What People Mean To Their Fans

I was recently reading about John Denver. Probably my favorite song of his is Thank God I’m a Country Boy (which described, to some degree, the life I aspired to as a child, not the one I had):

I was also extremely fond of Christmas for Cowboys:

Anyway, he had a somewhat tumultuous life and died in a plane crash where we was piloting an experimental plane that he was flying. He was also somewhat politically active, championing environmental concerns, being against the NRA, backing Jimmy Carter, and so on. Still, this was from the time when celebrities didn’t—or weren’t allowed to—mix their politics into their art by way of expressing venomous hatred for fans who disagreed. And without the internet, one didn’t tend to run into their off-duty political rants nearly as often. Ah, the good old days. But it brings up a very interesting point: John Denver meant something very different to a ten year old me than he meant to himself.

In one sense that’s obvious. To me he was primarily his music while to him he was primarily a man. But in another sense, it does bring in a fascinating point about God’s governance of the universe.  As I’ve written about, You Rarely Know What Good You Do. Electronic reproduction, which brings out lives into contact with people we’ll never meet, makes this even more obvious. I don’t know whether John Denver was a humble man, but I do know that his song Thank God I’m a Country Boy did help to teach a very young me about humility. I don’t know if he even thought of that song as being about humility. He may well have thought of it as being about not being suckered in by the promises of city life and/or living within your means. But even if he did, it still taught me lessons about humility.

I’ve never understood when people get hung about what their “identity” is. How on earth do they know? First, they’re a work in progress. Second, they don’t know most of what they do. How on earth are they supposed to know what their “identity” is. For the most part our identity is out of our control, anyway. How we relate to others is dominated by the world, not by us. Which means that it’s almost entirely under God’s direction, not ours, even in the limited sense in which our choices are not God’s direction of the world. (Which is a useful sense, even if not the truest sense.)

And John Denver is a good example of this. He was someone important to me but he never knew that I existed and consequently had no idea who he was to me.

Life must be lived in faith, since it sure as hell can’t be lived in present knowledge of what we’re doing.

Star Wars Movie Titles

While in general it is a good idea not to judge a book by its cover—and that cuts both ways; just because a book has an awesome cover doesn’t mean that the book is any good—it is instructive to look at movie titles . They can be deceptive, but unless they’re outright lies, they do give you a sense of what a movie is about. So, in story order, here are the titles so far:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. I don’t Remember and don’t care enough to look it up.
  3. This one wasn’t good enough to justify looking up its title either.
  4. A New Hope
  5. The Empire Strikes Back
  6. Return of the Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. The Last Jedi

Now, I’d like to point out items 6 and 8, in particular. Two movies after Return of the Jedi comes The Last Jedi. So apparently the Jedi didn’t return for long. So, it apparently turns out that the Jedi’s return consisted of one guy. This is bad story telling. This is very bad story telling. This is story telling so bad that improv actors with no time to think about their lines usually don’t make this sort of mistake. Let me explain.

One of the golden rules of improv is: always agree. That is, you never contradict what another actor said, because that’s not funny. I saw it explained like this: Consider the line, “I have the finest sword in all the land.” A bad response is, “No you don’t.” It’s not funny for a variety of reasons, but the most relevant one is that it shatters the immersion which is where the enjoyment in watching the thing at all comes from. A good response is, “Then it’s a good thing that I import my swords!” This works because it builds on the previous line, even though it does so in order to go in a different direction. In other words, don’t be Agent Michael Scarn (first four seconds of the clip):

And you can see, right in the titles, that they were pulling an Agent Michael Scarn. “Talk! Shut Up!”

And in fact there’s another bit of The Office wisdom which the Disney writers would have benefited from learning. Don’t start with the gun:

It’s likely that episode 8 got its title from someone saying, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we killed the Jedi off? No one would see that coming!” Of course, the first problem is that it wouldn’t be awesome. It would be daring. Mostly in the sense that seeing your six year old brother building a complicated scene out of legos and smashing it to bits would be daring. He sure will cry for a long time. And Dad will yell at you for a long time. It will be an enormous reaction! But it wouldn’t be awesome, because destruction, though emotionally significant, is easy. And you have to be a fool to believe that modern writers could possibly build something even better in its place, given that they can only tell one story, and it isn’t a very good one.

And I feel like at this point someone (possibly not someone who reads my blog, though) will say, “but for all you know the movie was awesome anyway!” And here’s the thing: no it isn’t. Because, stupid and dishonest as the average hollywood critter is, they’re not going to name a movie in which the Jedi get more numerous, The Last Jedi. And there is no movie which can plausibly be titled The Last Jedi which is a good sequel, involving some of the same characters, to Return of the Jedi. They might as well have titled it, Never Mind. These days no one makes any references to the prequel trilogy, except to Jar Jar Binks. I’ll be shocked if in ten years anyone makes reference to sequel trilogy either.

Except perhaps to Luke drinking milk fresh from the testicle-teats of the uglybeast:

Happy Christmas!

Somehow in America we switched to predominantly saying “merry Christmas” instead of “happy Christmas”. I haven’t had time to look up when, but I’m curious when it happened since it can’t have been that long ago. The final line of Twas The Night Before Christmas is:

And I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

That poem was published in 1823. And yes, I know the original title was A Visit From St. Nicholas. Anyway, I prefer the original (and what’s still said in England, as I understand it) because “happy” is one of the translations of the Greek “makarios”. The other translation being, “blessed”. It’s the primary attribute described in the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount. Both are good, but happy just encompasses more than merry.

May you have a very happy Christmas.

If Disney Didn’t Hate Star Wars

I’ve read and heard enough about Star Wars: The Last Jedi (henceforth TLJ), both from people who liked it and people who hated it, to know that I’m never going to willingly see it. This review makes a fairly good case that TLJ is Star Wars for those who hate Star Wars. Before I get to my main point, I should put in a defense of some people who liked TLJ. I don’t think that you have to hate Star Wars to like TLJ. I think it’s sufficient to simply not care about Star Wars. The original movies, I mean, not the franchise.

A close friend of mine enjoyed TLJ, and one of the curious things about him (in the sense of being very different from me) is that he almost never re-watches or re-reads anything. Fiction is, for him, an experience which is then over. Characters don’t live in his memory, as far as I can tell. As a result, once he’s watched a movie, when he watches a sequel to it the original movie is simply backstory they don’t need to cover with exposition to him. As such he simply doesn’t care whether a sequel urinates all over an original movie; he was never going to go back and re-watch the original movie anyway. All that matters to him (as far as I can tell) is how much he enjoys the story he’s in right now. In other words, complete indifference to the original Star Wars movies will suffice.

Anyway, as I was explaining to this friend why some people loathe TLJ so much, he objected that you can’t have Star Wars without an Empire. He was at least correct that Star Wars is not Beaurocraaaaaaaats Iiiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaace (henceforth BIS). But you don’t need the Empire to be reset as if it was a syndicated TV show to avoid making the sequels to the original movies BIS. Granted, though, this is a place where having a few scraps of historical knowledge would really come in handy, so writers “educated” within the last 50 years are pretty screwed. Here’s the thing about empires collapsing: they don’t just get replaced by another empire as if a democratic election just took place. They fracture into smaller empires and kingdoms. The Empire in Star Wars was patterned on the Roman empire even down to having regional governors. When the roman empire collapsed, at first the big difference was that taxes stopped flowing from the governor to Rome, and stayed with the governor. In some places the governor was too weak to stop local kings from rebelling, while in other places they were. The exact same thing would happen in the Star Wars universe after the events in Return of the Jedi. Regional Governors who were several weeks journey away would not suddenly swear fealty to Leia and the rebellion; they would simply give themselves all of their orders instead of most of their orders, with a few orders coming from the emperor.

Likewise, the Rebellion would not suddenly become supremely powerful. As they work to reconstitute the Republic, a few planets most directly under the emperor and far away from regional governors would probably join them, augmenting their strength considerably. And the regional governors would probably not just unite, since most likely they were men of ambition, so their fights with each other over territory would probably keep them from just outright crushing the rebels in retribution for killing the emperor. But thirty or forty years after the death of the Emperor the Rebellion-turned-New-Republic would probably still be one of the smaller forces in the galaxy.

And this is a perfect setting for what you want to do with the next trilogy: shift the old actors to advisory roles for rising young stars. You want to do this for many obvious commercial reasons (as the death of Carrie Fisher demonstrated), but also because this is actually how life works. Heroics are a young man’s job; mentoring is an old man’s job. Transitioning the older actors’ characters into age-appropriate activities—political leadership, mentoring, etc.—would not only be good commercial sense, it would be good story telling. And equally importantly, it would pay tribute to the characters which fans of the original movies loved. I mean, I know that these days the concept of not hating the fans of your work is quite alien to the writers of popular fiction, but couldn’t the suits who are supposed to oversee the creative types have enforced a little bit of discipline? That is, in theory, why the investors entrust their money to the suits and not directly to the creative types.

Incidentally, I think that this hatred of fans stems from the fact that fame is hollow. Fame makes huge promises; fame claims that it is the face of God smiling on the famous. But it isn’t. And I think that people who do popular art in order to become famous so often end up hating their fans precisely because they find out that their fans are not God. That realization makes the pain of their separation from God all the worse. There are two and only two viable ways of dealing with fame and not hating one’s fans:

  1. Purely as a business transactions. This isn’t ideal, but it will at least admit of gratitude. It will probably predispose the artist to too much fan service, but many well-executed stories have been done this way that ended well.
  2. As service to God, since much of the work he gives us to do is service to our fellow man. This is much harder, but it is obviously the better route, and one is more likely to keep a level head whether one is loved or hated (or as is common for public figures, both). If one is service God, praise by one’s fellow men is nice, but beside the point, while hatred is inevitable and also beside the point. And you’re very unlikely to hate your fans since the only reason you’re doing what you’re doing is to love them even if they hate you for it.

Anyway, that (or a direction similar to it) is how the third Star Wars trilogy should have gone had Disney not hated Star Wars.

The Story Modern (Western) Screenwriters can Tell

I’ve lost interest in modern American movies. (Fair warning: I’m going to paint with a very broad brush for simplicity. Keep a grain of salt on hand.) If I’m being brief, I just say that Hollywood is made up of atheists and atheists have no interesting stories to tell. That’s not quite true, though; there’s one (mildly) interesting story atheists can tell, and it’s the only story they’ve been telling for decades now.

This is not to say that movies all have the same plots in the details; it’s a bit like how pop songs have different words but all use the same four cords:

The analogy breaks down because pop songs can be about anything, even about good subjects. But the basic story which all recent movies are about is the “hero” deciding that he won’t be a villain after all. Not, it should be pointed out, in the sense of overcoming temptation. That was done very well in this star trek scene:

Instead, the modern story is about choosing an identity. The difference is that in the modern story, being the villain is a live option in the sense of being a good option. When a man is tempted, he may do what’s wrong, but he knows that he’s the worse for it. In the modern story, when the man is tempted he doesn’t see the villain as any worse. He just chooses (for no rational reason) to not be the villain.

And when I say that it’s mildly interesting, most of its interest comes not from the story itself but from the story it can feel like: whether a man will resist temptation. Resisting temptation is a religious story, though. At least in the sense of it having religious premises. For there to be a real story about whether a man will resist temptation, there must be good and evil, and there must be free will. You don’t have any of those things in a materialist universe. (Some will call it a naturalist universe. Quibbling over terms that mean the same thing is a waste of time.)

But if one is telling stories within a religious framework—and especially within a Christian framework—far more types of stories become possible. With real virtues available, it becomes possible to tell stories about choosing between virtues. The meson (balance between competing virtues) of Aristotle can be an excellent basis for a story. There are also stories of redemption. It’s true that modern atheistic stories may have what is called the heel-face turn, but by and large that’s just a switching of sides. True redemption involves things like contrition (which is the hatred of the evil done, not anguish over one’s current place in society). They involve things like performing restitution. And they involve things like trying to help others to turn away from evil. People who have truly repented tend to be the most evangelical, not the most mopey. Basically, those who have been given much more than they deserve want to share it.

I do think that there’s another culprit behind the bland homogeneity of modern screenwriting: modern education is primarily organized around training people to be good factory workers in a socialist utopia (thank you, John Dewey). Screenwriters have almost never read any of the classic stories of western literature; they’re familiar primarily with TV and movies. And the result seems to be a kind of literary inbreeding. The family nose is getting ever more pronounced, even as the family lungs are getting ever weaker and more wheezy.

Update: I’ve written a followup post. That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell.

Fun Troll: Science Doesn’t Exist

As I’ve described more than a few times, one of the big problems that modern atheists have is that they are hyper-reductionists. They will not admit that composite entities are real. If a human body is made of atoms, they will not admit that a human being is anything more than atoms. They will of course use the word “human being” in the same way that normal people do, but they will balk at any implication of the word which they don’t like. Consistency is not their strong point.

And indeed consistency is so little their strong point that they are never hyper-reductionists elsewhere. I once joked about proposing alinguism (that language doesn’t exist, only words do). It would be even more fun, I think, to troll atheists with the proposal that Science doesn’t exist. Scientists do, of course, but not science. One could go all the way, asking where it is, how much it weighs, etc. I think the most fun would be to ask for a peer-reviewed scientific paper which describes the repeatable experiment that shows that science exists.

There isn’t really a point in this, because (in my experience) atheists never recognize their reasoning applied to anything but what they apply it to. I am coming to believe that the reason for this is that their reasoning is not in fact an attempt to understand the world. If it were, they would be interested in trying to apply it to the world. Instead, it’s mostly an attempt to get out of applying their putative beliefs to the world. That’s because their beliefs are primarily cultural. Belief is part of what unites people, and most atheists’ beliefs are held in that way—as a form of tribal identification. You can see some people hold beliefs about the best football team in a similar sort of way. It’s not that they’ve really analyzed all of the football teams in the league(s?), but that loudly espousing one team as being the best has a unitive function amongst fans. You see a similar sort of thing in religious observance, where many people like the community more than they care about the actual religion. In a possibly ironic way, this applies as much to irreligion as to religion.

And in consequence, much of what the irreligious say is not an attempt to think, but an attempt to avoid thinking. Like with those who are religious for purely social reasons, it’s not an admirable thing for a human being to do.

Facebook Had a Bad Year

Having recently talked about how Social Media is Doomed and Another Perspective on Facebook as Social Poison, I just saw this article: 2017 Was a Bad Year For Facebook, 2018 Will Be Worse.

The article is mostly about taxation, but it does mention this:

Facebook has reacted nervously to Palihapitya’s accusations, saying he hadn’t worked at the company for a long time (he left in 2011) and wasn’t aware of Facebook’s recent initiatives. But I can’t see any practical manifestations of these efforts as a user who has drastically cut back on social networking this year for the very reasons cited by Parker and Palihapitya.

To outsiders and regulators, Facebook looks like a dangerous provider of instant gratification in a space suddenly vital to the health of society. It’s also making abuse and aggression too easy — something the U.K. Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out in a report published on Wednesday. Sounding one of the loudest alarm bells on social media yet, the panel urged the prime minister to back legislation to “shift the balance of liability for illegal content to the social media companies.”

The article also talks about concerns related to targeted advertising.

I haven’t talked about targeted advertising, but its problems are partially related to the problems of push-based social media. One part of targeted advertising is only showing advertisements to people who might want to see them. This is a net-positive for all involved, since irrelevant advertisements are just a waste of everyone’s time. The part that’s about figuring out how to manipulate people into buying things they don’t think are a good idea, though, is far worse. It’s also related to the fundamental problem of push-based media because it’s trying to get around the adaptations people made to their environment in order to live in peace with it. Unfortunately from the advertiser’s perspective, those adaptations involve a great deal of not buying things; and hence the temptation on the part of advertisers to upset that balance which the viewer has constructed for himself.

I’d like to reiterate that my point is not that social media is evil, but rather that the push-based social media as we know it today is fundamentally flawed for human use; this makes changes to it inevitable. What form those changes take is less clear, but they are certainly coming.

Whence Comes the Book?

I read a curious article about a fan of The Mists of Avalon which is about her reaction to learning that the author of the book (Marion Zimmer Bradley) (allegedly) sexually abused her own daughter and other children. It’s curious because of the degree to which it regards the author indulging in astounding amounts of sexual evil as if it were simply a ritual impurity, rather than as something which might be woven into the book itself. A book which, by the reader’s own admission, was very unlike anything else:

I still cannot imagine anything more perfectly aligned with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece. Bradley opened my eyes to the idea that, when we look at the past, we are only ever seeing a small part of it — and usually, what we are seeing excludes the experiences of women. Encountering the vain, self-serving, diabolical Morgan le Fay transformed into the priestess Morgaine compelled me to question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men. The Mists of Avalon also gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities beyond male-dominated, male-defined religions. In retrospect, I can see that it gave me ways of seeing that helped me find the feminine even within patriarchal systems while studying religion as an undergrad. The impact of this book lingers in my feminism, certainly, but it also influenced my scholarly interest in folklore, and it still informs my personal spirituality.

And this is her analysis of the book in light of the revelations about the author:

The sexual act described [above] takes place around the Beltane fire. As a young reader, I was disturbed by it, but I saw it as a description of people who have passed beyond the normal world and into the sacred time of a fertility ritual. The scene was frightening for me as a child, and repellent, but also, I must admit, fascinating. In context, this passage made sense: The horror of the scene was an element of its power. And that was all I found. Everything I had always loved about the book was still there, and I didn’t find anything new to hate. So, what was I going to do with this book?

And finally, here is her conclusion:

So, what to do with this once-beloved book? I’ve read it once since Greyland spoke out, and I don’t know if I will read it again. Probably not, I’m guessing. Discovering that powerful men are predators is disturbing, but not surprising. Learning that the author who introduced me to feminine spirituality and the hidden side of history abused children — girls and boys, her own daughter — was horrifying in an existential kind of way. I’m a writer and an editor and I know that characters can exceed their creators. I would go so far as to say that that’s the goal. So I can keep Morgaine — what she has meant to me, what she has become in my personal mythology — while I reject Bradley.

This is a common thing I see in the modern world: assuming that all propositions stand alone, unconnected from all others, as if truth is not things fitting into each other but like a butterfly collection on unconnected facts.

This woman never asks herself whether the book teaching her to “question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men” is just Bradley trying to escape the blame for her own evil, projected. If in most other parts of the world, people who don’t rape their (and other) children take responsibility for their own wrongs, but a rapist teaches how to shuffle the blame off on others, perhaps the right course of action is not to keep the lesson that you should always shuffle the blame onto others.

Virtue is not a simple thing. Virtue is required for people to live together. Virtue is required for people to live together with everything, in fact, even nature. Virtue is what places us into a right relationship with the hierarchy of being. Evil people reject the hierarchy of being; they substitute their own for the real one. At the extremes you have Satan’s nolo servire—I will not serve. The more vicious an author is, the more one expects this to permeate every aspect of their being, because the fundamental solipsism of their orientation to the world cannot but touch on every interaction they have with the world. To learn life lessons from the book of a thoroughly wicked man is a fool’s errand; they will be right by accident. And since they will be right by accident, their effort will not be in making the truth attractive.

In short, if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, don’t do it in exchange for wisdom.

Fine Tuning the Fine Tuning Arguments: A Response to Mr. John C. Wright

This is a response to two posts by Mr. John C. Wright: The Fine Tuning Argument Needs More Fine Tuning and Argument from Design is Well Designed. While I think that Mr. Wright’s criticism of the argument in itself is correct, I think that he misses the context of why it is a useful argument none the less. (It shakes the poorly-founded confidence on which a belief in materialism is typically based.) As usual, you can also watch it on YouTube:

Another Perspective on Facebook as Social Poison

This is a follow-up to my posts Social Media is Doomed and Staying Sane on Social Media.

I ran into an article which discusses what a former facebook executive said about Facebook’s effect on people:

Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that shit.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”

Here’s the original video, in case the article goes down, or if you’d like to verify The Verge’s description of what was said:

(I haven’t verified it myself, mostly because mention it as a good expression of a concern I already have, and not as information supporting a conclusion.)

The ability social media gives to people to form instant mobs is something I haven’t talked about yet, but it’s another major problem that social media brings with it. Mobs are dangerous things; technology which allows them for form more readily is certainly dangerous. There is yet another element of push-vs-pull social media at work, but only in degree. Pull-based social media (i.e. social media where you have to actively go look at someone’s feed rather than there feed being pushed in front of you) still drastically reduces the amount of energy necessary to whip up a mob, but not as much as push-based social media. (To recap: Facebook, Twitter, etc are push-based social media while blogs, etc. are pull-based social media.) Much of the difference comes from speed: in pull-based, you have to get others to go look at the inciting material, and they will get to it when they get to it. In push-based media people can repost/retweet/etc the inciting material and spread it much faster. The faster it spreads, the more people will be having an emotional reaction to it at the same time.

There is a flip side to the information hose that push-based media causes, though, which is that no one has a good enough memory to drink from the information fire hose of push-based social media and keep track of all the things to be outraged about. This mitigates against the online mob-forming tendencies of push-based social media, in that a mob’s ire will usually not be directed at any particular target for any great length of time. Burning something requires both intensity of heat as well as duration of the heat being applied; anything can withstand a blowtorch applied for only a ten-thousandth of a second. And in fact savvy miscreants are learning how to use this to their advantage in order to avoid blow-back from their misdeeds.

To be clear, it’s not that I think that push-based social media is an unalloyed evil; only that it is fundamentally incompatible with human nature. My contention is not that push-based social media is impossible to use well. My contention is that push-based social media is simply too much strain on a human being for human beings to continue using it in its current form. I don’t think that Facebook et al will die off, but rather transform into something with so many content-curation tools as to effectively be pull-based rather than push-based. I.e. they will become something dissimilar to what they are now, though possibly under the same name.

The Value of Atheist Hacks: A Response to The Distributist

The Distributist made a video (which is very worth watching) called Atheist Hacks:

While I don’t disagree with anything he said, I do think he was missing one purpose that the atheist hacks serve within the skeptical community. So I made this video. You can watch it on YouTube instead of listening to it, if you prefer:

Heinlein’s Sexual Morality, Good & Evil in Novels, & More: A Conversation with Mr. John C. Wright

I had the pleasure of having the always-interesting science fiction author Mr. John C Wright (who blogs at scifiwright.com) on my show. It was a somewhat wide-ranging conversation, though it stuck (in my mind) surprisingly closely to the topic we set out to talk about throughout. It’s also available on YouTube:

How Joking About Evil Can Make You Evil

It’s popular to think of joking as completely harmless (probably in reaction to the people who can’t tell the difference between a joke and a serious philosophical position), but while joke are not the same thing as policy papers, that does not mean that they are always harmless. I take a look at the conditions in which joking about evil can predispose one toward evil. Of course you can watch it on YouTube instead:

Why You Can’t Have a Scientific Morality

I’ve occasionally seen references to using science to construct morality, so I discussed why this is impossible. (This is also a position which any who believes in scientisim—that the only source of knowledge is science—is forced into if they don’t want to hold morality and all associated human actions, such as law and criminal justice, to be completely irrational. They’re not going to want to do that because then they’d be holding that all the most important things in life are irrational.) And of course you can view this on YouTube: