Remember: Anger Leads to the Dark Side [#51]

It is Christmas Eve and the penultimate week of the New 52 challenge! There’s a nice symmetry to that, which, of course, is why I picked today to write a post… and nothing to do with it being the run-up to Christmas as well as the approach to a fairly major shift in life direction (more on that at a later date, I’m sure), leading to a distinct lack of down time.

But that’s not what this post is about. I’ll likely cover the whole 52 project next week (and sort out the numbering), but right now I want to discuss a recent holiday tradition: the annual return to a galaxy far, far away. Keeping to their promise of one a year until people stop watching them, Disney have just released the latest episode of Star Wars, and boy has it been an interesting response. Oh, and just as a heads up there may be spoilers ahead!

I want to state straight away that yes, I’ve seen The Last Jedi, and no, this isn’t going to be my review. I’ll leave that for the December MiM as is the norm, but a quick summary would be that I thought it was enjoyable but a little odd. I think at it’s core there is a good film, backed by some great performances, and even the slightly odder thematic choices have the possibility to pay off in the next episode. I didn’t leave the cinema leaping for joy but I definitely didn’t leave feeling like my childhood had been trampled all over*. Nor did I feel the strong urge to petition for the film’s complete erasure from history.

To say, then, that The Last Jedi has been divisive is a bit of an understatement. It’s fairly rare for a film with a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a critics metascore of 86 on IMDB to receive this kind of backlash. That disconnect, where critics are lavishing praise but viewers are voicing scorn, is generally a bit weird but especially when the film is a main-stream blockbuster, not some hyper arthouse concept. I’d honestly expect people to be doing a reverse BvS and claiming that Disney are just buying good reviews, but can’t find any such claims.

To be fair, the user score on IMDB seems to have settled somewhere around the 7.7 mark, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Take a look at the breakdown of those user scores (see graph below) and you’ll notice more oddities in the data. Most people are rating the film at 8 stars or higher; combined with a solid grouping of 7 star reviews and 75% of people think this is a 7+ star film. If you look at its direct predecessor, The Force Awakens, you see a similar trend, with the majority rating 8 or higher and a strong minority favouring 7 stars. In fact, TFA shows a stronger tail-off towards 10 star reviews, which (again, weirdly) are more common than 9 star reviews for TLJ. But despite the similar trends, TFA sits with an average score of 8.1, still lower than its 93% on Rotten Tomatoes but sitting spot on the 81 metacritic score and more inline with general industry trends. So why is TLJ so low? That would be the 6% of people giving this film a 1 star rating, a huge and very uncommon spike. The other low reviews all tail off in a normal trend line, then you hit 1 star and it jumps right back up.

It’s important to note here as well that the initial reaction was much, much more negative. Early aggregate scores placed TLJ at a meagre 5.6 from user reviews, which is even more fascinating. That implies that those who rushed out to see the film, people you can expect are big fans of the franchise, were the least impressed with what they saw.

Graph of user ratings from IMDB for The Last Jedi showing that the vast majority of people rated it 8 or higher but a very large minority is pulling that score down with disproportionate 1 star scores.

Which is a long winded way of saying: this film isn’t just a film some people aren’t getting – it’s a film which some people hate. You only get that kind of anomalous trend when emotions are involved and it’s fairly clear from reading any of the actual user reviews that these are running high. It’s something I find fascinating, as it suggests the kind of emotional response and cognitive shut down normally associated with tribal defensiveness. Its the kind of reaction you get in the US when gun control or abortion is brought up; in the UK when you mention Brexit or class. It’s a hardwired defense of an idea that you see as integral to your in-group, your tribe. It’s not normally something you see on this scale with popular culture.

Sure, there are plenty of instances of fandom infighting and tribalism. Heck, Star Wars vs Star Trek has been raging for nearly half a century and don’t even begin to prod the circle-jerk that is PC vs console, but whilst these ideas evoke strongly worded arguments and never-ending debate they rarely result in the kind of knee-jerk anger and frustration The Last Jedi has kicked up. And yes, some of that is likely misplaced political idealism reacting to a film which glorifies female and ethnic minority characters whilst demonising classic white male figures, but I struggle to believe that’s even close to the majority of the story. As the author of that now infamous Change.org petition himself has stated, most are just fans of Star Wars that feel that The Last Jedi has hurt the franchise.

The biggest arguments and most grief seem to centre on the aspect of The Last Jedi that I, and seemingly a large, silent majority of people, particularly liked. TLJ is not a standard Star Wars film. Yes, there are plenty of call-backs to the original trilogy, fan service is still here and the major themes are all still caught up with concepts like the Force and rebels and evil empires, but it also goes out of its way to flip as many of those tropes as it can. There are times this does feel forced, but ultimately it works more than it fails and creates a film which actually forces the audience to question themselves. It is flawed, but it definitely isn’t mindless. I mean this is a Star Wars film which actually tries to argue that bravado and pure heroics are sometimes the worst course of action possible. That’s a bold move for a franchise built on death-defying acts of heroism and concepts of fate, destiny and prophecy.

What we’re left with is a film that delivers on the promise not to repeat the main criticism of The Force Awakens and be just another carbon-copy of stories already told. In doing so, it takes the franchise far outside of its well worn comfort zone and casts it, quite literally at times, out into unknown, unmapped territory (do you see what I did there?). It massively expands or completely obliterates canon and fan theories, elements that the Star Wars universe is particularly heavily associated with, and actually dares to develop several of the main characters from the original trilogy, often in ways that casts past actions in new lights. Most importantly, it ensures that the Star Wars story is about more than just the Skywalker lineage. I can understand why that would piss a whole lot of people off, but frankly it also needed to happen. Personally, what I’m most fascinated by is what the legacy of the film becomes next. Will people grow to love it over time? Will it age poorly, as with the prequels? Will it force Disney to do an about turn and mix up episode IX to be more fan friendly or will they double down on their new, now truly expanded universe? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m excited to see where Star Wars will now boldly go**.

*I’m using that article here in a slightly misleading way. Despite the title, the author does an extremely fair job of both outlining why TLJ was painful for him to watch on a personal level and objectively analysing that feeling. His conclusions are pretty solid and well reasoned, and mostly fall on the positive side regarding the film. I could have linked to any one of a number of genuinely hate filled rants complaining about the loss of precious memories, but honestly most are incoherent and I feel the linked article is a genuinely worthwhile read on the subject. Just wanted that to be clear.

** Couldn’t help myself.

Death of the Internet [#50]

December 14th 2017: The day the internet died.

It’s a weird thing to wake up to, the repeal of net neutrality in the US. There’s is absolutely nothing that I, as a British citizen, could do to prevent the FCC from taking this course of action. Which, to be fair, isn’t too far from the reality for American citizens either; the result is not particularly unexpected, despite widespread criticism.

There’s also no way of knowing the impact it will have. Worst case scenario, as a non-American, would be seeing other governments (particularly my own) mimicking the decision and formally handing the web over to corporations, rather than people. Except, outside of the US the ISP market isn’t dominated by monopolies, so the market would actually stand a chance at forcing effective neutrality. That means I’m fairly insulated from the most obvious repercussions. Harder to measure, but probably more likely, are the ripple effects. How many new services will simply never exist if US providers decide that road blocks are more profitable than open highways? How much innovation in Silicon Valley will be lost to firms spending less on R&D and more on bandwidth?

On the other hand, if ISP’s in the US do abuse their new powers it could lead to the slow (or relatively sudden, depending on perspective) eroding of the US as a global leader in technology and software. Whilst the UK is not exactly well placed to pick up that slack, countless other countries would likely benefit. Less of an American influence on the web could actually be widely beneficial (of course, not to Americans).

The result is that the loss of net neutrality, from a global perspective, is a bit of a grey area. We may benefit or we may lose, but ultimately we will be slightly more able to shape that destiny. The ridiculousness of the decision is that such luxury is not afforded to the US itself. They are the ones rolling the dice, but they’re also the ones with the highest stake, all balanced precariously on an unknown odd. No matter what happens next it’s pretty unlikely the US will benefit, but the rest of the world just might.

On that note, if you are in the US and are rightfully worried/angered by the decision that occurred yesterday, I’d point you towards Ethan Marcotte’s break down. It offers a slim silver lining which is plausible (unlike some of the others doing the rounds) as well as an even, yet irritated, overview of what it could actually mean. Well worth a read and well worth enacting.

Fair Phones & Mobile Woes [#46]

I’ve had my current Sony Xperia for nearly three years, which is a good run, but it’s definitely starting to show its age. First of all the headphone jack broke; it still works, it just doesn’t know when you plug something in. The first time this happened I had it fixed, the second was just out of warranty so instead I’ve been using a software override (an app called Soundabout) for the last two years whenever I want to use headphones. Irritating, sure, but manageable. The next thing to die was the camera. It has become quite scratched (which is my fault for not using a case) and has now fogged up on the inside lens and crystallised, leaving photos looking like they’re taken through a piece of cling film. Still manageable but I wouldn’t want to use it as an actual camera any more. The battery has been slowly dying for the last year, possibly because of an increase in general usage, but it’s at the point where the charge can suddenly disappear over a matter of hours. Finally, the memory is full. Despite having an expandable SD with 64GB of space, mostly unused, the core phone memory of 16GB has hit maximum. I’ve moved everything I can to the SD card, uninstalled a lot of apps but still I’m hovering around the 15GB mark and the phone behaves like it, lagging and generally crawling through tasks.

The problem is, I hate upgrading my phone. Part of that is just how used to the Xperia I am. I know all of its quirks and special features, I can navigate the menus with only the slightest of glances and have it setup just so for my particular tastes. The other part is that it feels so wasteful. Yes, the phone has seen better days, but it still ostensibly works. What’s more, the environmental impact of smart phones is pretty scary. Taken together, no matter how much I love new toys, I try to make my mobiles last as long as possible.

Which brings up another issue: what to replace it with. Because I want my phone to last several years and don’t plan on upgrading constantly it needs to be future-proof, durable and also something I will enjoy using. That means it needs to have all the functions I want, stuff like NFC and a good camera, whilst also being comfortable in the pocket and hand, easy to use with good software, and also look good. The last point feels shallow but if you think something is well designed I believe it makes using the device feel that much more fun. Unfortunately, the mobile phone market appears to have become incredibly stale over the past few years. With the exception of biometrics, which I’m completely nonplussed by, there really haven’t been any exciting new innovations in the field and, from a design point of view, your options are iPhone rip-off (square, thick bar top and bottom, black and mild bevel) or Samsung rip-off (curved, all screen, no bevel). I was hoping the release of the iPhone X would shake the market up a little, but instead the only talking point is more biometrics and whilst the design is no longer classic Apple, ironically, it now looks like a Samsung rip-off instead. Repetitive and boring design coupled with an increasing trend to get rid of core requirements for daily use, like headphone jacks and expandable memory, and honestly I haven’t been this unexcited by the phone market in almost a decade.

Part of that lack of excitement is knowing where I had hoped the industry would be by this point. When I picked up the Xperia it was with a mindset that this would be the last ‘fixed’ smartphone I would ever own. At the time, the web was buzzing with news about projects like Project Ara and Puzzle Phone. The future of mobile was modular, focused on handsets that could be tweaked and customised to meet an individual’s requirements. Phones would be easier to upgrade, modify and fix, leading to much less e-waste and, hopefully, lower upfront costs. That lower barrier of entry could have even created a large third-party landscape of modular accessories. We might even have phones with removable batteries again! Unfortunately that utopian vision has somewhat faltered and, with a couple of lacklustre exceptions, the modular ecosystem has utterly failed to reach consumers.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw an advert for a fairly different kind of phone (hehe). The “FairPhone”, on paper, is a perfect fit for me. It’s ecologically sensitive, designed with environmental principles at the core of the process and actually has a modular design. They are selling genuinely interesting ‘upgrade’ modules, like better cameras, proving that the concept works. Had I picked up the FairPhone 2 at launch I would now be looking at an upgrade cost of only about £70 to get the latest specs, rather than around £400 to upgrade the whole device. Core specifications weren’t bad either. The FairPhone is designed to be maintained by anyone and last several years, so the chassis is deliberately aimed at durability. The screen seemed decent, it has a replaceable battery, headphone jack, duel SIM and large expandable SD slot. Even screenshots of the custom rolled Android OS looked solid.

But then I read some reviews and the dream screeched to a halt. First of all, whilst the specs are by no means awful they’re also far from top-end. The CPU and OS are already a generation or two behind, RAM is comparable to what I currently have and the camera has pretty awful output. The latter can be upgraded, as mentioned, but the base phone itself is already sitting in the price range of top-end competitors. It’s not quite as inflated as an iPhone, but it’s pretty far from good value for money. I realise eco-friendly resources and the R&D required for a modular layout will mean a higher price, but it’s a shame the price is top-end when the result is distinctly mid-tier. On top of which, it’s incredibly ugly, even if you go for a non-see-through case, and the battery is getting some pretty shoddy scores. There’s a lot to love about the FairPhone and I truly hope they continue forging ahead. Perhaps, with a couple more iterations under their belt, the price will drop or the quality will improve to match it. It’s definitely the most exciting phone on the market right now, but as tends to be the way with eco-tech the actual tech part leaves something to be desired. Maybe the Xperia has a few more months left after all.

Asking the Right Answers [#44]

I have been taking part in Google Rewards for over a year now. For the most part, I complete the various surveys to feed an ongoing habit without feeling like I’m being too indulgent or wasting money. It’s a fast and easy way to make a bit of completely disposable income and, honestly, the service works well.

Broadly, the surveys I get fall into three categories: store feedback, google reviews and marketing surveys. Store feedback is usually a case of confirming that I visited a given location and then rating them out of five. It’s quick, interesting enough to see which businesses feel the service is worthwhile and lets me provide some limited feedback. I don’t really imagine that the data is all that worthwhile, but enough stores do it, some of which having done so for an entire year at this point, that they must get something from the results.

Google reviews are a little more tedious but also have a higher reward, so I quite enjoy receiving them. I’m one of those people that routinely reviews online purchases, fills out in-store questionnaires and generally says “yes” when asked if I have a minute. I totally understand why most people ignore these types of things, but I try to do them whenever I have spare time for two main reasons. The first is that I’ve worked retail, I’ve been the person with the clipboard and I am fully aware how much that role sucks. I literally spent two months, for 4-5 hours a day, wandering around Durham trying to get people interested in taking a flyer for a store I worked for, and that was difficult enough. Getting people to actually engage with you for longer than ten seconds… that sounds like hell on Earth. The second reason is that I like having a record of my opinions, which should be fairly obvious from this website (and elsewhere), and that extends out to the services I’ve used and the items I’ve purchased.

So, the first two groups are easy for me to understand and pretty common. But once every month or so I’ll get a survey from group three: marketing research. Not market research, but questioning me on the adverts that I remember having seen or my awareness of brands. I imagine most of these are Google trying to gauge how well its own advertising algorithms are, something which is totally apparent when I get a survey like the one I received this morning.

That survey was incredibly quick and began by showing me a thumbnail of a Youtube video by Philip DeFranco. The video was several years old (I could see the uploaded date on the image) and the survey wanted to know if I had watched it. Now, I’ve been subscribed to Phil since I first created a Youtube account back in 2009 and had already been watching him for over a year before that. I quite literally created my account just to be able to track which of his back catalogue of videos I had watched. As a result, I could say with pretty high certainty that I had watched the video they were showing me. I also assume, considering that Youtube is tied to my Google account, that they already knew that I had watched the video. The first question on these surveys tend to request confirmation of known information, so that made sense.

But then they did something which I don’t understand, at all. I think what they were trying to do was refine their suggested videos algorithm but the way they went about it was just weird. There were two more questions to the survey and both showed another thumbnail of one of Phil’s videos from over a year ago. Both asked me to rate, out of five, how useful these would be as suggested videos on Youtube. Now, I don’t propose to understand the exact results or answers Google are looking for here, but I can imagine that they’re hoping to confirm that, yes, someone who wants to watch a video on current affairs would like to watch more videos on current affairs. The problem, though, is that their survey is completely ignoring my own video watching history. I am subscribed to Phil’s channel; I have watched every video he’s uploaded in the past decade. I don’t need to have his old videos suggested to me because I’ve already seen them. However, none of that information has been requested by the survey, so from the perspective of the questions I’ve been asked then, yes, based on the fact I enjoyed watching the first video I would want the other two videos to be suggested.

Yesterday I was reading an A List Apart article on why asking the right questions in user testing is key to not screwing up. Perhaps because that was on my mind, this survey through me round a loop. On a personal level, completely honestly, those videos are useless suggestions to me and I would have liked to rate them 0 out of 5 (which is, irritatingly, never an option). However, I’m a huge fan of Phil and want his channel to keep growing. Saying “Yes, I watched that one video of his and never want to watch another” seems wrong. I don’t want Google to take that message away from this survey. On the other hand, I hate how my current suggested videos feed is full of videos I’ve already seen and content from channels I’m already subscribed to. It’s a personal pet peeve of the current Youtube setup because it makes that page incredibly pointless, so I really don’t want to reinforce that behaviour and say that these are good suggestions.

At this point, I’m definitely over analysing what’s going on, but you would hope a company the size of Google would understand that the way they present a survey will have differing impacts. The questions are needlessly broad and non-specific, leaving the interpretation open to the user, but the subject matter leaves me stuck trying to guess what data Google actually want from me. Do they want me to know if I like those types of videos or do they want me to ‘confirm’ that suggesting other videos from channels I’ve watched before is a good thing? Unfortunately, I don’t know which it is, which means I don’t really know what the question is, and if I don’t know that, how can I answer it?

In the end, I just stuck them both at 4/5 stars. Typing this up now I feel that was probably the wrong thing to do, but oh well. At the end of the day, Google asked what seems like a fairly innocuous question, but one which has two wildly different answers. I doubt I’m the only person getting that question but I’ll probably be an outlier in my response. Still, it’s a prime example of where the phrasing, setting and simplicity of a question can leave it horribly ambiguous. The result will likely go on to inform some form of policy at Youtube, which is a shame, because no matter what question they thought they were asking I doubt it’s the one they’re actually having answered.

When is a Cat a Mongoose? [#38]

Today* I corrected somebody on the internet. Of course, the correction was entirely warranted because it touched on any area of very specific specialist knowledge of which I inexplicably know enough to notice an error. You can’t let people get away with that kind of thing, now can you!

In all honesty, I’ve never seen the issue with correcting someone online. I don’t care whether you’re pulling them up on grammar, history or, as in this instance, the evolutionary connections between particular animals. If I’m wrong about something I would like someone else to let me know; I’m also a big believer of ‘do unto others’. There is a big difference between pointing out when someone’s wrong and picking a fight over personal beliefs (which I don’t like to do at all), but that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about animal names. Specifically, how weird and ultimately confusing it is that we effectively spent centuries allowing economic migrants, felons and sailors the privilege to determine the specific words used to distinguish one animal from another. On the one hand, common names do have a tendency to be fairly easy to spell and simple to pronounce (with many clear exceptions, I’m talking broadly here) but, on the other, they also frequently include reference to animals “back home”, which largely means Europe. In turn, that causes a huge about of layperson confusion as to exactly what certain creatures are, how evolution works and even whether or not certain species should be persecuted.

For example, is a genet cat related to the house cat? No. It’s related to mongeese (I refuse to use mongooses on my own website, it just sounds ridiculous). What about an aardwolf? That’s also a mongoose, as is a hyena. The honey badger? Not a mongoose, but a weasel (which look exactly like mongeese but aren’t) which are also badgers so… I guess this one works?

The problem isn’t just due to the English being English and constantly renaming things which had perfectly acceptable names (e.g. the honey badger’s much cooler name, the ratel). Naming completely unrelated animals after ones you’re more familiar with is a common human trait. The result is that sometimes English animal names look unique until you find out they’re stolen from another language where they make very little sense, like the aardvark. That means earth-pig, by the way, despite aardvarks very much not being pigs. Actually, we’re not entirely certain what they are (they just kind of appear in the Palaeocene) but we are certain that pigs never played a role.

Nor is this a new issue. Even the ancients occasionally just couldn’t be bothered thinking up new names for things and instead chose to just take two words and smash them together. In modern English, the giraffe appears to be a rare instance of a completely unique name, fitting for such a truly unique mammal. The ancient Greeks, though, would have called it Camelopardalis (or something very similar), a word which looks weirdly familiar. The ‘camel’ part is fairly obvious, but the remainder ‘pardalis’/’leopardalis’ gives us the English ‘panther’ and ‘leopard’. So, to translate, the likes of Aristotle would have looked at a giraffe and called it ‘camel-leopard’… Perhaps language (and biologists) have just been doomed from the start!


*Today, which here means: “when I started writing this blog, not when I finished it and also not when it was finally published”. Makes sense?

Life Between the Worlds [#37]

I have recently fallen back into an old habit: League of Legends. The eponymous MOBA remains immensely addictive, fun and interesting, but above all else my return (after over a year!) has highlighted that Riot are finally managing to get their world building in order. The lore behind Runeterra was always a big draw for me, leading me to pore over every new champion’s bio pages to find out how they fit into the world and whose stories they might impact. Over time, the original plot of League became a little stale and boring; champions that could simply be summoned from any region of the multiverse understandably felt disconnected from each other.

As a result, Riot made the decision a few years ago to begin reworking the story of Runeterra. Rather than completely overhauling everything, at great expense to time and resources, they have instead slowly been chipping away at the established characters. That leaves some, like my personal favourite Rammus, in a state of unknown origin, whilst others like Urgot have really begun to shine. It also means the in-game lore is a little disjointed, with some bios referencing events or characters that don’t add up, such as recent champion Ornn referencing Volibear as a demi-god, rather than the mortal leader his own bio describes him as. Overall, the effect can be a little confusing, but when it works well it produces some absolutely fantastic fantasy.

For example, in the past I’ve been incredibly interested by the setup of the Harrowing, an event which has it’s routes in Halloween but, over time, has become something far more sinister and interesting. Most importantly from a world building angle it helps to explain a number of the more demonic champions, giving them a shared and interlinked history whilst explaining how creatures of utter darkness aren’t simply ruling this world by now. It adds to the mythos wonderfully and remains the centre of some of the best in-game events they’ve had to date.

So, upon my latest return, I was excited to find another area of lore which has been fleshed out in a genuinely fascinating way. In an attempt to simultaneously develop how magic works within the game and explain numerous “chimeric” characters, the world-builders behind Runeterra have come up with the Vastaya. The full logic behind the decisions has been written up in a brilliant dev blog article, which is well worth a read if you’re interested in world building at all, but the outcome is genius. I love seeing entirely novel takes on something so integral to the genre as magic and, with the concept of the Vastaya and their ancient brethren, I genuinely believe Riot have achieved that.

There are a huge number of explanations for how magic works, yet most fantasy franchises just wave their hands or come up with something that seems like an explanation until you realise they just changed the word (cough Midichlorians cough). The route League has gone down is certainly not completely fleshed out; magic itself remains something ethereal and just naturally occurring rather than having a (necessarily) distinct source. I like their incorporation of ley lines, not because it’s unique or original (it isn’t) but because they have thought through the implications. I love that intersections of ley lines become areas of wilder magic, and that magic even has different breeds or flavours to begin with. That’s a nice touch which, as they state themselves, allows a huge amount of complexity to develop within the system.

Above all else though, the concept of the vastayashai’rei is genius. It’s one of those concepts which I read and instantly wished I had thought of myself. It’s wonderfully simple yet also feels very original (to be clear, I’m not saying it’s genuinely unique, but I’ve never seen it before). In Runeterra, magic is an extra-dimensional energy, bleeding through via ley lines, creating border zones: areas of world which are part magical dimension, part Runeterra. But the dimension in which magic originates is not just the standard swirling, lifeless maelstrom. It’s a functioning universe with it’s own ecosystems and, crucially, life. Whilst improbable, our own planet is proof that life thrives on these biological edges, in the types of habitat that just shouldn’t work. Look at any geothermal pool and you’ll see this effect in full swing. Right where the water reaches boiling point the lifeforms are unique, often occurring no where else on the planet.

When extrapolated out to a mixing of two entirely different dimensions you end up with creatures that have evolved to survive in both. Magical animals that can take physical form. I love it. I love the idea that a creature learnt that it could hop through the ley lines and find sustenance, or escape predators, by doing so. Over time, that developed into a fully functioning race of sentient creatures which could transgress the boundaries between the two worlds. Taking it one step further, the team at Riot realised that such creatures wouldn’t need a fixed physical form, as it wasn’t inherent to their nature. In short, they became shape shifters, creatures capable of adapting the forms they found themselves requiring within the physical world. Throw in a little bit of interbreeding or evolutionary branches that chose to remain on the physical side permanently and you explain chimeras, creatures with evolutionarily impossible physical forms. Sheer, pure, brilliance.

It’s nothing less than incredible that the reason behind this level of ingenuity is a game which lacks any form of story mode at all; there’s no need for any of these musings beyond making the world more entertaining. That’s pretty awesome, too!

Where is Superwoman? [#33]

Khoi Vinh recently linked out to an article by Amanda Shendruk looking at the data behind female inclusion in comic books. As both Khoi and Amanda state, it should come as no surprise that the overall trend is that women are under represented in mainstream comics (DC and Marvel being the focus here), but the analysis takes a more interesting approach and dives deeper into the roles, powers and names that female superheroes share disproportionately.

Again, there are clear biases and tropes, most of which are definitely problematic but also not unexpected. Female heroes are more likely to rely on agility than strength, more likely to have emotional or mental manipulation powers and are more likely to be a minority character on teams. It does highlight some factors which are slightly surprising (though again, not when you really think about them) and definitely worrying, like the trend for all-female teams to be defined by their femininity rather than their powers, goal or shared history. For example, DC’s Birds of Prey is a fantastic team name: evocative, clever and iconic; on the other hand, DC’s Female Furies is a terrible team name: dull, boring and telling you nothing about who is involved or why the team exists. All-male teams, on the other hand, are rarely named along gender lines. That’s something I feel comics writers can, and should, address right now.

However, I do feel the article points the finger a little too strongly at female hero names. To be clear, I’m not saying that female characters aren’t disproportionately named along gender lines – they clearly are and the data supports that. But the following conclusion, I feel, isn’t supported as well:

Females are more than twice as likely to be given a name that may make her seem weak, less dangerous, less aggressive and not on equal footing with male characters.

The data shows female heroes are twice as likely to have gender-specific names. But it’s a bit of a leap to state that means those names have been chosen to reduce their standing amongst the other heroes; at least, not because of their gender. There’s clearly a problem here, but I don’t think Amanda has correctly identified the root cause.

The issue, as stated in the article, is when gender-specific names use diminutive forms. In other words, when Superwoman becomes Supergirl. By using “girl” rather than “woman”, the character automatically appears weaker and more immature, which seems to match Amanda’s quote above. However, Supergirl is more immature. Her whole character and respective arc is about here being a young Kryptonian developing her powers. Her name hasn’t been picked because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s a teenager. The exact same logic is the reason we have Superboy within the DC universe as well.

Possibly a clearer example would be to look at two women in the Batman comics with gendered names: Batgirl and Catwoman. Both play the role of supporting heroes to Batman himself, but the gender forms used directly convey their comparative standing to the titular hero. Batgirl is a trainee, an apprentice; she’s young and immature. Catwoman is a seasoned criminal before we ever meet her, at the top of her game, not just for Gotham but for the world. Hence, one is girl, the other is woman.

Now, to be clear, there are definitely instances where diminutive forms are used to take female heroes down a peg. I’ve already mentioned Supergirl, so it would be wrong of me not to address Powergirl, the name she takes when she steps out from Superman’s shadow and becomes an independent hero. The argument can be made that a total name change would have been more confusing, but lets face it: Powergirl is a pretty terrible name, so why not just drop the gender specificity entirely. The issue of these immature names sticking does become problematic. When Superboy eventually take on the mantle of the red cape, he goes by Superman. When Batgirl dons the cloak in Bruce Wayne’s absence… she doesn’t become Batman (or Batwoman).

I’m not arguing that female naming conventions in comics are perfectly acceptable. They aren’t. All I’m saying is that I don’t think these characters having diminutive forms are necessarily writers trying to keep them trapped beneath a superhero glass ceiling. I think they’re chosen for different narrative reasons, most of the time, and whilst biases likely play a role the intent isn’t as clear-cut. I also don’t think it’s necessarily problematic.

What is problematic is the issue of female protégés never managing to take on the mantle of their mentors. Superboy can become, literally, Superman but Supergirl never has. I accept there are issues with gender naming in general if you’re trying to do this, as it never really makes sense for Kara Starr to be called Superman, but the issue persists even for non-gendered names. Artemis, Green Arrow’s teen titan, never becomes Green Arrow. She-Hulk is never simply the Hulk. There are some instances, such as Zatanna, but they tend to be retconned; the female character having been known first before the ‘original’ is introduced. Really, the only big-name swap I can think of is Captain Marvel, who spent years as Ms. Marvel before finally accepting her proper mantle.

At any rate, the article does make note that the winds, they are a-changing. Female character creation is increasing at all publishers and more female heroes are getting their own on-going titles. I think an easy next step would be to have some gendered-names becoming genderless, especially when it comes to teams, but at least we’re moving in the right direction. Still, Amanda’s research clearly shows that there remains a long way to go before female representation can actually be called representative.

That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection [#32]

Standard workday, standard work lunch catching up on RSS feeds. Of course, quite a few of them are discussing the leaked “Anti-Diversity” manifesto from the, now infamous, ex-Google employee (name forgotten and ultimately unimportant). It’s been an interesting view into a very specific bubble of the tech sphere, but one which has helped elucidate the issue, if only a little.

Of particular note is the response from Adactio, which is easily understood by the title of the piece: “Intolerable“. I will hold my hand up right now and say that I find the whole issue a lot more complex than Jeremy Keith outlines, but I cannot argue with his conclusion. Nor can I argue with the incredibly diverse and well-written sources he links to, each of which is definitely worth a read.

That becomes particularly true if you’re anything like me: someone whose gut instinct was “this is utterly wrong”, but who found themselves wondering if, beneath the anger, fear and sexism, a valid point was lurking. Having now read through the links (linked below) I feel a little more confident in my gut reaction, which is a nice feeling.

Just to clarify my use of the phrase “valid point”, it is not valid that one gender is in any way better or worse at being involved in the tech sector (or any sector, for that matter). Instead, it’s more of an issue of how we go about addressing the very real disparities between both job prospects and job uptake by any dissuaded minority group (and yes, women are not a literal minority, but they are in tech due to centuries of discrimination, so I feel it a valid term within context). I have a personal distaste for anything that borders on “positive discrimination”. All it creates, long term, is embitterment and injustice, in my opinion. However, having read the links below I feel a lot more at ease that the diversity programmes at Google and similar companies are not going down this route, instead focusing on making the workplace a more attractive environment for everybody. That’s something I can get behind.

If there is one element of Keith’s article that I will find fault with, it’s the blanket tone of dismissal. I understand where he’s coming from and it’s a tricky thing to call out, because it’s an opinion I find myself feeling towards other subjects. I simply don’t feel the world is ever black and white enough to make a statement like:

I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does.

But, hypocritically, I also find myself agreeing with the directly following statement:

But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.

As an example, earlier this week the BBC came under fire for featuring Lord Lawson on a program about climate science. The argument for his presence is that it provides “the other side of the debate” and that the BBC have a mandate to be as impartial as possible. The issue with their reasoning is that it implies there is a debate to be had. In terms of scientific consensus, the degree to which man-made climate change is refuted is utterly negligible. The debate has been settled for decades and continuing to present it in any other way is directly harmful. It is akin, though less instantly vitriolic, to claiming that the BBC needs to include a Holocaust denier in documentaries on WWII. Yes, there are some people out there who believe that the vast majority of historians are wrong, but no organisation in their right-mind would claim that there is an actual debate soliciting both sides being heard.

Perhaps, then, it is I who is wrong on the Anti-Diversity Manifesto. Perhaps Keith is right and any discussion of non-diversity is, by its nature, only destructive and harmful because that debate, too, has been settled. Still, I can’t help but feel that claiming so and shouting it so loudly only serves to reinforce the opinions of dissenters. It’s hypocritical of me, but I don’t feel that shutting down people with these opinions is the right course of action. Perhaps, in time, that will change. For now, I’m just happy to see that the discussion being had is largely positive.

Reading List:

A Brief History of Women in Computing – Faruk Ates

So About This Googlers Manifesto – Yonatan Zunger

Dissecting the Google Employees Anti-Diversity Manifesto – Ether Alali

Accio Deathly Hallows

10 years ago today the Harry Potter series came to a close. With the publishing of The Deathly Hallows a large part of my, and many others, childhood came to an end. I find it strange that a decade has passed since, but probably for different reasons.

Whilst I was eager to read The Deathly Hallows when it first came out, I have to admit that the Potter franchise had lost its lustre for me. I grew up alongside the release dates, but as they stretched out over the last three books my own ageing overtook the target audience. By the close of the series I still counted myself a fan, but my life revolved far more around the likes of Lord of the Rings, Pratchett’s Discworld and authors like David Gemmell.

But the release of The Deathly Hallows does mark a pretty big event in my life, though I wouldn’t realise it for another three (!) years. Several days before the book was officially released, a little known channel on YouTube uploaded what would become a viral, fan-favourite and Harry Potter inspired song: Accio Deathly Hallows. The musician was Hank Green; the channel was “Brotherhood 2.0”, the fledgling website that would evolve into the Vlogbrothers. Whilst Hank and his brother John have become far better known for other reasons, ranging from writing The Fault in Our Stars (John) to creating VidCon (Hank), that song was what changed their experiment on YouTube into a community. Both brothers have pointed to Accio Deathly Hallows as a pivot point, the first time either had considered that their involvement in YouTube was more than just a one-year deal. The popularity it gave them on the platform ultimately changed both of their careers and, arguably, the face of both YouTube and the web in general.

That, for me, is the far bigger anniversary today. The Vlogbrothers, their content and their outlook on life have been a hugely impactful and important part of my life as I left home, went to University and officially began to “adult”. They remain one of my most watched YouTube channels, a huge inspiration and a brilliant example to the world of how to be humans. Whilst it feels like Harry Potter ended years ago (which I guess it did), the idea that the Vlogbrothers have been vlogging for over a decade is equal parts encouraging and terrifying. Forget Accio Deathly Hallows, I’m more interested in Accio DFTBA.

Marrs Green [#29]

I love the idea of G.F. Smith’s “World’s Favourite Colour”: ask people to submit examples of their favourite colour and then vote. The results are interesting for a variety of reasons, but for me the big one is just how much I love “Marrs Green”, the winning colour. I’ve always veered between saying my favourite colour was a shade of blue or green, with turquoise winning for many years in my youth but slowly losing ground. This particular shade, though, is stunning. Truly stunning.

Even my first exposure to the colour on Fstoppers stopped me whilst scrolling down the page. It’s rich, offers great contrast and is just incredibly visually appealing. I’d be fascinated to know whether my reaction is just coincidence or if there is something optically stimulating about Marrs Green that is somehow innately attractive. Whatever it is, I definitely have a new favourite colour; if I lived in London I would certainly be heading down to their pop-up shop to see it in person! Plus, the whole aesthetic and branding exercise is top-notch. Beautiful.