Signal boosting against sexism in entertainment

I read something this week that made me think, that’s enough of this crap, I need to blog about this. As a man and a creative I feel obligated and honored to boost the signal on the recent evidence of just how sexist our entertainment industrial complex is. On top of general, unacceptable pay inequality, there is a string of abuses that need to be exposed to the searing light of the sun. So I’m following what I’ll call Stewart’s Law of Privilege for Progress.

  1. What set me off recently: the female villain in Iron Man 3 was turned into a man, according to the director. The director and screenwriters wanted a couple of women to have prominent roles, but Isaac Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment, nixed the villain idea and they had to scale back how much women were on screen. Thank the heavenly mother that Perlmutter is moving out of the picture at Marvel. (Too slowly, but maybe exposing this crap will hurry up his exit.)
  2. The lack of female characters in sci fi and superhero stories, toys, movies, etc. Black Widow is the kick-butt female Avenger, but was replaced in Avengers toys that depicted her exploits in the film. This kind of thing is not an accident or unconscious bias: it’s a deliberate corporate directive.
  3. Unequal pay for female actresses (against which Robin Wright and Jennifer Lawrence have fought back publicly)

Why am I focusing on the cultural stuff? I know there is tons more sexism going on in every single walk of life, and this year it seems to be rearing to the fore in the ugliest of ways. And I know I have only barely grazed the tip of the iceberg in entertainment (lack of women in directing and producing, treatment of female characters, treatment of female cast and crew, etc.) Because this particular angle of sexism is primarily responsible for forming/reinforcing/shaping our entire society’s attitudes toward girls and women. The cultural stuff has a much bigger multiplier effect and it is more sensitive to be smacked down by people inside and outside the industry. I think that striking a blow against it on this issue will help in every other arena.

I want to lend my voice to those saying that this crap really does happen, it should not, and to applaud those on the front lines of fighting it.

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TV Pet Peeves

In the vein of my previous ranty-rant about the stubble bubble, I have more issues to get off of my chest about some silly conventions in entertainment.

  1. The Shoulder Wiggle:

When actors deliver lines, 9 times out of 10 they do this shoulder wiggle thing. Maybe it’s because they can’t step off of their marks and it’s their only way to express body language. But it’s disconcerting. Their shoulders never – wiggle – stay – wiggle – still. Each syllable seems to come with a wiggle.

Tom Brokaw used to wiggle and lean like a broken animatronic newscaster when he was heading NBC News. Has he started an acting school for actors who can’t bend at the waist?

The worse the show, the more the wiggling. Once you notice it, the rest of the acting just disappears. All you see are the -shoulder wiggles-. I’ve found that the more still and quiet an actor is, the more drawn we are to what their mouth and their body language are saying.

2. Three Layers of Clothing Rule:

Never mind that women are chronically under-dressed on TV. Most male characters, especially the supporting characters, seem required to wear three layers of clothing on their chest. T-shirt, button down-shirt, then a jacket or coat. Even indoors. Especially in California. Comedies do this more than dramas, because dramas have figured out that the tough guy in a open-collar button down shirt with a sport jacket looks bad ass and casual.

In reality, men generally wear one layer indoors in a temperature-controlled climate. Two if they’re outside. Three if they’re outside on a mountain. You guys spend a lot of money on set design and lighting but then dress the men like they are about to go skiing.

3. Villains Who Need to Relate:

“You and I are not all that different, really,” says every bad guy these days during the first or the final confrontation with the hero. It is the lamest, laziest line a villain can say. Do villains have some compelling need to relate to their enemies, especially right before they try to kill them? Are they lonely outcasts trying to fit in? Do writers fail to realize how lame that line is? Do I need to explain it? I do?

  1.  It’s a verbal mustache twirl that makes the character cardboard thin. This does not make the villain the hero of his own story. It makes him a tool in the writers’ story.
  2. About half the time, the villain is wrong because the writers want the audience to disagree with him and root for the hero. This is the equivalent of tying the damsel to the railroad tracks or Force-choking subordinates for honest mistakes.
  3. About half the time, the villain is right because the anti-hero is really just another bad guy but his puppeteer is just pulling the strings in different directions to shove the plot forward.
  4. It makes the villain look stupid and ignorant when the hero is completely different. And any hero response that isn’t along the lines of “Do you even hear yourself?” then the hero is just as stupid. And possibly the writers too.
  5. It wrecks any kind of verbal realism. It’s not dialog any more, it’s a cliche contest.

 

Batfleck delivered in Batman vs. Superman

I just saw Batman vs. Superman and since I have opined about this movie before it came out, it seems like I should report back. Here are my quick impressions:

Ben Affleck was very good as Batman, pretty good as Bruce Wayne. I had heavily doubted he could do it, but oh boy, was he Batman. How does he compare to Bale, Keaton, and Kilmer? He is all of them and then some. There were moments I couldn’t tell which Batman I was seeing, which is a good thing. In sum, I was wrong, wrong, wrong about this casting choice. However, some of the story beats he was given were not well thought out, but that’s not Ben Affleck’s fault.

Gal Gadot did great as Wonder Woman and didn’t have enough screen time. She towered over the other two men in both of her identities. She should have had a much bigger role in this film.

Henry Cavill (Supes) and Jesse Eisenberg (Luther) both did a good job, but in each case the job each one was given was junk. Eisenberg’s Luther is just poorly conceived: like the Joker and Tony Stark had a love child. I think Wonder Woman had more dialog than Superman did. She emoted a lot more, despite the emotional center of the movie being Superman and Wonder Woman having maybe ten minutes of screen time. Who’s to blame for this? Not Cavill, but this next guy…

Zack Snyder is both a genius and a disaster director. He is weak on story, character narrative and emotional depth, but great on visuals, Wagnerian opera, and fight scenes. This movie could have been so much better with better story development and smarter editing. He should have not dipped so far into the freakish Frank Miller source material and done more original story telling. The performances were there, the conflicts were there, but between plot holes, shallow character development, and useless dream sequences, he’s to blame for the film’s shortcomings.

Critics vs. fans: Rotten Tomatoes shows a widely split decision between these two groups. Critics hated it, fans liked it. Critics hated it because Snyder skirted with James Cameron/Michael Bay-esque mediocrity in the movie/story department, and the DC Comics stuff was lost on them. When a movie has story and editing problems, the special effects and action sequences stick out like sore thumbs. Fans liked it because Michael Bay films are entertaining and because it is definitely a DC Comics movie.

Marvel vs. DC: This was such a DC Comics movie that it’s hard to compare to a Marvel film. DC Comics are dark and operatic, more of a less nuanced-superhero storytelling world. This is superhero wish-fulfillment that is not tongue-in-cheek. Props to DC for not trying to mimic Marvel.

At the end, I was excited to see the next movie, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman.

Economics’ Death Star Problem

Around the time that Star Wars Episode VII came out, an idea picked up steam among wonky economics circles that destroying the Death Star would bankrupt the galactic economy. Or, as economist Zachary Feinstein concluded, when the Rebel Alliance won, it lost because the economy was in deep trouble that it couldn’t fix.

Here’s Feinstein’s argument: the financing needed to build two Death Stars would have been so immense that when the Empire fell, its staggering debts would wipe out the banks that had loaned it the money to build them. And unless the Rebel Alliance could bail out those banks to the tune of about 15-20% of galactic GDP, the galaxy would go into a gigantic depression.

Here’s why that argument is full of holes:

  1. No military power can ever outspend its resources. It can become highly leveraged in a fight for existence, but even that has limits. From Louis XIV to Washington to Napoleon to Lincoln to Churchill, every war-time leader faces hard limits on how much money he/she can spend on a war effort. There are only so many loans the government can have, and economic damage it can incur, before it goes broke and the state’s economy collapses. Even taking on these loans is economically risky, as it pushes the economy into an inflation spiral. If the government pushes past that limit, it goes broke and literally becomes unable to continue the fight: unpaid soldiers desert, suppliers refuse to do business with it, etc. The United States, for instance, nearly went completely broke in the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II to varying degrees. World powers that crumbled because of war-incurred debts include colonial Spain, seafaring Netherlands, Napoleonic France, Germany (WWI), and England (post WW2).
  2. Whether the Death Stars were never built, or blown up, or lasted a hundred years doesn’t matter. The important financial fact here was that the money was already spent when the Death Stars became fully operational. The Empire was on the hook to pay it back, if it had to. And it didn’t matter that the money was spent on Death Stars. The Empire could have built 100 Star Destroyers or raised an army of 100 million stormtroopers. It wouldn’t matter if the Death Stars blew up, or the star destroyers flew straight into a star, or the stormtroopers all died of dysentery. Unless…
  3. The Empire didn’t need any loans to finance construction. It was a dictatorship: it didn’t have a typical relationship with the banking sector of the galaxy (the Banking Clans, for those in the know). Dictatorships tend to treat their financial sector as their own personal debit account. Those banks didn’t really exist as separate and independent businesses from the government. (China may be a better example than the US in this regard.) If the Emperor wanted all those quintillions to build the Death Stars, he could have dictated terms to the bankers: maybe he pays them back, maybe he doesn’t, maybe he pays no interest or makes payments when he feels like it (“pray I don’t alter the deal any further…”).
  4. Even if the Emperor allowed the banking sector to operate as a normal, independent industry, his fall wouldn’t necessarily cause those banks to fail. Banking sectors survive the downfalls of dictatorships and governments all the time without massive bailouts, collapsing, or going out of business. They write-off bad loans, take the loss, and move on. Some individual banks may fail (generally those propped up by the dictatorship to begin with), but not the entire sector. There have been enormous defaults of both public and private debt by developing countries for decades and the American and European banking sectors didn’t collapse each time.
  5. The aircraft carrier analogy is deeply flawed. The US military has 1o Nimitz-class aircraft carriers with two more under construction, compared to the Empire having one Death Star at a time. A Nimitz may be the equivalent of a Super Star Destroyer rather than a Death Star as far as the role it plays in the force structure. A better comparison would be one Death Star is equal to 10 Nimitz aircraft carriers. Or, use a smaller country that only has one or two carriers (UK, Russia) instead of the US.
  6. Finally, Feinstein overlooks an economic disaster that would be much, much worse than the loss of the Death Star ‘investments’ or even the fall of the Empire: destroying the planet Alderaan. Consider everything that was destroyed on Alderaan: real estate, industry, goods, information, ships, the workforce, consumers, raw materials, knowledge, financial assets, and a major galactic trading and transit hub. Add to that the sheer psychological trauma experienced by the rest of the galaxy from the loss of an entire planetary system and its population.

Consider the modern day equivalent of planetary destruction in a galaxy with over 1 million settled worlds: the destruction of a sizable portion of an American city. In the United States, the Chicago fire of 1871, the Boston fire of 1872, the 1906 Baltimore fire and San Francisco earthquake would be roughly equivalent. (Since there are not a million cities in the US, a disaster that levels part of a city is a more apt proportion than an entire city’s destruction.) In all of these historical cases, at least part of a major city was destroyed, wrecking the local economy and damaging other cities’ economies. The dual 1906 disasters threw the country into a recession. The Great Chicago Fire and the Boston fire contributed to the 1873 depression by stressing the financial reserves of banks.

While this is all fun speculation, there’s a more serious problem. Feinstein was not just joshing around – this is no Onion article and the press treated this paper at least half-seriously. The author used entirely ‘defensible’ but erroneous economic assumptions and a ton of simulations to make his case. His result was transparently arrived at and he showed his work in some detail. But his estimation of the economy of a (lightly-described) fictional universe highlights common problems with economics research today:

  1. Making poor assumptions that meet the relatively easier ‘defensibility’ test and just so happen to drive what sounds like a pre-determined, too-cute conclusion (the Rebels were doomed by victory!).
  2. Using sophisticated math-driven simulations that are built on unsophisticated assumptions or data that creates the illusion of rigor.
  3. Not accounting for the political economics of how financial sectors interact with governments that are not prosperous democracies with private market economies. This would seem critical to an economic analysis.
  4. Not accounting for the history of how a finance sector functions during wars, coups, revolutions, invasions, and civil wars. This would also seem critical to an economic analysis.

 

The JJ Abrams Apology Tour Awakens

This guy, huh? He creates the biggest movie of 2015, creates an iconic droid character that makes R2-D2 look like a garbage can, building on a heap of smashing achievements in TV and movies. However, if history is any indicator, he will soon be apologizing for what critics didn’t like. (In fact, some feared he started pre-apologizing with the trailer!)

No matter what you think about Star Wars: The Force Awakens (I loved it both times I saw it) you knew, I knew, and he knew, that there would be detractors. Detractors with good points, even. No movie is perfect and Star Wars fans are not easy to please.

Here’s how the JJ apology tour works. He seems like a relatively non-egotistical, reflective, thoughtful guy. When he’s promoting a given movie, he’s upbeat, he’s excited about it. He should be, because he really pours his heart, brain, and soul into every aspect of a movie he writes and/or directs.

But then the movie comes out. Some critics,  fans, cinemaphiles, even other directors, will dump on it in some ways. With Star Trek, it was the lens-flare and the red matter, for instance. Any creative type knows that you should probably not read the reviews, or respond to complaints. But JJ can’t help himself.

At first, JJ ignores the complaints, at least publicly. Some time after the movie’s release, he’ll defend his choices but be super-nice about it. He’ll explain his reasoning, talk about his process, his approach, and actually does a decent job impressing me, at least.

That’s where we’re at with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Check out his lengthy answers in this podcast or this i09 article about the podcast. The press are claiming that he ‘understands‘ the concerns. Is he trying to convince the critics or himself? He’s starting to second-guess his own choices, I think.

And then, down the road, there will be a ‘popular mismemory’ about reaction to his film. Like that Star Trek Into Darkness was terrible and the end of the franchise, which it wasn’t. And he’ll say okay, maybe the critics have a point. Maybe he did this thing or that wrong and he’s sorry, he won’t do that again. No overdoing the lens flare, the fan service, the hiding the villain too much, the unsolved mysteries, the lack of exposition, etc.

It happened with both Star Trek movies he directed. It happened with Super 8. It happened with Lost and Fringe. Eventually, JJ will agree with some critics and say he’s sorry. He’s going to do it on Star Wars pretty soon. And he shouldn’t. He did a bang-up job.

Don’t apologize, JJ, don’t!

That time I predicted that refugees would walk to Germany: UPDATE

 

Syrian refugees walking from Hungary to Germany. Source: Reuters

Syrian refugees walking from Hungary to Germany. Source: Reuters


 
UPDATE: Author and humanitarian Neil Gaiman, who has toured Syrian refugee camps, has posted information about how you can help these refugees.
 

One of the cool things about being a science fiction writer is coming up with really odd stuff. Events, characters, surprises that give readers whiplash as they do a double take. We writers think hard about this stuff, tossing aside the mundane, the easily predictable, the merely surprising. We’re writing in the future, with sentient dogs, aliens made of rock, people switching bodies, and predicting the future. I like to think that I set the bar high.

 

But it gets a shit ton weirder when life imitates art, when imagined stuff happens in real life, right in front of the author while he noshes on tortilla chips. Especially when it is only less than a year after the novel with said fictional tragedy is published. And then it becomes downright sad when a real-life tragedy copies it.

 

In my novel Crashpoint, 24th century Earth has civil wars, local disputes, and fragmented governments. Kind of like Syria, but all over the world. And these conflicts and genocides vomit up refugees streaming out of their home cities and countries to look for a better life. Masses of humanity, carrying whatever they can, simply walking down highways and roadways. They come out of southeastern Europe and head for Germany. Berlin in particular. Some greet them with aid and open arms, others open up on them with arms. Some bad shit goes down. And the fate of those refugees changes the world in the novel, for better and worse.

 

And right now, in the real world, Syrian refugees are hoofing it to Germany, where they hope to find sanctuary. They’re pushing strollers and wheelchairs.  They’re dying in boats to escape the miserable refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. It is a human catastrophe. Hungarian people are lining the streets to help them, ashamed that their local semi-national government has treated the refugees like crap.

 

I hope this real-life refugee cloud fares better than the ones in my book. When I wrote those scenes about the refugees, I took a page that has been repeated throughout recent history, where humanity woke up to the plight of refugees only after their massive misery, suffering, and tragedy. Hurting fictional refugees in hopes that readers won’t permit such in real life was one of the reasons I wrote it. I also felt like the time was coming for a cautionary tale about not watching out for the the helpless and defenseless.

 

Also, good on Germany for taking them in. Good on Pope Francis for calling on Catholic churches in Europe to take in one migrant family each. I wish every country would let people come and go as easily as they let capital and business travelers. It would be hard for the asshats in Syria on all sides to keep fighting (especially Assad) if all of the country’s civilians up and left.

Hacked and Stomped

I had my personnel records stolen in the Great Federal Personnel Chinese Hack-Heist of 2015. Lets recount all the organizations that have been hacked and lost my personal info, shall we?

  1. Federal government
  2. LastPass
  3. Target
  4. Playstation Network
  5. Apple

Let’s list all of my accounts that have been hacked because I accidentally lost my personal data:

0.

That’s fine. Hacking happens, nothing is perfectly safe, and a waiter can steal your credit card as easily as any online hacker. That’s not what steams my baked beans and makes my green tea go cold. It’s when an organization that has taken my personal data loses said data, inevitably the same CYA exercise happens:

  1. It mumbles a very late apology that such a hack happened, emphasis on late and mumbled.
  2. It doesn’t explain why it’s announcing that the hack happened more than a day ago. (Last year, OPM? Come on.)
  3. It doesn’t apologize for letting the known vulnerability remain open, and it is nearly always left open deliberately because fixing it costs money or time.
  4. It sure as shit doesn’t fire anyone who let the hack happen by pooh-poohing the needed security fixes. (BTW, the OPM director resigned because Congress didn’t like her performance in front of them, not because of the hack itself. Apple, Target, Playstation apparently never fired anyone.)
  5. It implicitly blames the hacked by adopting a series of ‘security measures’ that put responsibility on the hacked to be more secure, and are neither effective or address the exploited vulnerability itself. (“We lost the users’ passwords? Okay, make users change their password, and require them to add a special character and an uppercase letter that we will fail to encrypt and keep safe!”)
  6. They state that they have/will close the vulnerability that led to the hack, but the statement is such corporate PR bullshit that I can’t believe it.

Last Pass is the only account I have any faith actually did protect my hacked data because they built their business on not actually knowing my master password. They still recommended, out of an abundance of caution, that I change it. And being a password storage company, they should have expected hacks.

Playstation, Apple, and Target all let themselves get hacked because keeping vulnerabilities open was cheaper. End of story, case closed. OPM let it happen for any number of reasons, but it was most likely an inside job done for either money or as part of Chinese espionage (by a contractor, no less).

So yeah, the Chinese now have everything that was in my non-sensitive security clearance and all of my personnel records. They could probably steal my identity about 20,000 different ways. But they won’t. They’ll just data mine the OPM databases for potential spies and/or Alibaba customers. Or they just wanted to make all us feds really afraid.

You can tell those worm-ridden, pieces of filth that they won’t get any such pleasure from Marc Hamillton Zworeknee, Social Security Number 9964-12A-402168, born in Browchester, New Mexico on June 2, 1981.