Baby I’m Fine

Baby, I’m fine. You know me, I’m doing alright.
I’ve never been better, on fire all night.

No you haven’t killed me,
I was always a skeleton.

Baby, last time you know how I said we were through?
I’ve never had control over something like you.

No you haven’t filled me,
I am ever insatiable.

You always find me,
You’re always somewhere behind me.
You always find me,
Bright as the sun, you are blinding.

Baby, I’m fine. There’s pills made to keep you in line.
I’d better take twenty, hope you don’t mind.

The Dunning-Kruger-Deboer Effect

Isn’t it strange how every theory about intelligence just becomes a stick to beat other (hypothetical) stupid people over the head with? I mean, I can’t think of a better way to make me feel better about myself or about the world in general.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of those things. Its popular formulation is something like “stupid people aren’t smart enough to know how stupid they are”, which is kind of a nice shorthand way to slag other people off: Just invoke the Dunning-Kruger effect!

But this kind of misunderstands what Dunning-Kruger is about. It’s not primarily about intelligence, but about skill. Sure, intelligence comes into the mix somewhere (genuinely stupid people will probably have a harder time learning skills and applying metacognitive filter to the skills they have) but that’s a related but different topic.

The point is that going from novice to amateur at anything is easy. This is because skills level isn’t linear to practice. If it takes, say, 10 hours of practice to graduate from novice to amateur, a linear relationship would mean 10 more hours of practice to go from amateur to expert, and then 10 hours more to from expert to master (and then grand wizard, etc, etc).

Of course we all know that’s not how skills work. If the relationship between practice and mastery were plotted it would probably be some kind of inverse exponential curve. It takes a lot more practice to get from level 3 to level 4 than it does to get from level 0 to level 1. (Makers of MMOs get this. In Eve Online for instance there’s a very tangible diminishing return in skill levels. Training from level 0 to level 1 is quick but training from level 4 to level 5 can take months, while providing the same percentile boost in attribute. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to people, as we’re used to real world skill working that way.)

So if you’re the guy on the guitar who just learned Wonderwall, it may see like guitar is actually pretty darn easy! Which leads you to overestimate your own skill level, underestimate the amount of skill you need, and (critically) underestimate the skill level of other more skilled people.

Anyways, that’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, a sort of cognitive bias that gets in the way of proper metacognition.

What I’m proposing is the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer effect, which is when your lack of understand of the Dunning-Kruger effect leads you to apply the Dunning-Kruger effect incorrectly. Which is to say it’s a metacognative bias that gets in the way of proper metametacognition. I’d wildly speculate that about 90% of mentions of the Dunning-Kruger effect online are actual examples of the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer effect in action.

The only thing left now is for someone named, say, Jonathan Smith to come along and coin the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer-Smith effect which is when the author of a blog post creating a new Dunning-Kruger variant hasn’t himself quite understood the Dunning-Kruger effect and is subject to a metametacognitive bias which gets in the way of proper metametametacognitive bias.

Or maybe the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer-XKCD effect where somewhere in a hovertext XKCD did it first.

Three Month Review: Nexus 5X

nexus-5x

So three months ago I got the Nexus 5X. It was an upgrade for my aging (and cracked and dented) Nexus 5. I really enjoy the form factor and size of 5″-ish phones, having had both larger (Samsung Note 2) and smaller (HTC Desire). I tend to use phones for about a year and a half or so before I feel like I really need to upgrade, though I’ve found myself using newer phones longer and longer as they tend to be just better devices over the long run.

Before I say anything about the 5X, let’s talk about the 5 for a bit. It was a good phone, not a great one, for several reasons. The most glaring defect was the terrible camera. It couldn’t really take good photos even in broad daylight. Every photo I took was very clearly from a phone, when what I’m looking for is parity with a point and shoot camera. It also had just average battery life and a fairly unimpressive screen resolution. Especially approaching the end of it’s usable life (for me), I was getting very little screen on time.

I liked the Nexus 5 but didn’t love it. What I really wanted was a newer, better version of the Nexus 5 with upgraded camera and better battery life in roughly the same form factor.

When the 5X was announced, I was excited but a little cautious. I wanted to wait for some trusted early reviews to get their hands on it and give me a real impression of what I was in for (MKBHD first and foremost on that list). What I heard made me pull the trigger, I bought the phone from the Google store, and got it next day, which was nice.

Display

The phone itself is basically an upgraded 5 form factor. The screen is larger and much, much prettier. Mind you, it’s still and LCD screen and I was hoping for an AMOLED display for some of the neat things it can do. But the LCD looks nice. So that’s good. It’s nothing super special but it’s leaps and bounds above the quality of the 5, which had a terribly display even for its time. Colours are crisp, it’s nice and bright, and the display even goes down to a fairly decent don’t-disturb-your-partner-in-bed level.

Form Factor & Design

The back of the phone is made from rubberized plastic, but it’s important to note that it’s not nearly as grippy as the Nexus 5. It’s gotten less slippery over time (good) but still isn’t anywhere near as rubberized and non-slippery as the 5.

The camera bulge is new too. I wasn’t that excited about the camera protruding from the back of the phone, but it looks like that’s something we just have to deal with if we want a thin form factor with a large camera sensor. Then again, the 5X isn’t really that thin. It feels very solid in the hand, a really physical object, and the camera bulge isn’t very pronounced. It doesn’t rock when you set it down on a table. The corners are all nicely rounded, but not rounded enough to make the device more slippery than it already is, and not enough to throw off the geometry of the phone (a complaint I have with the more recent iPhone industrial design: too much rounding just looks… dumb). All in all after using the phone for 3 months it really feels like a lot of thought went into the device’s design, reflected in a really nice package that’s a pleasure to hold and use at first and in the long-term is unobtrusive and most importantly not annoying.

The only bit of industrial design I don’t know if I love is the placement of the fingerprint sensor, a feature new to this phone by the way. The fingerprint sensor is located on the back of the phone. For being on the back it’s in a really good place, falling almost exactly where I would normally put my finger. 90% of the time this is great but there’s that other 10% of the time the phone is resting on its back and needs to be picked up to unlock. From what my friends with iPhones say, they often use their thumbs to unlock their phones (as the iPhone fingerprint sensor is on the front of the device), a motion I know would annoy me. On balance I think the fingerprint sensor on the back is a lot better if you have to pick one. The solution here is of course put a fingerprint sensor front and back which could be a selling point for the phone. This would change the speaker placement too, but I’m sure that could be gotten around.

Sound

Speaking of speakers, the 5X looks like it should be a stereo device (as it has identical grilles above and below the screen), but it’s definitely not. The sound is good and front-mounted speakers are a definite improvement from the bottom-mounted speakers of the 5 which I ended up blocking like 50% of the time, and having to rearrange my hand hold to suit the placement of speakers and buttons and whatnot isn’t something I want to think about.

Internals

This phone could really use is a little bit more RAM. It’s currently at 2gb, which isn’t really enough to do intensive multitasking and stuff like that. I haven’t run into that issue too many times but enough for me to notice apps having to be reloaded from disk and stuff like that. Other than the RAM issue, I haven’t had any problems with the speed of the processor itself. Everything seems buttery smooth. None of the interface artifacts I got on previous devices and versions of Android are present, and I only get slight hiccoughs when doing RAM-intensive stuff. Again, I would really have liked 4gb of RAM in this thing.

Android

Since this is a Nexus device it’s loaded with vanilla Android, my preference. I’ve used vendor skins and while some are okay most can die in a fire (I’m looking at you, Touchwiz). There’s not much to say here except to mention the Doze feature, probably the best thing about new Android versions. It senses when the device is at rest (eg when you’ve put it down somewhere like a nightstand for extended periods) and batches all those annoying wake requests together instead of allowing apps to randomly send wakelocks anytime they like. This means that the Nexus 5X just sips battery overnight instead of chewing through it. It’s really that good: I’ll lose only 1% of battery or so over an entire night. Other than that there’s not a whole lot more to say about the Android experience. There’s some new stuff baked in like Now on Tap, but that feature isn’t really ready for prime time yet.

The cool thing with Android now is the OS is in a place where I can just say “Yep, it’s Android, it’s good, nothing too annoying here”. I could not say that a year or two years ago. Android has come a long way. I think it’s actually better than iOS now, especially the latest versions. I don’t see anything about Android that gives me iOS envy, let’s put it that way. Again, that was not the case a year ago or two years ago. (In fact I think the latest versions of iOS look a little too… I dunno, cartoonish? I used to really envy their interface design; that’s no longer the case.)

So pros and cons time. This is stuff I really like about the phone versus things I really hate.

Cons

I have a couple nitpicks that really annoy me. First they changed the button layout so the power button is directly above the volume toggle on the right hand side of the phone. This is a decent concept because I can reach all the buttons with my thumb, but practically it means I accidentally power off my phone all the time when adjusting the volume. I’d like the power button to be absolutely anywhere else. Seriously, top of the phone, left side of the phone, anywhere else.

Second, the headphone jack is on the bottom of the phone, quite close to the edge on the right side. This makes it really, really awkward to hold when you’ve got headphones plugged in. Every time I have headphones in it just bothers me where this jack is located. I understand some people like the jack on the bottom so they can pull their phone out of their pockets naturally without having to flip the phone around, but if the jack had been located just a couple centimeters closer to the center of the phone it would have been way, way easier to hold.

Speaking of headphones, you don’t get any out of the box. This is annoying, as I basically trashed my last pair and needed new ones. I’ve never had a phone not come with headphones before, and I’m disappointed that they didn’t throw some in-ears or something in there. This is kind of a small thing, but it still annoys me.

The camera doesn’t have optical image stabilization. I get it, at this price point we’re probably not going to see that, and I expect the next generation of this phone will have it. But taking shots in low light conditions without HDR mode is only okay. Movement with definitely screw up your shots.

USB C means all those connectors you have are pretty much obsolete (well, except for the raft of devices that use the old connectors still). The package comes with a USB C-compliant charger and cable which is a good thing because compliant cables and bricks are pretty darn hard to find. There’s lots of dangerous USB C junk on the market right now.

Pros

The camera is great. Like, really great, especially for a Nexus device. In daylight I wouldn’t be able to say if the photos it takes came from a phone or a point and shoot. It has a larger and better sensor than Nexi past; in fact this is probably the biggest upgrade in this device. The Nexus family has always had terrible camera quality and it’s nice to see that boat being turned around. It’s not perfect, but it’s leaps and bounds better than any camera on any other phone at this price point. Low light still struggles a bit, but HDR mode will help out with that at the expense of slowing down your shots. The camera is nice and responsive too, another huge pro. I hate missing shots because shutter speed is an issues, a problem I’ve had so much with Android phone. Thankfully that’s almost never the case here.

USB C, apart from having to buy new cables and whatnot, is just so much better than USB-whatever-came-before-it. The plugs are reversible, small, and fit snugly, so no more turning your USB plug around 3 times to orient it correctly in whatever 4-dimensional space old USB occupied.

Fast charging is just… this is the standout “I wasn’t expecting this” feature for the Nexus 5X. I knew it charged faster, but I wasn’t prepared for just how fast. Not having to wait around for two hours to get a fully charged phone is amazing, and plugging this thing in for 10 minutes will net me a ~50% charge. Excellent. I hadn’t noticed how annoying having to charge my phone the old way was, but trust me, I don’t ever want to go back.

The fingerprint sensor has changed the way I interact with the phone, too. I wasn’t expecting to care about this, even though I knew it existed. But it really took away some of the annoying friction of unlocking a secured device. I should have known I would like a fingerprint sensor, as I’d always just kept my old Nexus 5 unsecured to get around having to type something or draw a pattern or whatever. The fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate, and setting it up is super easy. I use it all the time, and I just love it. The only thing it doesn’t like is when you have any moisture on your finger, like if you’ve just washed your hands or been doing some dishes. Other than that? Awesome.

Verdict

So for a long time every Android phone I’ve had has had some significant downside that would make me second-guess recommending it to your average user. The Nexus 5X is probably the best all-around Android phone I’ve seen, ever, for what it is. It’s a very simple, very good, very well-thought-out package with no really big downsides. I would be absolutely comfortable recommending this phone to anyone except maybe a power user. This is the kind of phone that the Android market has really been missing for a while. Just a good, good phone. And at half the cost of a new iPhone or whatever, sure it’s not as fast, but if you drop it on the ground or accidentally throw it in a river you’re not going to have to empty your savings to get a new one.

The real question is: If I lost this phone tomorrow, would I go buy a new one? And the answer is… hell yeah. And I can’t think of another Android phone that’s made me say that in a long, long time. Maybe ever. This is a great daily driver, a well-rounded experience, and just generally a wonderful phone. There’s nothing on the market right now that makes me say… “I want that instead”.

So the verdict? Good to great. Very happy with the purchase.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Listen, the spoilers are strong with this one, so if you haven’t seen the film and you keep reading anyway, well, you have your reward.

I don’t review films, not really, not often. Mostly I don’t care to, and when I do most of what I’d say has been said elsewhere and better.

But Star Wars is a little different, isn’t it? It’s more of a generational touchstone, a sort of culture-shaping thing that transcends its ambitions and obvious limitations to become this thing we all partake in. In one way or another.

I went to see it in IMAX 3D, and I have some thoughts.

IMAX 3D

I saw it in IMAX 3D because I had to. Not because I wanted to. I don’t like 3D except in rare cases where it’s used for a specific reason. This time was no exception.

But before going on about that, a little bit about the IMAX experience. It’s… okay I guess? The screen is a bit bigger and curved, the sound is a bit louder and they obviously invested a lot of money in subwoofer technology. But the experience ends up being just incrementally better than a regular cinema experience, especially if you’re going to a cineplex. I don’t think it’s worth the extra few dollars. The seats leaned back, so that was something, but if anything the seats felt narrower than normal theater seats: I’m a big dude and I felt wedged in there at points.

Now for 3D. When I got to a theater my brain expects to pan left and right to follow the action. When I have to pan left, right, forward, and backwards, I find this distracting. I don’t like having to constantly adjust my focus. Not to mention that with modern theaters, the resolution they’re capable of producing is absurd, and 3D makes everything look blurry to me. What’s the point of dim and blurry bits and pieces flying at my head?

Modern action filmmaking actually makes this a lot worse. The constant cutting, steadicam, and lack of visual coherence is bad enough on a 2D screen; on a 3D screen it’s unbearable.

The only thing I really liked about the whole IMAX presentation was assigned seating. Which leads me to…

Theatres

This is a big one for me. I don’t actually enjoy the theater experience. I mean, I like the screen and the sound, but I don’t like having to get there an undefined amount of time before the showing for the chance to get a seat in the “good seat zone” (aka center middle). Or worse, doing this with a group of people.

The crucial bit of technology to get me to the theater more is well within reach here. I could see the seating charts online when I did the IMAX purchasing. I knew where I was going to be sitting, and I knew we didn’t have to show up a half hour before the showing in order to get 2 seats together in a decent place.

If I can buy tickets online, know where I’m going to be sitting, print them out at home or show them my phone or whatever, show up, walk in, and watch the film, I’ll go to the theater more often. I know it. It takes away all the annoying “unknowns” of the situation.

I guess I understand why theatres don’t do this. They want to upsell to experiences where they do it, and the probably also think they’ll sell fewer tickets if you know you’re going to be sitting in the front row getting a crick in your neck. But there are plenty of people who still walk in and buy tickets not caring about that stuff, so don’t tell them where they’re going to be sitting. Just have the algorithm assign them next best seating. Or maybe have a section of the theatre (again, center middle) that are specifically reserved for people willing to pay an extra dollar to have assigned seating in a particular place and then have everyone go into overflow.

Anyways. If you were counting on a review of the actual film, sorry about all this theatre bullshit. Technical stuff like this matters to me sometimes more than the actual film (but only sometimes).

Technical Stuff About The Film

Okay, so before I get into what I thought about the film proper and what kind of job they did on the character and story and whatnot, let me get into some good and bad stuff about the film technically.

First off, there was almost no steadicam in the film that I remember being there. This is a good thing. It’s a part of what makes a Star Wars film feel like a Star Wars film: The technique in them has always been more stately and restrained than other more recent action films. I really appreciate that, and I hope that action movies as a whole knock it off will all the unsteady camera work. Part of the reason for this is that when the camera is “part” of the action it really breaks immersion for me. If I’m noticing things about what the camera is doing, if it really seems to have a personality, I can’t help remembering that yes, this is a camera, yes, this is a film. Not great.

The action itself was at once a lot more restrained than other action films, and a lot (a lot lot) more complex than the original Star Wars trilogy. When I say restrained, I’m thinking especially of Marvel movies where a lot of computer generated stuff is flying around and hitting a bunch of other computer generated stuff in a way that’s obviously artificial. The Avengers movies are particularly bad at this, as are any of the Thor setpieces in Asgard. Those action scenes feel meticulously designed and cold, almost built to be too much to handle. I don’t particularly like them. They make me feel removed from the film as an experience. They’re scenes to be marveled at (ha!) but not really grasped and felt. This doesn’t have to be bad: Mad Max: Fury Road did action setpieces on an extreme scale for extended periods of time. I’ve struggled to understand what the difference is between these two franchises, but I think it has something to with scale (Mad Max takes place on a much smaller scale, even when the action is intensely bonkers) and intelligibility (Mad Max makes a kind of visual sense that’s hard to explain; Marvel movies seem chaotic and random in comparison).

In any case, The Force Awakens is mostly fairly intelligible. There are some Tie Fighter vs X-Wing scenes that honestly lost me. Like, I understand what the intention of the scenes was, but especially at the end, right before the trench run… they mostly just left me thinking that yes, I had just seen a bunch of things happen, but no, I didn’t know exactly what. Maybe I was just tired. I’ll have to watch it again.

I don’t want to compare TFA to the prequel trilogy, but I do want to compare it to the original trilogy. Obviously the original trilogy was limited in its approach to space action by the technology of the time, but it was massively simpler. And it made more visual sense. I suppose it lost a sense of scale in not being able to really show a massive space battle in all its chaos, but I’m not sure that being able to show chaos is actually helpful the viewer.

But on balance TFA was very good in its action restraint.

One thing I really noticed was the pacing of the film. There’s not a lot of breathing room here. It’s a modern blockbuster after all, so there’s not much time devoted to just slowing down and taking a moment. This is mostly okay, and it lets the scenes that do breathe (like the introduction of Rey scavenging the bowels of a crashed and abandoned Imperial starship) really speak for themselves. And, frankly, this film was approaching too long as it is. So I understand the pacing. However I would have preferred some of the cuts to last a little bit longer. Like just a few seconds. I felt like the film cut away, especially from faces, a bit too soon. So maybe what I’m trying to say is I would have appreciated a film that kept a similar pace with fewer or less frequent cuts. The editing wasn’t terribly obvious, and definitely wasn’t the sort of stylized editing that draws attention to itself as technique, but it was often cut quicker than I would like. So I did notice it despite its lack of a particular flair.

The staging and locations were uniformly great, though two stick out as really top shelf: The desert planet at the beginning (more on that later) and the lighsabre battle in the snowy woods at the end. Almost every location was an archetype a la vintage Star Wars: Everything is either forbidding or lush. There’s no nondescript temperate planets here.

Characters

The new characters are just great. Just flat out great. Unlike Luke Skywalker, who I originally wanted to punch right in his whiny throat, none of the characters seemed out of place or annoying. They didn’t really need to be changed or redeemed in some way, they were just fully formed right from the start.

Rey is a treat, probably the breakout performance of the whole film. Finn is an unexpected twist, being a fully humanized Stormtrooper (even before he defects, he’s obviously stricken by what he’s seeing done and being asked to do). He does get a little mouthy and jokey as the film progresses, but again, more on that later. Poe is fantastic, though underused (how can you get someone as pure 100% good as Oscar Isaac and not use the crap out of him?). He’s constantly referred to as the best pilot in the whole wide universe, blah blah blah, but we get to see very little of him actually doing that. Of course the film is already jam packed without having to show, not tell us that he’s super duper pilot man, but this character is clearly set up to be important later on. I wish I would have seen just a bit more about him.

I have to say, I had some mixed feelings about Adam Driver as Kylo Ren going in. I’m a fan of Driver as an actor (he’s good in Girls, great in While We’re Young). But nothing about him really said “villain” to me. Until I saw TFA. I just bought it. I loved the character. The idea of a conflicted villain trying desperately to stifle his best impulses is a sly twist of the Force as it’s been revealed so far in the Star Wars universe.

Kylo is a clear inversion of the Luke trope, where Luke avoids killing his father by turning away from the dark side, Kylo does the opposite, killing his father (Han Solo just in case you weren’t paying attention) in order to fully turn toward the dark side. This sets up Kylo as effective antagonist to Luke, having walked the same path and chosen differently.

His bursts of uncontrolled anger, or him punching his own wound to (presumably) level up his dark side powers, all great touches. But allowing him to be wounded, to show his vulnerability, this is a great touch too. He obviously needs to finish his training to get on Vader’s level, formidable as he is.

I think Kylo has been set up to be irredeemable in a way Vader never was: Where Anakin was seduced and eventually taken over by the dark side, Kylo is chasing after the dark side. It’s his goal. It’s the thing that he wants, to finish what Vader started.

Interestingly enough, much like the original trilogy, there’s no mention of the Sith. So Kylo’s master may indeed be a Sith Lord, but we only hear him referred to as Snoke. Much like the Emperor was the Emperor, not Darth Whatever. I like this ambiguity; as the canon of Star Wars stuff got more granularly explained, it lost the magic you find in things that you can’t or don’t need to explain. Sith, Jedi, midichlorians, these things are all best left behind the veil and trotted out for novels and whatnot.

The standout character introduction though has to be BB-8. That thing is adorable! Say whatever you want about JJ Abrams, he has a knack for knowing what not to put in his movies. Jar Jar Binks this is not. The droid has real personality in way that even R2-D2 never had, as affectionate as we may feel for the older model droid.

So that’s the new characters. On to the old. I’ve been hearing rumblings around the web about some older characters looking older. Yeah, Leia and Han look worse for wear, but these actors are actually old now, you know? Even Mark Hamill (who looks very, very good in the movie compared to, oh, the last few years) looks worn out and trampled down. This is expected, I think, and if this seems weird to you, maybe stop pretending people don’t get old.

Han Solo is around for most the film until he dies. Ford puts in a pretty good performance, but honestly I could have done with him dying a little sooner. A lot of the screen time is sucked up by Han Solo, more than I think the character deserves. Yes, he’s a huge part of the charm of the originals, but I didn’t expect TFA to be quite the Han Solo show that it was.

He’s there, Carrie Fisher shows up being all generally and whatnot, and of course we see Mark Hamill at the end. They’re all fine, I guess, and I suppose there are some people who get misty eyed at seeing them again, but I could have done with seeing them a little less.

Before we get to story, I’d just like to say this: C-3PO can go ahead and fall into a volcano. I hated him in the original trilogy, I triple hated him in the prequels, and I hate him now for talking up valuable real estate that could be given to just about anything or anyone else.

Story and Miscellanea

So here’s the thing. Before I watched TFA, I was very familiar with JJ Abram’s work. He’s a good filmmaker, not great, but good, and very solidly good at that. He hasn’t made any real stinkers (I even liked Into Darkness). But where his real genius lies is his chameleon-like ability to imbibe the essence of a thing and then produce something that smells the same. None of his movies are original ideas, they’re all remakes or entries in series, and his strange proficiency with capturing the tone of a property makes him something of a reboot auteur. (Before you say anything about Super 8 being an original property, I’d like to point out that in Super 8 JJ captured and reproduced Spielberg; the movie might be original script but it is not by a long shot an original property.)

I used to think of the Star Trek reboot as a dry run for doing Star Wars. I don’t know if that was the intention at the time, but it just looked like the obvious next thing. And so here we are. When they announced Abrams was doing Star Wars I wasn’t surprised… but I was a little worried.

And my worries were borne out here. I said on Twitter before I went to see the film that I was afraid that TFA would be such a faithful reproduction that it would be old hat before I saw the film.

There’s nothing about the story that’s really hugely different from anything Star Wars has been before. There are some subtle twists and some things are certainly done a lot better, but it’s a beat-for-beat photocopy of Episode IV. Everything that Episode IV did, TFA does, just bigger. It starts on a desert planet like Tatooine… but worse. It has the Empire… but more Nazi-ish than the Empire. Our heroes get sucked into the Resistance which is just… the Rebel Alliance. There are space fights… but bigger. There’s a Death Star… that kills stars and planets and is as big as a planet. There’s a trench run to blow up the thing that makes the SuperDeathStar blow up. All the archetypes are there, all the plot points get hit.

Thing is, that’s kind of what we need. Star Wars is in need of a cathartic release, a reawakening if you will, to cleanse it from the stink of the prequels. If that means taking the original Star Wars movie an half-rebooting, half-remaking it, then so be it.

This film doesn’t have to be a great film, it just has to be a great Star Wars film, and in that I think it does the job really well. I enjoyed most of it, and I want to see where the next episode takes the universe. As long as the next film isn’t The Empire Strikes Back 2.0. I really want a Star Wars installment that takes the series and universe as a whole in an unexpected direction. I want not just to be given what I already know I want, but what I don’t know I want because I’ve never seen it before.

Antisemitism and the Church

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Antisemitism has always been a uniquely Christian problem. Our history of persecuting Jews long predates the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine, the root of so much anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world today. That’s a whole other thing for a whole other time.

Antisemitism among Christians has systemic religious roots. It’s paradoxically a result of Christ’s passion and a radical indictment of our collective participation in and guilt for it.

The problem is the Church has often identified Jews as Christ-killers while denying our collective responsibility. We’ve forgotten that we also participate in Jesus’ death, not in some abstract he-bore-our-sins way but in a very direct, very active involvement in the sacrificial system that caused Jesus’ death in the first place.

We can’t deny that the passion was a good/bad thing. It brought about salvation for all but through a grisly process of injustice leading to the grave. The Jews and the Romans sacrifice Christ to keep the peace. After all is it not better for one man to die for the people than the whole nation perish? Pilate hand-waves away his complicity, but sacrifices Jesus anyway.

Jesus becomes the ultimate sacrifice to end sacrifice, doing what the sacrificial system and all proto-sacrificial systems could not do — instead of simply dying a victim, driven out of the camp and off a cliff, the sins of the people laid on him to break the cycle of retributive violence, he inverts the whole thing and rises again. He becomes not just another scapegoat, but a living, breathing victim, one that lays bare our crass self-interested perpetuation of a cycle of religious violence against the weak and disenfranchised, the foreigner and outcast. Jesus identifies with those who are most likely sacrificed to the mob by himself being sacrificed by the mob. And by identifying with Jesus, we identify with those likely to be sacrificed to the mob as well.

This is how we deconstruct the mob, how we break the cycle of religious violence, and why the scapegoating and persecution of Jews is such an endemic feature of Christian societies.

I think the problem is that we’ve embraced philosophies of Christ’s death that enable us to do this. Substitutionary atonement (not nearly as unanimous a theory as our modern fundamentalism would suggest) allows us to divorce the benefits of the cross from participation in it. We identify with Jesus in his death, but as the sacrifice, not as the mob. We have a third party for that — the Jews (and the Romans to a lesser extent). Even the disciples are complicit as they turn their backs on him and deny him for fear of dying with him.

Divorcing ourselves from our participation in the system of sacrifice that indicts us as well as the Jews allows us to do exactly what the death of Jesus was meant to prevent: Neurotically persecute the visible minority in our midst under obviously false pretenses.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying with Christ in his death and rising again, after all that’s what baptism is for, right? But it’s important to remember what Jesus death saves us from. And when we scapegoat and victimize and marginalize and persecute Jews, we are in practice identifying with Jesus’ killers. Not with Jesus. In these acts of communal violence against the visible outsider, we have perverted and inverted the meaning of the cross. We’ve absolutely failed to understand the meaning of the passion.

The thing to remember here is that the cycle of religious violence, of mobs rising up against the visible minority, of a burst of collective violence against a sacrificial victim that heaps our collective retributive violence on his or her head… this is the human condition. This our default setting. This is Sin with a capital S. This is what Jesus comes to end by exposing the cycle of religious violence for what it is.

It’s a hard lesson, one that we often fail to learn. Look at the US, a nominally Christian nation, turning against the sojourner or minority in its midst (the Muslim, the black person). It’s not a coincidence that these effects are most strong amongst fundamentalists who don’t understand their own symbols.

What’s odd is that fundamentalists in the US, which seems to have most of them, by and large almost reverence Jews and the Holy Land today. This is the result of some really oddball eschatology, not of really understanding what the cross is about and what it means to identify with and follow Christ. It almost feels like a kind of diagnostic over-reaction to the problem of antisemitism.

In any case it’s important for the church to come to grips with what it means to follow Christ. When we identify with him, we identify with his death. We remember that Jesus’ passion was an act of injustice, a grossly wrong and evil sacrifice of a victim who had done no wrong. We identify with his resurrection, an act of power over death that exposes the principalities and powers of this world, that exposes them and triumphs over their violent sacrificial systems by demythologizing them and laying their crassness bare. We no longer participate in systems of ritual purity designed to separate the sheep from the goats; we no longer say do not touch and do not eat and do not handle, because we are the goats.

We die with Christ to this elemental spiritual force of the world, how can we still participate in it? How can we neurotically scapegoat the Jew, the Muslim, the poor, the disenfranchised? How can we identify as Christ-killers, subject to the mythology of the sacrificial victim, purposely averting our eyes from the lies and false pretenses of our sacrificial system, when we have been raised with him?

All Lives Matter?

all-lives-matter

“All Lives Matter” is a reaction to “Black Lives Matter” which is a reaction to police systematically murdering black people in the US and the judicial system largely turning a blind eye.

It’s one of those things that sounds right but means wrong, you know? Like when the government names a bill “The Freedom Protection Act” or something, you can assume it’s pretty much the opposite of that.

When you say that, it sounds like you mean that you care equally about all lives; how can anyone argue about that? But what you actually mean is you want to ignore the voices raised in protest. You want to silence them by co-opting their expression and turning it into a muzzle.

The problem is it’s really effective. And it’s seductive. Oh, so you care about black lives? Well, I (invariably a white person) care about ALL LIVES[1].

Thing is, you can’t look at language in a vacuum. Context matters. And context like white people at a rally beating a black man while chanting “All Lives Matter” matters. The action lays the truth bare.

I’ve talked about dogwhistles before, and “All Lives Matter” is rapidly becoming one for racists and people invested in the status quo.

It doesn’t mean anything about which lives matter at all. It doesn’t mean “yes, and…”.

It means “shut up”.

[1] – The society we live in gives lie to this: Non-male, non-white people are systematically oppressed. I mean, they’re not literally whipped and enslaved anymore but all kinds of avenues of advancement are denied them, consciously or not. And just because you think you’re not personally complicit in this doesn’t mean you’re not. Especially if you’re a Christian, this just isn’t tenable. God is a God who desires justice, who cares about widows and orphans. Christ himself, our primary means of identifying with God, is a victim. Identity with Jesus means identity with the oppressed and victimized, not denial about who the oppressed and victimized are.

Your sermon illustration is bad and you should feel bad

garfield-is-not-funny

This is Garfield.

It is a thing that exists, and continues to exist, in this world.

There is one thing I can assure you of, though: The people who like Garfield, the people who even think about Garfield are not long for this world. I give it another 10-20 years.

Anyone under 30 might enjoy Garfield from time to time, or as a parody of itself, or remixed into something else (like Garfield without Garfield). But we’ve moved on. Garfield is a thing for another generation.

So we can understand why it exists and even understand why it continues to exist, but it’s not for us, right?

That’s your sermon illustration… illustrated.

I recently started listening to a sermon from a church I was once a part of. Mostly out of curiosity, just to see how the preaching is going. The bad news there is I ragequit after two minutes. Because the sermon opened with a “funny” story, a joke really.

That’s a bit of extreme reaction without any context. But still, it’s what I feel when I have to sit through one in real life. I feel like walking out. Again, an extreme reaction, but it’s how I feel.

This might sound like a nitpick. It might be a nitpick. Or it might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because generally the types of preachers who do this are preaching from some kind of 1990s preaching playbook that always, always makes them mediocre at their job.

I live in a world where things are signifiers. If I go to a website and it looks like the Space Jam website or something from Geocities, I don’t expect a quality experience. If I buy a book thas has a terrible cover, I don’t expect a good read.

You telegraph your intentions at the start of the things you do. Storefronts, cover, beginnings of sermons, you get the picture.

When you tell a cheesy, “funny” story to start your sermon, you’re diminishing your role as a preacher of truth, as a sayer of difficult things, as a messenger of God.

But not only do you insult yourself, you insult me. You assume that I have to be eased into whatever you’re saying with some kind of tangentially related mini-parable.

You don’t need to worry about that, man. I’m already at church. I’ve already bought the package deal, I’m probably there for the whole thing. If your hook is this thing you got from a book of stories to tell before a sermon or whatever, you’re already doing me a disservice. This isn’t to say preachers can’t be funny, some are very funny from time to time (bless your heart, Mark), but that has to be a natural thing, not a pre-packaged, scripted, safe-for-all-ages groanfest.

Maybe this makes me super-millenial or something, but I don’t need my funny bone greased up and massaged to transition me from the singing to the not singing, you know?

What would you think of a newspaper that put Garfield on it’s front page, above the headlines every single day? Would you take that seriously? I sure wouldn’t. Or if Google News was like… I know you came here to find out serious stuff about the world and whatever, but first have a GARFIELD to take a load off!

Axiomatic: Free Speech

free-speech-banner

I’ve said before that modern skeptics are lazy and pointed in the wrong direction. I still believe that.

But there’s kind of larger point there. Humans are lazy and pointed in the wrong directions.

How often have you thought about free speech? If you’re like me and you frequent the places I frequent… once a week or so? I mean, it comes up all the time. Usually in some circumstance where that freedom is being abrogated somewhere in the world. There is (justifiably, I think) a real concern about freedom of speech and its defense.

Still, there’s a kind of defacto acceptance, especially with young, white, tech-literate males, that freedom of speech is a natural state, an unassailable good, something obvious (or as they say in the US, self-evident).

Is it?

I mean, there’s nothing particularly obvious about it. Like everything else, it’s just something people made up. It might be a hard-won evolution of centuries of experimenting with despots, but it’s not obvious.

There’s also an assumption that freedom of speech is binary. It isn’t that either. I mean, it’s not like you can say everything or nothing. Even in the US, the government will not protect dangerous speech (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). How different is that from inciting violence against a particular race or gender via words?

Clearly, there’s a spectrum there. And yes, there’s an argument to made that offensive speech should be allowed (if not encouraged), but there’s also a strong opposing argument that allowing dangerously offensive speech to propagate by being spoken is something society simply should not accept.

Finally, there’s an assumption that freedom of speech applies in all domains, everywhere. Which is the most obviously wrong. Any freedom is context sensitive. The problem tends to be that people confuse the implementation with the philosophy. The implementation is that the government should regulate speech as little as possible; the philosophy tends to be expressed as “anyone, anything, anywhere”.

Then we whittle down who is anyone (Children? Genocidal Mass Murderers?), what is anything (Snuff porn? Obscenities? White power manifestos?), and what is anywhere (Work? School? A wedding?). And when the free speech advocate is done, we’re in the same place the “pure philosophy” view is meant to get around: Speech is messy, context is important, and there are some things which society as a whole has decided should not be tolerated.

Not servants, but sons

prodigal-son-painting-rembrandt

The son comes back from squandering his portion of the estate on hookers and booze. He says to himself, There’s no way my father will take me back as a son, but perhaps he will take me back as a servant.

He’s wrong of course, and this is the Christian story’s difference. You aren’t asked to approach as a beggar, as a servant, but as a child.

The Spirit we receive does not make us slaves, but heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Or to put it another way, not servants, but sons.