Nerd Culture

Someone has been reading the Star Wars RPG opening adventure

Laser from space!

Rogue One is a great movie. But more importantly, it’s a movie that brings the original Star Wars feeling back to life. It is a lively, intense romp through the Star Wars universe, replete with all the things that made the original movies so enjoyable: characters you really want to win, a plot that unfolds at the speed of light and keeps you on the edge of your seat to the end, stunning settings, space battles, and valiant heroism and sacrifice. The main characters are constructed quickly and smoothly at the beginning in broad brush strokes, which waste no time establishing who they are but get you engaged with them early on. The plot is driven by the same tense, demanding deadlines that we are used to from the original movies: an impending doom, a crucial space battle that depends on a small insurgent team to rescue it from catastrophic failure, and a taut race against all the resources of the Empire to snatch victory from them against impossible odds. The story unfolds over several planets, all presenting very different settings and ending in a beautiful archipelago that offers great views for the astounding slaughter unfolding in and above it. The fundamental driver of the plot – the need to get the plans to the Death Star – demands valiant action, heroism and sacrifice from a band of people thrown together by a mixture of desperation and idealism.

Still, we know from bitter experience that it’s possible for a Star Wars movie to appear to have all these elements, but to submerge them in plots designed by the marketing department, a sea of CGI, and limpid acting that makes you forget whole scenes. We don’t see any of that in Rogue One – the plot isn’t just tight and well worked, it makes sense within itself and does not demand that we regularly suspend our sense of disbelief or our understanding of what makes stories work in order to accept the sequences of events unfolding before us, and although there are several points in the movie where disparate forces come together to create chaos, the mechanism of their having been brought together makes sense and doesn’t stretch our credulity. There’s plenty of CGI but it’s used sparingly, giving us what we need and no more – none of those classic sci-fi disasters of filling the screen with spaceships because you can – and the CGI doesn’t ever serve to distract us from bad dialogue or bad acting. The dialogue is, apart from one bad joke, very well crafted, and just as in the original movies a droid plays an essential role in establishing the best repartee. And the acting is great.

Of course there was a time when these would have been considered baseline standards for a good movie, but in modern science fiction movies you’re lucky if you get to see all these basic conditions met, so we must remark on them as if they were unlocked achievements. Rogue One goes further than just unlocking these achievements, however. It also presents us a moody feeling of loss and threat throughout, it gives us fine cinematography and some stunning set pieces to make us marvel, and it is picture perfect to the original movies. If you watch Star Wars Episode 4 immediately after this movie (as I essentially did) you will see a seamless flow from Rogue One to A New Hope. Better still, Rogue One’s story offers an explanation for a core problem many people have with the fundamental plot of Episode 4, effectively saving that movie from itself and improving the original offering. It also is about more than just stealing the plans for the Death Star – it is the entire first two sentences of the opening text of Episode 4, fleshed out and with a rollicking ending that explains everything and leads you straight to A New Hope. As a result this movie, much more than anything that was made since Return of the Jedi, deserves to be considered canon, even if Disney are trying to present it as a sideshow. This movie is a genuine improvement on the Star Wars universe, a real core offering, and has much more to add to the story we grew up with than any of the flaccid bloatware that has been released in the past 20 years.

The movie does have its flaws, of course, but they’re not serious. At one stage near the end the heroes are presented with a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieving their task, which of course they overcome, but this turns a small section of the movie into an action platformer, or some kind of sci-fi version of that Ninja Warrior game show. That lets it down a bit and I think this part could have run more smoothly without pushing our heroes to be super-human to no particular plot purpose. Also this movie suffers the same problem as Episode 7, where hyperspace travel now happens at the speed of plot rather than any coherent actual time frame – we no longer do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, we do it in however long it takes to get our spaceship to the next scene on time and in position. Of course there’s no reason not to have hyperspace travel be near-instantaneous, since it’s hyperspace, but in the original story they at least had time for a highly fraught game of chess and some jedi training before they rocked up into a meteor shower. Now it appears we can get an entire fleet of battleships from quiescent to the other side of the galaxy, in battle formation, in the blink of an eye.

Aside from those small flaws though, this movie was brilliant from start to finish, and for me at least it restored my faith in this once-great series. If we’re lucky the producers and directors of Episode 8 will learn from this and try to get the whole carnival back on track – or we will see more spin-off movies that add more to the Star Wars mythology than the core movies ever do. Or, ideally, both. But just in case this is the last good thing ever to come out of Star Wars, I recommend seeing it as soon as you can – the ending of this movie is absolutely ruined if you hear any spoilers, so get down to the cinema and see it as early as you can, before the best thing to happen to Star Wars in 30 years is ruined by its own success!


Today I saw Independence Day: Resurgence, because I wanted to watch something stupid with big explosions and I have forgotten enough of the original to make it feel like I was doing something novel. Of course it was fun – big things got blown up, there were tidal waves and monstrous destruction, heroic fighter pilots taking on the behemoth, etc. But it was also, pretty much from the start, a showcase for everything that is wrong with modern action movies. Except that it’s fun to watch shit blow up, this movie was a completely execrable effort.

It had the usual problems one learns to live with in modern action movies: speeches that are meant to be stirring end-of-the-world heroic efforts but are actually just kind of lame; random shifts in timing that mean that a 4 minute countdown to human extinction takes an hour, but a day-long trip to the moon happens at the speed of plot; American triumphalism that is so common and boring now that it might as well be part of the scenery; and military dialogue that is meant to be snappy and jocular but just comes across as wooden (everyone wants their soldiers to be like Aliens or Dog Soldiers but they just come across as macho try-hards). This movie struggled under the additional burden of occasionally being a bit top-gun like, and having a bunch of relationships between male leads that were way too closet-homosexual (a problem since Top Gun, I guess). I’m pretty sure that two scientists were meant to be gay (one gets killed of course because that’s the rule for same sex relationships) but I don’t want to impugn the actors – they may just have been terrible actors whose ineptitude came across as camp.

But one learns to live with this kind of thing. This movie was weighed down by bigger problems than these – the kind of problems that are too common in modern action movies, and really ruin them. Here are some of these problems, with spoilers (which I hardly think you need to care about – if you go into this movie thinking any of the non-gay heroes are going to die, or that the human race was ever under any real threat, you really do deserve a medal for your naivete).

The pointless alarms: I think there were at least three points in the movie where a major character has a breakthrough of some kind – usually, in this movie, because they have some deep connection to the alien mind – that enables them to realize that there is a big problem coming up, such as a major attack or a trap. Their discovery/revelation of this big issue is a major scene in the movie, and they rush to tell everyone, but in every instance they’re too late. Everyone finds out at exactly the point that the character reveals the issue, because the issue happens right then. There’s a whole subplot of this movie about how some humans were affected by contact with the alien hive-mind and they get insights into the alien’s plans from this contact, but every single time they rush into the control room to yell “it’s a trap!” or appear on the podium to say “they’re coming!” or whatever, it’s irrelevant – the trap springs a moment later, or the shadow of the spaceship is already overhead, or the top secret weapon is activated by someone else who has no connection with the aliens whatsoever. But of course none of our heroes (except the gay one) are allowed to die, so then we are treated to this ridiculous series of complications and implausible events that enable the heroes to escape the trap, or survive the sudden arrival of the alien spaceship, or whatever. The movie would be so much simpler and less irritating and more coherent if these realizations – and all the backstory necessary to support them – were stripped away; or, so much more tense and self-consistent if the warnings came in time to change the course of the story. Instead, since the story writers are complete idiots, the plot is constantly annoying you with this irrelevant backstory to justify urgent warnings that make no difference.

The bad guy’s plans are just dumb: All too often this kind of movie has a bad guy who could win everything by sticking to a simple plan that works, like flying a 3000 km long spaceship over the Atlantic Ocean, blowing up everything in your way, and then sucking all the molten metal out of the earth’s core. Instead, the bad guy does stupid shit that doesn’t make any sense, either from a practical planning point of view or within the framework of the particular form of implacable evil that the bad guy represents. Sometimes the problem is just that the bad guy’s overall plan for world domination is such obvious bullshit that it should be comedy, like when the Joker (or was it the Penguin?) planned to put hallucinogens in the Gotham City water supply and then rule the world (?!). In this movie though it’s the more common problem that the evil bad guy has a simple plan that doesn’t require any embellishment, and so the embellishments don’t make any sense; and then at the end the bad guy does something completely irrational that obviously is high-risk and doesn’t match the bad guy’s personality at all. In this case, having proven that the 3000km long spaceship can destroy every orbital defense in a second, control gravity sufficient to tear entire cities into the sky, and drill a hole to the earth’s core in a day, the bad guy has to lay some kind of trap to lure a few of earth’s bombers inside its 3000km long spaceship and then blow them up. Why? Why doesn’t it just wipe them all out in a millisecond and keep on about its business? And how does this trap in any way relate to its subsequent ability to destroy all the earth’s satellite communications? (The movie suggests that they are linked somehow). This is just incoherent. Of course then subsequently, having proven that it has a spaceship capable of destroying any opposition and protecting it from any harm, the evil bad guy decides to depart in a much smaller ship and attack the main human base, which is heavily defended, rather than just sending minions. Suddenly the bad guy goes from being an implacable insect mind of infinite evil and cruelty to a vengeful viking with no common sense. This kind of sudden change in behavior really obviously was just done to make the plot work, and when the writers betray the principles of the characters so that they can make a story, you just find yourself thinking they’re arseholes with no respect for their audience.

The pointless sacrifices that don’t matter: It’s apparently impossible to send a guided missile through a hole the size of a large crater in this super-technological future, so instead a bunch of brave dudes have to commit to a suicidal run to get that weapon in there, and then of course it doesn’t work anyway because the whole thing was a trap. This might make sense except that moments earlier we’ve been told that the air force will use drones to break down the 3000km long spaceship’s (previously impervious!) shields. I’m sorry, but if you want me to place some value on a person’s self-sacrifice, you actually have to give me a reason why they should kill themselves.

Being a dickhead idiot jock never has consequences: Apparently when you work on a top-secret high-value moon base that holds a weapon so powerful it can destroy massive alien spaceships, that is the prize of earth’s fleet, you can just steal a spaceship, go to earth, pick up a couple of guys you think you might need (who incidentally never told you where they were) then return to the moon and be given no punishment. You can also nearly destroy that weapon by your own stupidity, then do something really reckless to stop it being destroyed, and be grounded for a day. Even though it’s your third offense, and your first offense involved destroying an experimental jet and nearly getting your buddy killed. Here’s the thing, idiot hollywood writers: jocks aren’t cool. They’re bullies and dickheads. You don’t make them cooler by making their bullying, reckless, stupid behavior consequence-free. When you do that you just make most of the audience like them less, and wonder why they’re cheering these people on.

The cataclysms that don’t: This 3000km long spaceship settled over the Atlantic and created a tidal wave so great that it washed away Florida, and hurled cargo ships around like matchsticks; but a tiny salvage ship full of dodgy dudes out in the middle of the Atlantic, a mere kilometre away from the source of the ship’s death ray, was completely untouched and not even rocked by a wave. In case you’re thinking “oh but that was just the eye of the hurricane, right?” the writers are sure to make it clear that this is the only ship left in the area. Similarly we see these ordered refugee columns fleeing the destruction and leaving a lane of the road open for people to pass them by, and we see a rain of destruction in which one city is dropped on another city but our heroes’ valiant spaceship is completely undamaged by being in the middle of it all. This kind of thing is really annoying because it tells you immediately that all the death and destruction you’re going to see is not a threat to your heroes – they’re immune to everything and anything, and the story will make this clear repeatedly, so that by the end you’re bored of the supposed “challenges” they get caught in. Why should I invest any energy into supporting the struggle of a bunch of dudes who I know are going to make it out no matter what, because they’re jocks?

Once, just once, I would like to see one of these movies go through all these stupid errors and then in the last 20 minutes wipe out the earth and kill all the heroes because they’re reckless fools. That, of course, is never going to happen. So instead I have to sit through these movies full of shlock in order to see a few things blown up. I guess if writing these kinds of stories were difficult this might be okay, but I’m a GM and I know how to make a simple plot that involves lots of violence for a good purpose; plus I’ve seen movies like Die Hard, Aliens, Starship Troopers and Dog Soldiers which are able to make a simple story hang together in a believable way, even though every aspect of every one of those movies is completely unrealistic.

This shit is really not difficult to get right. Why is it so hard for modern Hollywood blockbusters to make a decent action movie?

Hot on the heels of a (probably wrong) paper on ivory poaching that I criticized a few days ago, Vox reports on a paper that claims schools that give away condoms have higher teen pregnancy rates. Ooh look, a counter-intuitive finding! Economists love that stuff, right? This is a bit unfortunate for Vox since the same author has multiple articles from 2014 about rapidly falling birth rates that are easily explained by the fact that teenagers are really good at using contraceptives. So which Vox is correct, 2014 Teens-are-pregnancy-bulletproof Vox that cites national pregnancy and abortion stats, or 2016 give-em-condoms-and-they-breed-like-rabbits Vox that relies on a non-peer-reviewed article by economists at NBER? Let’s investigate this new paper …

The paper can be obtained here. Basically the authors have found data on school districts that did or didn’t introduce free condom programs between 1989 and 1993, and linked this with county-level information on teen birth rates over the same period. They then used a regression model to identify whether counties with a school district that introduced condom programs had different teen pregnancy outcomes to those that didn’t. They used secondary data, and obtained the data on condom distribution programs from other journal articles, but because population information is not available for school districts they used some workarounds to make the condom program data work with the county population data. They modeled everything using ordinary least squares (OLS) regression. The major problems with this article are:

  • They modeled the log of the birth rate using OLS rather than directly modeling the birth rate using Poisson regression
  • Their tests based on ratios of teen to adult births obscures trends
  • They didn’t use a difference in difference model

I’m going to go through these three problems of the model, and explain why I think it doesn’t present the evidence they claim. But first I want to just make a few points about some frustrating weaknesses in this article that make me think these NBER articles really need to be peer-reviewed before they’re published.

A few petty complaints about this article

My first complaint is that the authors refer to “fighting AIDS” and “AIDS/HIV”. This indicates a general lack of familiarity with the topic: in HIV research we always refer to the general epidemic as the HIV/AIDS epidemic (so we “fight HIV/AIDS”) and we only refer to AIDS specifically when we are referring to that specific stage of progression of the disease. This isn’t just idle political correctness: patterns of HIV and AIDS differ widely depending on the quality of notification and the use of treatment (which delays progress to AIDS), and you can’t talk about AIDS by itself because the relationship of AIDS and HIV prevalence depends highly on the nature of the health system in which the disease occurs. The way the authors describe the HIV epidemic and reponses to it suggests a lack of familiarity with the literature on HIV/AIDS.

This sloppiness continues in their description of the statistical methods. They introduce their model as follows:

Condom model

But on page 10 they say that the thetas represent “county and year dummies” and that the Tc represents “county-specific trends”. These are not dummies. A “dummy” is a variable, not a parameter, and “dummies” for these effects should be represented by an X multiplied by a theta. In fact the theta and Tc are parameters, and in any kind of rational description of a statistical model this model is written wrong. It should be written with something like ThetacXc where Xc is the dummy[1].

This kind of sloppiness really offends me about the way economists describe their models. This is a simple OLS regression of the relationship between the log of birth rate and some covariates. In epidemiology we wouldn’t even write the equation, we would just list the covariates on the right hand side. If anyone cares about the equation, it’s always the same and it’s in any first year textbook. You don’t make yourself look smart by writing out a first year sociology equation and then getting it wrong. Just say what you did!

So, with that bit of venting out of the way, let’s move on to the real problems with the article.

Another model without Poisson regression

The absolute gold standard correct method for modeling birth rates is a Poisson regression. In this type of equation we model counts of births directly, and incorporate the population as an offset. This is a special case of a generalized linear model, and it has a special property that OLS regression does not have: the variance of the response is directly related to the magnitude of the response. This is important because it means that the uncertainty associated with counties with small numbers of births is not affected by the counties with large numbers of births – this doesn’t happen with OLS regression. Another important aspect of Poisson regression is that it allows us to incorporate data points with zero births – zero rates are possible.

In contrast the authors chose to use an OLS regression of the log of the birth rate. This means that there is a single common variance across all the observations, regardless of their actual number of births, which is inconsistent with the behavior of actual events. It also means that any counties with zero births are dropped from the model, since they have no log value. It also means that there is a direct linear relationship between the covariates on the right hand side of the model and the outcome, whereas in the Poisson regression model this relationship is logarithmic. That’s very important for modulating the magnitude of effects.

The model is, in fact, completely inappropriate to the problem. It will give the wrong results wherever there are rare events, like teenage births, or wherever there are big differences in scale in the data – like, say, between US counties.

Obscuring trends with a strange transformation

I mentioned above that the article also uses the ratio of teen to adult births (in age groups 20-24) to explore the effect of condom use. Figure 1 shows the chart they used to depict this.

Figure 1: The weird condom diagram

Figure 1: The weird condom diagram


Note that the time axis is in years before and after implementation of the program. This is a highly deceptive figure, because the schools introduced condom programs over 4 years, from 1989 to 1993. This means that year 0 for one school district is 1989, while for another it is 1992. If teen births are increasing over this period, or adult births are decreasing, then the numbers at year 0 will be rates from four different years merged together. This figure is the mean, so it means that four years’ worth of data are being averaged in a graph that only covers ten years’ worth of data. That step at year 0 should actually occur across four different points in time, within a specific time trend of its own, and can’t be simplified into this one diagram.

Note that the authors only show this chart for the schools that introduced a condom program. Why not put a similar line, perhaps in a different color, for school districts that didn’t? I suspect this is because the graph would contradict the findings of the model – because either the graph is misrepresentative of the true data, or the model is wrong, or both.

This graph also makes clear another problem with this research: the authors obviously don’t know how to handle the natural experiment they’re conducting, since they don’t know how to represent the diverse start points of the intervention, or the control group.

Lack of a difference in difference model

The authors include a term for the effect of introducing condom distribution programs, but they don’t investigate whether there was a common effect across condom distribution and non-condom distribution regions. It’s entirely possible that school districts without condom distribution programs also saw an increase in teen pregnancies (1989 is when MTV came out, after all, and all America went sex crazy. It’s also the year of Like a Prayer, and Prince’s song Cream was introduced in 1991. Big things were happening in teen sexuality in this period, and it’s possible these big things were way bigger than the effect of government programs.

Statistics is equal to any challenge, though[2]. We have a statistical technique for handling the effect of Miss Calendar grooving on a wire fence. A difference-in-difference model would enable us to identify whether there was a common effect during the intervention period, and the additional effect of condom promotion programs during this period. Difference-in-difference models are trivial to fit and interpret, although they involve an interaction term that is annoying for beginners, and they make a huge difference to the interpretation of policy interventions – usually in the direction of deciding the intervention made no difference. Unfortunately the authors didn’t do this, so we see that there was a step change in the intervention group, but we don’t see if there might have been a similar step change in the control group. This effect is exacerbated by having county-specific time trends, since it better enables the model to adapt to the step in the control group through adaptively changing these county-specific trends. This means we don’t know from the model if the effect in the intervention group was really confined to the intervention group, and how big it really was.

The correct model

The correct model for this problem is a Poisson regression modeling teen births directly with population as an offset, to properly capture the way rates change. It would be a difference-in-difference model that enables the effect of the condom programs to be extracted from any general upward or downward steps happening at that time. In this model, figure 1 would be replaced by a spaghetti plot of all the counties, or mean curves for intervention and control not rescaled to ensure that the intervention happens at year 0 for all intervention counties, which is misleading. Without doing this, we simply have no evidence that the condom distribution programs did what the authors claimed. The ideal model would also have a further term identifying whether a condom program did or didn’t include counselling, to ensure that the authors have evidence for their claim that the programs with counselling worked better than those without.

I’m partial to the view expressed that counselling is necessary to make condom programs work, but Vox themselves have presented conflicting evidence that teenagers are perfectly capable of using condoms. Given this, explicitly investigating this would have provided useful policy insights. Instead the authors have piled speculation on top of a weak and poorly-designed statistical model. The result is a controversial finding that they support only through very poor statistical modeling.

The correct model wouldn’t have been hard to implement – it’s a standard part of R, Stata, SPSS and SAS, so it’s unlikely the authors couldn’t have done it. It seems to me that this poor model (and the previous one) are indicative of a poor level of statistics and research design teaching in economics, and a lack of respect for the full diversity of statistical models available to the modern researcher. Indeed, I have a Stata textbook on econometrics that is entirely OLS regression – it doesn’t mention generalized linear models, even though these are a strong point of Stata. I think this indicates a fundamental weakness in economics and econometrics, and leads me to this simple bit of advice about models of health and social behavior prepared by economists: they’re probably wrong, and you shouldn’t trust them.

I hope I’m wrong, and Vox don’t keep vexing me with “explainers” about research that is clearly wrong. I don’t hold out much hope …

fn1: for those digging this far, or who often stumble across this horrible term in papers they read, a “dummy” is just a variable that is either 0 or 1, where 1 corresponds to the event of interest and 0 to not the event of interest. In epidemiology we would just say “we included sex in the model”. In economics they say “we included a dummy for sex.” This is just unnecessary jargon.

fn2: Except the challenge to be fun.


Little tiny worlds

Little tiny worlds

Last weekend I took a brief trip to Osaka to watch the 13th day of the Sumo. The following day I visited Saihoji, the Moss Temple, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Of course the Sumo was good, although there’s something wrong with Hakuho at the moment that is throwing an overpoweringly negative aura over the whole thing, but the standout experience of my weekend was moss viewing at the Moss Temple.

Moss viewing is exactly what it sounds like, the act of appreciating moss in its full furry glory. In Japanese the phrase for this is koke kansatsu, strictly speaking the “appreciation of moss”, and it is a little-known companion activity to the famous viewings of cherry blossoms (in late March/early April) and Autumn leaves (in November). Moss viewing has been developing a following recently, that can be witnessed quite well on instagram with the #苔 hashtag and is described in detail at this website. One very good place to do this is the Moss Temple, Saihoji (西芳寺), a Buddhist temple near Arashiyama in Kyoto that is within walking distance of Kamikatsura station (signs clearly mark the path to the temple), and which has extensive Japanese gardens devoted to the furry green stuff.

Precarious plantations

Precarious plantations

My friend in Osaka told me about the temple so we visited together. You can’t just turn up at this temple; you have to book in advance by sending a postcard to the temple requesting a time, and waiting for them to send you back a reply postcard that tells you when you can get in. It costs 3000 yen each to enter the temple, and once you get in you don’t get to go straight to the moss garden you’ve been waiting for. Instead, you have to attend a prayer, where you sit in front of a small desk along with about 50 other people in the temple’s inner sanctum. The monks provide you with a calligraphy brush, a wooden votive stick and an ink block. They then sing the haramita heart sutra, which they sing at high speed and great intensity. You can hear a slower rendition of this sutra here, though I stress it is slower than the version I heard. You then have to write a prayer on the votive stick and take it to the altar to make your wish. Apparently during weekdays you are expected to copy out the whole sutra on a piece of paper before you leave (from the video you can see this would be a pain). Unfortunately my hand-writing is terrible and I have no experience with the brush, so my prayer was a blurred monstrosity. However, I’m sure whoever or whatever I’m offering my prayer to can read my heart, right …?

There's unobtainium in them there hills!

There’s unobtainium in them there hills!

After the devotions are over you are free to wander the temple, which takes probably an hour if, like me, you stop to take a lot of pictures. The garden is a sprawling patch of moss around a couple of interconnected lakes, most of the garden roped off to protect the moss. From the edges of the path it’s easy to take a variety of close up pictures of different landscapes, and everything they say is true – the moss really is like its own tiny world, with a diverse range of landscapes and structures in the micro world of its curlicules and spores. If you get in close and zoom in it resembles forests, plains, hills, deserts – you can see all the structures of the earth recreated in miniature within its strange fractal shapes. It’s great! I went at probably the wrong season (the rainy season, in June, is apparently best), and on a bright day which is  not the best day for moss-viewing, but I still saw a wide range of colours, patterns and strange wildernesses on the verge of the path.

The Saihoji temple is a great place for viewing moss. It’s only an hour from Osaka and the complex booking system means that there aren’t many people there, so you aren’t always jostling to see things as is often the case when you visit anywhere near Tokyo. The heart sutra is a really interesting experience and is sung with heartfelt power by the monks, and provides a powerful backdrop to the full enjoyment of the peace and tranquility of a mossy Japanese garden. Then, there is moss. Which is great. I strongly recommend this travel experience in Kyoto, although I think it may be impossible for people without a connection in Japan who can send the postcard. If you can arrange it though, I strongly recommend trying to get to this temple – and I recommend moss viewing anywhere, if you have a magnifying glass or a good camera, and a willingness to look really, really nerdy … Which, if you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you do!


Christian doctrine summarized

Christian doctrine summarized

Today’s news brings us reports that the Church of England’s gentle attempts to frontload the new Star Wars movie with a one minute long advert for their brand of authoritarian fantasism have fallen flat, in what everyone (even Richard Dawkins, apparently) is calling a defeat for free speech. In a stunning moment of unexpected bravery from our corporate overlords, the bosses of three different cinema chains have told the CofE to get fucked. Rather than being horrified by this slow slide into oppression, I am very happy, and extremely angry that the CofE felt they had the right to pull this nasty piece of totalitarianism on the British public. Before you start hyperventilating, dear reader(s), let me explain …

I’m not an easily offended man, I think, and I think I’ve been on the record as supporting free expression for all religions. I’m an atheist but I don’t subscribe to the “Militant Atheist” school of “thought”, which holds that religion is a childish emotional prop and that society should and will grow past it. I respect individual religious belief, I think religions should have freedom in public life and I’m not especially bothered by the special place that some religious institutions hold in public life – e.g. the christian churches of various denominations in various nations, Islam in Turkey, etc. In the modern era I really don’t see religion as a big threat to our continued progress towards enlightenment, and I have no problem with its open expression and with its historical contributions being recognized. I’m also, I think, on record here as saying I suspect that a lot of the militant atheist spokespeople are sexist, racist bigots who are especially fond of using their atheism as a cloak for their obvious anti-Arab or anti-Islamic racism, and I don’t think that their aggressive tactics do atheism any favours. To the extent that atheism is a movement (it’s not) we don’t need these people as our chief representatives. However …

The Church of England, because it has a huge and privileged position in the British intellectual world. It is the establishment church, meaning the head of the church is also the head of a nuclear-armed state. It owns most of the publicly-run schools, and I can personally attest to the way it used those schools to exclude other religions from discussion, to misrepresent them and to force us to learn and recite its doctrine. It gets free public air time for Sunday worship and special events that no one else gets, and its religious events are the key public holidays, during which time it gets almost untrammeled access to both state and private television and radio. Despite this near constant exposure of a large portion of the population to its propaganda message, and despite the fact that the major media organizations treat the corrupt content of that message with kid gloves, it is still losing the intellectual battle with atheism, agnosticism and who-gives-a-fuckism. So, having lost that battle, and aware of that, they are now going to start forcing adults who have graduated from their schools and escaped their slimy clutches to sit through a minute of unbridled power worship before they can enjoy some actually good fantasy.

Why should we put up with this? Why should I be forced to endure that horrible piece of authoritarian “poetry” when I have already been forced to recite it every morning for the first 17 years of my life? If I am not voluntarily reciting it then there is a simple reason: I think it sucks and I don’t want to. So don’t make me read it again, if I never have to read that horrible little cry for help ever again in my belief-free existence I will be a happy man. And most importantly, what gives the church the arrogance and sense of superiority to think that it’s okay for them to afflict me with this crap during my daily activities? Every time I go to a hotel in the English speaking world I’m given a free bible [another public service extended exclusively to the christian church by private companies], hasn’t the church worked out that if I wanted to read that prayer I would?

Most people understand that if you have told someone something a certain number of times and they still don’t believe it or don’t want to hear it, it’s time to stop yelling at them. Apparently the luminaries at the head of the Church of England have yet to learn that lesson, and think they have some special right to lambast us with their brand of patriarchal authoritarianism just once more, because that one more minute will get us back. The thought of sitting there, waiting to watch something I really want to watch, while for one minute this old man lectures me on how much I should love a god I don’t believe in, makes me so angry. It’s a direct reminder that these evil old men still own my society; an attempt to force me back to being my 8 year old self, shivering and powerless in assembly hall while I wait to be free of their pointless rituals. How dare they do this?

Some random dude at the Guardian is complaining that the real reason the cinemas refused is because they’re scared the illuminati might force us to listen to a muslim prayer in the future, and then they’ll be forced to play it if they also play the christian one. For me personally a passage from the Quran is largely meaningless, and if I listen to it it won’t make me angry because I have no historical association with Islam (though I guess this depends on the prayer they choose!) But for the record I think that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and everyone else should steer well clear of my precious pre-Star Wars advertising time. I also really want to hope that this is not the reason the cinemas said no, but rather that they, like me, are horrified at the thought of allowing any church to preach to us for a minute before a movie. I’m glad they don’t need the money that badly!

The sooner the Church of England is out of schools and television altogether the better. It’s a dying institution that is propped up by the state and the buttresses of history, but its days are numbered. This desperate, mean-spirited lashing out at non-believing adults needs to be stopped early, and rather than seeing this decision as “nonsense on stilts” or some kind of blow to free speech we should recognize that it is a huge victory for modern values over superstition and authoritarianism. Well done those British cinema chains, and shame on the Church of England for thinking that such a move would ever be okay.

Dalton lay on the ground panting, shifting glances between his discarded gun and the power-armoured thug stomping on his arm. Later he would reflect with pride on the way he largely ignored the massive gun pointing in his face, but at this moment he was squirming in terror and introspection was not at the top of his list of emotional states.

Dalton was good at cataloguing his emotional states; his last girlfriend had told him he spent too long thinking about them and not enough time feeling them … if she could see him now …

“You’re not as good as you think, Dalton,” the man grunted in a kind of hissing, angry mid-western accent. “You’re fast, and smart, but you lack any kind of … combat sense. And you’ve got tics, you make mistakes that are easy to read.” He waved his (massive) free arm in the general direction of the receding battle. “You’ll never make it at this. Sure, you’ll make a bit of money but you’re never gonna make the big leagues, and there’s no room here for small fry, you know that.” The gun didn’t waver.

“Then just shoot me already! You’re wasting both our time.” Dalton surprised himself with his bravery. “It’s not a movie, cut the soliloquoys and -”

The big dude kicked him, a stinging strike across the face with the sole of one powered boot. It stank of dirt and burnt things, but somehow the smell was stronger than the pain. “Shut up! We don’t have time for banter. Listen, you’re never gonna make money here but I’ve got a job for you where you can use these skills to make real money. You want real work or are you gonna keep hustling with your busted crew? You wanna be something?”

Dalton worked his lips in a way that probably looked amusing to the thug. He was confused. In this world instant execution was the norm, there was no bargaining or negotiating, let alone job offers. Best take the chance. “Um, sure … How can I contact you?”

“No problem, Dalton. We know where you live. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The man lifted his foot from Dalton’s stiffening arm and ran away, remarkably fleet for his size. Sighing, Dalton picked himself up and reached for his gun.

How did that man know his name?

The raid: Ground floor

They went in through the chocolate shop windows, a specialized explosive net taking the entire glass pane down in a flash and the two assault guys leaping straight in after, spraying bullets wildly. Dalton came in the second wave, their medic/comms guy on his right and a heavy weapons/explosive guy behind them. There were three people in the shop but they went down before Dalton hit the room, and their corpses were already still by the time he got to the inner door. Here they had a short hallway, exactly according to the plans, and now Dalton was first, the two assault guys setting up a cordon at the far door so he could dive through. As promised the door was unlocked so he just charged through, firing from the hip into the room and hitting the right hand wall between the cabinet and the sink as planned. From here they were in the museum proper, and as expected the first of the plain clothes guards was in this room, pistol out, in cover behind the statue on the left of the door.

From Dalton’s perspective in the middle of the room the statue was no cover at all, and the guard was still adjusting his position to take account of Dalton’s rush. Dalton fired first, a slightly uncontrolled fusillade that chewed up the statue and tore the man apart in a cloud of blood. When you’re pretending to be a museum invigilator you can’t wear armour, so you have to shoot first. This chump didn’t.

There were three customers screaming in the room, trying to hide behind some glass installations in the opposite corner. Dalton gunned them down as the rest of his crew ran through and hit the main room. The glass didn’t protect them.

The main room was some kind of photography exhibition, a maze of cardboard walls with pictures hanging, all passing by in a blur as they sought out targets and put them down. Dalton checked his watch as they got through the third turn, but he didn’t have to, because as they headed for the stairs the Controller spoke in their earphones. “Too slow, one target missed. Get up fast before the guards assemble a barricade. Make time.”

They hit the stairs.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The thug lived up to his word, and next morning Dalton found himself having breakfast with a man who looked remarkably like the soldier he had met yesterday. They were in Tiffany‘s, the greasy spoon cafe across the road from Dalton’s flat, and the man had promised to pay so Dalton was enjoying Tiffany‘s best pancake pile, with gene-engineered maple syrup and (allegedly) real cream. There was a lot of coffee.

“You read the news article I sent you?”

“Yeah,” Dalton stuttered through a mouthful of steaming batter. “Not pretty.” Words were difficult, mostly because of the pancake but also because the situation he’d stumbled into when he moved to America was kind of crazy. Yesterday the Red Tide had hit a football stadium in Spokane, killing a couple of hundred people before they were taken down. The Red Tide had soon claimed responsibility, and promised more attacks to come.

The Red Tide: since the collapse all politics in America had gone local, but the Red Tide had gone national. The USA had fragmented into a bunch of different countries, made up of groups of states or single states that decided they were better off going it alone. Communal violence, purges, sometimes genocide, had accompanied the crash, but one group had risen above it all to fill the power vacuum at the national level: The Red Tide, a violent native American liberation movement that could lay claim to members from as far afield as New Mexico and New England, Seattle and Miami. While the past colonial powers squabbled over petty local political victories the Red Tide had consolidated nationally, formed a national movement, and armed itself. Now it was moving to take back what had always been its members rights, and it had been stunningly successful in the past few years. Fragmented local governments couldn’t cooperate to defeat it so it had scored striking victories, and recently declared its goal of establishing a sovereign native territory in America. People had scoffed, but since the stadium attack the laughter had died down. People were starting to realize something new was here.

Dalton shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. National politics.” He liked to pride himself on being a man of few words.

“Actually Dalton there is something you can do about it. A lot. And we’ll pay a lot. Are you interested?”

Dalton finished his pancake, pretending to maintain some calm. Dalton really needed money. He didn’t care at all about America’s stupid politics, but like every 20 year old he saw himself going places, and like everyone in America he understood that money was the ticket to those places. “I am. Sure. Yes. Tell me more.”

The man reached across the table and gently, but firmly, and decidedly threateningly, grabbed the front of Dalton’s t-shirt. “I can tell you more, Dalton, but I don’t tell you nothing if you don’t agree to help us. You understand? I can’t have you leaving here and blabbing to your friends about this. You agree to work for me and you’re mine, you get that?”

Dalton coughed and looked around nervously. The waitress was unsurprisingly absent, and there were no customers. A car parked outside looked like it was suspiciously full of ugly men. This man was decidedly ugly. He guessed that there were going to be no hints forthcoming, and he needed the money. “Is it gonna be dangerous?” He asked meekly.

“For you? No.” The man gave a wicked little grin that suggested it would be very, very dangerous for someone.

So long as it wasn’t Dalton. “Sure.”

The man let go, and the waitress miraculously reappeared with coffee. “A good decision Dalton, very wise. Let me tell you a story …”

The Raid: Exhibition Hall

This museum had its masterpieces on the second level. Everyone knew the layout, but the big problem was the guards. As a state institution the museum had the right to armed guards, who were at the back of the main exhibition hall. This hall was a labyrinth of small rooms and installations, with the guards likely scattered throughout the chambers, so they could hope to get to the doors before the guards assembled. It was a quiet time of day but this mission was planned for a class visit from a high school named after a famous killer of Indians[1], which would be likely spread around the exhibition hall. Their job was to kill them all and the guards.

The first guard was at the top of the stairs, firing down at them as they mounted the stairs. He scored a couple of hits on Spider, who went down and stayed down. Dalton was coming in second but had enough time to think: he took what cover he could and fired up into the doorway, driving the man back. The other assault squaddie, Snake, drifted across the stairwell, firing as he went, and crouched behind a statue. They waited. Spider was gone.

“Time running out. Move.” The controller’s voice sounded in their ears. Dalton had a translation bot installed but the language they were using, Sioux, was not available on most translation software and the open source chip he was using was pretty poor. He knew some of the other soldiers were not fluent Sioux speakers – none of his team were Sioux, in fact – but they at least knew some, and his chipset was essential. He doubted any of them realized it was a chipset though. The controller, however, was fluent in several Indigenous languages. He needed to be careful of the controller. “Ghost, get up and take that man.”

He grunted. “Sure boss.” He moved, firing as he went up, drifting right and left. The guard tried to spring him on the way out but moved to soon and Dalton hit him, four or five times. Dalton fell through into the first chamber of the exhibition hall, firing off the last of his magazine as he did. He didn’t have to call backup; Snake and the other two, Grass and Doc, were through before he had come to a stop. They were in the hall.

The students were screaming a lot and running, pretty hard to find. They took their time stalking and killing, probably after the event some Red Tide propagandist might say they were like hunters of old but cornering a pimply fifteen year old near a vending machine and shooting him full of lead is not what hunters do, it’s the work of an entirely different sort of personality. It didn’t phase Dalton.

The Controller gave his orders in Sioux, but he had a strange and alarming habit of giving advice in English. Dalton couldn’t figure out why, but as they rampaged through the Exhibition Hall the Controller berated them in Sioux and advised them in English. The Sioux came through Dalton’s chipset in a kind of rough and stupid patois, broken by the vicissitudes of digital translation, but the advice came as cute and abrupt information.

“Ghost-san, you should crouch more! Let’s enjoy crouching together!”

“Ghost-san, standing tall is dangerous. Let’s enjoy belly movement! 1, 2, 3 drop!!”

“Ghost-san, your back is exposed! I love your back, don’t get it shot! Guard that back!”

“Senpai says run faster!”

“Ghost-san always drops his right elbow and moves right! That’s a bad pattern! Let’s make exciting new moves!”

This strange didactic manner confused Dalton, but he moved through regardless, killing high school students. Near the end of the Exhibition Hall was a big chamber with a huge sculptural installation. The guards were in cover at the rear, firing on them as they entered. There was no way to the back of the building except through the guards. Dalton hit the room second, and prepared to make a break for cover.

Mission Statement

They had drunk a lot of coffee. The man was talking. His card was on the table. It said John Doe, Central Intelligence Agency (Des Moines).

“Did you know there’s a schism in the Red Tide? No, most people don’t.” After a lot of coffee, John Doe was big into monologues. Dalton just listened, didn’t even get a chance to nod or move his face before John Doe assumed his answer. “Apparently lots of these redskins don’t like killing people, they want to have some other kind of revolution where people don’t die. Haha. So we found a member of one of their assault crews who’s big on peace, and also pretty serious about heroin. It’s a good mix. Now he’s giving us the info we need, and he does what we ask provided he’s stoned.

“Thing is, he’s a member of one of their assault crews. They’ve got a bunch of missions under planning but we don’t know where. But we found out some things from this guy. Main thing we found out is how they train.

“They train virtually. They’ve set up a system of private servers for an old first person shooter called Call of Duty. This private server, it has maps of all the places they’re planning to hit, and tactics for how they’re gonna do it. The trusted team members log on every couple of days and go through assault scenarios, so when they hit the target they don’t just know the map – they’ve been through it in person, they know it right down to the lighting. Apparently this Call of Duty system is old but that means it has really good maps, a real network, it’s an industry standard so you can access maps for almost any public building.

“Fucking game designers, eh? Traitors, you ask me.

“Thing is, we’re not so good at computer games. But we’ve got some good hackers. What we need to know is where the server is, so we can get our hackers to it, and maybe get to its physical location and grab the backups. But to do that we need someone in the system, drawing a trace. And they need to be continuously logged in. They need to be good enough that they can stay alive for the couple of minutes we need to run a trace.

“The plan is you go in using our turncoat’s account, which is still trusted. You stay alive in there long enough to run a trace, and you leave without anyone knowing you’re an intruder. Then we go in and get their server, either virtually or physically, and we have the full list of their targets plus hopefully the IP addresses of all their members. All you need to do is stay alive in their virtual world. So it’s completely safe for you, and we’ll pay you a fat load. Then you clear out of America and no one ever knows you stopped the Red Tide. King fucking Canute. What do you say?”

He didn’t wait for an answer.

“Good, thought you’d agree. All the activists, they speak in Sioux, because they’re crazy, but it’s been a real problem up till now. We’ve designed a chipset that translates to and from Sioux but it’s not so great so don’t talk much, okay.” He laughed. “Guess that’s not a problem. Also they like to use Kinect Sensory systems, so you’ll feel a bit of physical effort – a bit of pain from being hit, a bit of dizziness or confusion where it gets busy, but nothing dangerous. We’ve set up a training session for this afternoon. You go in tomorrow, okay? No time to waste.

“By the way, this turncoat. His online name is Ghost. So you’ll be going in as Ghost. Good luck.”

The Raid: Timing

They hit the back of the Exhibition Hall. The installation was a large room full of wax statues of zombies, some kind of commentary on modern society and consumerism. The three armed guards were clustered behind the entrance to the Museum Shop, firing light weapons into the room. The team fired back, chips of wax flying as they fired past and through statues. They moved fast and forward, taking cover behind statues.

“Ghost-san! Always dropping that right elbow and moving right! Too predictable!”

The Controller’s language was too weird. Dalton was sure he’d heard it before somewhere but he was kind of distracted.

Screaming from behind the desk, someone hit. The other two fell back. The Museum shop was full of floating feathers and dust kicked up from all the stuffed toys they had shot. One guard was hiding behind the stuffed toys, firing madly. They wasted him when the magazine clicked empty, but number three had run away somewhere. Beyond was the walkway to the shopping centre.

“Timing is too slow.” The controller spoke. “Police will arrive at the shopping centre in two minutes. This is not a suicide mission. Push forward.”

They nodded agreement. The controller spoke again.

“Ghost-san! Hold gun lower before firing, recoil pulls up and right! Let’s ensure a solid shooting base!”

This incongruity of styles was really beginning to bother Ghost. The Controller spoke again. “Ghost, there is a group of academics on the third level. You go and kill them. Two are famous historians. The rest of the team enter the shopping mall and make your escape.”

Was this a test of Ghost’s suicide drive? It didn’t matter, this wasn’t a real mission. Going up would keep him alive longer. “Okay. Good luck comrades.” He assumed the chipset could handle that. They parted. Everyone was inscrutable and identical in their combat armour, so their leave-taking was perfunctory. Ghost headed up the stairs.

Why we fight

“You’ve been doing the Call of Duty combat circuit for a year now Dalton, you’re good but you don’t have the touch.” John Doe was doing the arrogant boss act now. “We also know that you did the hit on Wells Fargo Insurance two months ago. We don’t know who the solos were but we know you ran cyber-shadowing duties, you left a trace. You really need a better rig.”

Dalton understood now why they’d chosen him. He was looking at a world of trouble. He’d come to the USA to make his fortune because legend had it that after the crash the US had a terrible security system and robbery was easy in cyberspace. He thought he’d got away with a few jobs. So long as this guy didn’t know about Rapid City Nuclear Systems …

“Of course, Rapid City Nuclear Systems was a plant. None of that data is real. But you really gave yourself away there. You really need to improve your hacking if you’re gonna make it in this world.”

Ghost tried to look nonchalant, but he didn’t like where this was going. John Doe was leaning forward, his ugly brick-like face contorted into what probably resembled rage to a man with so much cyberware he was barely capable of real human expression. “Personally I think your kind should just be flatlined, you know? Bang! Another coward in the ditch.” He looked around conspiratorially. “In the New America that sort of thing’s okay, you know?” Sat back. “Governor was going to tick the box for me to deal with you properly, until this Red Tide rose. We don’t have much use for second rate hackers but right now we’ve got a big use for second rate Call of Duty players. So here’s the deal.

“You succeed in this mission, we let you go with a fat wad of cash, you vacate the Iowa Free State and get out of America. You fail and I take great personal pleasure in flatlining you. Great. Personal. Pleasure.”

He grinned. “Got it?”

Ghost nodded, flushed and sweating. “Got it.”

The Raid: A kind of recognition

He ghosted up the stairs. The controller spoke in his ear.

“Ghost-san always charges into a room. Wisdom arises from restraint! Try pausing!”

The top of the stairs opened into a small room. Dalton charged into the room, crouched low and moving fast. Someone fired at him but he picked them off. A last guard, unexpected by everyone. He hit the wall next to the archway leading into the next room. Where were the academics?

“Ghost-san! Always on the right side of the door! Your competitor will shoot through once they understand your patterns!”

Dalton sagged against the wall. Why did the controller care about his repetitive patterns? No one at the target zone was going to know about his previous history of fighting. And why did he always give his assessments in stupid weird English, but his orders in Sioux that got manged in translation?

It was deadly silent up here. Something was nagging at Dalton’s memory, a game a long time ago with a friend. He ducked around the corner and ran down the hallway to the cover of a vending machine.

“Ghost-san! Every time you run down the right hand side of the corridor. Let’s enjoy creative fighting together! Move left!”

Dalton thought “fuck it!” and moved left to hit an uncovered area. Bullets shattered the air around him, hitting the wall and glass above him. He dived but he’d been a fraction slow and the bullets hit his target area. Fuck! He’d been led into a trap by the controller’s instructions! What was that? He rolled back into the space he’d vacated, firing madly as he did so.

Then he realized: the manic English was not the controller, it was an Analysis Bot. Software that studied patterns of behavior in combatants. That software was illegal in all professional games, so Dalton and his friends never used it, but a year ago in casual gaming he’d noticed it. All Analysis Bots had a database of existing players loaded up, and they compared the players they were analyzing against the database to get ideas and advice.

The controller was using an Analysis Bot to give advice to his soldiers. But the Bot had identified Dalton’s combat profile from his history as a gamer, and the controller had realized he was an imposter on this account. He’d brought Dalton up here to kill him.

The Bot, of course, was ignorant of all of this.

“Ghost-san, good work! You broke a pattern!”

Too right! Dalton ducked back the way he’d come, and into a doorway. He smashed the window to the right of the door and hurled a grenade out into the hallway, then ducked and ran to an inner door. This door opened into a narrow, dark corridor, parallel to the main corridor. Something blew up back where the grenade was, but Dalton was running. There were no schematics – this was some kind of hidden level invented just for him. He ducked left into a big room, bizarrely an abattoir, completely different to the room he had left. Robot-like figures worked on screaming, dying cows and pigs. In the far corner a hulking shadow fired at him.

He ducked and dived. The shadow was big.

“Ghost-san, faster than usual! Adrenaline can – ”

The chirpy bot-voice cut off. Someone had noticed he understood. He fired a burst and cut left towards a large freezer. The big figure was moving towards him, firing as it went. He ducked behind a twitching cow corpse and opened a new comms channel. “John Doe are you in yet? I have trouble.”

A brief second that felt like an eternity. He fired over the cow for good luck.

“I don’t care about your trouble. Stay alive. We’re very close.”

The huge figure hit the cow at a run. It had come much faster than he expected. It was bigger than he expected, some kind of gleaming red power armour with a rifle in one hand and an insane chain saw in the other. He fell back, shooting madly, but the thing’s armour was immune to his assault rifle. It picked him up and hurled him across the room, into a block of ice. The kinect system sent twinges of pain up his back, nothing serious. He fired again but the thing just kept coming. It was wearing power armour, so he couldn’t see anything about it – no eyes to look into and plead for mercy. Just red death. He ducked as the chain saw cut into the ground with a huge burring roar. Rolled away and fired again. No luck.

“John Doe, it knows I’m here. Get in here, do something!”

The thing grabbed him with its other hand, lightning fast, a huge clawed glove getting him by the neck and raising him above the ground. Electricity flowed, his body twitched. In the confusion Dalton recognized ICE, software to hold him captive and unable to exit while the system traced him back to the source. He had been uncovered. Red Tide warriors were more than he had expected or been led to believe.

“Got it. Get out!”


Fortunately for Dalton, the Red Tide’s local troops were further away than John Doe’s team, and he was able to get away before they mobilized to his apartment, where they met John Doe and some of his friends. In the ensuing battle someone leveled the block, but Dalton was out and safe so he didn’t pay it much attention. They also found the location of the server, and although some kind of failsafe physically destroyed the server their hackers got there first and they were able to get both a list of targets and a couple of names. For his couple of minutes of Call of Duty success Dalton got a lot of money, and a new sense of humility.

He left America, aware that he had drawn a lot of heat.

He left America with a newfound awareness of his vulnerabilities. Not a great hacker, he realized, easily caught by second rate governments like John Doe’s. That was going to change. He devoted himself – and John Doe’s money – to learning better techniques, getting better decks.

Two years later, he arrived in New Horizon, polished and ready for the big time.

He never looked back. Except for one thing: he chose a street name that suited him.


[This short story was inspired by a news article a friend showed me about the Paris terrorists using Call of Duty or some similar game to communicate their plans. Cunning! So I imagined how this might work in the future. I swapped Islamic terrorists for Native Americans because this is the future, and an American connection ties Ghost to our group through the people he was involved with or enemies with in our first session.

I like cyberpunk histories!]

fn1: Hard to believe you say? Iron arse himself has a school district named after him

Very apt ...

Very apt …

On the plane back from Italy I watched Ant Man, which my friend told me was better than expected and because I saw Jurassic World on the way over to Italy. Ant Man was an okay movie – the action scenes were okay, the ant-dude got a few decent moments of humour, the ant-control stuff was alright, and by super-hero comic standards the bad guy’s evil scheme was relatively plausible (he developed a super weapon and sold it to some bastards). I absolutely hated the Falcon from the moment I saw him and just thought he was completely naff, and in this case the “good guy”‘s plan was just stupid and dumb and ridiculous and that made enjoying the movie a little difficult, but I was toughing it out okay until I discovered that the central emotional hook in the plot was going to revolve around Hope’s issues with her daddy. At this point I cringed and lost most of my interest in the movie.

Why do so many American action movies have daddy issues as their central human drama? Just off the top of my head I can think of Treasure Planet, the Lego Movie, that execrable Star Trek remake with the completely implausible time travel plot (if you could go back in time to attack the Federation why didn’t you use your time travel powers to stop the meteor you dipshit?) and now Ant Man. In many cases (Star Trek is an obvious exception, because it was unrescuable) these daddy issues just dragged the movie down. The Lego Movie even managed to combine the daddy issues with “it was just a dream” which is like combining the nadir of emotional manipulation with the nadir of story-telling. I was absolutely loving the Lego Movie until that horrible final 10 minutes, which even manages to creep up on you with this horrible, careful forewarning – you don’t just get the end spoiled for you, but you spend a couple of minutes having your perfect fantasy world slowly impinged on by this Sauron-esque level of daddy issues.

Daddy issues in action movies are always a bad emotional hook, for so many reasons. First of all, not all dads are dickheads but you would never get that impression if you turn on netflix. Secondly, the resolution of the daddy issues is always completely implausible: Hope is on the board of directors of a major international company, she’s a kick-arse fighter and a scientist and she’s hot, but her dad has treated her like shit for 30 years because – sorry to break it to you Hope – he’s a complete arsehole, and yet at the end of the movie something she does is going to convince him he should treat her better. Sure, 50 year old men change their opinions of their highly successful, beautiful and super functional daughters just like that … Thirdly, the movies usually reinforce the daddy’s arseholery through techniques the director seems to think are meant to presage this implausible turnaround, which is just dumb. There are several moments in Ant Man where we are led to believe Pops understand he’s being an arsehole – but he keeps it up anyway. We’re meant to take these moments as a sign he’s redeemable but they just really make him seem like an egregious arsehole. Fourthly, they turn one character into a useless waste of space. Hope could have saved the world but her dad won’t let her so she ends up being just a pretty waste of space who exists in the movie to give her dad a chance at redemption. Sorry, director dude, but I like my action movie chicks to be active. Finally, they reduce the density of explosions: every scene devoted to exploring the characters’ daddy issues is a period of time when shit is not being blown up, and I came to this movie to watch shit being blown up. Sure, it’s based on a marvel comic for teenagers but most of the audience are not teenagers – we’re adults, and we’ve come to terms with our own stupid family relationships, we don’t need to have our precious explosion time diluted with time-wasting emotional antics we aren’t engaged with. Sure, I understand that human drama is hard to do well and the best way to do it is to invest it with fighting and explosions: Star Wars, Terminator 1, The Last of the Mohicans and Titanic are examples of movies that improve otherwise ordinary human drama with explosions, fighting and spectacular damage. But it doesn’t work the other way, you can’t make shrinking a man to the size of an ant more interesting by giving his love interest daddy issues. So just drop it from the script, and either shorten your movie (I missed the end of the final battle because the plane landed, and I would have seen it if they hadn’t wasted time on Hope’s angst for a man who is obviously a worthless piece of shit who deserves to pay for all his past unethical behavior) or replace those minutes of worthless sentimental bloat with something worthwhile, like more explosions.

The way daddy issues are handled in modern action movies is also something of a sinister tale for impressionable viewers. To the extent that movies play a normative role – describing what is and how things should be done – these action movies with daddy issues present a universally terrible norm. Obviously we don’t take all our moral cues from movies but they do play a role in establishing and defining norms, just as all cultural products do, and the ubiquity of daddy issues in action movies, combined with the age and vulnerability of their audience (teenagers and young adults, more likely male than female) means we should pay some attention to the messages these movies are putting out. First of all they give viewers the impression that all relations between children and their parents are fraught – i.e that all dads are dickheads – which isn’t true, and furthermore by making these broken relationships central to the emotional tension of the movie they exaggerate the importance of these damaged relationships, or serve to reinforce the insecurities of young people about their relationships with their parents. But worse still, through all of these daddy issues movies there is an implication that the kid can do something to fix their dad’s dickheadness, as if the whole thing is their fault. They always come to a resolution where the kid manages to change the way their dad views them and treats them through either emotional appeal or action or both. Everyone with an actual parent (i.e., pretty much everyone) knows that this isn’t how parents work: most parents don’t accept that their kids have grown up, let alone change long-established patterns of behavior in which they are the boss and their kids are appellants. Unequal power relationships like this where the powerful person is a dickhead do not change through the action of the weaker person, because the powerful person’s behavior has nothing to do with the behavior of the weaker one and is not their responsibility. Dickhead dads are dickheads because they’re dickheads, not because the 8 year old child didn’t try hard enough. These daddy issues movies always send out the opposite message though: something you do can change how your dad treats you. i.e. how your dad treats you is somehow your fault. It’s not, but most people spend a large part of their life working towards this understanding. Perhaps if these movies made that clear it would be easier for young adults to get the hint and start being more realistic about their relationships with their parents.

I wonder why American action movies suffer so badly from this problem? Here I am going to suggest two possible reasons: a cohort effect, and an allegory for the relationship between the citizen and the state. You’ve come this far, gentle reader, so bear with me …

Cohort effects on crappy movies

As someone who grew up in the UK in the 70s and 80s, I can sympathize with the notion that dads are arseholes. All the dads I met when I was growing up were unreconstructed arseholes, the kind of men who hit their kids out of laziness or spite rather than any kind of theory of discipline[1]. Also, watching young adult movies of that time, like Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club, you get the impression that American dads were really cold and stand-offish (all the boys referred to their dad as “sir”!). My guess is that the majority of today’s script writers and storymakers are American men who grew up in that period, probably mostly middle class, and their experience of family life is a powerful, distant father who terrorized them and a weak mother who did nothing to protect them, and that is why they routinely give their female characters power then strip it away (e.g. Hope, Hermione, Captain Ahab in Treasure Planet) and make daddy issues central to the emotional content of the story. The world has changed since then, however, and modern fathers are given much more emotional leeway, and emotional involvement with their children is supported and respected in a way it never was when I grew up. Compared to an era when it was cool to say your kids were annoying and should be “seen not heard” it is now normal for a dad to say he loves his children, to want to spend time with them, and to be engaged in and proud of their personal lives. So while these script writers might be writing about their own experiences, they’re writing a story that is unfamiliar to the majority of both the men and the children watching their shows. So why do they keep doing it? They’re paid a lot of money to recycle this drek, and personally I really don’t care what happened between whatever dude “wrote” Ant Man and his dad. If this is the reason that they’re writing these cheap emotional stories, I think they should do better – try and look outside their own experience for five minutes of their lives, and write someone else’s story for once.

The father as allegory for the state

The problem with the cohort effect explanation, though, is that daddy issues seem to be uniquely a component of American action movies. The Kingsman, for example, involved the (dead) father as a story hook but it was by no means a central part of the story – like most British movies the relationship with the mother was just as important, and even though the mother was a feckless dickhead the kid was immune to her behavior, interested in rescuing her from her situation but not feeling himself to blame for it. Similarly Japanese teen movies don’t focus on broken father-son relationships, often backgrounding parental relationships entirely in favour of the angst of teenagers (Neon Genesis Evangelion is a classic example of this). So unless American dads are uniquely fucked – an unlikely prospect, given the universal fuckedness of parents – there must be some other uniquely American reason for this obsession. My suspicion is that it could be explained by growing uncertainty about the relationship between American citizens and their state (bear with me here). In its classical representation, the state plays a role very much like a distant but essentially loving father. It can be demanding and harsh but ultimately its love is unconditional – if you are a member of its family you will get its support, whether at home or abroad. But recently this relationship between citizen and state has started to unravel, with a whole rash of policies that undermine the unconditional nature of this relationship. The most obvious is the desire of certain states to strip citizenship from people who fight against them – the political equivalent of being disinherited. But there are others: three strikes laws and mandatory sentencing; the excesses of the war on drugs; permanent sex offender registries; targeted killings of citizens in foreign countries; recent revelations of unconstrained spying on the communications of citizens; attacks on social security; the horrible and US-specific practice of civil forfeiture; and some of the more dubious sting operations that American authorities have employed in recent years. To be clear, these extra-judicial extravagancies have always been deployed against black people and certain types of domestic dissident, but in the past the victims of such excesses have typically been those who the state has refused to accept as full citizens (black people and communists). The more recent civil rights violations have expanded their reach to include middle class whites, who have always believed themselves to be the core group that the state will love unconditionally. This slow degrading of the basic rights of ordinary Americans, and this subtle change in the relationship between individual and state, might not be something that these white middle-upper class American screenwriters are directly aware of, but the general change in climate might be affecting the way they feel, and not having directly identified their concerns, it’s possible that they’re being reflected in their cultural product through uncertainties in their depiction of core human relations. If this were the case though one would think that similar allegories could be seen in other types of relations (such as the treacherous lover in Total Recall) – I don’t get the impression that this is the case though. Nonetheless, in a climate of increasing economic, legal and cultural uncertainty, it’s not impossible to imagine that screenwriters would project these uncertainties onto one of the key relationships that defined their own development. It’s also noteworthy that in modern movies at the same time as these daddy issues are being played out we also see the hero or other major characters caught up in some other excess of state power – the Ant dude with his prison issues, for example, or the way that super heroes often find themselves facing off against a shadow government agency that is up to no good.

Of course it could just be that American screenwriters are often shit, and Ant Man was written by a terrible screenwriter, or that this daddy issues thing is just some shallow Hollywood fashion that will fade away. If so, I hope it fades away sooner rather than later. If there’s going to be an emotional involvement in my action movies I want it to be simple, plausible, and positive – like The Last of the Mohicans – not filled with faux depth and unbelievable angst, and I don’t want it to be loaded down with unpleasant moral messages about how your fucked up relationship with your parents is your own fault. Get that drek out of my explosions!

fn1: It’s hilarious now to hear law-makers from that era oppose laws against slapping children on the basis of disciplinary practice. I had a friend called Christian in the UK who threw a snowball at his dad, and his dad didn’t like it and was in a bad mood, so we stood there and watched as he carefully packed a snowball with a stone in the middle, taking his time to really pack that ice tight while he ordered Christian not to run away, preparing that snowball with an intense expression of deep hatred, and then finally when he had it nice and hard, he threw it right in his own son’s face as hard as he could, then slapped him when he started crying. This kind of shit was pretty normal when I grew up – now the men of that generation complain that their child abuse is being outlawed and try to pretend it was done out of a need to instill discipline. They were lying bullies then and they remain lying bullies now.

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