Archive for June, 2020

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.

The Universality of Morality

June 29, 2020

So, I’ve been working my way through Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and while I’m not going to quote it, at one point he essentially argues that morality cannot be based on personal preference or interest because that would make moral principles individual instead of universal. They would depend on the individual and not on a universal principle that everyone could accept and believe in. Now after my discussions with Coel, I suspect the response from him and from a number of others who favour relativism would be to dismiss this as a circular argument: Kant thinks that morality must be universal, and so at least dismisses some options on the basis that their answers would make morality not universal. But I think this does tie in to a deeper notion, and that Kant’s statement would spawn this response pretty much explains why they don’t get what objectivists are worried about, even after they tell them about it over and over again, which inspires them to make up lots of psychological reasons for the objectivist stance that have nothing to do with their main concern, which is this:

These systems make it so that there cannot be any universal moral principles at all, but morality seems to be all about universal principles.

Think about this example: murder. If the morality of murder is based on a calculation of personal interest, then you can never say that murder is just plain and simply morally wrong. Worse, the morality of murder would be based on whether or not the person has correctly calculated whether committing that murder will benefit them or not. Thus, if someone is contemplating murdering someone, the onus will be on them to prove that it really will benefit them to commit that murder. They will have to outline the benefits they will get from that murder and show that they can get away with it, or that whatever punishment they will receive will be outweighed by those benefits. These … do not seem like moral calculations at all. In fact, looking back at how morality has been used for the thousands of years that we have been aware of it, it seems like morality’s main use is to avoid everything devolving to those sorts of calculations. But reducing morality to personal interest must lead to those sorts of calculations. This is a prime reason to reject Ethical Egoism: it cannot help but reduce moral calculations about the things that we instinctively consider the most heinous to “Does it benefit me and can I get away with it?”, which doesn’t seem like morality at all.

Now, relativists will be quick to point out that Ethical Egoism is not a relativistic morality. But not only does any kind of relativism leave the door open for someone to about that as their moral stance, their view has arguably even worse consequences on that score. We think that morality, in general, is a calculation so that everyone in the same situation will come up with the same answer. So if we are going to differentiate between simply killing someone and committing a murder, we will all come up with the same answer if we are placed in the same situation. Relativism abandons that, so if we place a different person in the same situation the morality of the action may change. It may become murder depending on the view of the person placed in that situation. This makes the use of morality for any external purpose unworkable. You cannot insist that what the person did — or wanted to do — is murder based only on your opinion that it would be murder. If they disagree, you need some kind of objective criteria by which you can convince them they are wrong, and that sort of criteria is exactly what relativists deny we have.

If morality is to be a shared judgement, then we need some sort of shared or objective criteria to make that judgement on, which relativists deny we have. But if it’s just to be a personal judgement, then we cannot share it and so cannot shame or punish others for lacking it or having made the “wrong” judgement. In both cases, we end up with a view of morality that seems totally unlike what morality is as we know of it and care about it. It is, in my view, supremely difficult for relativists to come up with a relativistic view of morality that either doesn’t smuggle in objective judgements or become a morality that no one has any real reason to care about if we actually all took it seriously and made the societal morality that sort of morality.

But in musing on this, I also returned to another point that I had made, which leads to the idea of universality: one of the key capabilities required for morality is the ability to sacrifice your own personal interests for some sort of higher principle. Human beings are possibly the only species that is capable of doing this, and morality, as noted above, is all about choosing to be moral regardless of your own personal interest. This is arguably the main if not only purpose for morality: to constrain our acting on our personal interest in favour of acting on moral principles. So we cannot be capable of morality until we are capable of doing this.

This gives us at least one a priori reason, then, for acting on morality if we could figure out what it is … or, at least, for rejecting the idea that we shouldn’t act on morality because it doesn’t benefit us personally. We would be rejecting one of the main capabilities that sets human beings apart from lifeforms that are not as cognitively advanced as ourselves for … what? A little extra pleasure? How sad would someone have to be to indeed reduce themselves to animals by rejecting outright the idea that we can act for principles that stand above our own personal self-interest. And many of those who push for these lines are atheists, and they insist that we don’t need a purpose designed into us by God, but instead can find our own purpose for life. How sad for them if the only purpose they can come up with is personal self-interest. If you ever are willing to sacrifice your own interests for a principle greater than yourself, then you are capable of desiring morality as a principle greater than yourself, which is what we consider morality to be.

So this, I think, disposes of the requirement that morality must motivate you in terms of personal interest. We are capable of valuing things other than our own personal interest and valuing those things more than we value our own personal interest. We need no contorted explanations for why those things really are in our personal interest to value them. We are capable of valuing them for what they are in themselves without having to justify them on the basis of personal benefit.

So the question “Why should we be moral?” does not mean “How does it benefit me personally to be moral?”. Instead, it really boils down to this: “Why should morality be one of those principles that I value above my own personal interest?”. We all tend to presume that it should be and that that’s how it works intuitively — yes, even most relativists — but there are a number of such principles and morality is, it is argued, one of them. Why should we choose that one, or add it to the list?

I think that recasting the question in this way could be quite productive in help us come up with what morality really is. We would no longer be rejecting moral systems on the basis of “I don’t want to do it”, but instead on the basis that they are not sufficient for a principle that we can hold above personal interest. As already noted, Ethical Egoisms are eliminated out of hand, as is one of the more common arguments from relativism. It also places morality in the company of things like patriotism or love, which are analyzed quite a bit differently than psychological or behavioural mechanisms aimed at another end. And it seems to me that if we look at those other principles we can see that morality is above them because we can ask for all of them “Is my patriotism moral?” and note that we can achieve those things morally or immorally … and that the pursuit of a higher principle in an immoral ways seems to cheapen and corrupt that higher principle, making our attainment of it tainted and unsatisfying. We would not find that acting morally but unpatriotically would taint our patriotism, and might indeed insist that patriotism achieved immorally is no patriotism at all. We do not, however, judge morality on the basis of how patriotic it is.

To the extent that we are capable of acting for principles above and beyond our own personal interest, morality must be seen as being in the category of those principles. And since we tend to judge all of those other principles by how moral our methods for achieving them are and at least always put our satisfaction from them at risk if we believe they were attained immorally, it seems like morality is the highest of these higher principles. Since all higher principles will be objective and universal in important ways — at least in us being able to recognize what they are — this puts the relativists back on their heels. Either they reduce morality to personal interest or something akin to it which is completely at odds with how we view morality, or else they have to show how a higher principle is nevertheless relativistic. Neither seem like very good prospects.

Why “Pretty Little Liars”?

June 26, 2020

So, if you’ve been following my list of TV shows to watch you’ll note that the show that I’m going to watch next is “Pretty Little Liars”. So how did I come to pick up a show like that to watch? Let me try to outline how that happened.

(Note that I’m writing this before I’ve watched an episode, but by the time it’s published I should be through over half of the first season).

Anyway, what happened was I was browsing in HMV — which still existed at the time — and noticed a DVD cover with four young women in what would be described as sexier or skimpier outfits. And so my thought was “Heh, heh, jiggle show!”, essentially a show driven in large part by attractive women dressing and acting sexy. Out of curiosity, I picked it up to see what it was about … and the premise actually sounded interesting, with a clique falling apart after the disappearance of their leader and then later someone sends them a message threatening to reveal their secrets. This reminded me a bit of “Reunion”, which I had been enjoying until it was cancelled. So I thought that if I could get it relatively cheap, then I’d buy and watch it, and so kept my eye on it as time went on and the series proceeded to its conclusion.

The show also, as it turns out, has other similarities to “Reunion”. In that show, part of the draw was that it starred Chyler Leigh, who was an actress that I liked. This one stars Lucy Hale, whom I liked in “Truth or Dare”. It also has Holly Marie Combs in a supporting role, and she’s one of my favourite actresses. So after I found that out and found out that the show was complete, it went from being something I kept an eye on to something that I was looking to get if it ever fell to a reasonable price point. But it was always far too expensive for me to take a chance on it.

So, recently, I was browsing in Walmart, and they had the complete series for a decent price, about $1 – $2 per hour. So I picked it up, and having just finished rewatching “The World at War” decided to skip over my other shows and just give it a try now. So that’s what I’m going to do. Maybe it will be good. Maybe it will be terrible. But at least — and at last — I’m gonna find out.

Stay tuned.

Thoughts on “The Sonata”

June 25, 2020

“The Sonata” probably has the perfect structure for a horror movie to provide a mix of exposition and suspenseful horror. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite manage to do enough with this to be a classic.

The basic premise is that a young musician’s estranged father dies and leaves her his old estate. Despite her being very angry with him for abandoning her, she decides to go over and check it out. Meanwhile, her agent — whom she’s in the process of dumping because she feels that she should move beyond him — has been willing to help her regardless, and as strange things start happening in the house he goes along with it and tries to help her figure out what’s going on. Ultimately, it’s revealed that this is a long plan of her father’s to develop and then get her to play a musical piece that will ultimately summon a demon — or perhaps the Devil himself — to Earth.

This is a great structure because it allows the movie to give us the exposition we need to understand what’s at stake while still leaving room for the suspense and terror. What it does is move from scenes where the female lead is wandering around the creepy house and discovering things and experiencing strange events to scenes where the agent is exploring what might be causing them. The exposition scenes give us a break from the suspense — something that was a flaw in “Family Possessions” — and allow them to set up things so that we can see the horror coming in the suspense sections. It also lets them set up the plot so that we understand what’s going on without boring us with long exposition sequences. The sequences last just long enough to explain what we just saw and tell us what we need to know for later in the movie before getting out of the way and letting us get back to the tense horror. And by splitting up the characters, the tense parts of the movie can focus on building up her character as well as paying off the horror without anyone or anything else getting in the way.

The problem is that while they have the structure, they fail to actually make the suspense scenes suspenseful or scary or to properly develop the character of the main female lead. The scares are prosaic at best, and so don’t really scare us. Nor do the scares properly build off of the exposition we are being given. In addition, because those scenes generally only have the female lead in them, we don’t learn that much about her. It can’t really build them through conversation with the minimal cast it allows itself, but it doesn’t use any other techniques to do that either. So, ultimately, we don’t really learn that much about her either, leaving her underdeveloped. In fact, we probably learn more plot-relevant character details about the agent than about her.

Which is a shame, because the story itself screams for us to learn a lot about the female lead. The key aspect to the musical score is the ending, which couldn’t be written by her father because it has to be personal to the person playing the score. Also, her father couldn’t perform it himself because it requires someone who isn’t corrupted, and in fact the reason he left the family was to avoid corrupting her. This makes that personal to her and implies that the ending will critically involve her and who she really is. Two ideas that I had while watching it were that either her purity will cause the ritual to ultimately fail — and imply that it may have been a fool’s dream in the first place — or that she will come to embrace the ritual and the summoning for reasons personal to her.

Instead, none of that happens. The agent is killed due to greed and corruption in encouraging her to perform the ritual, and in the end she is preparing to play the piece in front of a full crowd for … some reason. So the importance of that last bar being about her is lost because we don’t ever learn how she feels about anything or the role her as a person plays in the entire thing. The ritual and most of the movie is ultimately all about her, and yet in the end it ends up being about the demon and the agent and she, as a person, is mostly ignored. This is only made worse by the fact that the actress does a good job portraying her as someone flawed and angry and yet vulnerable and sympathetic as well, so her being shoved into the background can only be seen as a massively wasted opportunity.

I didn’t mind the movie and it’s something that I could consider watching again, but as usual there are other, better things to rewatch if I wanted to. Thus, it goes into the boxes in my closet. Which is a shame, because it had such great potential that it squandered.

The List – Year 9

June 24, 2020

This is the ninth year of my list of games to finish. This was an odd year for me wrt playing games, so while the list will get better — I definitely finished an actual game on the list in Saint’s Row the Third — I’m interested in seeing what the change is year-over-year.

So I have finished 34 of the 58 I have listed. That’s a 59% completion rate. Against the original list, that’s a 45% completion rate. As expected, I’ve only finished about 3 games this year, while last year it was … four. So not much different. It seems that my game playing has fallen off a bit, although I know that I spent significant time with The Old Republic. Still, in it seems like I had more games to talk about in last year’s list than I did in this one, which is mostly the two Saint’s Row games (3 and 4).

I don’t have time to play games right now, so I won’t be making more progress for a while. We’ll see how things work out once things settle down a bit.

Musings on the Aliens and Predator main franchise movies

June 23, 2020

So I recently filled in my Friday night movie watching time with the Aliens and Predator movies. The main point was to watch them as a ramp-up to the Aliens vs Predator movie … but then after watching them I forgot about that and decided to watch the Matrix movies instead (some comments on the first one should be coming up in the next couple of weeks). Still, I think I’d like to give some general comments on them anyway.

I had watched all of the Aliens movies — at least the first four — at least once, so I’m the most familiar with them:

Alien is a good movie in a specific genre. It has its struggles, certainly, and would benefit from some modern film-making techniques, but the plot work quite well and while we might have wanted to get to know the characters better, we know enough about them to feel for them when they did, which is enough.

Aliens is also a good movie, in a completely different genre from Alien. But unlike some other cases where people could feel that it ruined the franchise, I think it works. The reason is that it doesn’t seem like it completely changes how the universe works, but is more of a question of “What if?” in that universe: what if an actual colony of people landed on that planet near those eggs? And then the action part of the story follows from that. Given that, it’s not saying that the Alien franchise is better as an action story, but instead is simply pointing out that action stories fit into the universe as well. So it doesn’t invalidate the first movie while telling a different story from the first one.

Alien 3 is disappointing. It kills off two characters that we liked from the first movie without any real purpose, and the setting and plot are more annoying than the previous two movies. I didn’t enjoy watching this movie.

Alien Resurrection is crap. The characters and plot are uninteresting and it tries to be more than its plot can actually sustain which makes it not only poor, but also seem pretentious. I couldn’t tolerate the movie and don’t think I actually finished it.

Now, onto the Predator movies, of which the only one that I had actually really seen was the first one:

Predator is a good movie. The Predator is an attacking monster like we saw in Alien, but the movie is actually better than Alien in this regard because it introduces the characters first and their complicated relationships and then weaves them into the monster story. This allows the characters to die in a manner that pays off or is consistent with their characters, introduces plot points that complicate things, and in general makes us sympathize with them as they fight (and die). This also adds drama to the final battle between Arnie’s character and the Predator, and the final scene.

Predator 2 is, however, not a very good movie. It ends up being an urban crime drama as opposed to the monster story of the original, and the shift doesn’t work. It follows from the universe, sure, and could even be a “What if?”, but it fails because it focuses on the urban issues and makes the Predator simply a part of that. While a movie focusing on those sorts of gang crime issues could work, it’s not what we’d watch a Predator movie for.

Predators has a good premise, that drags the movie back to the style of the original, as humans — presumably because of our successes in the latest hunts — are being taken to a hunting preserve to be hunted by the Predators. However, the movie suffers from uninteresting characters — especially the main lead, who is mostly a skilled jerk for the entire movie with one moment of semi-redemption later — and a premise that runs out of steam pretty quickly. This means that the movie suffers at the end with us not really caring if they survive or not. Also the fact that these ones aren’t the first dampens the plot a bit, as it would have been nice to show that the Predators introducing humans into their preserve was going to change things. Yes, sometimes that sort of humancentric storytelling can be overdone and cheesy, but here it would at least have made the ending of the two of them not escaping to have a point and meaning beyond a simple “ra-ra” moment. I didn’t mind watching the movie, but don’t think I’d be that interested in watching it again.

So these are my musings on those seven movies after watching them over the past few months. Of the movies, I’d watch Alien, Aliens and Predator again, but probably wouldn’t watch the others again.

Philosophy or Sophistry?

June 22, 2020

So there’s been a lot of talk about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered under the American Civil Rights Act. The reason for this is that discrimination on those grounds is actually covered under discrimination on the basis of sex, which is already in the Civil Rights Act. This is according to the majority decision written by a conservative, Neil Gorsuch. I probably would have left the entire topic alone, except for this post by Richard Carrier that talks about how great it is as a piece of philosophy:

I’ve long said some of the best philosophy written is in Supreme Court rulings. It’s always practical, real-world philosophy, that actually affects lives, so it’s also often more important than much that passes for philosophy in academia.

The latest Supreme Court ruling on discrimination based on sexual orientation and trans status, Bostock v. Clayton County, is another example.

Gorsuch’s case hinges on a semantic argument that is totally spot on, but that I had never put together before. Seeing it spelled out, it’s brilliant. And undeniably correct.

Screwy legal decisions don’t bother me too much. The law is an ass and, more importantly, legal considerations might lead to conclusions that are legally necessary but that violate common sense and philosophical accuracy. While they have greater practical impact, no one really thinks that just because a judge says something that it’s necessarily true. But when it’s advocated as philosophy well, then, it’s personal. So I’m going to take it on, because I think the argument is far, far closer to sophistry than to philosophical brilliance.

(As an aside, I also read this post talking about it to get a clearer idea of the entire thing, because Carrier is notable for not really being able to summarize posts properly. I don’t agree with everything at that link either — especially the ideology part — but it does provide another summary of the argument and what it might mean. I’m only going to be quoting Carrier’s post, though).

So what is this purportedly wonderful argument? While sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t explicitly covered in the CRA, sex discrimination is. Gorsuch then applied the standard “but for” test, which is essentially that you keep everything else the same but change only the sex of the individual involved, and see if the behaviour is the same. If it is, then it passes the test. If it isn’t, then it’s discrimination on the basis of sex. So, if you take a man, say, who is attracted to men and change them to a woman who is attracted to men, would they still be fired or not hired? If not, then it’s discrimination on the basis of sex. Or if you take a man who identifies as a woman and change them to a woman who identifies as a woman, would they still be fired or not hired? Again, if not, then it’s discrimination on the basis of sex.

Carrier, as usual, is dismissive of the counters, and I don’t want to get into most of them, but the first big response here is the obvious one whose counters to the counter reveals what Gorsuch is going to have to rely on:

Asking whether Mr. Bostock, a man attracted to other men, would have been fired had he been a woman—we don’t just change his sex. Along the way, we change his sexual orientation too (from homosexual to heterosexual). If the aim is to isolate whether a plaintiff ’s sex caused the dismissal, the employers stress, we must hold sexual orientation constant—meaning we need to change both his sex and the sex to which he is attracted. So for Mr. Bostock, the question should be whether he would’ve been fired if he were a woman attracted to women. And because his employer would have been as quick to fire a lesbian as it was a gay man, the employers conclude, no … violation has occurred.

To put the counter in the simplest possible terms, it would be Gorsuch asking them if they would still fire him if he was a woman, and them pointing out that of course they wouldn’t because then the person wouldn’t be a homosexual anymore. The idea of the “but for” test is to keep everything constant or, at least, everything constant that matters to the discussion. But here the sexual orientation would clearly change, and the original argument is that they discriminate on the basis on the non-protected sexual orientation, not on sex. So Gorsuch would have to keep the sexual orientation constant as well, and so it would become a homosexual woman, and of course that woman would be fired as well.

This counter should indeed dispose of Gorsuch’s argument, but from what I gather Gorsuch can and did reply with the idea that this is too simplistic an idea of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is a combination of two traits: what sex the individual is and what sex they are attracted to. To keep all relevant things the same, we need to keep what sex the individual is attracted to constant. And if we do that, then we get the results Gorsuch is relying on.

But this doesn’t work. As sexual orientation is a combination of the two factors, it becomes clear that if you change the sex but not the sexual attraction, then you have explicitly changed the sexual orientation, and vice versa. So if you change the sex the individual is attracted to, you have changed their sexual orientation if you don’t also change their sex. And if you change their sex, as Gorsuch does, without changing who they are sexually attracted to, you have changed their sexual orientation. And whether they are discriminating on the basis of their sex or on the basis of their sexual orientation is the key factor here, so you cannot change their sexual orientation in performing the “but for” test. And the exact same reasoning applies for gender identity: if you change their sex but not what gender they identify as, you have changed the precise thing that is under consideration here. That invalidates the “but for” test.

Gorsuch, then, has to rely on another argument to make his case:

When a qualified woman applies for a mechanic position and is denied, the “simple test” [of the Court] immediately spots the discrimination: A qualified man would have been given the job, so sex was a but-for cause of the employer’s refusal to hire. But like the employers before us today, this employer would say not so fast. By comparing the woman who applied to be a mechanic to a man who applied to be a mechanic, we’ve quietly changed two things: the applicant’s sex and her trait of failing to conform to 1950s gender roles. The “simple test” thus overlooks that it is really the applicant’s bucking of 1950s gender roles, not her sex, doing the work. So we need to hold that second trait constant: Instead of comparing the disappointed female applicant to a man who applied for the same position, the employer would say, we should compare her to a man who applied to be a secretary. And because that job seeker would be refused too, this must not be sex discrimination.

Carrier describes it thusly:

To which Gorsuch responds, “While the explanation is new, the mistakes are the same.” He analyzes over several paragraphs why this is a bullshit argument, but really knocks it in the end with an analogy that exposes why an argument for even more sex discrimination can’t be an argument for the absence of sex discrimination—and this maneuver just made me laugh, because it’s a classic internet-style pwn …

Bam. In other words, wink-wink, “I caught what you were doing there. Nice try, Mr. Bigot.”

Describing a philosophical argument as “a classic internet-style pwn” should immediately make one wonder about how good an argument it really is, given how most often those sorts of responses are, in fact, crap arguments.

The problem here is that while these two cases do seem to be paradigmatic cases of sexual discrimination, in the context of Gorsuch’s argument the comparison doesn’t demonstrate that. If discriminating on the basis of conformance to gender roles is not itself illegal, then performing this switch doesn’t show that the company isn’t or couldn’t be doing that. The argument of “We don’t hire people who don’t conform to societal roles” is still valid. In general, most of the time the cases are simply “I won’t hire a woman for that job or a man for that job”, which is what makes it obvious, and we can’t really think of a reason why an organization would ever base it on them not conforming to social roles. For the most part, that’s not a valid consideration, and so we’d be skeptical that that’s the real reason, or that they would apply that generally. This is why using “1950s gender roles” is kinda stacking the deck, because it limits it precisely to that case but it’s hard for us, applying the thought experiment, to think of a case where that wouldn’t be them lying about or rationalizing their position, and it gives us no other way for them to demonstrate their consistency. This also leads to a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, where if they would hire men as secretaries but not women as mechanics, then that’s clearly sexual discrimination, but if they wouldn’t hire men as secretaries either then instead of that being proof that their standards are consistent on the basis of sex … it’s also clear proof that they are discriminating on the basis of sex. Either way, they would lose, which is not what we would want such an important thought experiment to have as a consequence because we would want to test the issues under contention and ideally have a case where they could prove that they were really only basing it on conforming to standards but that the logic used in the example wouldn’t do it. Otherwise, Gorsuch would have to be asserting that it just is discrimination on the basis of sex regardless of rationale … which doesn’t apply in this case since the rationale is, in fact, crucial here and everyone believes that you can indeed intentionally and willfully discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation regardless of your feelings or knowledge of their actual sex.

So a better example is this: the organization says that they won’t hire women as mechanics not because they are women, but because they insist on reflecting the standards of the community and the standards of the community say that women should not be mechanics. If they tried to prove this by pointing to their not hiring men as secretaries either, this wouldn’t settle the point because either they won’t hire them because they don’t conform to the community standards, or else because they are judging them on the basis of their sex and not their skills or competencies and are lying about. But what if they pointed out that the community standards said that atheists shouldn’t be hired for any position of trust, and so they won’t hire them for those positions either? While most people would be aghast at the reasoning — showing the changing social and community standards — it would clearly show that sex isn’t the factor that they discriminate on. They may be ignorant fools, but they’d be honest fools nonetheless. And if they could find a case where they follow community standards and discriminate on the basis of a trait that isn’t protected, then they’d have the ultimate proof that they discriminate on the basis of community standards and not on sex.

Thus, this example doesn’t help Gorsuch, because at best all it does is cast doubt on the contention, but we know good and well that people are willing to discriminate solely on the grounds of sexual orientation. His examples get us to either doubt that that is their real intention, or an argument that those intentions implicitly include that (gender roles, for example, are based on sexual stereotypes and so would be examples of sex prejudice in and of themselves). But neither of those are obviously true for sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s only Gorsuch’s arguments that would get us the latter, and those arguments themselves are rather weak and, as noted, rely on us accepting his conclusion before he argues for it.

Now, this wouldn’t be as big a deal if Gorsuch’s argument was just that it effectively was sex discrimination, by having an effect of banning people due to, say, a trait associated with sex. Clearly, those traits are indeed associated with sex. But Gorsuch can’t do that, because then he’d have to deal with the legislative intent arguments raised by Alito (that Carrier and others mock in the comments). The argument is that when the legislation was written, that wasn’t how they were taking the aspect focusing on sex discrimination, and further to that many attempts have been made to add these categories to their anti-discrimination protections, many of which have failed. Clearly, the legislators do not believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity fall under discrimination on the basis of sex, and never have. To get around this, Gorsuch has to be able to admit this, but insist that they are wrong and that those categories are logically protected by sex discrimination, and so should always be considered as such. That requires a stronger argument than “the traits are associated with sex”. And Gorsuch does not have those stronger arguments.

And while Gorsuch can say that under the law we don’t have to consider the consequences, if Carrier wants to consider this a philosophical argument — particularly a great one — we definitely do. And this argument has some doozies:

First, this eliminates in one fell definitional swoop homophobia and transphobia (making Carrier’s title pointless). After all, Gorsuch establishes that at all times, discrimination — and prejudice — on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is always about their sex. So no one is ever simply homophobic or transphobic. By this logic, if someone is accused of either all they have to do is point to this wonderful argument and reply “So I’m not homophobic/transphobic, just sexist”. While many may not be willing to accept that either, it does eliminate homophobia and transphobia from the discussion. More importantly, it makes homophobia and transphobia nothing more than special cases of sex discrimination, raising the question of whether there should be any LGBT advocacy groups outside of the banner of feminism itself. In short, LGBT advocacy gets reduced from its current place as a separate group to a mere subset, with all the implications of that.

It also leads to the rather bemusing note that the so-called TERFs, no matter what good they have done for sex equality in the past, are now reduced from people who might be blinded by societal notions of women and gender and sex to out-and-out and clear and complete sexists. Carrier will probably laugh at that consequence claiming that it finally reveals them for what they are, but it’s an … odd outcome, nonetheless.

But the biggest consequence is what it does for the claim “Trans women are women”. By Gorsuch’s reasoning, trans women are not women. Trans women are clearly men. That’s why when you change their sex from man to woman and note that the behaviour changes it proves that it’s sexual discrimination: they aren’t treating a man the same way they would treat a woman. Without that, discrimination on the basis of gender identity couldn’t be considered discrimination on the basis of sex. If trans women were women, then they’d be treating women in different cases differently, not treating men differently from women. So the argument doesn’t work, or at least doesn’t work in the way Gorsuch imagined it (you could probably try to claim that trans women are women and then try to switch to men to make the point, but that would end up being so convoluted that I can’t imagine it working, as the attempt would probably end up with the same problem that it would depend on which type of “men” you’re talking about). So what this would do is code in philosophy and in law that trans women are men and trans men are women. I don’t think Carrier — and most progressives and trans rights advocates — should be happy with this conclusion.

The argument isn’t a very good one. It’s creative, but ultimately it fails because it relies on a number of thought experiments that aren’t structured properly to make their point. Hardly the pinnacle of philosophical argument that Carrier holds it up as.

Kant, the Stoics, Summum bonum, and Happiness

June 19, 2020

So, a while ago I came across a comment somewhere that Kant was criticizing the Stoics for focusing too much on happiness, which greatly puzzled me. I’m now in the middle of reading “Critique of Practical Reason” and have now come across that section, and now things make more sense. While Kant harshly criticized Epicurus for making virtue all about happiness, he rather profusely compliments the Stoics for avoiding that mistake. His criticism is, in fact, more tied up in his own views of the summum bonum, or good life, and the relation between happiness and virtue.

His main criticism is that both the Epicureans and the Stoics invalidly combine the notions of virtue and happiness into, at least, a pair of directly related things. For the Epicureans, happiness defines virtue, which Kant completely denies. However, the Stoics let virtue define happiness, which is a lesser mistake, but still a mistake for Kant. Kant argues that the two are separate things but that, in general, both are required for the summum bonum, and for the Stoics they would at least run into problems if — as it usually does — acting virtuous didn’t make people “happy” in the sense of being happy. His main complaint is that happiness isn’t really something under our control and isn’t universalizable as it depends too much on individual traits, and a set of universal rules thus aren’t going to be able to provide it.

The thing is, though, I think at least the Roman Stoics had that problem solved, starting from principles from the beginnings of Greek Stoicism. Their idea of happiness is more a notion of contentment with what you have, and they generally had a stronger notion of the things that would normally define “happiness” as being out of our control than even Kant did. From this, their radical move is to say that if you aren’t happy — or rather content — with the rewards a virtuous life gives you, that’s a problem with you, not with virtue. And not a problem in the sense that you need to go to a therapist or something, but that you don’t have the proper attitude or view on what has value, and so are valuing things that don’t really have value. A big part of this is that you are placing too much value on the things that you cannot control, and so would be constantly striving to achieve things that, in practice, you can’t actually achieve.

This is what I love the indifferents for. Pretty much all of the things that you can be denied by the whims of fate fit into the indifferents. Which means, if you follow along with Seneca, that it’s not necessarily bad to have them but lacking them should not make you “unhappy” either, as long as the reason you don’t have them is either that you chose virtue over them, or that the whims of fate kept them from you. If you are missing indifferents because you acted stupidly or didn’t seek them out, then you can be upset about that … but upset with yourself for what you yourself chose to do or not to do. If you’ve made your choices and are happy with them, then a lack of the indifferents should not disturb you. You did the best you could, and that is what you got. Take it and move on.

This is how I think the Stoics can reply to Kant wrt the summum bonum. For them, both virtue and happiness/contentment follow from the same basic principle of the Logos. Once we understand what really has value, what we can and can’t control, and what attitudes we should have to these things, then we would act virtuously and also be content with the results of our actions. So it is less that virtue and virtuous acts make us happy, but that once we can gain enough understanding to know what virtue is and how to act virtuously we also would have enough understanding to gain happiness as well, by taking the proper actions and, more importantly, having the proper attitudes.

Thus, the Stoics avoid the trap that Kant claims they fell into by deriving both aspects of the summum bonum from the same source. Once we understand that source, we cannot fail to achieve both virtue and happiness. If we are failing at one or the other, all it means is that we haven’t understood the base principle properly yet.

So I think that, in opposition to Kant, if the summum bonum is to be the combination of virtue and happness then the Stoics don’t invalidly derive one from the other. Instead, they avoid the trap by deriving both from a higher principle. And, in so doing, might solve all of Kant’s issues with the summum bonum.

Thoughts on “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”

June 18, 2020

So, after “Backwoods” and “Wrong Turn”, I managed to get ahold of a copy of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and thus watch the inspiration for those movies and arguably the movie that created that entire genre. But it’s a very different movie than those ones.

In fact, the movie reminds me the most of the Asian horror movies that I’ve watched, in that it seems to be driving the horror more by being freaky and strange than by actually being scary. One of the early scenes is with a creepy hitchhiker — who ends up being part of the family — who acts really weird and freaks them all out. This builds to the ending where the Final Girl is pretty much trapped with them with them all acting extremely deranged. This necessarily a bad way to go, but it’s not really the sort of horror movie that I generally enjoy, which hurts it a bit in my estimation.

It doesn’t help that a lot of the characters are mostly annoying. The brother is someone in a wheelchair — and possibly with developmental problems — who is in general really annoying most of the time. And while we can sympathize with them, his companions are also not any better, even towards him. He convinces them to go to the house they go to because it belonged to his family and he had at some point grown up there, but then when they get there they leave him to get into the house by himself. Sure, he was whining to go there — at the risk of them running out of gas — but did they really think it would make his whining less if he didn’t get to see the inside of the house and what everyone else was looking at? Most of them, outside of the Final Girl, are generally annoying. And for her, much of that is because she doesn’t really get much development at all.

I dinged the first “Wrong Turn” movie for contriving to capture the Final Girl when everyone before that had been killed. This movie does the same thing. However, it’s much more forgivable. First, that movie did it so that the hero could perform a rescue, while here the heroine has to rescue herself. Second, here she was captured after running to and meeting the more reasonable member of the family, while there wasn’t that link in that movie. And, finally, this family is more depraved than stupid/insane and so them deciding to capture her to torment her makes “sense”, as having further goals that they needed to wait for until they had a good opportunity is in line with their mindsets.

Ultimately, I don’t think the movie is bad. I do think it shows its age, with cinematography and scripting changes over the years that would greatly improve this movie as well. Moving to this one after watching more modern versions may be a bit jarring. On a personal level, though, it’s not my sort of movie, and so while I might be tempted to watch “Backwoods” again, I don’t see myself watching this one again, and so it will go into a box.

Difficulty through configuration …

June 17, 2020

So, recently, Shamus Young answered a question on his Diecast about AI cheating. A comment on that post talked about “Europa Universalis” and how it generates difficulty more by which nation you play instead of by giving the AI benefits. If you want an easier game, play as a more powerful nation and/or one with a better starting position, and if you want a harder game, play as one that’s in a poor starting position and/or isn’t as powerful as the others. Another comment questioned whether that would work for most games, especially the Civ-style games that the post was mostly focused on. But I commented myself that I thought that it could work. Which was questioned. So let me delve into it a bit more here.

I played the original Europa Universalis a bit and liked it, but I’ve had more generic experience with Hearts of Iron, although I never seem to get the time to play them for long enough to really see how it all works. Still, for me with those games I’m more interested in the historical aspects than the strategy, especially for Hearts of Iron. Regardless, with those games Paradox’s main strategy is to model the nations more or less historically accurately and then let their advantages and disadvantages follow from that. While there is some of that in the Civilization games, that’s not really the primary focus. So a game trying to use that strategy for difficulty is going to have to come up with a different way to do that.

For the most part, other people in various places talked about the Master of Orion games, where you can tweak difficulty by tweaking the details of at least your faction, if not those of others. If you want to make the game easier, customize your race and give them various bonuses. If you want to make it more difficult, customize them to get various challenging negatives. Birth of the Federation also had this in small part, at least with the ability to set the various tech levels for each of the factions, which means that, at least, if you want an easier game you can just set your faction to a higher tech level than the others for an advantage (I never played at a disadvantage and so have no idea if a tech difference of even one level would be overwhelming or not).

So the way to do it, then, is by configuration. You let the player configure various things about themselves and their opponents to make things easier or harder. For a Civ-style game, this would obviously include things that you can already do that for, like which opponents are in the game (choose easier ones if you want it to be easy and tougher ones if you want it to be harder). But you could also allow the player to set starting locations for themselves and their opponents, advantages and disadvantages, units and unit strengths, tech levels, and so on and so forth. The combination of all of these could then add up to what the difficulty of the game actually is without having to rely on difficulty levels that require the AI to get extra bonuses not in the normal bounds of gameplay that thus make it feel like the AI is cheating just to give the player a decent game.

In fact, this approach can kill two birds with one stone. It can allow for difficulty that doesn’t depend on the AI cheating, while at the same time satisfying those players who just want to have a more customized experience. The more things you let the player customize that have an impact on the gameplay, the more room there is for them to tweak it not to personalize the game or make it more “historically accurate”, but instead to make it easier or harder. As an example, “Axis and Allies” — the computer game — lets you tweak the costs and abilities of the units, presumably primarily to make things more historically accurate. However, it can also be used to make the game easier or harder for one of the sides (they also added explicit rules from the board game house rules that can do that).

In fact, as I was thinking about this, I was wondering where I had seen instructions like “If you want the game to be easier, do this/select this, and if you want it to be harder, do this/select this”. Turns out, that was in some recent board games, such as Legendary. Computer games could make use of this as well.

That being said, one category of strategy games probably won’t work that well with this. That’s the Age of Wonders/Disciples sorts of games, where the focus is more on the combat than on building. There’s less meaningful things to tweak and since the factions are invented but are driven more by recognition you could end up deliberately making a more popular faction harder to play and so disappoint fans who wanted to play as them. There’s a bit of that in Civilization but the ability to tweak civilization abilities could help with that, if it didn’t force them to be too “fake”. And a game like Civilization can definitely use starting positions and resources to make up for a less than ideal civilization. I can’t imagine getting away with that in Disciples, though.

The biggest downside to doing this is that it puts far more onus on the player than it used to. This method requires the player to set the difficulty through configuration, which means that they have to understand the configuration and the impact each thing — and, of course, the combination of things — has on the overall difficulty. A lot of players will really just want to sit down and start a game without having to figure out what the game mechanics are, especially before they’ve had a chance to play the game and see how these things work in practice. To solve this, the designers can add a set of starting configurations and describe what the difficulty of each is, which is pretty much how scenarios work in Age of Wonders/Disciples. This would allow players who don’t want to know the details of the configuration to simply hop in and play a game, while those who want to tweak it would have free reign. That being said, you could run into issues where the default scenarios have unbalanced difficulties, but the configuration is too complicated to tweak easily. But that would be a failure of game design, not the method.

So I think that more strategy games could use the idea of driving difficulty through configuration rather than cheating. It’s an open question of whether that would cost more than it would be worth in the end.