Sunday, March 18, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther

Black Panther is okay.

It's an okay movie.

I'm black so I know I'm supposed to care more. I am told this movie is a big deal for my demographic. I have indeed been somewhat curious about the movie because as I pointed out, its titular character is philosophically in line with the alt-right. Yet after watching it I have to say that the movie just did not leave that much of an impression.

For me, "okay," is a pretty big compliment for a cape movie. Most of them are trash. At best they have a few good scenes or elements, but as films they are exercises in corporate mediocrity. Occasionally you get some that are really polished and work as campy fun, like The Avengers or Blade. Even rarer are cape movies that transcend - that work as well-crafted thrillers or dramas on their own terms, such as Batman Returns or Dredd.

Black Panther is not in either of those categories. It falls squarely in the 60th percentile range of above average watchable action movies with decent plots. There is some quality acting here as well. Chadwick Boseman I thought did a great job as T'Challa, the young king finding his way. The supporting cast was generally solid. Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, and Forest Whitaker were all great.

The directing is pretty good. There are some breathtaking shots of the city of Wakanda. The set and costume design is pretty cool. Unfortunately the special effects are not very good. The best action scenes are the simplest ones - the ritual battles on the waterfall. The scenes where T'Challa is suited up as Black Panther looked like a Playstation 2 game. The sound was okay. I liked the tribal music a lot but felt the modern hip hop stuff was mostly out of place. Overall, this isn't a film worth seeing just for the songs or the spectacle.

The story is not bad though. While there are definitely things that don't make sense it is for the most part a coherent plot. T'Challa's character ark is well-drawn as he evolves from wanting to follow in his father's footsteps to striking out on his own path. Black Panther deserves some credit for tackling timely political issues even if it isn't particularly deep about it. A line early in the film about refugees potentially bringing problems to the kingdom of Wakanda certainly resonates with the issues of the day. The Black Panther kings apparently all took a lesson from Trump spending generations focusing only on their own people. Wakanda is, after all, a wealthy autocratic ethnically homogeneous society that elects not to help poorer countries. Remember, they are not wealthy because of anything inherent in the Wakandan people - above average IQ, scientific discovery, a culture that values hard work and education. Wakanda is wealthy through the sheer luck of having a magic meteor land in their backyard.

I stand by my claim that Black Panther is an alt-right character. Some might dispute this because the film ends with T'Challa choosing to make Wakanda a more open country that shares its knowledge and opens outreach centers around the world. Speaking again of Trump, T'Challa not-so-subtly references the Donald in his speech at the end when he talks about wise leaders building bridges not walls. Of course the film doesn't give any numbers on how many refugees Wakanda will accept, how much of its wealth it will give away, or how much of its culture it will deconstruct to be more accommodating to outsiders. Wakanda is choosing for itself to help the world on its own terms. It is not being invaded, forced, pressured, or guilted into doing so.

Since this is Disney you can be sure that the film takes pains to be faithful to leftist platitudes about race and the history of Africa.  This is disappointing but not surprising. I take issue with this one-dimensional view of black history - this taken for granted idea that Africans were just peacefully chilling out in glorious kingdoms when white people showed up and stole everything. The more controversial reality is that Africans enslaved and fought each other long before Europeans came. Among all the races of man, slavery and conquest have been constants throughout all of human history. In fact, they still are, just some societies have forgotten. When white Europeans showed up Africans and Arabs were largely the ones responsible for selling people to white slavers. Furthermore, messed up as it is to admit, many nations benefited from colonialism. Europeans brought advanced technologies, medicine, education, and science that led to a higher standard of living. South Africa today is less safe than it was under Apartheid. Zimbabwe was also better off under the British. Hell, so was Hong Kong. 

A bolder movie would have been willing to tackle the complexity of race relations across history. In Black Panther we get some sanctimonious lines from Michael B. Jordan's villain Killmonger. We're actually meant to sympathize with him too. When he talks about how blacks have been oppressed and he wants to use Wakanda's power to even the score, we're supposed to feel he is at least somewhat justified. Even lead actor Boseman agrees that Killmonger isn't really the wrong. Killmonger displays strong racial solidarity when he laments having, "killed his own people," during his career as a U.S. soldier fighting in Africa and the middle east. No white character would ever be allowed to express such a sentiment in a favorable light.

Double standards aside, Killmonger is an above average villain in my view. I was caught off guard by the scene where Killmonger speaks to his dead father in the dream world just as T'Challa did earlier in the film. The movie did not need to go there; any other Marvel movie would not have bothered trying to add dimension to the villain in this way. But Black Panther is not just any other Marvel movie. It took precious run time that could have gone to quips, ham-fisted politics, or action scenes, and decided to give us this really great moment between a father and son. It is these sort of creative decisions that make Black Panther a notch better than its contemporaries. 

Black Panther suffers many of the recent Disney / MCU trappings such as lame politics, forced humor, and phoned-in CGI. It isn't quite as polished as a Guardians of the Galaxy nor as daring as The Dark Knight. Still, it's an above average cape flick and one of the better Marvel Studios projects. I'm genuinely curious to see where it goes in the sequel given the social and political implications of King T'Challa's decision regarding Wakanda's role in the world.

Grade: C+

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Treehouse

Once upon a time there were two little boys named Andrew and Frank. The two boys were friends and frequently played together in a park down the street. Andrew and Frank did not have many other friends; the other boys thought they were weird. While the other boys played sports, Andrew and Frank liked to paint and build models. The two boys bonded as outcasts.

One day Andrew had the idea of building a treehouse. Frank liked the idea and suggested they build it in the middle of the park, where there were a number of big trees linked together. The boys' parents got permission from the town and provided the boys with tools to get them started. Excited, the boys immediately set off to work.

It was a very difficult task, building a treehouse. Before they could actually make anything, the boys had to climb around the trees and survey the area. They had to use their savings and do odd jobs to make money for additional needed materials. It took them a long time to finally create a small floor built into a cluster of strong branches.

The work was hard, but the boys had fun. They laughed as they got sweaty and dirty hammering nails in the hot sun. They drew up elaborate plans for ways they could improve the treehouse over time, imagining multiple floors, game rooms, and other cool features. Once Andrew and Frank had gotten their first set of walls up, some of the other boys in the neighborhood took notice.

Other boys in the neighborhood began asking Andrew and Frank about their treehouse. Most were just curious, asking what the boys were planning. Some were mean, mocking Andrew and Frank or teasing them for being so focused on one thing. Andrew and Frank didn't mind; they were happy to share their interest with anyone who came by. A lot of the boys seemed interested.

The girls, however, just thought Andrew and Frank were weirdos.

After a few weeks of work, Andrew and Frank had several walls up and almost a full room complete. Now something interesting happened; a couple of boys offered to help Andrew and Frank build their treehouse. Andrew and Frank were delighted. “Of course you can help us!” they replied. These boys were named Tim and John, and they were ecstatic to be a part of Andrew and Frank's cool project.

The four boys had a great time together building the treehouse. They drank lemonade together and made salty jokes. They laughed at the bruises and cuts they earned from building and working with tools. They stayed out together late into the night, sanding and sawing and laboring away at their project. It was the happiest time in any of their lives.

By now a number of boys from the neighborhood had seen Andrew, Frank, Tim, and John hanging out up in their unfinished treehouse. They were all getting curious and a bit jealous. Boys from the neighborhood started asking if they too could go up and check out the treehouse. Frank was not sure about this at first. The treehouse had been just a private space for he and Andrew. They let in Tim and John because they had offered to help.

Andrew believed that this was the fairest way to let people use the treehouse. He told the boys that they could only go up in the treehouse if they agreed to help build it. Time spent toiling away making the treehouse would translate to time boys could play inside of it. Some of the boys didn't like this and went off to do something else. A number of boys, however, stayed.

The girls still just thought all of the treehouse-building boys were weird.

That first afternoon, there were seven boys building the treehouse. All took turns fixing up the newest room and adding supports to the infrastructure. The next afternoon, there were a dozen boys. The day after that, twenty. The treehouse was not strong enough to support all of them at once, but with all of the new help, it was growing fast.

It wasn't long before just about every boy in the neighborhood was spending time in the treehouse. Andrew, Frank, Tim, and John, enforced the rule that boys who played there had to help build and maintain it. By keeping to that standard, the treehouse continued to grow and expand. Any rough edges or loose screws were quickly dealt with.

Before long, the treehouse was a gorgeous, massive affair. It had four big rooms with chairs and tables. The boys started adding games and toys as well. They put up posters of action heroes and pretty girls. They played cowboys and Indians using the treehouse as a fort. They slept up there in sleeping bags and walked around in their underwear. They spat and cursed while they talked, joked, and argued about whatever they pleased. The treehouse became the most fun place to hangout in the entire neighborhood.

With the layout of the trees in the park, there was room to expand even more, and possibly add a second floor. One day, while Andrew was working on some plans in the treehouse's smallest room, he noticed a couple of boys playing with toys in an adjacent room. He had never seen them before. He introduced himself and asked the two boys to show him what part of the treehouse they had built.

“Oh, we didn't actually build anything. We're from out of town and Dan said it would be cool.” Andrew explained the rule to them and the boys frowned. They argued for a few minutes until Dan showed up. He took Andrew aside and apologized. “Look, I'm sorry for not telling you, but Tim said it would be cool so long as it was only for a little bit.” Andrew didn't like it but decided to let it slide. This created an unofficial policy of allowing boys into the treehouse even if they didn't contribute so long as it was “only for a little bit.”

Andrew and especially Frank did not really like this new policy. It led to a lot of boys taking advantage of the treehouse. People would bring friends up and leave a mess, break toys, eat up snacks, and not contribute anything in return. The boys gradually began informally policing themselves about guests, and it helped a bit. Still, a new paradigm had been established. Andrew and Frank tried to focus on building the second floor and adding other new features to the treehouse. They didn't want to get too bogged down in 'politics'. Besides, with the new policy, the treehouse was more popular than ever. Every boy hung out there. Boy scouts and sports teams met there. It became the coolest place in town.

The girls started to notice.

The girls in town were usually content to play separate from the boys. They had their own tea parties and social groups. They went on outings together and made a point of not inviting boys. Girls and boys only mixed at school or church. Aside from this, both groups were happy to leave each other alone. That is, until a few girls noticed just how popular the treehouse was.

One day a large group of girls got together for a birthday party. They had fun playing with their dolls and telling stories. Eventually they began talking about the boys and the treehouse. At first they laughed at how silly the boys were to spend so much time on it. Then, one girl named Sarah suggested that they should build a treehouse of their own. The other girls laughed at her and told her that her idea was 'stupid.' “I don't want to get all sweaty and dirty!” they said.

A few days later, Sarah decided to go to the treehouse. She met Tim outside and asked if she could go up. Tim was very surprised by this. There was no official rule about keeping girls out, but it was informally understood that girls were not welcome. He decided to tell her the rule about helping to build the treehouse, figuring this would discourage her.

“Sure, I'll help. What can I do?” Caught off guard by her response, Tim reluctantly showed Sarah some simple things that needed to be repaired. She struggled at first, not knowing how to properly sand down rough edges or hold a hammer. Still, she focused and took the time to learn. Tim, impressed with her enthusiasm, was patient, and taught her how to make a number of simple repairs. In a couple of hours, she had fixed a damaged part of a new room on her own.

She had earned her keep in the treehouse.

Other boys saw Sarah hanging around. At first they ignored her, unsure what to make of the intrusion. Some didn't mind and eventually made small talk with her. Others were more hostile. They talked about her in secret meetings. Andrew and Frank were divided. Frank thought that they should institute a strict 'no girls' policy. “The treehouse is a space for boys. Those girls make no bones about excluding us from their activities, why should we not do the same?” Andrew and many other boys felt differently. “Why don't we show them that we're better than them by being more open-minded? We just keep the same standard for allowing them to join.”

Sarah helped win the boys over to Andrew's side. She was a diligent worker; thanks to her, the boys finished the foundation for the second floor and got up a few walls. She wasn't afraid to do heavy lifting and get dirty. She cleaned up after herself and kept things organized. What's more, she adopted the boys' mannerisms and attitude. After a few weeks, she began dressing and talking like them, swearing and spitting alongside them. She laughed at their dirty jokes, played war games with them, and actually liked their posters of action heroes and sexy models.

The other girls thought Sarah was weird. Well, most of them did. Sarah's friends Michelle and Jenny were the only two girls that still talked to her. One day they saw Sarah with the other boys by the treehouse. They asked if they could go up and check it out. Sarah told them about the rule that they had to help build the treehouse in order to go up. When the two frowned at this, Tim mentioned the “only for a little bit.” part of the rule. They smiled at this, which encouraged Tim, and he led them up to look around.

Michelle and Jenny were very impressed with the inside of the treehouse. They admired Sarah's hard work and complimented her. They wanted to come and hang out at the treehouse more often. The two girls offered to tidy up and bring snacks instead of doing the more difficult labor. Sarah did not really like this idea, but she figured it was better than nothing. Andrew and Frank, trying to avoid conflicts, deferred to Sarah when it came to dealing with other girls. Michelle and Jenny became regulars at the treehouse, often bringing some other friends. The first few times they came, they made a big show of bringing lots of snacks and helping to clean.

Over time Michelle and Jenny started to bring lots of other girls into the treehouse. They reminded the boys of the “only for a little bit” rule. While Michelle and Jenny still tried to occasionally clean and make food for everyone, the girls they invited up did nothing. Like the first boys to take advantage of the “only for a little bit” rule, they left messes everywhere and would break things without fixing them.

The boys tried to police this behavior from the new girls but found it difficult. For one, a lot of the boys had crushes on some of the new girls, and so they felt bad about punishing them. What's more, the girls would always stick up for each other. If one of them did something bad, all of the others would make excuses for her. Sarah was the only exception to this, but even she struggled at times to fairly criticize the girls' bad behavior. The other girls constantly told her, “It's no big deal! Why get upset over such minor things?” She found herself silent often during meetings, wanting to stay out of 'politics' like Andrew and Frank.

One day John took a walk through the treehouse and was shocked at what he saw. The first floor had fallen into a state of general disrepair. The floor had a number of damaged boards with splinters, there were loose nails and broken hinges on doors, and there was mess in every room. By now there was at least one girl for every two boys going in and out of the treehouse, and very few of these people, boys and girls alike, contributed anything to maintain the space. These girls had also started inviting in new boys from different towns – many of them older, all of them uninterested in maintaining the treehouse.

John spoke with Andrew and Frank about this. The two boys agreed that there was a problem but did not know what to do. They wanted to focus on finishing the second floor. Their work kept getting postponed because of damage and hazards created by the irresponsible behavior on the first floor.

Andrew, Frank, Tim, John, and a few other boys, got together one day and kicked out the freeloaders. There was some pushing and shoving, but eventually, most of the freeloading boys left. The girls however did not go quietly. Andrew and Frank's group did not want to get rough with them. Even Sarah reluctantly intervened and tried to persuade the girls to either change their ways or go.

Led by Michelle and Jenny, the girls protested this, and complained to their parents. The parents got together and discussed the conflict. “I don't see why the boys can't share the space with those girls!” the mothers argued. “It's only fair that they should share it and try to make the girls comfortable. Give them a chance to be a part of the boys' world.” Most of the fathers simply looked at their feet. They didn't want to argue. They told Andrew and Frank to let the girls use the treehouse, and to be nice to them.

The boys reminded the parents of the rule about people having to help maintain the treehouse. The mothers replied, “Oh that's so old-fashioned. Why be so rigid? Besides, surely the treehouse is strong enough now that it doesn't need so much work.”

When a few other boys continued arguing, the mothers said “Why don't we have a vote?” All of the kids in the neighborhood, boys and girls, were allowed to decide on whether they wanted to keep the strict rules for using the treehouse, or make it open to everyone. Frank protested this; he believed it was wrong for kids who had done nothing to build or maintain the treehouse to have a say in how it was used.  However he was ultimately out-voted. The vast majority of the kids wanted there to be no restrictions.

In a few days, the treehouse was back to the crowded, hazardous squalor it had been before Andrew and his friends had kicked everyone out.

Emboldened by the parents' support, the girls began making more changes to the treehouse. They redecorated the rooms, taking down the posters the boys had liked. They criticized boys who didn't dress properly. They complained to their parents when the boys swore or told dirty jokes. When the boys complained, they were told they had to make the treehouse a “safe space for everyone.” Everyone had to feel safe and comfortable there, regardless of their contributions.

Many of the local boys who had helped build the treehouse began to grow frustrated. John was no exception. He wondered why the boys were being forced to let the girls dictate everything in their treehouse when the girls already had their own social events. He suggested that the boys should go to the girls' events and see how they like it. The girls (and several boys) made fun of him for this suggestion.

He asked his mother, “Why can't we go to their tea parties if they get to run our treehouse?” She replied,

“You want to go to tea parties now? What are you, a sissy? And besides, that wouldn't be fair. The girls need a safe space without any boys around. Sometimes they just want to be around other girls. What's so bad about that?”

“But what about us boys? How come we can't have a space just for us?”

“Oh come on, you boys can't handle having a few girls around? What kind of wimps are you guys!”

One day the floor collapsed in one of the treehouse's rooms. By then, no one respected (or even knew) the weight limits for the treehouse. It became crowded with kids roughhousing, teenage couples fooling around, older teens doing drugs at night, and occasionally smaller kids using it as a toilet. When the floor collapsed, it had three times as many people in it as was known to be safe.

One girl ended up breaking her leg. The parents of the neighborhood were very angry. They blamed Andrew and Frank for not properly taking care of the treehouse. Many parents refused to let their kids play there until it was fixed. Andrew and Frank's parents encouraged the boys to fix it.

Andrew agreed to try.

Frank refused.

For the rest of the school year, Andrew and a few other boys did what they could to fix the treehouse. Unfortunately, nothing stayed fixed. Once the floor was replaced, a large wall was destroyed by a group of out of town kids fighting. Once the wall was repaired, the unfinished upper floor got trashed one night after the girls threw a big party. Once the boys tore down the second floor and used the parts to patch up the first floor, an unsupervised little kid lit a match and accidentally burned down a large section of the treehouse.


The parents of the town blamed Andrew and Frank for the fire. They decided that the treehouse was a “staple of the community” and should be rebuilt, but without input from the two boys. Michelle and Jenny were put in charge of a committee to build a new treehouse for the whole community. They received a lot of money, attention from local media, and support from local businesses. After spending five times as much money and time as Frank and Andrew had, they managed to create one plain wide room up in the trees before heading off to college. Though it was not as complex as the previous treehouse, it became a popular community space. The parents created a 'Code of Conduct' for the treehouse and began using it for community events, and school functions.

Andrew did what he could to support the new community treehouse. Though some in the community were still upset with him, Michelle and Jenny relied on him a great deal. He eventually got a formal position with the town and a bit of money for his effort. He did not enjoy the work this time though. It just was not the same without his friends.

Frank, Tim, and John created a number of new projects together. They made go-karts, created a garden, and even built their own computers. They retained the spirit of the old treehouse meaning their activities were generally boys-only though they occasionally invited Sarah.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How I Ended Up in the Japanese Matchmaking Industry

I just wanted to improve my listening ability.


A year after moving to Tokyo I had signed up to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in February of 2017. I registered for Level 1, the most difficult exam that certified adult level fluency in Japanese. It was already January and I was panicking because I had been too lazy to study. So I started watching Japanese dramas to train my ear.

I caught this fantastic show called Nigeru no wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu. I wrote a review of it. More importantly, I became familiar with the idea of contract marriage. The Japanese equivalent term is keiyaku kekkon. That phrase was trending on Google and Twitter as a result of the drama. So on a lark, I checked and saw that no one owned the domain of

So I bought it. For $11.

And I said to myself, "How hard can it be to spin up a simple dating site?" I figured I could maybe make a little cash on the side. So by April of 2017, I had a really shitty WordPress site up and running. And crazily enough, people actually started registering. Not a lot, mind you, only a few dozen. Nevertheless, real live human beings were actually using the site to find a spouse. Realizing this gave me pause. I felt a sense of responsibility.

So I started reading.

I did some research about Japanese culture and demographic crisis. I have written a bit about it on this blog. Over a period of several months, I came to realize that marriage is a more important institution than I had realized. It isn't just an arbitrary arrangement two adults set up because they like each other a whole lot. It is actually the foundation of modern civilization and a core adaptation that enabled homo sapiens to dominate the planet in the first place.

I went to various meetups and events and got feedback. The site was a mess. It needed a better marriage contract builder. It needed more tutorials. It needed a better UI. I started getting more invested in the idea. Then, one fateful day in August, a Japanese friend called me. He knew someone at the Japan Finance Corporation, a government agency that invests in startups with socially beneficial missions.

I was very skeptical about applying. I didn't think they would hand over millions of yen to some random black guy working out of his home. Yet somehow, we got an interview. My friend and I spent two hours being grilled about the concept. They asked for details about our financials. They wanted to be sure it wasn't just another shady hookup site. There were several phone calls and follow up meetings. And then the decision came at the end of October of 2017: We were to receive three million yen in funding to build a viable business.

By then I had already given notice to my day job (it had been a bad fit and I had not been there long anyway) and I prepared to invest a few months into making a real business out of my little experimental site. I still had a good amount saved and figured it wouldn't be too hard to get another job if necessary. I spent a month working on marketing content - an animation, a commercial, billboard ads, etc. I also invested in hiring a contractor to clean up the UI. That latter effort ended up being a waste of money and time, sadly. Now in late January of 2018, I find myself just fixing what I can on my own. Yet the site is pretty stable and has hundreds of alpha users. We will make a serious go of promotion and marketing in the next week.

Who knows how it will go? I'm not expecting the world to explode. Hopefully we get a couple hundred more users over the next few weeks. I intend to disable the free alpha membership option soon and limit some key functionality only to paid users. The monetization scheme is such that the site only needs a few paid users to pay for itself. Sure, I'd love to go viral and get a million users, but I have no delusions of grandeur or megalomania about my little app. Honestly if even one happy couple is able to get married because of my service, it will feel worth it. Still it'd be cool to earn enough to work on it full time and have my own small business.

I have tinkered around with the site for the better part of a year and now worked on it full-time for a month and a half. I am actually hunting for a new job now (hit me up if you need a good devops guy!). I'm reading a book called Traction and trying to learn how to market the service. Maybe I can sell it to someone with more vision than I. Ultimately it just feels nice to actually have a finished project that works. I start so many of these side projects and they never go anywhere. For this I can at least say I completed a working service and have a cool thing for my portfolio.

So anyway, that's how I ended up in the Japanese matchmaking industry.

Also I passed that Japanese language exam too. I intend to write a blog post at some point titled, "How to learn Japanese in one year."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars the Last Jedi

I am struggling to figure out the motive.

How and why could they make such a stupendously awful Star Wars movie?

The film is a masterclass in anticlimax. The vast majority of what you see on screen is of zero consequence. Hour-long subplots about infiltrating enemy ships go nowhere. The return of Luke Skywalker, a character that we just spent an entire movie building up, turns out to be almost totally pointless. The much teased mentorship of Rey by Luke ends with him teaching her nothing. (like she needs to be taught anything anyway...) The great mystery of Rey's parents turns out to be irrelevant, doubling down on the Mary Sue criticism of her character. The enigmatic Snoke, a powerful Force user able to throw lightning and use telepathy across light years, is tossed away with zero payoff. If you were at all excited about any of the mysteries and questions raised by the previous film, The Last Jedi does a thorough job of both disappointing you and insulting you for caring in the first place.

The Last Jedi is methodical in its deconstruction of the franchise. The Force, that mystical thing that required both a natural affinity and years of study to master, is now just a random super power. Luke Skywalker, the great hope of the galaxy who risked his own life to redeem his genocidal father, is a useless hermit who considers murdering children in their sleep. Just as The Force Awakens cheapened Han Solo by making the former hero into a bumbling old smuggler shown up by Rey at every step, The Last Jedi continues sullying all of the good elements of the previous movies. Some have argued that the purpose is to push a feminist agenda.

I don't know that I agree with that theory but it is true that there are no competent male characters in the story. Not a single male character achieves the goals they pursue. Finn spent the last film being shown up by Rey. He spends this one being shown up by a no-name pudgy Asian chick. Kylo Ren, the only decent character remaining, is completely neutered as a threat as he is again bested by Rey and then later by a Force hologram. Luke has nothing to offer Rey and offers nothing to the rebellion except five minutes of stalling time before keeling over and dying on a rock. A wondrous sendoff indeed for cinema's most famous hero of the past forty years. Ace pilot Poe is a reckless fool who gets most of the rebel fleet destroyed senselessly and wastes an a chunk of the movie's runtime on a cockamamie plan ending in a failed mutiny. Snoke and Hux of the First Order are also both miserable failures.

Honestly I really hope female empowerment was not the goal here since all it takes is a moment's reflection to see that the women are just as dumb as the men in this movie. The purple-haired commander gets most of the rebels killed by simply not telling people her plan. Leia, revealed to be a Force user of near godlike power, does nothing of value. The previously mentioned Asian chick (I refuse to be bothered to remember her character's name or look it up) fails at disabling the First Order's tracking system and then helps the bad guys break into the rebellion's fortress by suicide ramming Finn's ship. She does this to save his life by the way in spite of the fact that this move should have killed them both. The only female of real talent is Rey but she barely counts as an actual character. Apparently women are supposed to feel empowered by a young girl who never makes mistakes, never needs to learn anything, and never fails. Were I a woman I would find this insulting.

There's a cynical flippantness to the film. The joke's don't feel like the old Star Wars movies where they helped develop characters and had an air of optimism. The humor instead feels like Reddit. Spiteful, forced, self-aware, and unfunny - eager to undermine any sense of reverence. The incredibly powerful moment when Rey hands the lightsaber to Luke is played for laughs with Luke petulantly tossing it away. The First Order are shown to be bumbling fools unable to defend themselves from a single small fighter, overtake a single rebel ship, destroy a single rebel base in spite of overwhelming military might. Oh, and light-speed kamikaze ramming is a thing now. A single ship can destroy an entire enemy fleet by just using warp drive. Why this was never done in the seven other films is inexplicable. The rebels could have crushed the Death Star with a single warp speed fighter had they wanted.

I could go on for days about all of the plot holes and stupid details that ruin earlier Star Wars movies. Not one scene bears scrutiny. Here's the thing though: They know all of this. Disney, Rian Johnson, all of the producers, writers, actors - they are not idiots. It's not like they would gasp in surprise if you pointed any of this out to them. They know how dumb all of this stuff is. They know the implications for the previous movies. They know how thoroughly the older characters have been destroyed. Believe me, they know.

With all the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and films like Frozen and Moana, it should be obvious that it is well within Disney's power to make simple crowd-pleasing films. There was some effort in that direction with The Force Awakens. That film was basically a copy and paste of the original Star Wars movie. Derivative as it may have been there was at least one clear goal: They wanted to please the fans.

You can't say that about The Last Jedi. The entire film is basically Disney spitting in the face of anyone who has been invested in the franchise for a long time. So again, the question is: why? Why do this to a flagship franchise that you spent billions procuring? Surely they knew it would be easy enough to buy the needed critical acclaim. Surely they knew they would make tons of money no matter what dreck they put out. But I would have happily taken cliche-ridden schlock over this. The Last Jedi is worse than just a bad movie. It is a bad movie that goes out of its way to drag down other good movies and good characters. It is a film that proudly soils one of the most iconic franchises in all of modern culture. Worse still, it doesn't even seem to have any profound reason for doing this. There is no big dramatic twist. No grand idea or challenging theme. It's the cinematic equivalent of an artist tearing up a beautiful hotel room and vomiting all over the walls and then proudly showing off his work expecting praise for being bold enough to "break conventions," and not give the fans what they want.

The Last Jedi is the worst movie I have seen in a very long time. It is the last time I will ever spend a penny on a Star Wars movie while Disney owns the property. It is, quite simply, a shameful film.

So the question remains: why?

Grade: F

Movie Review: Justice League

Justice League

Justice League was more fun than it had any right to be.

It should have been absolute trash. It almost was. Coming off of Batman vs. Superman, it should have been impossible to make a decent movie. Killing Superman was ridiculously stupid. As a result of that decision, they were unable to have Superman in any of the trailers. Imagine how much more hyped people would have been if they had seen three trailers with Supes leading the full team and kicking ass. Tonally, Justice League is at odds with all of the previous DC extended universe films, including Wonder Woman. The movie feels like it is actively trying to forget that Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman exist.

Justice League is a film riddled with flaws. The villain was forgettable. The plot was sheer hokum. Some nonsense about human fear attracting space bugs. The acting was mediocre and the writing even worse. Aquaman didn't have enough to do. Cyborg looked awful. The Flash wasn't even that funny. All in all, it is a surprisingly forgettable film for the first live-action film of the most well-known superhero team in the world.

And yet somehow, in spite of all that, the movie put a smile on my face. Maybe it's just that I have gotten really good at lowering my expectations. I went into the theater expecting it to be awful. Instead, I got some really great action scenes, some very fun anime-esque moments (Superman vs. Flash was awesome) and by far the best version of Superman on screen since Christopher Reeve back the 1970's. The effects were good and the action was scripted in a way that demonstrated consideration about the different heroes' abilities and power levels. Maybe that's a nerdy thing to worry about but I don't care. After The Last Jedi I will take any instance of directors actually caring about details.

I can't emphasize enough how much I liked Superman here too. This was the version of Superman that we should have had at the end of Man of Steel. He's strong, bold, hopeful, and yet still human. In the middle of battle he makes it clear that saving civilians is top priority. He cracks a few jokes and takes his rightful place as the boss of the team without a moment's hesitation. Who knew Cavill could do such a great job? Flash and Aquaman didn't do much for me. Cyborg was well-acted but looked terrible. Wonder Woman was the opposite of that. Batman was solid and it's a shame that Affleck may be on the way out. Yet Superman easily steals the show. I don't care if they scrap every other future project for the DC movie universe. I want a Man of Steel 2 now.

Grade: C

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Argument from Pettiness

A Short Fable

A man owns a nice bit of land. On it he has a great big apple tree. He loves the tree very much. His neighbor is jealous and wants the tree for himself. One day the neighbor drops a brick in front of the tree. The man sees it and asks the neighbor about it. The neighbor responds, "Oh, don't worry about it. It's just one silly brick." Each day he drops another brick and each time makes a similar excuse about how the man need not worry about it.

One day the man wakes up and finds that a brick wall is blocking his tree. Irate, he asks the neighbor to tear it down. The neighbor is mystified. "Tear it down? But why? You didn't have a problem with this brick, or that brick, or that brick, or really any of them. Tearing it all down now would be rather extreme don't you think? Perhaps we could have a discussion about adding bricks more slowly?"

The Moral

"Is this really the hill you want to die on?"

"It's just a stupid movie. Who cares?"

"Really? You're going to sperg out about some commercial?"

"How can you be such a man child as to get upset about a few changes to a video game?"

You hear these sorts of responses when people argue about social issues. Conservatives do it to feminists when they are mad about a sexy character in a TV show. Progressives do it to conservatives when they are upset about some celebrity talking about politics. The goal is to shame someone into feeling that their complaints are petty. Because the offense is small, we are told, tolerating the offense is the virtuous thing to do. However it only takes a moment's examination to see the irrationality. An evil doesn't become good simply because it is small. A small amount of poison is still poison.

In social disputes the general rule is that whichever side is least tolerant will win. The social justice left understands this and it is why they still are culturally quite powerful. While edgy right wing YouTubers make "Feminist FAIL," and "SJW ownage" videos, the snowflakes are busy running higher education, news media, public schooling, Hollywood, sports leagues, tech companies, regulatory agencies, and legislative bodies across western governments. They're even dictating to religious denominations. These "intolerant," "cringey" SJW's are literally codifying their world view into law. The tech giants handle the censorship of dissidents while the surveillance state is empowered to punish people for "hate speech."

How have they managed this across the last several decades? There are many reasons, but one approach was simply by working one brick at a time and effectively employing the argument from pettiness. It has worked well because the argument from pettiness plays on a very simple cognitive bias; the desire to feel strong and generous. People don't generally like to complain. When we detect a small offense, we want to be kind and overlook it. It makes us feel magnanimous. We feel that we are doing a good thing by simply letting the other person get away with it. We often don't realize that this reaction is exactly what the other person hoped to trigger by specifically using a small offense.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Dating is Stupid

Imagine you were trying to land a dream job with a really cool company. You go to the company unannounced one day, chat up a few employees, and make a good impression. They decide to let you work there with no contract. You start working there immediately. You put in extra effort to make a great impression. The company loves you. They start paying you an amazing salary because they love you and want to keep you around. Everything works out so great that after a few years, your manager says, “Lets make this official and sign a contract to keep you as an employee for the rest of your life!” The contract is actually blank; all it says is that you’ll work there until retirement. You shrug and say, “Why not?” and sign on the dotted line.

After the contract is signed it isn’t long before things start to change. The company gradually starts to treat you differently. They reduce your benefits, cut your bonuses, and eventually just outright pay you a lower salary. You don’t like this, of course, but what can you do? The contract is blank, so they can do whatever they want. Then you realize one day that the blank contract works both ways. You start putting in less effort. You show up late and take lots of sick days. You do just enough work to not get fired. Before long, you hate your job. You cannot imagine what attracted you to it in the first place. You’re miserable. The company is miserable. The relationship ends badly.

The structure of modern relationships is very similar to this story.

The fundamental error in dating as a means to achieve marriage is that the process entails negotiating the terms of a relationship while engaged in that very relationship. This would not be so bad if people actually put those terms in writing and held each other accountable. But since most people do not – rather they just get married with a blank contract – dishonesty is rewarded. Both parties have an incentive to offer more than they can sustain. A man can lavish a woman with expensive gifts, vacations, jewelry, and dinners, all in the hopes that once they get married, he won’t need to keep it up. A woman can put more energy into her looks, maintain a flawless figure, be extra adventurous sexually, pretend to enjoy her boyfriend’s nerdy hobbies, all on the assumption that once he puts a ring on it, she can dispense with the facade.

Now to be clear, I do not think most people do this out of malice. Most of the lies we tell in relationships are small and well-intentioned. The act of putting the best version of yourself forward in order to win commitment from a romantic partner can be motivated by love and admiration – positive things. We justify the little embellishments about our careers, the lies of omission about our relationship history, the implied but unstated promises we do not intend to keep. It’s all swept under the rug out of the blind hope that once the wedding day comes, it will all work itself out somehow.

Often it doesn’t, hence the near 50% divorce rate in western countries. And of those couples that manage to stay together a large portion are unhappy – trapped in loveless marriages of convenience and complacency. Those in unhappy marriages often feel as though their partner has gradually stopped putting effort into the marriage. Unfortunately, precisely what 'effort' is needed is hard to determine since the expectations were never clearly established.

Why do we no longer understand marriage as a contract with mutual obligations? Most would take issue with the idea that romantic relationships are comparable to employment relationships with written agreements. Certainly there are differences, but I argue that the two are similar enough to share some basic principles. Both marriage and a job are at root a relationship between two parties seeking mutual benefit.

In a career, a detailed, thoroughly negotiated contract allows a person to do their best work. The boundaries it creates paradoxically grant you the freedom to take risks. With your salary guaranteed in writing you can budget and plan for the future confidently. The company benefits similarly. Written marriage agreements could create the same outcome by keeping both parties honest.

Some might argue that a contract shouldn’t be necessary and that if you need to put relationship terms in writing then you are with the wrong person. I don’t think evidence bears this out though. Most unmarried romantic relationships end. Marriages have a higher probability of not ending. Furthermore, marriages already involve a written contract. This is why divorce creates legal obligations in the first place. The reason divorces get messy is because people do not put any thought into the contract they create when they get married. So they end up in divorce court arguing he said she said.

Dating as a means to secure marriage makes acrimonious divorce more likely. Dating itself is a time-consuming, inefficient process. People often go through several multi-year relationships, particularly frustrating for women given their limited fertility. While dating, couples rarely settle the hard questions that come up in divorce cases. In most modern relationships people spend years trying to tease out their romantic partner's intentions about career, children, life ambitions, etc, while simultaneously trying to entice commitment. At no point do the two people actually sit down and write out their expectations because that would be, you know, awkward and not cool.

Dating also fails because it is historically recent. Throughout most of human history, marriages were arranged by families and communities. Before that, in the prehistoric era, most pair-bonding was tribal and often coercive. Courtship has only been around for a few centuries and 'dating' in the modern sense only a few decades. It should not surprise us that societies that have embraced dating all have undergone massive declines in marriage and birth rates. They have millions of years of evolution working against them.

So what is the solution? Perhaps there are multiple. Critical as I have been, dating does clearly work for some people. There are things people can do to make dating both enjoyable and a decent path toward marriage. For others, perhaps we need a new paradigm – a modern form of courtship where marriage terms are clear up front.