Monday, December 21, 2015

Review - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!

          The hype is strong with this one. So strong, perhaps, that this may very well be my lengthiest review yet. But this shouldn't be so surprising - after all, we are dealing with Star Wars here, an intellectual property so colossal that even the most seasoned critic and writer wouldn't be able to contrive a short, concise review of The Force Awakens while still taking into account all of the appropriate dimensions of the Star Wars universe. It's marketing alone already seems to obligate one to give The Force Awakens its due diligence; right now, for example, the film isn't scheduled to be released for about another week, but I already feel as if I can write half this review just setting the stage for what is already a record-breaking release. And the fact that tickets for The Force Awakens have already sold out at theaters across North America in 2015 does, perhaps, hint at something significant; after all, The Force Awakens will be the final film to round out what I would consider to be one of best years of science fiction since the turn of the century. And, in case you need reminding, this is the year that Age of Ultron and Jurassic World both shattered records, Ant-Man and The Scorch Trials were "sleeper" successes, and, as USA Today reports, the National Board of Review recently named Mad Max: Fury Road as the best film of 2015 [1]. The Force Awakens has a lot to live up to indeed. But I wouldn't worry; again, this is Star Wars, and the success of its hype and marketing have already illustrated that the series can still compete as an important player in the realm of science fiction, despite several questionable moments in its decades-long history. And if it's any reassurance, I highly doubt that anything that could be produced in the Star Wars universe at this point could ever achieve the degree of utter failure that Terminator Genisys managed to achieve.
          In one sense, the Star Wars films need no introduction or explanation. A film series that spans almost half a century, it has revolutionized the science fiction genre since its first installment (A New Hope) in 1977 (perhaps some credit can also be given the original Star Trek series from the late 1960s with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy). Since then, the original trilogy has rounded out with The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983, a prequel trilogy was released from 1999 to 2005 (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), a number of spin-offs and peripheral stories have been produced by Lucasfilm (i.e. The Clone Wars), a game studio charged primarily with the development of Star Wars games (LucasArts) had been created and has since been more or less bought out by the monolithic Electronic Arts (much to the dismay of many, not so much because people cared about LucasArts, but more because EA sucks), and Star Wars fans have since earned the distinction of being a new breed of human or sub-species, yet unrealized by scientists, a kind of fanatical cult, unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, but still somehow endowing new meaning on the word "devotion", producing unending amounts of self-insert fan-fiction, more so than any other intellectual property. Now, Lucasfilm has been bought out and Disney owns the rights to the Star Wars franchise. As such, Disney is producing a new sequel trilogy, the first installment of which is The Force Awakens.
          But where to start? Perhaps the most daunting challenge in trying to review The Force Awakens is trying to figure out how to review The Force Awakens. After all, an adequate review would take into consideration all of the relevant context and backstory, which includes having an understanding of everything that came before it. And it goes without saying that, in the case of Star Wars, this would be no easy feat, considering that the Star Wars universe is just that, a universe. One would have to try and account for the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, the various official and unofficial spin-offs, the board games, video games, action figures, Halloween costumes, and, regrettably, the fan fiction. I suppose the more important question to ask is what J.J. Abrams (or, perhaps more accurately, Disney) hope to achieve with The Force Awakens. Are we aiming to produce a blockbuster to surpass even A New Hope in terms of innovation? While an admirable goal, this would also be a pretentious one; to presume that The Force Awakens will be more innovative than the original would suggest that Disney is capable of producing such a thing, and, while I wouldn't put it past J.J. Abrams, this seems like an unreal expectation of Disney. Or, if we were more cynical, do we presume that Disney is producing The Force Awakens just to cash-in on the Star Wars cash cow? This seems like a reasonable question to ask of not just Disney, but any studio that is producing a reboot. Yet, I also don't think this is accurate; if Disney was just interested in making big bucks, as opposed to, say, quality cinema, then I don't think they would have enlisted Abrams for the job and given him so much control over its production. Abrams strikes me as a filmmaker who cares about whether or not he is producing quality cinema, so Disney's decision to go with Abrams seems to indicate an intention beyond simply just turning a profit. Or, is Disney trying to reboot the Star Wars series in order to introduce it to a new generation of film-goers? This strikes me as a little closer to capturing the intention behind The Force Awakens. While Disney has recently ventured into more mature endeavors, it has historically kept children as its target audience. As such, it would make sense to say that Disney is trying to take a fictional universe that most adults today would be more than familiar with and introduce that to a new generation.
          It seems as if that final question hints at a good starting point for formulating an approach to The Force Awakens. Does The Force Awakens successfully reinvigorate the series for the next generation of science fiction fans and movie-goers? And, reflecting on a point I made earlier, one should keep in mind that, at its fundamental core, The Force Awakens is a reboot, one of several reboots throughout the year. This can perhaps add another dimension to the approach we take to reviewing it; one can assess the merits of the film as a reboot alone, removing it from the larger context of the fictional universe and evaluating it more on its success as a new installment in a series. And it perhaps may be important to weigh it against other reboots of the year - does The Force Awakens, for example, ask the same kinds of provocative questions that Jurassic World asked? And this question would be consistent with the guidelines I laid out for myself in my first review over the summer; much like literature or other forms of visual art, film is a potential outlet of socio-cultural criticism. As such, one can also ask whether or not there are any socio-cultural undertones to The Force Awakens, and, if so, how well the film weaves those points into its overall narrative. Between these points and the questions asked in the previous paragraph, I think I at least have a good idea as to how one should approach The Force Awakens. But, as I hinted at above, in order to adequately review it without being too disingenuous, one has to properly situate it in the Star Wars universe.
          The first installment of the Star Wars series (later dubbed A New Hope) was first released in 1977, with a digital remaster released in 1997. It's two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, followed in the years after. The series focuses on the Rebel Alliance's struggle against the tyrannical Galactic Empire, and the relationships that develop therein. We are introduced to drug smugglers and gang bosses on desert planets, cities suspended in the clouds of far away star systems, rebel bases assaulted in a hail of lasers on planets made of ice and snow, and an ancient, mysterious "Force" that underlies all events in the galaxy, and is revered by an order known as the "Jedi", essentially the futuristic-space-equivalent of the Knights Templar. The core cast for the series consisted of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and the series more or less put each of them "on the map", so to speak, with their acting careers (only for Carrie Fisher to quickly fall off the map again by becoming a drug addict some time after filming The Blues Brothers). After Star Wars, Mark Hamill went on to a very notable career as the voice of the Joker in almost every animated iteration of the Batman series, while Harrison Ford continued to propel his acting career in history, perhaps most notably as the treasure hunter Indiana Jones, but also as one of the early actors to portray Jack Ryan when the Tom Clancy novels started getting cinematic iterations (i.e. Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games), ex-cop Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, and even as the President of the United States in Air Force One.
          The prequel trilogy was released between 1999 and 2005, consisting of The Phantom Menace in 1999, Attack of the Clones in 2002, and Revenge of the Sith in 2005. It tells the story of the conflict between the Galactic Republic and the Trade Federation, the attempts of the Jedi Council to try and quell the conflict, the influence of the mysterious Sith Order behind the scenes, and the subsequent downfall of the Republic, the Jedi, and the Federation, and the rise of the Galactic Empire...and, perhaps the most controversial thing in the entire series, the advent of Darth Vader. As can be inferred from the previous sentence, the prequel trilogy is not very well received. As I start writing this, for example, Graeme McMillan of The Hollywood Reporter writes that "the prequel trilogy...is not only a low-point for the franchise, but for science fiction cinema as a whole, and single-handedly (well, triple-handedly, technically) responsible for breaking an entire generation of fans' hearts in its sheer ineptitude" [2]. And McMillan's assessment isn't without merit; perhaps the most questionable thing in the entire prequel trilogy is the way it develops the various characters. The Phantom Menace, for example, introduces us to Jar Jar Binks, a bizarre character that is meant to serve as a kind of guide for the Jedi early on the series, but ends up being a kind of comic relief, and not a very good one at that. Much like the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy was also responsible for launching the successful film career of several of its actors. Perhaps the biggest success story of the prequel trilogy is Natalie Portman, who portrayed Padme Amidala, Queen of Naboo, although it should perhaps also be noted that Ewan McGregor saw a noticeable shift in his career from more independent films (i.e. Nightwatch) to the Hollywood mainstream (in the years immediately following The Phantom Menace, for example, one can quickly see McGregor's CV expand to include films such as Black Hawk Down and Moulin Rouge).
          The lasting influence (or, in the case of the prequel trilogy, controversy) that the Star Wars universe has made on science fiction and pop culture is undeniable. Prior to A New Hope, for example, "space opera" was a phrase usually thrown around in the sci-fi underground, an obscure term usually applied to pulp fiction like the Flash Gordon series. Now, the phrase "space opera" is much more ubiquitous (though, interestingly, not quite "mainstream"), and one researching the Star Wars fictional universe is inevitably bound to quickly come across it. The Star Wars series, including the prequel trilogy, is also responsible for giving us some of the most memorable and influential characters in pop culture today. Even more menial ones, like the generic "stormtrooper", are instantly recognizable, and have even lent their title to a particular phenomenon in cinematography and film criticism (Roger Ebert's famous "Stormtrooper Effect"). Even characters who are featured in the films only a portion of the time, like, say, Boba Fett, have developed something of a cult following. And, of course, many of the tropes and creative concepts introduced by the Star Wars series have at this point infiltrated modern science-fiction and have become ingrained in it. The space dog fights in Battlestar Galactica and Thor: The Dark World bear an uncanny resemblance to the dog fights in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. The lush landscapes and desolate wastelands of The Chronicles of Riddick and Stargate seem eerily familiar to the landscapes of Hoth, Tatooine, and Endor. One can quickly see the influence that the "lightsaber" has had on the "beam saber" of the Mobile Suit Gundam series or the "psi-blades" of the Dark Templar in StarCraft. And even all of these points still do not capture the extent to which Star Wars has influenced modern science fiction and pop culture, but they are meant to, at least, start to paint the picture.
          Now with this very crude background established, I can finally turn to The Force Awakens. And I must say, after having finally seen it, it certainly deserves a large degree of praise, and will likely make my top 5 film list for the year. That said, I should also point out that, in some ways, it doesn't quite live up to all the hype that we have seen leading up to it over the past six months. Specifically, the areas where The Force Awakens shines are its introduction of new, unique characters to the Star Wars universe, it passive commentary on a handful of various socio-cultural issues, and its resistance to utilizing the obscene amounts of CGI that currently permeate throughout modern science fiction. However, the same kind of praise cannot be given to its story; anyone who is even remotely familiar with the Star Wars series will realize that the plot of The Force Awakens is a reimagining of the plot for A New Hope, and the lack of effort in this regard really takes away from what would otherwise be a very solid sci-fi film. At the end of the day, The Force Awakens easily succeeds at introducing the series to the next generation of sci-fi film-goers, and perhaps even presents us with some of the most memorable characters in science fiction, but it had the potential to do so much more.
          The characters are perhaps the most intriguing elements of The Force Awakens. We see the return of old classics Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa, played by the original actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher, respectively, but it seems as if the overwhelming majority of the hype this time around actually centers around the mysterious Kylo Ren. And Kylo Ren is perhaps the best example of a case where the hype is actually justified. He is, by far, the most unique character in the film, unlike anything ever seen in the Star Wars series up until this point. Portrayed by Adam Driver, Ren fancies himself the spiritual successor to Darth Vader, and, in public and in rumor, he achieves this. He is ruthless and extreme, a student of the Knights of Ren, a sect of acolytes of the Dark Side of the Force, and is one of the most feared warriors in the galaxy. However, his more intimate interactions with the other characters in the film, particularly Rey and Han Solo, illustrate what Kylo Ren is really like: a skilled, but rash young man with daddy problems and bipolar disorder, more akin to the edgy, misguided Anakin Skywalker from the prequel trilogy than Darth Vader (only much better acted). And again, much credit is due to Adam Driver for this performance; at times, I was reminded of Tom Hardy's portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, a character that, at one moment, seems wise and well-spoken, and the next, displays a huge degree of anger management issues. But, of course, Kylo Ren was not the only character in the film. Perhaps a great degree of credit is also due to Daisy Ridley for her portrayal of Rey. Rugged and humble, Rey lives alone as a scavenger on the planet Jakku, selling machine parts and artifacts she finds for meager scraps of food. I actually kind of saw elements of the Book of Eli in Rey's interactions on Jakku; Jakku seemed like a desolate wasteland, and Rey was a wasteland wanderer, roaming from place to place, trading post to trading post, settlement to settlement, just trying to make a living. Because of such harsh conditions, she has developed the survival skills she needs; she climbs landscapes and machines alike, knows how to run through the desert sands, and has the necessary fighting skills to ward off muggers and thieves. And Daisy Ridley portrays this character as one that is seasoned in all of this; all of these various elements seem like "just another day out on the town" for Rey. That is, until BB-8 shows up. And it is at this point that I should note that BB-8 is probably the next most memorable character from the film. Much like Kylo Ren is to Darth Vader, BB-8 is the spiritual successor to R2-D2. BB-8 is a white and orange droid that rolls around with the appearance of a soccer ball, as opposed to the kind of clunky trash can that is R2-D2. But, despite being a successor to R2, J.J. Abrams actually manages to give BB-8 a personality that sets it apart. Perhaps the best way I can summarize the difference is as follows: R2-D2, while energetic and spunky, was still a droid, but BB-8 is more like a little animal, a playful labrador retriever or a shy beagle, trapped in the mechanical body of a gadget-loaded soccer ball.
          Another noteworthy factor of The Force Awakens is the fair amount of cultural commentary present in the film. Perhaps in continuing with the trend started by Jurassic World, The Force Awakens has some very up front feminist tones to it. As one can imagine, most of them center around Rey. Rey is depicted as a strong, fit, and independent scavenger, on both a physical level, as evidenced by the fact that she manages to fight of two would-be kidnappers of BB-8 on Jakku, and on a mental level, as evidenced by the fact that she manages to resist the psychic torture of Kylo Ren. And this is in stark contrast to Ren, who, as mentioned above, does not possess the same strength of will as Rey, at times giving a sort of "confession" to the charred mask of Darth Vader for any deviance away from the Dark Side. She is not the same sexualized support character that Princess Leia was in the original trilogy, instead taking center stage as the main protagonist. And it should be noted that Rey is not alone in making such a statement. Captain Phasma (portrayed by Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame) is a towering storm trooper commander, ruthless and calculated. It should also be noted that Phasma is apparently not the only woman that is sympathetic to the cause of the First Order; we encounter several women serving the First Order throughout the film, both in the role of soldier as a stormtrooper on the front lines, and as operations officers serving directly under General Hux at Starkiller Base. Again, this is in stark contrast to the original trilogy, where there were very few women at all in the films, and, when there were, they always seemed to be sympathetic towards the Rebellion. And much like Rey, Phasma escapes the over-sexualization that unfortunately characterizes a number of successful sci-fi and fantasy series. Her armor is merely a chrome version of normal storm trooper armor, and, were it not for her voice, one would likely not be able to guess that it was a woman wearing it. As Inquisitr points out, the discussion surrounding Captain Phasma can best be summed up by a comment from one poster on the Star Wars Facebook page, and the rather clever response from one of the moderators [3]. And the feminist statements made by Rey and Captain Phasma are not the only the only points of cultural commentary made throughout the film. Finn (portrayed by British-born John Boyega) represents another shift away from the historical cast of white, male protagonists in the Star Wars universe. This point is especially pertinent for science fiction in general; traditionally, more whites and Asians have been burdened (or blessed, depending on how you want to look at it) with the stereotype of the sci-fi nerd, while African-Americans and Hispanics have largely avoided this. To have a black protagonist in one of the most important science fiction series in history undoubtedly illustrates the potential for a shift away from the traditional stereotypes.
          Another characteristic of The Force Awakens that deserves praise is the way that J.J. Abrams decided to handle the special effects for the film. And, in keeping with the precedent set by Fury Road and Jurassic World earlier in the year, Abrams had, much to the benefit of the series, shied away from the grotesque amounts of CGI that characterize the Avengers films, or anything produced by Michael Bay, and preferred to use genuine sets and real props, giving the film a much more realistic appearance and avoiding the silliness that eventually comes with overdoses of CGI. Scenes for The Force Awakens were filmed on location in Iceland, England, and Abu Dhabi, and many of the extraterrestrial characters that Rey encounters on Jakku were realistic props or puppets, as opposed to the artificial appearance of, say, many of the CGI aliens in the Men in Black films. Apparently, it had been the aim of Abrams' production staff all along to recreate the the "real" look and feel of the original trilogy [4]. As I have suggested in the past, the benefits of such an approach are rooted in something much more fundamental than just preserving the look and feel of the "original" Star Wars; while there is nothing inherently wrong with CGI, going overboard with it tends to add a degree of "cartoonishness" to whichever film it is being applied to, and it seems as if the cinematographers of The Force Awakens were inadvertently scratching the surface of this principle when they decided to be more conservative with their application of CGI.
          However, despite the above strengths of The Force Awakens, it wasn't flawless. Perhaps the most glaring thing that it seemed to miss the mark on has to do with its plot and story. I will echo what a lot of other critics have said and point out that, in many ways, The Force Awakens is simply a reimagining of A New Hope. The First Order, having risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, has a planet-sized space station, Starkiller Base, that is capable of firing a giant laser beam and blowing up planets. Trying to stop them are the "Resistance", as opposed to the "Rebellion", still led by Leia Organa. It turns out, however, that the person who is really capable of stopping the First Order is Luke Skywalker, who has mysteriously vanished, so the Resistance sets out to try and find him. Aware of Skywalker's potential to resist them, the First Order also sets out to try and find him before the Resistance. The movie opens up with Poe Dameron, a Resistance fighter pilot, hiding a map to Luke Skywalker inside BB-8 on the desert planet of Jakku just before the First Order attacks the village he's in. It was at that moment that my alarms started going off; I couldn't help but slightly cringe at the fact that it appeared as if Abrams quite literally subbed in BB-8 for R2-D2 and a map to Luke Skywalker in place of the plans to the Death Star and then called it Episode VII. Still, I felt inclined to give The Force Awakens the benefit of the doubt - "perhaps", I thought, "the plot will get much more interesting by the end". And then it turns out at the very end that the Rebellion, er, I mean Resistance, launches a fighter assault on the Death Star, er, I mean Starkiller Base, just before it can fire its laser beam. Needless to say, I was overall disappointed with how the story was handled. And it wouldn't be as big of a deal if it wasn't such a crucial thing to get right. As I have said in the past, I regard the story as one of the biggest drivers of quality science fiction, and while the story for the original trilogy was great, that does not justify recycling it again here; we've heard this story before, and have already learned from it. Perhaps the argument could be made that recycling the story was necessary in order to properly reintroduce the series to millenials, many of whom have never seen the original trilogy. But this argument baffles me; I'm a millenial, and I saw the original trilogy when I was a small child, and instead of recreating A New Hope in the form of The Force Awakens simply for the sake of introducing it to millenials, one has to wonder why you can't just show millenials A New Hope. And, on a smaller scale, there is one more thing about the plot that struck me as odd: despite the great amount of hype that the character of Captain Phasma got before the film was released, she had a grand total of about two minutes of screen time. Again, I am not the only one that feels this way; as Jason Guerrasio points out, "the flashy Stormtrooper with chrome armor and cape played by 'Game of Thrones' star Gwendoline Christie has been all over the marketing of the film, the captain of the First Order gets the least screen time out of the newest main cast members in the movie" [5]. Guerrasio goes on to attribute this to editing, pointing out that the run time for the film clocked in at over two hours, so, for editing purposed, the producers had to make the choice to sacrifice some of Phasma's screen time. But even this explanation baffles me; each of the Lord of the Rings films clocked in at over three hours, and nobody seemed to care about their run time. As such, I don't quite understand what is achieved by more or less cutting out Captain Phasma when the film still probably would not be as long as a Lord of the Rings film.
          Let me finish by returning to the original question I posed earlier about the criteria that we should use to evaluate The Force Awakens: does the film reinvigorate the Star Wars series for another generation of science fiction fans? The answer is a solid "Yes", but again, its not perfect. While The Force Awakens has its moments of pure brilliance, such as the concept and character of Kylo Ren, it also has its blunders, such as its unoriginal story. It's unfortunate that it misses the mark on something so core; its poor handling of Captain Phasma is forgivable, but the recycling of the story of A New Hope compromises one of the most important aspects of good science fiction - an imaginative story that is used to ask important philosophical and social questions. As much as I don't want to say it, this disqualifies The Force Awakens from being my film of the year. But again, I must emphasize that it is still light years better than many of the other films I have seen in 2015, and I doubt I will see a character as unique as Kylo Ren in anything coming out of Hollywood anytime soon. Overall, I think it is a great way to close out my cinematic experience for the year, and, because of the way it balances props and CGI, I think I can safely say that 2015 was the year where filmmakers finally learned how to do a reboot.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Customer is Not Always Right

          I debated with myself quite a bit over the past few days as to whether or not I should make this the topic of my next blog entry. After all, there have been numerous cases of employees being fired or punished over things they say or post on social media, completely unrelated to work and on their free time. In my case, this piece should straddle an even thinner line insofar as, technically speaking, this is work-related as it reflects an attitude I have, and have always had, about working. But again, I'm writing this on my free time and posting it on an outlet unrelated to my present employer. The assumption that one still has to adhere to every facet of company standards and conduct when they are not on the clock, or when they are in the comfort of their own private dwelling, blurs the line between employment and slavery. That said, I don't imagine this to be a difficulty for me insofar as I no longer work in the retail outlets of my present employer, so the customer/employee dynamic doesn't apply to me in the same way as it did, say, two years ago. Additionally, my present employer actually has a pretty good track record of siding with, and caring for, its employees, at least, when compared to many other similar companies. By the end of this piece, it is my hope that at least one person realizes the folly in perpetuating this silly notion that "the customer is always right" and that, in the off-chance that this piece is brought to the attention of the higher-ups at my company, that they value the freedom of expression over making an extra buck by catering to the whims of an entitled consumer.
          The idea that "the customer is always right" is one that virtually all businesses in America have operated on as far back as I can remember, almost to the point of becoming a mantra for American capitalism and consumerism, alongside Reaganomics and sweatshops in other countries (Las Maquiladoras de Tijuana will attest to this, right across the border from my native San Diego) [1]. Admittedly, it is a principle that has generated several points of conflict for me over the years as I jumped from retail or restaurant job to retail or restaurant job, only recently receiving a slight reprieve from it in the form of a different work environment, and it remains a principle that I still don't understand. At its heart, the principle mandates that, in the event of any kind of disagreement or confusion between business and consumer, the default position that the business should take is that the source of the error or confusion is on them, and that the consumer needs to be acknowledged or compensated accordingly, "within reason", of course, and I put that phrase within quotations deliberately. If the customer fails to read the menu board at a restaurant and expects a cup of coffee to be $1.00 when it is actually posted to be $1.50 or $2.00, but then questions the inconsistency in the pricing, the employees are expected to make the cup of coffee $1.00 under this principle. This is not to say that there aren't times when a business really is the source of any kind of confusion or disagreement - an employee can accidentally charge a customer for the wrong size cup of coffee, and it is certainly reasonable for the customer to ask for a refund of the difference - but the idea that businesses should cater to every request, no matter how ridiculous, is perhaps one of the things that is wrong with American consumerism. There are two primary reasons that I will discuss here as to why this idea that "the customer is always right" is a poor principle for businesses to operate on, and why consumers should stop contributing to the continued existence of this principle by actually believing that they are, in fact, right. First, the notion that "the customer is always" right doesn't seem to be in the better interest of the business, and, second, the notion that "the customer is always right", many times, compromises the well-being and integrity of employees.
          There are plenty of hypothetical situations that illustrate how a customer's requests can be harmful to a business. A man approaches the counter at a cafe, orders a cup of coffee, and then asks for all the money in the safe. A woman threatens to have a gourmet Italian restaurant closed over the phone because the restaurant doesn't deliver. A man at a grocery store starts harassing other customers because of their religious or political views, and when asked to leave, threatens to sue the grocery store. Clearly, there is a lot at stake for the business in each of these cases - giving away all of the business' money, closing down, or being sued are certainly not in the business' better interests. However, if we are to adhere to the tenant that "the customer is always right", we are expected to cater to these people. The gourmet Italian restaurant, for example, despite the fact that they have never delivered before, is to find a way to deliver to this particular customer, because, after all, she is "right", and her whims need to be catered to. The end result would likely manifest itself as something along the lines of that poor girl on the phone having to get in her car and drive to this customer's house, an area that she has never been to before.
          Of course, the hypothetical nature of the above scenarios allows for them to be dismissed as silly and unrealistic. "Surely", a proponent of the idea that "the customer is always right" might argue, "there actually aren't situations where the customer is abusing the principle to such a degree, though it may seem as if it is theoretically possible based on the above hypotheticals. The idea behind the notion that 'the customer is always right' is that, when discrepancies arise between, like when a customer is given the wrong size cup of coffee or purchases a defective product, the customer is entitled to a refund and, perhaps, a replacement." I am sure most people would support these latter scenarios; if one were to buy a faulty computer from an electronics store, then one should be able to return it and get a replacement. But the mindset that customers aren't abusing the principle is also blindly optimistic. Consider the piece from Emily Co on PopSugar, where she advocates going to one's local Starbucks and doing such things as paying for just a couple shots of espresso over ice, as opposed to paying for a latte, but then proceeding to the condiment bar and then emptying the entire carafe of milk into the cup to create a latte [2]. It seems readily apparent that such a move is abusing the generosity of not just Starbucks, but any coffee shop that leaves carafes on their condiment bar for customers to simply add a little of milk to their coffee. And, as a former coffee shop employee, I can attest that this is a very real, not hypothetical, scenario. But, again, there is very little that employees can do about it; it would be futile for an employee to try and confront the customer in question because, after all, "the customer is always right". (Now this is not to say that Starbucks has the best pricing for their drinks, but it should also be noted that one way that coffee shops indirectly respond to the phenomenon that Ms. Co is advocating is to raise prices). Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this phenomenon is that customers feel that they have a right to do this. Alexander Kjerulf of the Huffington Post, for example, reminds us of a particular customer of Southwest Airlines that felt like she had the right to dictate their boarding process and flight procedures (because, may I remind you, "the customer is always right") without giving pause to the prospect that, perhaps, Southwest Airlines was doing it that way for a reason [3]. In contrast to the hypothetical scenarios of the previous paragraph, these situations with Starbucks and Southwest are only two of the mountain of situations in which the principle that "the customer is always right" is invoked to justify a customer's abusive behavior, even when it works against the interests of the business itself.
          The notion that "the customer is always right" also works against the well-being of employees. As the New York Daily News reminds us, there was the case from 2013 in which a Florida woman walks into a Dunkin Donuts and goes on a tirade against the employees, supposedly for not being given a receipt from the previous night [4]. The woman video tapes the whole ordeal in an attempt to make herself out to be some kind of consumer advocate, or bring to light the "injustice" that she experienced at the hands of Dunkin Donuts employees, but, instead, the video shows the woman shouting racial slurs and physical threats at the employees, clearly stepping outside of the arena of disgruntled customer and into the realm of aggressor. And as the Internet, and Dunkin Donuts, are quick to point out, the employees remain calm during the whole ordeal, with the primary employee that the woman is dealing with giving her whatever she wants for free. Again, the employee is lauded for remaining calm during and giving this woman whatever she wants during this whole ordeal, as he should be. That said, it seems as if most people would say that what this woman is doing is nothing short of harassment and aggression, as evidenced by the quick and acute backlash she immediately received when this video was posted on the Internet. And after watching her behavior in the video, it seems as if the employees had sufficient grounds to ask the woman to leave and call the police rather than stand such harassment. But, again, "the customer is always right", and, instead of having the problem removed from the situation, businesses and employees are expected to tolerate abuse. And, in addition to the previous scenario, once more hearkening back to my time working as a barista, virtually all of the situations in this YouTube video [5] are accurate and happened on a daily basis (perhaps not all at the same time), and the barista's reaction at the end of the video pretty much sums up how having to cater to this makes one feel at the end of a shift.
          Given that this idea of "the customer is always right" works against the interests of a business and the well-being of employees, perhaps we should do away with it altogether. It should be noted that this is not meant to justify anything like the behavior of the employee in this video [6], but I am confident in suggesting that the occurrences in [6] don't happen nearly as often as those of [5] and [4]. The next logical question then becomes "how, then, are discrepancies between customers and businesses to be handled?" I believe the answer to this question is rather simple, but its implementation would prove to be daunting. Quite frankly, and as one would expect from a philosopher, the side whose view is true, or is more reasonable, should be the one that is catered to. It is reasonable for a customer to ask for a receipt if he didn't get one with his transaction, it is not reasonable for a customer to ask for a discount or a free drink because he or she had to wait in line, where waiting in line is more or less a fact of life. Accordingly, since giving a customer a discount simply because he or she didn't like waiting in line is unreasonable, an employee or a business has no obligation to honor that request. Again, this approach sounds simple enough, but its implementation is what renders it a lofty endeavor. Call me cynical or nihilistic, but asking employees, or business owners, to evaluate for themselves what the most reasonable course of action is puts far too much responsibility on their heads, responsibility far above their pay grade. As evidenced by the mountain of various social issues plaguing the US right now, as well as the attitudes of many voters, average citizens can't be trusted to make an informed decision, which is required if we were to abandon the idea that "the customer is always right". This leaves with a kind of "catch-22", since the idea that "the customer is always right", as the above paragraphs illustrate, is a horrible idea.
          That said, I would rather risk letting employees and businesses assess situation themselves as opposed to continuing the notion that "the customer is always right". I can't remember the last time that I found myself in a disagreement with a business, and, from experience, I also find that those that do end up in disagreements with a business are, most of the time, very much like the cartoon customer in [5]: rich, entitled, self-important, thinking that they are from a higher rung of society. Perhaps, if customers made reasonable requests, as opposed to being high-maintenance, then any disagreements could be avoided altogether. Or perhaps this is merely a symptom of a larger social phenemenon; after all, as Bernie Sanders points out, the American middle class is becoming more and more polarized, with the gap between higher-income workers and lower-income workers widening [7], and may not be a coincidence that those that feel inclined to preserve this principle that "the customer is always right" are those towards the upper tiers of the middle-class.
          More can certainly be said about this notion that "the customer is always right", and I think it may prove to be an interesting social experiment to try and correlate it with the income disparities in the US right now, as I hinted at in the previous paragraph. But I will save that endeavor for another time. For now, I merely wanted to introduce a challenge to the idea, an idea that is so deeply rooted in American consumerism, but at the same time seems like an extremely poor principle to operate on. I will most likely return to this challenge in the future, but I have at least expressed a couple of ways in which it is a bad idea.

          Now, as a quick point of bookkeeping, I feel as if I should give a brief overview of my blogging schedule for the rest of the year, so readers know what to expect. The holiday season is upon us, and, as most people are during this time of year, I am extremely busy between work, shopping, travel, and so on. My next entry in the blog after this one will likely be a review of The Force Awakens, and that obviously won't be until after its release next month. I also wouldn't be surprised if that were my only entry for December, though I may try to fit another one in. I have a tentative schedule for pieces after that (subject to change, of course), but, other than The Force Awakens, I expect to get back in to the full swing of things again after the new year. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and a wonderful holiday season.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5qMRZNdlO
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruq9rEKiEks

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review - Crimson Peak

          Ok, it's finally time to get back in to "the swing of things", so to speak. It has been some time since I have done a film review (since Ant-Man, to be exact), and October was filled with all kinds of things to keep me (and the blog) occupied, from defending the antics of Rebecca Brink to scrambling around the Starbucks Center for Hack Day. October was also the month that saw a handful of movies that, at least initially, seemed interesting; The Last Witch Hunter, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, and Crimson Peak, to be specific. I actually hadn't heard much about The Last Witch Hunter until I saw the poster for it when I went to see Ant-Man, and, other than realizing it had Vin Diesel in it, I didn't learn much more about it between then and its release. The Paranormal Activity series, on the other hand, is a series that I am familiar with, and, I will admit, is a series that I actually enjoy, despite the fact that the films consist of little more than strings of jump-scares tied together by a tissue-thin plot. And, like The Last Witch Hunter, Crimson Peak is a movie that I had never heard of until I saw the poster for it when I went to see Ant-Man. What caught my initial attention was the caption "From the director of Pan's Labyrinth and The Others".
          Between those three, it didn't take long for me to decide to do this review on Crimson Peak. The more intriguing part of the decision process is perhaps that fact that I didn't really have to do much to narrow it down; The Last Witch Hunter reportedly bombed, and, though I said that I enjoy the Paranormal Activity series, I have become more and more disenchanted with it as it has dragged on. And then compare these stats against a film by Guillermo Del Toro, a very talented filmmaker, and the choice becomes almost a no-brainer. In any case, this review will be something different for me to write, and hopefully something just as enjoyable to read, insofar as this will be a review of a horror film, in stark contrast to the action and sci-fi films I have reviewed thus far. And I have been wanting to do a review of a horror film for a while now; as a long-time fan of the genre, with a small collection of the classic black-and-whites (i.e. The House on Haunted Hill and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), I believe I at least have an idea of what it means to be a good horror film.
          I must confess that I had a handful of expectations going in to Crimson Peak, most of which were met, though I will say that I was disappointed with regard to others. The expectations I had pretty much stem from the fact that Crimson Peak was made by Guillermo Del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker that has previously showcased a large degree of artistic and fantastic talent. Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno en espanol), for example, with a pure stroke of genius, somehow managed to blur the lines between a children's fairy tale, a fantastic horror story, and an extremely violent adult war film, all presented in the Spanish language, thus adding a new dimension of fiction to Spanish-language cinema. And by no means is Del Toro's genius confined to the Spanish language. One simply need to look at Pacific Rim to see a recent English-language example of Del Toro's talent. What makes Pacific Rim particularly interesting is the fact that it pays homage to the Japanese "mecha" genre of fiction, a genre that anyone who watched cartoons as a child in the 90s, like myself, should be familiar with (Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam Wing should ring some bells here). And it seems pretty clear that it was Del Toro's intent to pay homage to the genre, as evidenced by that fact that he casts Rinko Kikuchi, a Japanese actress, in one of the leading roles. Another aspect of Crimson Peak that led me to have the expectations that I did was the fact that Tom Hiddleston was cast into one of the leading roles. While Tom Hiddleston seems to have become one of the latest fangirl heartthrobs, much in the same way that Benedict Cumberbatch did after Star Trek Into Darkness or Joseph Gordon-Levitt after The Dark Knight Rises and Inception (and much in the same way that I predict Adam Driver will be after The Force Awakens), I actually have a degree of respect for him. Hiddleston is certainly one of the better actors in the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for his portrayal of Loki (a title really only rivaled by Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark). Add to this the fact that he has a degree in Classics from Cambridge, a field that, as I have admitted in the past, I have had a long interest in, and he commands a degree of respect from me.
          Given this background information on the "who's who" of Crimson Peak, I was already expecting something with much more depth than the other two choices. Given Del Toro's track record with art and storytelling, I knew that Crimson Peak wouldn't rely on the jump-scare gimmicks that Paranormal Activity relies on. This is not to say that Crimson Peak didn't have its moments of suspense, but, unlike Paranormal Activity, it does not use them as a crutch, so to speak (i.e. Crimson Peak doesn't rely on jump-scares as its primary driving force). And, given Hiddleston's more refined and sophisticated background, as well as Del Toro's attention to story, I also knew that Crimson Peak wasn't going to rely on the drawn-out action sequences that I imagine characterize The Last Witch Hunter, which I expect to be closer to Blade than anything Del Toro has produced. At this point, the question then becomes "what kind of horror movie is Crimson Peak?" Well, Crimson Peak is best described as a dark romance, at times invoking elements of a ghost story told around a campfire in the woods, and at other times invoking elements of suspense and mystery, akin to what you would find in The Bone Collector or Red Dragon. If one wanted to try and set Crimson Peak among literary examples, it is reminiscent of Victorian-era romanticism and the gothic novel, more akin to The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Turn of the Screw or the works of John Keats and Sheridan Le Fanu as opposed to the extreme violence, malice, and weirdness that characterize more modern entries in the horror genre, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart.
          Crimson Peak opens up with one Edith Cushing reminiscing on the funeral of her mother, who had died of illness when she was still a child. One cold night soon thereafter, the ghost of Edith's mother visits the child in the middle of the night and warns her to stay away from a mysterious place called "Crimson Peak", a warning that Edith would not be able to make sense of until years later. Fast forward fourteen years. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer in the Victorian period looking to the break the stereotype of female writers at the time by producing a ghost story as opposed to a romance novel, while her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), is a very wealthy and successful American businessman based in Buffalo, NY. Edith finds herself working reception for her father's business one day when Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a young English baronet, walks in with a business proposal for Mr. Cushing to invest in his invention for a machine that is supposed to revolutionize clay mining for bricks. Sharpe's business proposal is ultimately rejected by Mr. Cushing and he has no other choice but to leave empty handed, but not before catching the attention of, and more or less swooning, Edith. What unfolds after that is a blood-soaked love story between Edith and Thomas, which includes the murder of Edith's father, Edith marrying Thomas and moving to his estate in England, the very ominous demeanor of Thomas' sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), the disappearance of several women throughout Europe, and Edith's ghostly visions. And it is eventually revealed that, because the thin red clay beneath the Sharpe Estate has a tendency to stain the winter snow red, the hill that the Sharpe Estate is built on is sometimes referred to as "Crimson Peak".
          Again, there is no question that Crimson Peak is something far more sophisticated than most horror films that have been produced lately, and that it does a large number of things well. Perhaps first and foremost, Crimson Peak actually has a pretty compelling story. The references to The Bone Collector and Red Dragon that I made earlier seem pretty accurate for a handful of reasons; Crimson Peak has the elements of mystery and suspense that characterize The Bone Collector and Red Dragon, and keep one intellectually invested in the film. For example, Carter Cushing is murdered fairly early on in the film, but it is not readily apparent who did it and why. What makes this mystery particularly compelling is Del Toro's genius in its implementation; despite the fact that we are unsure who the murderer was, we are actually provided with a handful of potential suspects as well as a number of clues with regard to a motive. This gives Crimson Peak a kind of "whodunit" dimension, slightly mesmerizing in its own right, like a Sherlock Holmes novel or a game of "Clue". Yet another aspect of the film that is done well that complements this mystery element is its great character development, and, while Del Toro's writing of these characters certainly merits praise, virtually all of the actors deserve credit here, from Hiddleston to Charlie Hunnam, who plays Edith's American love interest that ultimately investigates the mysteries surround the Sharpe siblings. For example, only a half-wit would hastily arrive at the conclusion that Thomas murdered Carter Cushing; someone a little more analytical would realize that the character profile for Thomas Sharpe does not lend itself well to the manner of the murder, or even the initial motive given. Meanwhile, one has to wonder who the shady private investigator that Carter Cushing hires to snoop on the Sharpes, Mr. Holly, really is. Beyond the plot and character development, there are, of course, the overall aesthetics and artistic presentation of the set pieces, very much in Del Toro's signature style. The ghosts, for example, have the same crooked and contorted walk that characterized the child-eating "Pale Man" in Pan's Labyrinth. The hill of red clay that the Sharpe Estate is built on occasionally causes the house to ooze bright red from the walls, contrasting the cool, dark blacks and greys of the paint, sometimes even evoking the famous ending scene of The Amityville Horror. And Crimson Peak ties all of this together nicely with its own share of blood and violence, unafraid to showcase the grim circumstances driving the plot.
          However, despite all of these things that Crimson Peak does well, I would hesitate to put it in the same category as Del Toro's greater works. There are two primary things that I think the film misses the mark on, so to speak. First, even though Crimson Peak has a far more sophisticated plot than any other recent horror film, its plot is still pretty generic: a haunted house in Victorian England. Don't get me wrong; I have been a long time fan of Victorian poetry and literature (I do have an Edgar Allan Poe tattoo and Dracula still remains one of my all time favorite novels), and Victorian Britain has served as the setting of some of the most classic ghost stories. But that's the very point that works against Crimson Peak; we have plenty of Victorian ghost stories already. And while adding more of a good thing doesn't hurt, one must compare Crimson Peak to Del Toro's previous work. Perhaps this is just a kind of "artsy snobbishness" on my part, but Crimson Peak seems to lack the imagination or innovation of Pan's Labyrinth; El Laberinto del Fauno situated a very graphic children's fairly tale in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, and did it all in the Spanish language, almost single-handedly jump-starting Spanish-language horror and fantasy cinema (perhaps the biggest title in Spanish-language horror cinema at the time was [REC], and this was still a fairly obscure title until its English-language remake in Quarantine, which is still a relatively obscure title even for English-speaking audiences). Pan's Labyrinth was more or less something unheard of before, unlike Crimson Peak, which feels as if it has been done dozens of times. Even among Del Toro's English-language works, Crimson Peak lacks the innovation of Pacific Rim, which brought English-speaking audiences a live-action iteration of the Japanese "mecha" genre, which hadn't really been done before (at least, not done well). The second big point of criticism that I think can be aimed at Crimson Peak has to do with its implementation of the actual ghosts in the film. Quite frankly, it's not clear to me whether the ghosts were even a necessary part of the film. The plot could have been carried out without them and more or less have achieved the same effect. For example, as mentioned, Edith's mother's ghost makes an appearance in the first five minutes of the film and warns her to stay away from Crimson Peak, but when the time actually comes for adult Edith to heed that warning, she actually does nothing; Edith learns she is at Crimson Peak, but merely reflects on the warning for a brief moment before resuming her day to day activities. In another scene towards the end of the film, when Edith has a better understanding of who these ghosts are, she runs in to one of them in the hallway of the Sharpe Estate and asks it where she should go in order to get to the bottom of this mystery (in an almost "Scooby Doo" fashion), at which point the ghost just promptly points her down another hallway, more or less rendering the ghost as nothing more than a supernatural sign post. It is also particularly interesting that Edith seems to be the only person that can interact with them for the overwhelming majority of the film; one would imagine that an angry, vengeful ghost would seek to haunt and torment his or her murderer, but in this case the ghosts simply seem to relegate themselves to sign post status. And if one were to try and make the argument that perhaps the ghosts are figments of Edith's imagination, then such an interpretation would quickly fail; the ghosts bring about tangible effects in the world, such as slamming doors and throwing balls, things that cannot be experienced by one person alone. Yet despite this, every other character in the movie seems to be more or less oblivious to the ghosts, nor do the ghosts try to bring about anything more substantial than slamming doors.
          Overall, Crimson Peak certainly gets my recommendation, and it is, by far, one of the better horror films I have seen in a long time, but it is also not Guillermo Del Toro's best work. It is your pretty typical ghost story, set against the tried and true backdrop of Victorian England, augmented by elements of mystery and romance. However, if one is looking for something more innovative or imaginative,  a little more avant-garde than classic, then I would refer him or her elsewhere. The problem with that is that Crimson Peak is more or less the apex of horror films right now, much to my great dismay.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Photos - Starbucks Hack Day 2015






In the Field - Starbucks Hack Day 2015

          Finally, I get to write a piece more journalism-oriented than philosophical. This is to be contrasted, of course, with the various film reviews and philosophical pieces that I have done so far. In fact, it is a slight relief to finally be able to write a piece like this, insofar as I keep saying that I will do something with a journalism slant to it only to not have produced one up to this point. One of the virtues of doing a piece like this is that, insofar as it is more or less a report of something that has transpired, there will be less commentary and more explanation, which will make for a shorter piece. This is particularly so since this event wasn't that large (though nonetheless notable). Perhaps this will even be a piece that I can get done in one sitting (turns out, it wasn't). And on that note, I present my findings on Starbucks Hack Day 2015.
          This past Tuesday, October 27th, Starbucks hosted their annual Hack Day at their global headquarters in Seattle. The event was open primarily to employees, but there was, no doubt, a handful of visitors that had the opportunity to attend. And as can be implied by the previous sentence, if it wasn't made clear by my user profile or previous posts, I am a Starbucks employee based at the Starbucks Center in Seattle. I was fortunate enough to convince my supervisor to let me take a chunk of my normal shift to attend the event. I had only heard of the event a few days prior, so I still wasn't quite sure what to expect; the name of the event, for example, implied something along the lines of the DefCon or Black Hat conferences, which, as someone with a side interest in mathematics and the cyber underground, initially piqued my curiosity (this is not to say that I actually expected Starbucks Hack Day to be anything remotely close to DefCon). At the same time, the flyers for the event were done in such a way as to make the event seem more like an arts-and-crafts workshop than any kind of conference or event of that nature. In either case, I still felt like it would make for a nice topic to report on (in addition to being a nice reprieve from my usual duties that day), so I was inclined to attend nonetheless.
          The event took place in a moderately large conference hall on the 3rd floor of the Starbucks Center. Like any other convention or conference, there were booths set up where employees (internally referred to as "partners") were able to demonstrate whatever idea or innovation that they had been working on. Slightly to my disappointment, it wasn't so much of a hacking conference so much as it was a technology and innovation showcase, which is still certainly notable. Mobile apps seemed to be the overarching theme of the event, with the vast majority of the booths showing some kind of new iOS or Android application targeted at both customers and employees alike.
          The first demo I was able to take part in was called "Get Rollin'", a training application for new baristas designed by Steve Walker, Jason Stoff, and Bill McNeil. This particular application took advantage of the tilting sensor feature in iOS devices (iOS veterans may be familiar with this function from games like Naught or Zombie Highway). Essentially, this particular application constituted a game where new partners would have to carefully guide a silver ball along a path of tiles floating in space without falling off the side. The catch is that the path would occasionally fork, presenting the budding barista with a decision of which path to take, where each path in the fork would correspond to a possible answer to a Starbucks training question. Answer the question incorrectly and the path would disappear under the ball and it would be game over. In one way, there is actually the potential here for something truly immersive; somehow, either through the raw design of the aesthetics or the core gameplay concepts, I was reminded of Playstation's Intelligent Qube from 1997, which, in retrospect, was something of a work of art. At the same time, I found myself questioning the value of such an application; as someone who spent years working in restaurants and coffee shops while I was a student, the training required for such labor isn't particularly difficult or complex, so one is left to wonder to what extent such an app is really necessary. And even it does help a new employee train for their position, it seems as if it would wear out its usefulness once the employee has finished training. Ultimately, "Get Rollin'" was a great concept, and it certainly stood out from the rest of the applications on display, but perhaps the concept would better be served as a full-fledged game as opposed to being confined to a training app.
          After briefly playing around with the "Get Rollin'" app, I was ushered over to the booth for an application called "Markout!", designed by Stephen Ramirez, Nicole Tidwell, Diane Kerstein, David Gutierrez, and Zachary Camara. Again, this was another app targeted at Starbucks employees mostly for internal use, though I should say that there were some features of it that, if expanded on, would make for an interesting app for consumers. Essentially, this app functions as a reminder for employees to take advantage of their employee discounts. Pretty straightforward, though I admit that I am slightly scared to think that partners need to be reminded to take advantage of one of their most basic perks. What makes this app particularly interesting is a kind in-built stat tracker; an employee can input the information for the product that he or she used the discount for and then the app can make recommendations based on the user's habits. For example, if an employee used his or her discount to get a bag of a particular kind of dark roast, then the app uses that data to make suggestions for the following week, based on such things as roast, growing region, and so on. The data tracking portion of this app struck me as having vast potential; if it were reimagined in an app for consumers, it could potentially illustrate which of the various nuances of a coffee's flavor profile American consumers really enjoy, as well as serve as a kind of introduction into the world of coffee for the layperson.
          After getting the demo for the "Markout!" app, I continued to meander about the hall until I came to "Siren's Echo", designed by Tom Fernandez. The crowd around this booth was particularly large, and it didn't take me long to see why. This was a significant departure from the other apps on display; "Siren's Echo" showcased a kind of voice recognition software. Simply put, whatever someone would say into a microphone, the "Siren" would say back in a calm, clear woman's voice. One can't help but think of Apple's Siri technology when watching the demo. And while the technology itself was nothing new (again, Siri is, more or less, a full-fledged artificial intelligence, way more advanced than the "Siren"), it's applications struck me as the more important thing here. For example, one could image this technology replacing the headsets and baristas at a drive-thru store, more or less leaving the ordering process in the drive-thru automated. Or, more in line with Siri and the theme of mobile devices, this technology could be integrated into the mobile app for consumers, so they no longer have to navigate complex menus to place an order over the Starbucks app. It wasn't particularly clear which system architecture this software was optimized for, iOS or Android (or maybe I just missed it), but, since the increasingly ubiquitous Starbucks app is on both platforms, I would imagine that, if "Siren's Echo" develops into something bigger, it would be available on both.
          These were only three of the apps on display this past week, though these were the ones that stood out to me more, mostly for the aforementioned reasons. There was a contest at the end of the event where attendees got to vote on their favorite booth, but, for various reasons, I wasn't able to stick around to see the winner. However, this piece hopefully provides a brief glimpse into the technological developments taking place event at a company as retail and consumer-focused as Starbucks. I was also able to get some photos of the event, some of which I will attach to this post, and others I will post under the "Photography" label, marking my first foray into the intersection of writing and photography.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Defining Feminism: A Defense of Rebecca Brink

          The various social strata of Seattle and their economic and cultural underpinnings are starting to become very familiar to me. It feels as if the LGBT community is better represented here than anywhere I have ever lived in California, including San Francisco, as evidenced by the sheer number of people I have met or seen here that identify as either bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual, gender-neutral, and so on. Related, it also seems as if the practices of having "open relationships" and polyamory is very much accepted here; I have seen and met many people, both men and women, who openly admit to having multiple partners, both love-driven and sex-driven, without any kind of social repercussions, either from his or her partners or elsewhere. This is not to say that this practice should be frowned upon (unless, of course, one is a strong adherent to various religious ideologies), but it is worth pointing out that, as mentioned, I never encountered anything like this in California or Arizona, where, up until recently, I spent most of my life living and growing up. And this is also not to say that such lifestyles are the norm; it is pretty evident that monogamy, like many places, is still the norm. However, such alternative relationship styles certainly illustrate an interesting twist to Seattle.
          And, of course, the social strata between neighborhoods are also very apparent. Take, for example, the area where I live, Eastlake, and the neighboring University District (where the University of Washington is located); it seems to me that many people in Eastlake are young professionals, skilled in various trades or arts, who work for one of the major Seattle-based companies (Amazon, Microsoft, or Starbucks) and also appear to be out-of-state transplants to Washington (I will admit, with a slight degree of pride, and also a slight degree of reluctance, to belonging to this group). When compared to many other places in the city, Eastlake is relatively quiet and low-profile, despite being so close to the heart of the city; many shops and cafes close at 6 pm daily, leaving only a handful of pubs and restaurants open late, which attract only modest crowds (or, at least, "modest" when compared to many other pubs and restaurants in other neighborhoods). For this reason, Eastlake doesn't strike me as the most "hip and happening" place; such a distinction is, of course, usually given to Downtown Seattle or Capitol Hill or the University District or Ballard. And it is also for this reason, perhaps, that Eastlake is a comparatively quiet place: everybody from Eastlake is spending his or her Friday night in the Capitol Hill or Queen Anne or Ballard areas (again, I will admit to this, as someone who frequents Capitol Hill and Queen Anne).
          However, a quick, two-minute drive across the bridge, over a narrow stretch of Puget Sound, from Eastlake to the University District, will illustrate a much more interesting dynamic. As I walk through the avenues of the University District, I can't help but feel as if San Francisco's Haight Street was pushed through the strange filter of Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and Jaco Pastorius' "Punk Jazz", all shrouded under a blanket of clouds. The streets mostly consist of independent or family-owned restaurants and shops; a Greek restaurant will be right next to an Indian restaurant which will be right next to a Thai restaurant which will be right next to a Mexican restaurant (of mediocre quality of course, since Mexican food in Seattle doesn't even come close to Mexican food in California, as I have learned the hard way), and, I must admit, I have never seen so many Vietnamese restaurants concentrated in one area before. Of course, all of this is brought together with the token Starbucks on the corner of 52nd and University, and the occasional smoke shop nestled casually between restaurants, most of which seem to be strategically placed equi-distant from each other. In stark contrast to Eastlake, these streets are far less empty and quiet; one can't help but notice the colorful graffiti decorating the walls of the various back alleys and the occasional used needle lying in the gutter. Perhaps even more apparent than graffiti and used needles are the small huddles of the Destitute plotted here and there on the sidewalks and back alleys, plagued by unfortunate situations in their lives, forsaken by mental illness, left behind by the economic elite of the city, or enslaved by heroine or methamphetamine. The most interesting part about these destitute souls is that, every so often, one comes across a huddle of them so large and established that it might constitute a small camp, trying to survive among the hustle and bustle of the University District. And as one might imagine, since the University of Washington is the focal point of the University District, the students make up the majority of the population of U-District, and the district itself serves as their own odd little college town (odd in the sense that it is in the middle of a major city, so, unlike many actual college towns, it experiences all of the other baggage that comes with being in a major city). Extreme ideas at both ends of the spectrum are also well-represented in U-District; for example, one simply need to browse the isles of Bulldog News in order to find the latest issues of anarchist journals from Berkeley, economic trading advice from Wall Street, and French language art journals from Quebec, all scattered among the usual Entertainment Weekly or Time.
          I've had time to meditate on the social atmosphere of Seattle over the past couple of weeks in order to prepare for this blog entry. I promised in my last entry, my review of Ant-Man, that I would do another "Philosophy" entry this time around, so I've had to crack my mental knuckles, if you will, and step away from art and film. And in my last "Philosophy" piece, I hinted at what the topic of this piece will be: defending the antics of a certain self-proclaimed "feminist". I feel inclined to take on this topic mostly because the timing seems appropriate; discussions of feminism having been occasionally buzzing around the mainstream art media since the representation of Claire and Zara in Jurassic World. Perhaps even more important than Jurassic World, I begin writing this entry while many journalism outlets are abuzz about the contention among the various branches of the military allowing women in combat roles and only days after the first Democratic Presidential Debate for the 2016 election. And while the country would be much improved if Bernie Sanders became president, the prospect of having our first female president is nothing to take lightly, and I am sure many people would like to see Hillary Clinton engage Carly Fiorina head-on. But these larger issues merely set the context for this piece - they are not the focal point. The driving force for my discussion of feminism here will be something much smaller.
          Essentially, I will be adding substance to and defending the actions of one feminist's reaction to the Tumblr page "Women Against Feminism". The issue started a couple of years ago when the Tumblr page http://womenagainstfeminism.tumblr.com/ appeared. A quick glance at some of the photos should illustrate where the potential for antagonism comes from. And, as one can imagine, there have been several responses to the page, including one very humorous one from feminist Rebecca Brink, as BuzzFeed reports (http://www.buzzfeed.com/rossalynwarren/heres-how-one-feminist-responded-to-women-who-say-they-dont#.lc0v4AeJY). Of course, the argument continued, with some other bloggers calling Brink's rhetoric "shallow" and "non-analytical" [3], and some even saying that Brink is "bitching about the most pointless shit" [4]. The Amazing Atheist has even gone so far as to post a video response to Brink on YouTube [5]. A lot of these responses came within the last year, so some may say that I am somewhat late to the party as far as this discussion is concerned. That said, given the reasons mentioned above, the social climate surrounding this issue seems just as volatile as ever. All that is needed now is for someone to either defuse the bomb or light the fuse that blows the powder keg.
          My goal in this piece it to defend Brink by qualifying many of the claims she makes in her photos, as well as provide some additional statistics that illustrate related phenomena pertaining to women and the feminist movement. However, in the process, I will also put forward what I take to be the strongest criticism of feminism: the implicit splintering of the movement into poorly defined factions that ultimately lead to confusion about what the movement really is. For example, a distinction needs to be made between the feminist that sees the statistics about women in mathematics and questions whether or not there is a larger social reason underlying this phenomenon versus the feminist that calls for the extermination of all men with militant zeal. Feminism does a poor job of distinguishing between these different groups, and the movement could perhaps learn from the anarchist movement, which has done a great job of having its distinct factions well-defined (only the novice would be unable to distinguish Anarcho-Capitalism or Anarcho-Syndicalism from Anarcho-Socialism or Anarcho-Primitivism). I will defend Brink by presenting the evidence that supports the feminist that wonders why there are so few women in mathematics, while pointing out that most of her critics seem to conflate this feminist with the misandrist that calls for patriarchal genocide, which, at least from her photos, does not seem to be the position that Brink is advocating. I have a feeling that there are those who may say that I am not qualified to talk about this issue insofar as I am not a woman, and that this issue should only be talked about by women. But this strikes me as the same kind of mentality held by those who say that the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag can only be talked about by Southerners; the South doesn't exist in a bubble that is completely distinct from the rest of the country. To that extent, insofar as the South is intertwined with the happenings of the rest of the country, the issue surrounding the Confederate flag spills beyond the borders of the region. Likewise, many of the aims of the feminist movement directly and indirectly affect the interactions that women have with men. It is in this sense that I think there are sufficient grounds for me to be able to opine on this matter. But I am not particularly worried, and I think feminists need not worry either; I am overall sympathetic to all but the most militant feminists, which, it seems, are the minority in the movement.
          Perhaps the best place to start would be by declaring up front a few principles that I assume. (1): A person's beliefs influence his or her behavior. This should be intuitive; if a person believes that pizza is bad for him or her, he or she is likely to avoid pizza, or if he or she believes that they are likely to get mugged if they walk through a particular neighborhood at night, then he or she will not walk through that neighborhood at night. Using more ubiquitous examples, if one believes that everything written in the Bible is true, then one will be behave as if he or she will go to Hell if he or she commits a sin, or if one believes that a certain group or race of people is inferior to another, then one is likely to treat that group as inferior. It wouldn't make a whole lot of sense for someone who believed that eating meat was morally wrong to indulge in a steak every other evening. (2): Some ideas are better than others. Don't get me wrong; I am certainly a proponent of the idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that "being entitled to one's opinion" does not justify having bad beliefs or adhering to absurd ideas. Being entitled to one's opinion does not unreservedly justify one in believing that Jews should be exterminated from the planet, for example, particularly if this belief manifests itself as a behavior. (3): The credibility of a particular idea or belief is contingent on how close it is to the truth. And since many people believe that the truth of something can be measured using science and reason, the preceding point can be understood as saying that the credibility of a particular idea or belief is contingent on how well it is grounded in science and reason. (4): Bad ideas should be resisted. This seems like the inevitable conclusion of the previous points; if someone has the bad idea, for example, that everyone who has pre-marital sex is actually a demon in disguise and, subsequently, goes on a shooting spree to eliminate the demons, I would be inclined to think that the overwhelming majority of people would have a problem with this. Of course, such behavior can be stopped by force, but this does not necessarily remove the bad belief, which is the root cause of the problem. On that note, lively, engaging discourse and activism seems to be the best way of countering bad ideas.
          With those assumptions laid out, I am now in a better position to defend Brink. There are three photos that would seem to serve as a good first example, one from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, and the other from Brink. The photo from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr presents us with a rather normal-looking, dark-haired girl holding up a large note scribbled on notebook paper that reads "I don't need feminism because I am NOT a 'victim', there is NO war against me, I have & will continue to succeed in life, because I work for it, NOT used my gender as a 'get out of jail free' card. I love to be sexy for my man & cook for him...in the KITCHEN!!" Juxtapose this photo with one of Brink, donning a red, short-haired wig, holding up a note that reads "I don't need feminism because the only way I think I can get along in this world is by pandering to the status quo and shitting on other women." I am inclined to think that Brink is referring to the same kind of thing that our girl on the WAF Tumblr is referring to: the tendency, nay, norm, for women to spend more time at home and serve their husbands while the male is the "primary bread-winner" of the household. And such a phenomenon certainly does appear to be the norm; pewsocialtrends.org reports that, while the number of stay-at-home fathers does appear to be growing, men still only make up 16% of stay-at-home parents (it would also be interesting to point out that the report also notes that one of the primary reasons for the uptick in stay-at-home fathers is because the men supposedly cannot find jobs) [6]. These stats are also supported by Time magazine, which published a graph that visualizes just how jarring the disparity between the number of stay-at-home mothers versus stay-at-home fathers really is [7]. And after looking at these statistics, the inevitable question that follows is, quite simply, "why?"
          The traditional explanation that I have heard is that "women are inherently more caregiving, therefore belong at home." I never understood this explanation, since it really only takes one counterexample to prove the falsity of it. And such counterexamples certainly exist; as just mentioned, there are a number of men that are able to be stay-at-home fathers, suggesting that this trait is not unique to women, and, at the same time, there are women who are work-oriented businesswomen or adventure-seeking daredevils, not at all concerned or interested in staying at home and supporting a family or a husband, suggesting that this trait is also not inherent in women either. Of course, a possible reply to these points is that these are outlier cases, that they don't reflect the general human condition, that there is something wrong with the man that wants to spend time at home to take care of the children or the woman that aspires to be a business executive or an exotic dancer. In one sense, there is only a slight merit to this reply, insofar as it is indeed that case that these are the outlier cases that don't really constitute the norm. But to say that what makes these men and women the outlier cases is some kind of defect with, or deviance from, the normal human condition is a laughable one. This is most evident if one were to question the criteria upon which one establishes the "norm"; proponents of the idea that the reason some men want to be stay-at-home fathers or some women want to be daredevils is that they have some kind of neurological defect try to justify this claim by pointing out the fact that this does not appear to be the norm. But such a criterion is hardly permissible; a bunch of people once believed that the Earth was flat and the center of the Universe. However, the fact that many people believed this and accepted it does not make it any more or less justified.
          Subsequently, one must entertain alternative explanations as to why men are the "primary bread-winners" and women tend be "care-givers" or homebodies. A more feasible explanation than a mere "defect" is that there are underlying cultural or social norms, usually referred to as "gender roles", that dictate how men and women are supposed to behave. The notion of "gender roles" is an ancient one; one simply needs to look at Ovid's Art of Love or the historical role of women in politics before the 20th century to get even a slight idea of how grounded in tradition gender roles have been. And this notion of "gender roles" serves as a nice answer to our above question; women are statistically the primary care-givers because traditional American gender roles dictate that they should be. Likewise, the explanation for the comparatively low number of men serving as stay-at-home fathers is because traditional American gender roles dictate that men should be making the larger income that supports the household. A similar theory would also explain why there are so few successful businesswomen or female adventure-seekers; it goes against their gender roles. And this is, of course, not to say that contrary examples don't exist; for example, when I was living in California, I was very familiar with a couple where the woman in the relationship had the higher income and the man was still living with his parents. I also saw both of them criticized for the relationship; he was often criticized for being outdone by his girlfriend and still living with his parents, while she was often questioned for dating him. However, such a hostile attitude towards this couple raises some reasonable questions: a) Are these gender roles a good thing, and are they grounded in anything scientific or reasonable? and b) is the hostility towards those that deviate from such gender roles justified? Enter Rebecca Brink.
          I interpret the "status quo" that Brink is referring to in her photo to be these aforementioned gender roles and the inevitable results that stem from them and the negative attitude directed towards those that deviate from them. In many ways, such gender roles don't seem to have any rational foundation; there doesn't appear to be any good explanation as to why women cannot succeed in the sciences to the extent that a man could, yet, according the National Science Foundation, women made up less than 25% of science and engineering majors every year from 2001-2011 [8]. At the same time, the potential of women in science and mathematics is evidenced by the likes of Danica McKellar and Maryam Mirzakhani, debunking the idea that "women are inherently bad at mathematics" that John Bohannon describes on sciencemag.org [9]. That is, unless one wants to try and account for such cases are outlier cases of women with neurological "defects" that make them excel at mathematics, which, of course, is laughable.
          The next explanation, then, for the statistics that the National Science Foundation presents is that there are underlying social constructs, these gender roles, that women are sub-consciously conforming to that prohibit them from participating in things like math and science. Brink recognizes this phenomenon as the "status quo" and deems it a bad thing. And perhaps this is the one point where one can really question Brink; there isn't really much of an explanation from her photos as to why the aforementioned gender roles are a bad thing. However, such an attempt to question Brink's conclusion is a stretch; I can augment Brink's point by noting that, given the statistics provided by the National Science Foundation, women are missing out on any potential benefits of devoting their lives or careers to mathematics and science, all because modern American gender roles tell them not to. It would also be important to point out that these gender roles are preventing not just women, but men as well, from doing certain things without being met with hostility. There are numerous unfortunate circumstances that can befall a man such that he is not the "primary bread-winner" of the household, and he should be able to occupy this position without being met with ridicule or hostility. Likewise, women should be able to partake in math or science or business or alternative lifestyles without being ostracized by other women. Thus, when some women on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr promote the status quo of women serving as stay-at-home mothers and shying away from such endeavors as mathematics or science, and the negative attitude directed at those few women that do experiment outside of these defined gender roles, Brink has sufficient grounds to engage them.
          Another large point of contention between Brink and the supporters of Women Against Feminism centers around women's sexuality. Again, I should point out here that some might say it is not my place to participate in this discussion, but, as I mentioned before, insofar as the consequences of this discussion have a direct impact on the way women may interact with men, I think that I at least have grounds to make an observation. This point of contention can be captured by a different set of pictures from both Brink and the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. One young woman on the Tumblr page, who obscures most of her face, holds up a sign that reads "I need feminism because I need an excuse for when I act like a drunk, empty-headed slut and cheat on my boyfriend". Before presenting Brink's response, it should be pointed out that the negative disposition towards women who liberally engage in sexual conduct displayed by this poster need not meet the conditions aforementioned by the above poster (i.e. being drunk); such an attitude is oftentimes targeted at women who liberally have sex who are not drunk or cheating on a lover, as characterized by Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comment towards a Georgetown student who was asking for easier access to birth control [10]. And, on that note, Brink satirically responds to this attitude in another photo, donning a purple wig, obscuring part of her face (suggesting that this response is directly targeted at the same poster on the WAF Tumblr), holding up a sign that reads "I don't need feminism because I spent my childhood around people who told me that women who had sex before marriage were sluts and whores so now I'm afraid of my own body". As the comments by Limbaugh and the sign on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr show, there is an underlying negative disposition against women who engage in sex outside of marriage, especially when one considers the amount of support that both the Women Against Feminism Tumblr and Limbaugh have. Again, one must wonder whether or not there is any kind of rational foundation for this attitude. And while there certainly does appear to be a similar kind of attitude targeted towards men who also sleep around, it doesn't appear to be nearly as strong, nor is it invoked as often. This is notable insofar as, as The Atlantic points out, women's sexual desires are comparable to that of men [11], which begs the question as to why men are not held to the same sexual standards as women (or, perhaps for the better, why the standards applied to women are not just done away with altogether). Similarly, Dr. Kristen Mark reports to the Huffington Post that the idea that "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" is nothing more than a myth, and that men and women have more similarities than differences when it comes to sexual desire [12]. Brink recognizes this myth as well and attributes its perpetuation and support by the Women Against Feminism Tumblr to the same set of cultural norms being taught to girls at a young age, again captured by this underlying notion of "gender roles".
          Ultimately, Brink is justified in her response to the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. The reason for this comes back to an axiom I proposed early on: bad ideas are to be resisted. And, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the ideas put forth by the Women Against Feminism Tumblr are bad ideas, with no rational or scientific justification for them. And defenders of the Women Against Feminism Tumblr have criticized Brink for doing the very thing that she accuses the WAF Tumblr of doing, i.e. "shitting on other women". However, this criticism of Brink also has no merit to it. If one really wanted to analyze Brink's manner of engagement, it should be pretty obvious that Brink is being satirical towards the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, and this shouldn't strike anyone as particularly problematic. Satire has been a literary and rhetorical device for millennia; indeed, one simply need to look no further than the comedies of Plautus or Voltaire's Candide for traditional examples of satire, or, since I brought up the Democratic Presidential Debate at the outset of this piece, the subsequent satire of the debate that Saturday Night Live that aired the following evening (and this is saying something, coming from me; I have never really been a fan of SNL). Thus, insofar as Brink is employing a traditional rhetorical technique in her criticisms of bad ideas, which is to say, ideas that have no rational or scientific basis, Brink is justified in her course of action.
          On that note, there is one last photo from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr that I think I should bring attention to. One young poster, a fair-skinned girl with blue eyes, attributes to feminism the idea that "males are inherently bad". This concept of feminism is later supported by another young woman who understands feminism as making the claim that "men are inherent rapists and women are perpetual victims". I confess myself initially perplexed by these signs. I never really got the impression that feminism maintains any of these positions, and Brink certainly doesn't appear to be proposing these ideas. My initial reaction to these women on the WAF Tumblr was that they are just further confused about what they are talking about. But then I remembered Valerie Solanas and the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol and then realized that such ideas do actually exist and are attributed to feminism. It is here, then, that I return to a point I made at the outset of this piece: the one glaring criticism of feminism that I see that has the most merit to it is this splintering into poorly defined factions. I don't get the impression that Brink is a follower of Valerie Solanas, and it seems clear that some of the women on the WAF tumblr are conflating what Brink is doing with the kind of militant feminism represented by Solanas, which would be a mistake. Again, the feminist movement would be well-served if it took a page from the various anarchist communities and better defined its different sects, such that further confusion could be avoided. Despite this confusion, however, this doesn't render Brink's point inaudible, and the supporting points I mentioned above still remain.
          Ultimately, the Women Against Feminism Tumblr is strewn with bad ideas, and insofar as bad ideas should be resisted, Brink seems perfectly justified in her satire of it. Again, the attitudes represented on the WAF Tumblr don't seem to have any basis in science or reason, and many of the criticisms leveled at Brink seem to conflate what she is saying with a different, more militant kind of feminism that most certainly appears to be the minority. Hopefully, the statistics that I presented in support of Brink help to illuminate both the position that Brink is coming from and bring to the purview these various social issues, particularly in today's social climate where we may very well have our first female president in the near future.