completely white — and sorta trying to act progressive — community, and to tease out his discomfort at that entire situation. If they wanted to keep the girlfriend as a villain, all they needed to do was keep the various pictures and have her not be dating him or bringing him to meet her parents for a nefarious purpose, but because she wants to shock them and has been running through a number of escalating cases, ending with him. While it would be a bit implausible that her parents would be more shocked by her bringing home a black person than a woman, this itself could be an interesting commentary if the movie wanted to go there (about white progressives being more comfortable with more direct progressive causes than with issues over race). While it wouldn’t be my sort of movie, I think it could have been done quite effectively with only minimal changes.

Alternatively, they could have toned down the social commentary and focused on making a better horror movie. This is because the racial issues actually get in the way of the horror. By focusing on the racism, they have to try to explain why people who don’t seem to think much of black people are trying to swap bodies with black people, and why the black people we see, despite having the brains of white people, all seem to be in subordinate positions. The movie is smart enough to know that it needs to explain that, but isn’t smart enough to come up with a credible answer, dismissing it almost as a “fad”. This could have been used to make a comment about how so many people ignore racism and think things are easy … if they hadn’t spent so much time showing the actual direct impacts of racism, and if they hadn’t put them in subservient positions. Who is going to want to take that on?

The medical procedure itself is nonsensical. It involves replacing almost all of the brains of the victims with the older people, and that in combination with some hypnotherapy lets the older people live on in the victims’ bodies. Except that the original victims are buried inside somehow, and flashes can revert them pretty much to their normal personalities. Which makes absolutely no sense and is never explained. What the movie should have done was instead of trying for a body swap merely tried for it reducing them to mostly unwilling, zombie-like slaves. This would match the behaviour we see and line up better with a flash being able to break the conditioning until it was restored. It would also make the comic relief friend who rides to the rescue in the end have more of a point, because that character consistently insists that it’s some kind of sex slavery and given that one of them was married to one of the older ladies that would make that character actually right. For incredibly wrong and ridiculous reasons, but ultimately still right. Here, he’s completely and totally wrong and in the context of the movie we think he’s being an idiot right up until the point where we learn that something is indeed going on … at which point we still think he’s an idiot because while he was right to be suspicious he was still completely and totally wrong about what’s going on.

Doing that would have also allowed them to drop the idea that they were being very careful not to hurt the protagonist. If someone from the community was going to take over the body, you had to make sure that the body wasn’t damaged, so they tended to be very careful with him (except for her brother). This makes his roaring rampage of revenge seem a bit mean, as the scenes seem to be far more violent than he needs to be to escape — like an impalement with deer horns — but they weren’t really violent, and the protagonist doesn’t seem forced into it. If they just wanted a slave/servant, then they could have treated him worse both physically and mentally which would have justified the violence. But that’s a minor issue.

Ultimately, the movie makes a mistake that many horror movies make, which is trying to graft a horror plot onto something else that they really want to explore. This can leave inconsistencies between the horror plot and the message, and also can mean that the horror isn’t developed enough to really work. This is precisely what happens in “Get Out”. I won’t watch this one again.

DIAS and Finishing Games

July 8, 2020

A while ago, Shamus Young wrote a post complaining about “Do It Again Stupid” gameplay in the Grand Theft Auto series. It in, he says this:

Back in 2009, Microsoft Game Studios user research expert Bruce Phillips published this chart that shows the breakdown of how many players completed various AAA titles on the Xbox 360. It shows GTA 4 ranking next to last on the list despite it being the highest rated game on that platform. Why does the supposedly “best game” have such an abysmally low completion rate? An article on Forbes suggests the discrepancy is due to the length of the game. But that doesn’t explain why something like Fable II, a game with a pretty good running time and an unusually LOW user score managed to rank so much higher than GTA 4 in terms of how many people finished the dang thing.

And I think at least part of this discrepancy is because the core of GTA just isn’t very rewarding to play. It’s no fun to lose against a system that keeps secretly changing the rules. And there’s not a lot of satisfaction to be had in winning under those conditions, either.

As a gamer, I tend to have serious, serious issues finishing games. I’ve been a bit better at that lately as I’ve more dedicated myself to finishing the games that I play, but I still don’t really finish a lot of the games I set out to play. And yet the Saint’s Row games, GTA’s main competitor. And one of the keys to my finishing that game was that at least on the difficulty level I was playing the missions weren’t that difficult and weren’t that gimmicky. There were a couple that I had to retry a few times and even look up how to do on the Internet, but for the most part the key to them was just to do things and get them done.

That’s not how Shamus describes the DIAS gameplay of the GTA games he’s talking about. They throw unexpected obstacles at you that you can dodge easily once you know they’re there but that are very hard to dodge otherwise. With the Saint’s Row games, I found that the only time I got caught by not having knowledge was due to my not really understanding the right strategy or missing something that I might have missed and might not have been as obvious as it should have been. For example, in one mission I ran out of missiles and then had to try to find a way to kill tanks … missing that you can rearm if you step away from the window and find the rearming crates. That’s partly on me and partly on the game, but once I figured that out the mission went pretty well. The worst mission for me personally was the helicopter escort of Kinzie because I was not good with the helicopter guns and the mission was a bit unforgiving if you made the one key mistake: blowing up things too close to Kinzie and getting her killed that way (the falling mission in SR4 was also annoying but mostly that was due to a complete lack of knowledge of the mechanics. Once I looked that up, it got better). While sometimes it was frustrating, I usually managed to get past it quickly enough that it didn’t turn me off the game.

Ultimately, to finish a game there needs to be a balance between how much you want to continue on and finish the game and how difficult and time consuming it will be to get to the ending. The more interesting the plot or gameplay, the more time and effort we’ll be willing to put into getting to the end of the game. From what Shamus has said about GTA, in general for most people the story and gameplay aren’t engaging enough to get them past the effort and annoyance they will experience to finish the game. For me, this wasn’t true for the Saint’s Row games. When a player finishes or gets tired of the activities in GTA, the plot and gameplay of the story missions isn’t enough to get them to push through the rest of them, while for me in Saint’s Row the missions were just easy enough that I could push through them to finish off the game. Different people will have different thresholds, of course, based on a number of things like how much they like the genre and whether or not they consider finishing the game to be an achievement worth striving for in and of itself. But finishing a game will pretty much always come down to the rather obvious balance between the pain of going on in the game versus the pleasure of pursuing it to the end.

(Of course, playing a game isn’t supposed to actually be painful. But the more annoying the game is, the less people will want to push through it to the end. This is also balanced by how thrilling the continuation is. An easy but boring game won’t be finished any more often than an exceedingly difficult and annoying one that has an interesting plot).

From the stats Shamus shared, people love that GTA game but don’t want to and even can’t bring themselves to finish it. Maybe it’s just too long. Maybe they really like the activities and don’t care for the plot that much, and so quit when they tire of the activities. Maybe the story missions really are too pedantic and DIAS for people to push through. Or, most likely, it’s a combination of all of these. GTA is a highly rated game with an ending that most people don’t really care to experience.

Does this make it a bad game? Well, since the impression of a game is often personal and subjective, it’s difficult to say. If someone wants to do the activities and abandons the plot when they tire of them, the game did what they wanted it to and they’ll almost certainly say they enjoyed it. So if the makers of GTA are happy with the game being treated as that sort of open-world activity generator, then the game has fulfilled its purpose even if most people never finish it. But they seem to put a lot of effort into the plots, and if they want people to experience the entire plot but the game’s structure makes it so that most players won’t, then the game has failed in its purpose and is probably in that respect a bad game. The makers can then either accept that change and focus on the former, or change their gameplay to better support the latter. Otherwise, they will continue to produce flawed games, by their own standards.

Thoughts on “The Passing of the Techno-Mages”

July 7, 2020

I’ve read the three main Babylon 5 trilogies — “The Passing of the Techno-Mages”, “Legions of Fire”, and “The Psi-Corps Trilogy” — a number of times. After getting tired of the graphic novels, I decided to re-read my Babylon 5 books in general. As already noted, I got tired of the standalone novels, but of course enjoyed reading the trilogies again. But things came up in them that made it seem worth talking about them in general, starting with the first one I read “The Passing of the Techno-Mages” by Jeanne Cavelos.

Sadly, this trilogy is the worst of the three. It marries the interesting history and backstory of the techno-mages to the story of John and Anna Sheridan. The problem with this is that even if you like Sheridan — and I don’t — no one is coming to the trilogy to find out more about Anna Sheridan and the backstory of his journey to Z’Ha’Dum. This is at its worst in the final book, and the more interesting resolution of the techno-mage story and even its greatest shocking treatment is given short-shrift because of all the room dedicated to the Anna/John plot. The book — and series –would have been so much better if it focused on the techno-mages and my favourite techno-mage Galen.

That’s also another weakness of the trilogy, as Galen is not really himself throughout most of it. He’s quiet and moody throughout most of it, and experiences an incredible amount of suffering and loss, which is a bit of a disconnect from, at least, his default persona in “Crusade” and in “Legions of Fire”, which is a bit more sardonic, humourous, and snarky. It’s hard to imagine Galen from this series making a comment as his homunculus “There’s goes my liver! I wondered where that had gotten to …” or most of the funny comments he makes. The loss is there and with him in many scenes and episodes, but he seems to be trying to hide it, whereas in the trilogy he pretty much embraces it or either collapses into non-responsiveness. The focus on the frequent and devastating losses also makes the trilogy rather bleak and depressing, especially since it lacks the humour that you’d find from Galen in Crusade or from the other techno-mages in “Legions of Fire”. It’s a depressing grind pretty much from start to finish.

Well, even though all I’ve done so far is complain about it you would might remember that I commented earlier that I’ve re-read the trilogy a number of times. Thus, I probably enjoy it, so there has to be something good about it. Let me start with something that I only started looking for with this read-through: the voices of the various characters do indeed sound like the characters from the series. I could read the book and imagine Elric’s or Galen’s or Alwyn’s lines being read by the actors and it was rare if ever that it didn’t fit, and that also applied to characters like Morden and Sheridan himself. That makes reading the trilogy more fun and more connected to the series than it might otherwise.

Also, the story behind the techno-mages is an interesting one, that includes politics and is tightly tied to the battle between the Vorlons and the Shadows. We find out more about the tech itself and how it works, we find out things about the internal politics of the techno-mages, we find out more about Alwyn and the conversation he and Galen have in Crusade and all sorts of other interesting things. The plot is both interesting on its own and with only a few hiccups — mostly around the additions to the techno-mages arriving on Babylon 5 — fits well into and explains a number of things from the series as well. It’s this that drives my interest in the series.

It also does a very good job of developing Isabelle as a character, and making her real and interesting. We can see why Galen loves her and why it so devastates him to lose her, but also why he would have to keep his promise to find the Well of Forever for her. For the most part, the new characters added are interesting and serve real purpose in the work, which speaks to good writing. If only most of them didn’t die by the end of it …

I like this series for how it explores and expands on the interesting concept of the techno-mages, and does so with human characters that are interesting to follow. If it had dropped or minimized the Sheridan subplot, it would be a much improved work. As it is, it is eminently worth reading.

Why Do We Want to be the Good Guys?

July 6, 2020

So I’ve been reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”, and while I don’t entire agree with his approach to morality, he raises an interesting point as a bit of an aside, which I will paraphrase (I’m too lazy to look up the quotes). Basically, he comments that when it comes to wanting to live a moral life it’s only philosophers that can question whether or not someone should want it (tying it to my oft-mentioned discussion over what motivates us to act morally). The reason he says this is that he notes that when we look at our stories and the sorts of people that even children most desire to emulate or be, it’s the good guys. The heroes. The pure and the moral. The purer the hero, the more morally pure their motives, the more children and others tend to admire and aspire to be them. Now, this does often seem to change, at least in modern times, as we get older. We will often find pure moral characters naive, and often find ourselves most drawn to more morally grey works than to the pure “fairy tales” of our youth. But nevertheless, children’s stories tend to be filled with characters that go out from morally pure motives and succeed, and children tend to see their rewards at the end — true love, a kingdom, and so on — as following from their heroism — thus being the rewards that heroes should earn for being heroes — rather than as the motive for doing it. We seem, then, to have a natural inclination to admire and aspire to be morally pure. In some sense, then, we have an inherent motivation to be moral.

Someone might object that the reason children think this way is because our society conditions them from a young age to do so, with the precise stories that I’m citing here. This doesn’t seem convincing, though, because we all know that if you try to get children to enjoy things they don’t enjoy, they won’t enjoy it no matter how much you try to condition them. Moreover, it wouldn’t explain why those stories gained prominence in the first place. One could argue — as my long-time debate opponent Coel might — that these were formed through evolutionary or social evolutionary forces to encourage us to act in a pro-social manner, and then the stories were deliberately crafted to reinforce that, but the fact would remain that we have an inherent desire to be good and to be selfless. Which would also explain why, outside of a philosophy classroom, we are so bothered by a suggestion that we can only justify morality on the basis of what it can do for us and how we can benefit from it, and how we are so offended by people who suggest that they are only moral because of how it benefits them.

We can also look at comic books to see the base appeal of the pure hero and also how, as we go along in life, we start to become a bit more jaded. It’s no surprise that the major figureheads of both Marvel and DC are, in fact, the “Boy Scouts”, Captain America and Superman. And yet often — especially in movies — they can be dismissed as being naive or out of touch, especially if handled incorrectly. Spider-Man is probably Marvel’s next most notable character, and while he is someone who acts out of duty and responsibility, he also has a fairly bad life and his life is filled with angst. And yet, despite that, he continues to be good, and we admire him for that. If we then turn to more grey superheroes that are nonetheless popular like Batman and Wolverine, we can see that while their methods can be more grey, the most popular incarnations of the characters also have a strong moral core. Wolverine’s most memorable and popular storylines occurred after he went to Japan and learned the ways of the samurai, tempering his rage with a strong moral core. Batman is well-known for his strict moral code that will not allow him to deliberately kill his enemies. The more grey characters, then, satisfy our experience of the world that tells us two things: being good does not necessarily lead to a good life, and sometimes you cannot stop bad people by acting exceptionally good. We find the “Boy Scout” character stories naive because they seem to portray life in precisely the way that we’ve learned life is not like.

But we still admire heroes, not villains. We still admire and want to be like the heroes and the pure heroes, not the villains. We are drawn to the stories of the grey heroes because they are heroes who are more “realistic”, who act in a way that we at least believe we would have to in the world we live in and get the rewards that we think that people on our world would receive. For the “Boy Scout” works, we feel that they are lying to us, making it seem like the heroes will get the rewards and be able to stop all the evil just by being really, really good, but that’s not how we believe the world actually is.

But we want it to be that way, though, and we want to be heroes. We just don’t think we can get away with it in this world without it destroying us.

So this is the answer to the question of why we should want to be moral. It turns out, we all inherently do want to be moral. And it’s only the influence of philosophy class or the realism of a world where not everyone — and even not most people — are heroes that make us question why in the world we’d ever want to be a hero ourselves.

Quick Update and comments …

July 5, 2020

Bonus post!

So, last week I talked about “The Matrix” and talked about how I was going to watch and comment on the entire trilogy. That … didn’t work out. I watched the second movie — although I slept through a lot of it — and was going to make some comments on it (the short version: the quest for “The Architect” to explain the details of “The Matrix” was interesting, but the cliffhanger ending felt like they cut one movie in half instead of planning it as a cliffhanger ending) but then tried to watch the third movie … and couldn’t get through it. I switched to “Pretty Little Liars” instead. I could go back and finish watching it to comment on it, but I don’t feel like it. So I won’t.

I was also reading and re-reading all of my “Babylon 5” books, and intended to comment on all of them. I’m still going to comment on the trilogies — “Passing of the Technomages”, “Legions of Fire” and “Psi Corps” — but I started reading “Clark’s Law” and couldn’t stand it, and was not thrilled by “The Touch of Your Shadow, the Whisper of Your Name” either when I started reading it, so I stopped, despite knowing that I liked “To Dream in the City of Sorrows”. I moved on to the “Heroes in Hell” books that I have.

I guess I just have no patience right now for things that I don’t want to read/watch.

Speaking of “Pretty Little Liars”, I think my favourite characters are Hanna and Spencer, despite generally preferring the more ordinary nice girl characters like Aria. This buttresses my claims that good protagonists need flaws. In a show like this, you definitely need the characters to have flaws that their opponent “A” can exploit, but it also allows for deeper characters and characterizations. Often, you can give them reasons for the flaws they have. You can also use those flaws as a contrast with the other aspects of their personalities making them more complex. Hanna, for example, can be pretty inconsiderate at times but also demonstrates that she really does care for others and tries her best to be there for them when they need her (and she’s aware of it and doesn’t consider it trivial and isn’t working through worse things), and Spencer is hypercompetent but also often very vulnerable inside.

The concept of the Mary Sue includes the idea that the character may have flaws, but those flaws aren’t meaningful. What this generally means is that the flaws exist to give them flaws to make them more relatable — or in an attempt to refute the idea that they’re perfect — but they don’t really inconvenience the character in any meaningful way. An example would be a character in an action that has a character trait of being clumsy, but it only arises when the clumsiness would be cute and never at all in combat. It’s only there to give them a cute flaw but not something that adds anything to their character. On the other hand, if the character is clumsy in combat as well it gives them something to overcome and can be used to provide a character arc where they fear that their clumsiness will cost them a battle and/or get some people killed, as well as being used to advance the plot. If you make a flaw meaningful, then it can add depth to the character and the plot itself. It can be argued, then, that failed flaws in a Mary Sue are an attempt to make the character deeper but since the character must be seen as being very impressive the flaws don’t have meaning and so fail to add depth.

Anyway, not going to take more about “The Matrix”, and moving on to other things.

My Views on Streaming/DVDs

July 3, 2020

So, last week, Tom left a comment talking about my only watching DVDs and not using streaming. As noted in my reply, I have actually had a streaming service in the past (Shomi) and actually have one running right (Crave). But primarily for movies and TV shows it’s still DVDs. Let me talk a bit about my oddities that make that be the case.

One main issue for me that would not be one for most other people is that I have little to no desire for the normal mobility options that streaming services provide. The ideal set-up for me to watch things is in my living room. My cable hookup works beautifully there, hidden in my corner behind my TV stand. Getting the Internet there would be trickier, and the ideal place for my Internet is in the bedroom that I use as an office. So what I have is my main TV in the living room with my cable box and my DVD players, and my computers in the office. So for me to watch over the Internet would require me to either run an Ethernet cable into the living room or watch them in the office. Either are do-able, but are generally more trouble than they are worth. And I don’t really have any interest in watching those shows when I’m away from home. So I have no real interest in streaming as something that I can do anywhere. I only want to do it in one place.

(Note that my gaming consoles are in the living room, but they’re on a TV stand hooked up to a second TV so that I can play them while watching TV).

Thus, the big advantage that Shomi had was that it would fit nicely into how I already watched TV. When that one died and Crave came to cable, it also fit in there, but it has an advantage that you get the on-demand part but it also runs something like seven channels that run their shows or movies at various times during the day, which means that not only can I watch it on-demand as I like but also if I’m just looking for something to have on for noise or for something mildly interesting when I have nothing to do I might be able to find something interesting there, making it about as useful as every other channel I have on my cable subscription. That’s how I came across “Arizona”.

The other reason why I still maintain DVDs is one that I think most people will at least somewhat relate to: I have no interest in maintaining multiple streaming services. If I wanted “Star Trek”, I’d need Crave. If I wanted the Disney ones, then I’d also have to take Disney+. And since they don’t have every show that is available, I might need the other ones as well. And might still be missing some shows that I could get on DVD (for example, which streaming service has “Sledgehammer!”?). So I’d need three or more streaming services and then still need DVDs to cover off some shows that I’d like and want to watch. That’s a bit more complicated than I’m willing to get into.

DVDs also have additional benefits. You always have them once you buy them — unless they get scratched or wear out — so you don’t have to fear that the service that has them will cut them off for various reasons in the future. The more you watch them, the more cost-effective they are, while the cost of a streaming service only goes up over time. And if I want to consider what I might want to watch, I don’t have to browse through a menu, but instead can look at my physical boxes and see what’s there, and even can create stacks as a list of things to work through.

For me, the streaming service I have with the channels and the things that I want to watch on them makes it worth subscribing to, but the downsides are just enough that DVDs are still my primary way to watch older TV shows (newer ones are obviously better on streaming since, well, they’re there [grin]). I don’t see that changing for the foreseeable future.

Thoughts on “The Ghost Beyond”

July 2, 2020

This movie really drove home a point for me: confusion is not scary.

I’ve have mentioned on several occasions my frustration with a lot of horror works and their tendency to not explain what is going on. Sometimes it seems more like they believe that the unknown is more frightening, and so they reveal as little as possible to keep people scared. As I’ve again noted on many occasions the problem is that letting the protagonist and/or the audience know what’s going on can be far more frightening, as at least the audience can see things and note what they mean, and so see what’s coming, and thus builds anticipation. Often this works best if the audience is clued into what these things mean but the character we are watching isn’t. One of the best movies for this, in my opinion, is actually the original “Blair Witch Project”, as it uses the introduction documentary sections to inform us on the characters and the details of the witch, and then when they get lost and we see things like the bundles of sticks we are quite aware that they’re in deep trouble. So horror doesn’t work best in a complete vacuum, as oftentimes us knowing the details of the horror scares us even more, and it avoids confusing us. That being said, if done properly it isn’t necessary. As I noted with “Happy Death Day”, we don’t find out what the deal is with the time loop, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not what the movie is about and so is something that we can ignore.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if there’s another reason why these movies tend to shy away from details and explanations, and if that’s something that it has in common with other fields like mysteries and dramas. A lot of the time, they seem to want to go for surprises or twists in their stories. But because of this, it seems that their greatest fear is that the surprise or twist will be “spoiled” by the audience figuring it out before they reveal it. And either lacking confidence in their ability to keep the secret or else being incompetent, what they do is decide to keep it hidden by simply not telling the audience what they’d need to know to figure it out. The problem with doing this, though, is that it can feel cheap when they reveal the twist that we couldn’t have figured out from what they told us in the movie. The best twists are the ones where you can rewatch the movie and find all the evidence that pointed to the twist, but that you never noticed or, not having the proper context, just didn’t interpret the right way. In fact, some of the best movies to use twists often go back and either explain or show all the evidence that you should have noticed to come to the right conclusion. Mysteries are, of course, famous for that, and are also the genre where the audience will hold the writers the most stringently to having the twists follow from what the movie has told the audience.

So the writers often seem to take the tack of keeping their twists and secrets simply by not telling the audience enough to let them figure it out. This can work if the movie is not about the twist but is about other things that the twist ties itself into. The risk for this in horror movies in general, though, is that if you try to make the audience interested in the mystery behind the horror but then don’t reveal anything about it to preserve that mystery, you can end up confusing the audience, as they stop in the middle of your suspense and horror to ask “Wait, what? Why is it doing this? What does it want? This doesn’t seem to make sense!”. Even if it’s done as Fridge Logic after the movie, it can leave a bad taste in the audience’s mouth as they remember the movie as being less horrific and more confusing.

“The Ghost Beyond”, however, manages to trigger those thoughts during the movie instead of after, which is far worse.

The main plot is a cut-rate version of “The Shining”. An author and his family move to a small town so that he can work on his novel, the advance of which is paying for, well, everything. The family consists of him and his wife and son. As they examine the house, the realtor says that she is required to tell them the story of a young girl who ended up locked in her toy box and eventually starved to death, but only after eating some of her dolls out of hunger, with additional rumours that the house is now haunted. There’s a seemingly friendly handyman who befriends the young son and gives him something to protect him, and then the son starts experiencing supernatural events, mostly centered around the dolls and an entity that they fear which is hinted to be the spirit of the little girl. Meanwhile, the father suffers Writer’s Block and degenerates into an angry and dangerous man, putting his wife and son at risk, as the entity builds towards its final purpose.

But as you might guess, we don’t really know what that purpose is. What she does at the end is capture at least the father and son in dolls, and the implication is that she still eats the heads of them. But we have no idea why or what the purpose is. She just … does it. Additionally, the handyman is in fact in league with her, as he was drugging the father with locally made whiskey and the talisman he gave the son actually encouraged hallucinations. The problem here is that we never find out why. Why does he do that? What does he get out of it? Why does the entity work with him? So his role is very confusing, and even worse the twist that they were trying for doesn’t even work because it’s so obvious. He gives the father the whiskey and we see the father drinking it as he degenerates (the movie is very pointed on that point). He also gives the son the talisman but we see the son use it early in the movie and it does nothing, so at that point the handyman is either evil or stupid. Once he gets the mother to use it as well it isn’t credible that he’d be that stupid, so evil it is. Since we have thus figured out that he’s evil, we immediately start wondering why he is working with the entity, and then we get to the ending where it’s clear that he’s doing it again and instead of feeling horrified all we are is really confused about why he does it and keeps doing it, ruining even that part of the twist.

One of the other issues — possibly related to not wanting to spoil the twist — is that while the father’s degeneration is a key horrifying part of the movie, the movie rarely lets us see him. Instead, it focuses on the mother and her son, and mostly on the mother. While the mother is a far more interesting character, she also has very limited plot relevance, and so we don’t get to see any of the details of the father’s corruption. Moreover, she doesn’t seem particularly surprised by the father’s angry outbursts, and the father is not exactly nice right from the beginning, so it makes him seem more like an abusive father than like a good person corrupted by various things. And his being corrupted doesn’t really play into the plot at all; it’s not the case that his corruption is what allows the entity to capture him and the son, for example. So we don’t know what happens to him or why, and what happens to him is not critically important to the plot and arguably could have been cut out entirely without losing much from the movie. Other than being a reference to “The Shining”, then, it doesn’t do much and being a reference to “The Shining” can only remind us of a movie and story that actually did that plot better (and that’s even taking into account that the movie was flawed itself).

Ultimately, as I said, the movie itself is confusing at its very best, and that confusion really hurts the movie. We spend more of our time wondering what’s going on than in being scared by the horror or gasping at the twists, and the twists are obvious themselves. This is definitely a movie where more explanation of what was going on could only have helped, as it could have made us feel more horror or even sympathy rather than the confusion that we did get. I can’t imagine watching this movie again.

Musings on “The Matrix”

July 1, 2020

A long, long time ago, I had picked up all the “Matrix” movies used and intended to watch all of them, having had already watched the original once. I … never got around to it, and then eventually decided to put them away in my boxes because I was never going to watch them. Then, lately, after watching the Alien and Predator movies and having time to watch movies explicitly scheduled into my schedule (especially since rewatching movies that I wanted to watch fit into another part of my schedule leaving clear room for movies that I wanted to focus on and watch), I thought that it would be a good time to settle in and finally watch them. I started with “The Matrix”.

I slept through most of it.

This is not to say that that fact makes it a bad movie. I sleep through a lot of movies. Heck, I sleep through James Bond movies. But what it does mean is that you aren’t going to get any kind of in-depth analysis of it. You are going to get some discussion of why when I woke up at the end of the movie I was hoping that the movie would just end and will probably never actually watch it again ever.

But first, a philosophical point:

When I first watched the movie, one thing I noted was that philosophically Neo was a bit of an idiot, or at least Morpheus was. So, the set-up is that Neo can take the blue pill and stay in the fake reality, or take the red pill and wake-up in actual reality. So what we have is a case where Neo is living in something that is at least superficially indistinguishable from reality, but then he will ingest an artificial substance and … wake up in something that is at least superficially indistinguishable from reality. If Neo accepts that there can be experiences that look indistinguishable from reality but aren’t, then how can he be sure that when he wakes up that is actually “reality”? Especially since, as noted, he would be taking an artificial substance that, clearly, could impact his experiences of reality. What if the first reality was reality and the second one was a hallucination? How could he tell? How could anyone tell?

And, interestingly, the movie itself — by accident, I think — hints that the “reality” might not be reality at all. The movie establishes that if you die in the Matrix you die in reality. Neo dies in the Matrix and is shown to die in reality. They are at the point where they are not trying to resuscitate him and there is no indication that the pod is trying to do so. He’s dead. Then Trinity says that the Oracle said that she’d fall in love with the One so he can’t die, kisses him and … he revives.

Since the movie makes a big deal about being outside of Matrix meaning that you were in actual reality, it would desperately need to make things there uber-realistic. If it relies on cheap Hollywood drama, it would raise the question of whether this was reality or not. Neo being revived by a kiss is cheap Hollywood drama that doesn’t work if we are trying to be uber-realistic. So my reaction there was indeed that it was cheap to do that in reality and made no sense when so many other options were available.

Now, I obviously haven’t seen the other movies yet (I will probably have seen the second by the time this is posted), but I have obviously heard about how the other movies go. If this had been a set-up or used in later movies to cast doubt as to whether that reality was really reality, or if the movies had subverted it by showing that, in the end, that wasn’t reality either, then it would have worked. It could have even explained how the Oracle knew about that love part, as the conditions were set by the variables of the overarching simulation. But as far as I know, that’s not what they did, which left that scene as cheap, annoying drama.

I also found the fight scenes to be incredibly boring, which explains why I hated the ending which is pretty much wall-to-wall fight scenes. The first time I watched it, they didn’t bother me, but here they were really grating. I think the reason for this is that I’ve watched the MCU movies, which are going for the same over-the-top, supercharged fight scenes as “The Matrix”, but do it so much better. The fights are cleaner and are more personal. The combatants fight in accordance with standard fighting techniques but also in a way that reflects them and their character. The fights also have more important and better defined stakes, and again stakes that are far more personal. They are also stronger from an overall technical perspective.

It also doesn’t help that both Neo and the Agent act so totally bored throughout the scenes, which also doesn’t help me to consider the stakes meaningful or important.

Ultimately, while the first time I watch it I didn’t mind it, after watching it this time I cannot imagine watching “The Matrix” again. Since I believe the general consensus is that the next two movies are worse, this does not bode well for my watching them.

First Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars” (End Season 1)

June 30, 2020

So, I started watching “Pretty Little Liars” last week. As noted on Friday, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the series, and so was a little concerned that I’d watch it and it would be terrible. In hindsight, the worst it could possibly have been was a soap opera-type show like “Dallas” or “Dynasty”, both of which I liked enough to rewatch. Or it might be a flawed conspiracy show like “Twin Peaks”, which I enjoyed. Then again, shows that I thought that I would have liked before watching them again like “Remington Steele” and “Beauty and the Beast” worked out very badly for me, and did so quite quickly. So I wasn’t sure if I had simply wasted my money on it and was leaving myself open for several months of torment or if it was going to be something that I actually enjoyed.

From the first season, at least, I’m actually quite enjoying it.

One of the best things the show did was while it does contain and outline some standard teen/high school soap opera points — student and teacher falling in love, student’s parents break up, student explores her sexuality and comes out as gay — from the very start in the pilot they make it clear that those plots are only side plots and that the real plot is going to be about the anonymous character A and their attempts to manipulate the main characters and reveal and potentially make them pay for their secrets and their sins. The subplots, then, are there to allow us to take a break from the main conspiracy plot and, more importantly, to generate secrets and lies for A to exploit. This makes the show more than a simple teen/high school soap opera right from the start, and so avoids the issues that a show like “John Woo’s Once a Thief” had, where the pilot presents one type of show and attracts a certain type of audience and then later shifts to another type of show, losing the audience that would have liked the latter from the pilot and then losing the rest of the audience with the tone shift. Here, you know from the start that this is a conspiracy show first and foremost, and the rest of the season carries on with that so we know from the start what sort of show this is going to be, meaning that if you’re in the audience that would like it you know that you will like this show.

The second thing the show did well was make the main characters flawed and yet sympathetic. This is important because if the characters weren’t flawed we would have a hard time believing that they would have done the things that they needed to do to get A’s attention and keep those nasty secrets, and also would have a hard time believing that they would do some of the things that A asks them to or, more importantly, the things they do to try to ferret out who A is and stop them. Even the two “nice girls” — Emily and Aria — have their flaws, with Emily being too much of a doormat and Aria being too spontaneously emotional. The two of them that are less nice — Hanna and Spencer — are indeed willing to do bad things if they feel they need to.

Which leads to the second point: while they have to be flawed, they also have to be sympathetic, because we want to believe that they would do bad things and believe that they should be punished for what they did, but we also want to be on their side and so have to be willing to believe that they don’t deserve what A is putting them through. And while Aria and Emily get that mostly by being nice themselves in most cases, Hanna and Spencer have personalities that work against them being sympathetic. Hanna starts as a prime Alpha Bitch — replacing their former leader, the disappeared Allison — and Spencer is established as being exceedingly competitive and a little cold. The show actually makes a brilliant move by having Aria and Emily get together when Aria first returns as those are the two nicest characters and then bringing the other two in to have everyone get back together again, as the rekindling of that friendship lets them show Hanna and Spencer in a different light and start the process of making them sympathetic characters.

The show then follows on from that by in the first season by making Spencer and especially Hanna the butt of most of the things A does to them and the bad things that happen in that season.

Hanna goes through the most, making the first season, at least, an extended “Break the Haughty” for her. First, she gets caught for shoplifting — which was indeed something she did in general for fun and so deserved to get caught for — but then in order to keep her from getting charged her mother essentially sleeps with the detective, which leads to a long term assignation as the detective drags it out, and Hanna is aware that that’s what’s going on. This doesn’t stop the detective from badgering her and the other leads about their connections to Allison’s disappearance and death. Then, Hanna wants to lose her virginity to her boyfriend but he wants to wait for religious reasons, and so in a humiliated huff she storms off and takes his car, and gets into an accident with it, and gets caught again, requiring her to do community service for his mother — a dentist — to pay for the damages. This is about the same time that her mother makes it clear that they don’t have the money to maintain their lifestyle after her father left them, and Hanna makes her first nice gesture by selling some things online and using it to buy the foods and things that her mother — and her — like but can’t afford. At the same time, her father returns and wants to see her, which she is thrilled by because she misses him and is having trouble with his leaving … and it turns out that he only came back to try to “help” her with her problems after she stole the car, and also to introduce her to his new fiance and soon-to-be stepdaughter. Soon after that, she finds out about some therapy that a suspect is going through and when that suspect is dating Emily has to run out during the Homecoming Dance to get it so that they can convince Emily that he’s dangerous before he hurts her (which he does before they can do that). This causes her to miss her coronation as Homecoming Queen, which was really important to her, and which also completely badly damages her relationship with her boyfriend. She then manages to piss off her friend Mona enough for her to uninvite her from a big party, which means that she can spy on the party since A says that they’ll find something out there, and while spying she sees something that arguably A — or someone else — doesn’t want her to know, causing them to run her down with a car, breaking her leg. While in the hospital, A is kind enough to sign her cast with a nasty message, which as you might imagine freaks Hanna out. Then, after that, when she gets home she finds some money that her mother had stolen from the bank where she worked revealing just how much trouble her mother is in. Then, Mona throws a party at Hanna’s house which ends up with a confrontation with her boyfriend, and with the money being stolen. A kindly decides to dare Hanna to do things to earn some of that money back, which results in Hanna being driven to do enough things to completely alienate her boyfriend and also to almost rat out Aria’s relationship with a teacher, which is only saved at the last minute when a new guy that she meets in detention sabotages Aria’s mother’s car (she had dealt with him before to unlock a cell phone for Emily to talk to her girlfriend). Then out of guilt she tells Aria about that and Aria blows up on her. And her mother ends up finding out that the person who owned the safety deposit box that she stole the money from has died and her last remaining family has returned, and so the theft will be discovered. Hanna gets incredibly worried about it because, as she says, she can’t lose her mother, too. The guy helps her out by pointing out some oddities in the guy’s story, and it turns out that it’s all a scam, but then soon after her mother discovers that the guy has been living in their basement and dislikes him, but since Hanna is starting to develop feelings for him she goes and camps out with him one night and loses her virginity to him. And then she discovers that he was hired to get close to her by another enemy. It’s no wonder that she breaks down crying in the bathroom but doesn’t feel like she can talk to her mother about it. For most of the last half of the season, my most common remark on the show was “Poor Hanna!”.

Spencer doesn’t get quite as much of that treatment, but in the last half it’s pretty bad. They discover that her sister’s former boyfriend whom Spencer had had an affair with — at fifteen — was also having an affair with Allison (and this seemed like them treating this much more sleazy affair that was being treated the same as Aria’s until they used it to make him seem incredibly creepy so, well-played) and also was the one who killed Allison. He also has reunited with her sister and is living in a little apartment thing in her house, so she sees him everyday. She’s also not good at hiding her emotions and is a bit snarky, so she makes her dislike of him clear, and she’s smart enough to realize that if he killed Allison he might decide to kill her, making being in her house alone very tense. A also starts framing her for the murder of Allison which gets the police after her, which makes things around the house and around town worse. Then she goes to a carnival to meet the guy who was dating Emily as she’s interested in him now — she has a running subplot with dating people others dated first, twice to her sister and once to Emily after Emily moved on to, well, girls — and gets tricked into going into the Funhouse to meet him when he wasn’t there, gets locked in a small room with screams and things going on outside, and when she is rescued it’s by her sister’s boyfriend brandishing a crowbar at her. Then after getting into a car accident that puts her sister’s baby at risk — Spencer was driving and feels guilty for the accident — she goes looking for her sister’s things as which point her sister’s boyfriend tries to kill her and almost succeeds. Poor Spencer!

In fact, what’s done to the two of them completely overshadows anything done to the other two, which makes Aria’s comments that she would have resisted A in the same situation where Hanna didn’t hollow because Aria had never had to face, say, a threat to reveal the affair if she, say, ratted out the guy living in Hanna’s basement.

Let me touch on Emily’s gay storyline as well. I think it was relatively well-done for that sort of story. Emily’s father is more accepting of it and even gives the “It’s who she is!” line, but he doesn’t seem too convinced by it when her mother scoffs and ends up pretty much saying that the situation is hurting Emily and he doesn’t want her to hurt, so if accepting her stops her from hurting then that’s what he’ll do. Her mother is far more opposed to it, but does eventually somewhat come around when another parent gets upset that Emily might be receiving special privileges for being gay. Her mother rises to her defense, and the eventual detente between then is based more on the hurting angle above along with a realization that she will lose her daughter if she doesn’t bend a bit than on accepting that being gay is right or reasonable. And to the show’s credit they don’t have the daughter or someone else use that cliched line, but instead seem to have her realize that herself, mostly because the father is in the military and moves to a new post, leaving them behind, giving the mother plenty of time to see how lonely it is when her daughter won’t talk to her, and not so much out of anger but more out of fear and hurt.

There are a couple of things that worry me going forward about the show, both around the main plot with A. The first is that A is hypercompetent, always at least a step ahead of the girls and seemingly possessed with limitless information about their lives and what happens in them. This applies to their attempts to deal with A, as A is always prepared and they don’t seem to ever win. This can make it seem hopeless to even try to deal with A as they can never win against them. I would have liked to have seen them get the win against the guy who killed Allison, because it would have given some hope that they could eventually beat A in some way, and would still have allowed A’s comment at the very end of the season that said that if they thought it would end with Allison’s killer being caught they were wrong, setting up neatly for the second season while, again, giving some hope that A is not unbeatable.

The second thing is that the secrets and bad deeds come fast and heavy in the first season. Since subsequent seasons generally ramp up things like that, this runs the risk of making A’s plots and their reactions excessively convoluted and extreme, to the point of them being unbelievable. This is only more of a risk if they didn’t know from the start how many seasons they had, as they might very well peak too soon and have nowhere to go but to the ridiculous. While I’ve never watched it, some complaints about “Lost” seemed to be of this sort, and I don’t know if this show will fall into that trap. From the first season, though, it certainly looks like it’s at risk for it, since as we can see in Hanna’s arc a lot of things have already happened and it might be hard to top them.

Still, so far, in the first season, I’m enjoying it. The show seems to be a vehicle for Lucy Hale as Aria — she’s displayed the most prominently in the box and in the intro and even gets an ad for a different show of hers on the DVD previews — but so far the characters I most like are Hanna and Spencer, mostly because of all the bad things done to them that test their characters and let them reveal themselves as nicer than you might expect. Still, all the leads are sympathetic and so there is some interest in seeing them fighting against their unfair treatment at the hands of A. We’ll see if this carries on in the remaining seasons.