17 July 2018

Russia talks, Trumps lips move

As with DPRK, the point of objections isn't (or shouldn't be) to the existence of talking to the Russians. We have substantive diplomatic issues with which we should be talking to them, leaving aside the questions of hacking and election and news meddling. The people making this argument, "that why are they mad that we're talking" typically suggest no similar argument is valid for Iran, which makes it hypocritically stupid. It is possible to set aside difficult and intractable policy goals and rivalries with other nations to make agreements on specific issues (like nuclear weapons policy, or Syria).

 It's also not an objection to say well even if Russia meddled in our elections and democratic processes, we did that too in other countries. This has rarely redounded to American interests to have done so. It was not a good thing that we did it, and most of the countries that were meddled in have had very mixed and poor results in their stability or even their allegiance to American hegemony (Iran most prominently figures against this idea being a good one, South Vietnam would be another good example, or most of Central America).

 Russia or Putin may have reasons to think this was a good idea. We do not have to.

 The point of the objections is largely in three areas:

 - That it was far from clear Trump was capable of addressing these substantive topics on his own, and in a way that would result in any deal, much less a deal favorable to US policy goals. He rarely credibly talks about anything in a way that suggests he has reached a well formed opinion or an informed position. This is fine if the deals and their details are to be worked out by others. He believes they are being worked out by himself alone.

 - That Trump is himself heavily compromised via the continued Russia/Mueller investigations, and that any agreements or attempts at agreements would be labored by this weight and unlikely to hold up. Indeed, it was extremely likely they would backfire with Congress (again) attempting to pass sanctions and other restrictions on Russia. These passed easily before, and aren't some liberal plot. Russia's actively doing stuff we don't and shouldn't like or tolerate.

 Trump seems at best purposefully oblivious to this, and more likely purposefully obstructionist over the whole issue. The better phrasing of objection here is less that he will appease Putin, but that he's a Manchurian Candidate. A Putin puppet. 

 - That Trump would obsequiously and favorably address yet another murderous dictator with a fawning admiration. Stylistically and diplomatically, this is wholly unnecessary. It is possible to conduct talks without telling horrible people they are awesome, and possible to tell relatively decent people that we share their major values even as we disagree about some particular issue. It all presents the position to other nations that our disagreements with our actual allies (EU, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, etc) are with rivalrous foes while our disagreements with our actual rivals (DPRK, Russia, China) are more cordial affairs. This makes little sense even from a game theory perspective. Theoretically it is about unpredictability. Unpredictability is potentially useful for a game of chicken type approach to foreign affairs. But this is repetitively predictable and unsurprising. Trump pisses off a bunch of American allies, and makes nice with some really terrible people. It is not unpredictable. It's boringly obvious. He has a long standing history of thinking some really awful and horrible regimes or the people running them were "tough" and "strong". This is not news. And it should surprise no one that he behaves more favorably toward such regimes now. 

17 June 2018

DPRK talks

“I think he will do these things. I may be wrong. I may stand before you in six months and say, hey, I was wrong. I don’t know I’ll ever admit that. I’ll find some excuse.” If Narang and Panda are right, and Kim Jong-un proves as unwilling to follow through on his vague promises as his predecessors given the credibility and legitimacy they now provide him, the president finding some excuse to cover up what will then be a failed summit will likely be the best case scenario.

I've been trying to figure out what to make of all of this for a few weeks now.

I find the idea that no talks should occur, ever, a bit strange. It's very clear there are reasons to engage with DPRK along with South Korea and probably China to resolve the issues involved non-militarily if possible. The danger to US allies is substantial, as is the probability of the regime collapsing and a massive humanitarian and economic crisis emerging in a very rich corner of the world, a corner which would be largely demolished. The bar should be set pretty low that anything could happen for such talks. But talking is preferable to threatening words being exchanged or destructive warfare.

I do think the idea that any talks involving Trump would be productive, particularly for the US and our allies, is correct to bring up as a serious problem. This was never very likely. Trump is a terrible negotiator as but one obvious problem. And there did not even appear to be agreement over what the terms of the deal could even be. Spiking the football when you're at the two yard line is an interesting game plan for conducting diplomacy. I would not call it a winning one.

It's really strange to think talks will be productive after nuclear deals to prevent proliferation with Iran are being scrapped. This should put a very low ceiling on the prospect of what "denuclearization" actually means to the North's regime. Many Trump decisions on foreign policy have this quality of own-goals being scored rather than forward progress being made toward these goals. (This is before considering if those goals are worthwhile, which they are often not).

The most self-aware admission is the quote above. This is correct he will find someone else to blame rather than admit fault if these talks go nowhere or produce no tangible result. As we should expect for the time being.

The amount of praise heaped upon Kim is disgusting and unnecessary. This is not the only authoritarian regime Trump has obsequiously complimented and admired for little or no diplomatic benefit, effectively unprompted gushing and fawning swoons over some of the most terrible people on the planet. This is probably the most disturbing trend that continued.

The most optimistic reading is that talks and relations between North and South Korea improve or are able to have productive outcomes without the added attention of the US nuclear demands for a time. Presumably those US centered talks will continue, but without Trump's attention, they are less likely to be important to anyone in the region, allowing for attention to be spent on more productive things. This would be a net boon. The nuclear deal itself is unlikely to materialize in any practical sense, but relative peace in Korea and the possibility of trade or economic freedoms offered through reform of the North's authoritarian system of repression and starvation would be welcome (basically a smaller version of what happened in China in the 1980s and 90s).

This is to keep in mind, again, that Trump's Iran policy purportedly offered as a framework here is not helpful. That policy will ultimately destabilize the region and made it more likely Iran, and Saudi Arabia if not others, would become a nuclear power, all while achieving no humanitarian aims or diplomatic advantages and weakening relations with the US's European allies necessary to achieve any harsher goals on nuclear powers (including North Korea).

16 June 2018

Not so Open Borders

Observing immigration debates, particularly with the border issues over asylees currently. Something that occurs to me is there's a very poor public understanding of what "open borders" actually means and the propensity of any Americans to think it to be a good idea or ideal (there are few who do).

This is a typical canard faced by people who oppose nativist restrictionist policies intended to reduce legal immigration from current low levels, not just illegal immigration is this claim they favor an open borders policy. Sanders complained about this too, so it's not just Trump types that do it. The actual debate is something more like the following: We don't have open borders, or very open borders, and what we are mostly arguing about as a country is the level of how closed we wish them to be, whether it is closed or open enough and how or whether to adjust that. Not whether it should be thrown open entirely to allow for the most possible free movement of people.

The US has fairly restrictive immigration policies by comparison to the rest of the globe and has had them in place for a long time, going back at least a century, which make it difficult to move here and become a legal citizen or worker/resident, particularly from non-favored places on the globe. This restrictive approach didn't start with Trump or Obama, and wasn't undone by Reagan (or Obama). It started during the Arthur administration (if we don't want to go back further to restrictions on the Transatlantic slave trade as a means of reducing "immigrants" from certain places on the globe). Anti-immigrant fervor was for a time a major political movement of its own during the antebellum period, and existed throughout the early days of the American republic, but did not succeed in surging into broad and major legislative restrictions until the early 20th century.

We were explicit back in the Wilson administration when some of the first major and broad immigration restrictions were instituted that a significant goal was to severely reduce and strictly control immigration from, say, Poland or Russia or Japan, just as it is now sought to reduce and control it from Honduras or Nigeria or Syria. There is and was little reason to do any of this for the benefit of our residents and citizens, to keep people out from any particular nations or regions. It solely benefits nativist demands to reduce the need for their own assimilation to a more dynamic culture. Immigrants themselves tend to assimilate fine to the American system and ways of life; it's the nativists who don't keep up. This is evident by examining places with more dynamic economic growth (mostly places with more immigrants living there), or places that more strongly oppose immigration (mostly places with very few immigrants).

There are advantages to the overall US system, such as jus soli, that make it easier in certain ways for immigrants to get and stay here legally. But we actually receive fewer families as immigrants than even the supposed high-skilled worker-based immigration systems of Canada and Australia that (some) Trump type conservatives seem to want to emulate (other than Trump himself or Stephen Miller types). Those supposed advantages are being washed out by all the difficulties and impediments we throw up instead.

What seems needed to reform the situation in a more constructive manner, as a non-expert observing the issue.

- Understanding that the "illegal" immigration issue, such as this even matters, largely is one of people overstaying legally issued visas or coming in from Asia or Africa or Eastern Europe, and not anymore from Central America. Many people coming in from Central America at present getting much of the news attention are attempting to apply for asylum status. Almost none of this is anything like someone storming across the border with malevolent intent that it should require a harsh legal or military response as is being demanded.

- Walls are pointless to deal with those problems even if they are considered as seriously as issues related to these problems. Walls are a poor symbolism for a free democratic nation to use to boot as an additional reason to avoid them.

- Policies adopted by less democratic or less free nations with the intention of reducing the cultural, intellectual, ideological, and ethnic diversity of that nation are not to be emulated or considered a valid comparison as something we should wish to do. The very idea any number of Americans think it is a good idea to see what North Korea or Afghanistan or China does with people trying to cross their borders illegally and copy any elements of that, or to take a more representative example of actual policy, to look at what we did with Japanese Americans during WW2 and see that as an instructive and successful policy, is horrifying from a civic perspective.

- There should be a massive expansion of work visas in amounts and availability. These visas should be controlled by the workers themselves as much as possible so that companies can decide whether or not to employ someone without worrying about national origins or needing to apply and somehow justify that they need to hire someone from another country, and so workers can go from job to job relatively easily or start a company of their own if they wish/are able. Companies could sponsor specially talented workers as a means of generating loyalty among highly skilled employees, but otherwise should have to pay normal wages to everyone.

- Significant expansion of refugee/asylum programs should be undertaken. The global refugee population is at an all time high in the last decade. This is in part because of American policies; such as in Yemen or parts of Central America. Regardless of the blame we may ascribe to our policies abroad or domestically as they negatively impact other nations and people, we have a moral obligation as a rich country and people to help those in dire need. And we tend as a nation to benefit considerably by taking in refugees historically as a selfish reason to do this. There are no significant downsides to doing this. Other than that it annoys nativists who may elect more immigrant-restrictive public officials.

- Significantly easier citizenship applications and processes should be created. The cost and time involved is a significant impediment to making it easier for people to immigrate legally and become a permanent resident, if they wish. If it is easier to immigrate legally via citizenship or work status, it would be much easier to concentrate enforcement resources on those who continue to come with more dangerous and thereby illegal purposes than finding work or being with family and friends.

- As such, we should see reduced deportations of non-criminal immigrants, whether or "illegal" or not. If someone is not a terrorist, spy, or murderer/rapist, I'm not sure why it would be a useful exercise of the federal government's priorities or resources to deport them. Concurrent with that, abolishing checkpoints for immigration within a border zone, not at the border would be useful for US residents. Immigrants are not required to live in and are not necessarily concentrated in these zones anyway that monitoring visa status would be useful to do in this way. Such checkpoints appear to be mostly used for other dubiously legal purposes, such as checks on narcotics smuggling rather than arresting or detaining immigrants with dubious residential status

19 December 2017

On offensive analogies

I make a lot of analogies when talking to people lately. Some of them don't work as well as I would hope, and others work fine. Because this particular subject keeps coming up in some form over the last few years, I'm going to make one as a thought experiment which might be offensive. You have been warned. It's also not originally mine.

Something which occurs often in atheist and secular circles is the question of how to deal with often zealously religious people, and some not so zealous. I find I probably have fewer problems than most other atheists. Mainly because I wasn't brought up with some strange beliefs and did not lose many friends or associates as a result of abandoning them either. I was raised on cultural things like Star Trek and its humanism and the writings and philosophies from Aristotle, Mill, and Adam Smith, and later the Stoics. Maybe those are strange to others, but they're fairly normal within American and Western culture. I was also brought up around a rather more tolerant friend group, and family members that did not tend to push religious beliefs. There were occasional arguments over evolutionary theory or points of ethics, but it wasn't by and large causing major social rifts. The fact that I didn't and don't like most people did that, or vice versa.

What I intend to do is explain how it is I try to get along with religious people, and why it is that breaks down sometimes. There's a famous formulation of analogy for belief in god to wonder whether there is a tiny teapot floating between Earth and Mars. While there are some logical philosophical problems with it, it should suffice to examine this question for my purposes.

The primary disagreement atheists and theists have is whether or not there is a teapot there in the first place (and indeed this is the primary logical problem with the argument is that this materialist framing bogs it down in the face of faith-based reasoning in teapots). This is a rather trivial disagreement in my view. I do not care if people want to believe in very silly things to extract comfort and meaning from life or on how to practice and put forward their ethical values. Only whether or not these are sensible ethical values or lead to contented and fulfilling lives for as many people as possible seems a pertinent question to me. The metaphysics of teapots isn't a very interesting debate for me. Ethics are.

The relevant disagreement atheists and theists that I see as having is to suppose that this difficult to find teapot has also been broadcasting instructions and teachings on the ethics and meaning of existence to human beings for centuries, and that human beings should act accordingly and follow this as a doctrine or dogma about what appropriate human behaviors and social arrangements are.

This poses (at least) four separate scenarios for how human beings will act. (Note that none of this requires that the teapot actually exist, merely that some people believe this is an origin point and act upon that).

-1- That the teapot sends beneficent messages about compassion, kindness, generosity, charity, hope, tolerance, or love, and people who follow its teachings mostly try to follow these examples and virtues in their actions. In so far as being kind or compassionate is difficult to do sometimes, they won't do it perfectly, more something to aspire toward as a set of values and virtues.

-2- That the teapot sends beneficent messages about compassion, kindness, etc, etc, and teapot followers do not mostly try to follow these teachings, but instead expend a lot of energy about which version of the teapot's teachings they should listen to, or whether or not other people believe in the teapot in the first place. Or if they do believe in the teapot if they do not follow it perfectly or in the way they believe is perfect. Rather than whether or not other people tend to ascribe to some significant elements of those teachings in their own independent behaviors and judgments of ethics and decency and tend and intend to behave as such.

-3- That the teapot sends mixed messages, with some benevolent and some intolerant or cruel, and people have to decide for themselves which are beneficial and wise and which are not, or determine when they apply and when, or if, they do not from context and structure of words and accompanying doctrines. Sometimes people will succeed at this challenging task, and sometimes they will fail.

-4- That the teapot sends cruel or intolerant messages and people decide (or not) to follow these, and act accordingly. (Trump and some of his more rabid religious Christian followers, ISIS types, etc). This is one possible solution to the theodicy problem, to suggest that the teapot has a message, or at least some parts of messages, that would be favored by some sick fucks in the first place and at least some people are acting in accordance with that.

In the first and perhaps third versions, if the net result of people's belief in teapots net results in acts of mercy, kindness, charity, and love and compassion for other people (and sometimes even other living things), I see little reason to complain about this. I can think it's silly, but they're unlikely to bother me much about it or be bothered that I think it is silly in the societies that result. In general, many religious people I have encountered try to work within that framework, trying to be decent human beings toward one another, and not all that bothered that I am not of their religious tribe if I likewise act with decency or kindness and respect toward them. I might have some significant quibbles with what things are found to be ethically questionable at times by their teapot related messages, or what things are deemed intolerant or cruel by teapot followers. But these are not generally because they believe in wise and virtuous space teapots or not in the first place. More because ethics are really hard as a subject for people to reason through, and they mostly do not bother to try (teapots or not). And because these are not always simple and non-contradictory commands that are being followed. Interpretation is involved, and wisdom or folly will proceed from there.

People will learn, hopefully, from their errors, and the correcting instruction of others, how to behave sensibly and appropriately, and generally this could result in a more just and fair society. I see little basis for judgment or derision of the silly beliefs in teapots somehow being reliant in forming these habits of justice in others, so long as they are aspiring to form these habits and mostly successful at doing so. Many religious people I encounter act more in this world according to the wishes or teachings of a benevolent teapot and ignoring other considerations or scenarios. This does not make them always good people, but it can make them more sensitive to arguments about compassion even for people who might violate some of the more strange ethical commands made by the benevolent teapot. And the net result is a society that could kind of slide by those more strange and perhaps harmful conceptions of goodness in favor of the more beneficial ones.

Not all people however hew to this arrangement. It is the second and fourth versions I find really challenging to deal with, and also perplexing as common in public perceptions of teapot followers and common behaviors by some. And indeed, perhaps increasing in the commonness of public perceptions that these are the more likely ways for teapot followers to behave.

The second option devolves into a lot of arguing over theology and doctrine and ingroup-outgroup tribalism dynamics. It is responsible for a lot of bloody wars and genocides over the last several centuries. This is hardly an ideal way to follow this teapot with its supposedly benevolent messaging. It remains active as an artifact of skepticism of the Christian bonafides of Catholics by other Christians for example, and generally leads to a wide array of religious people fighting with each other. As an atheist, this scenario has the most impact upon the quality of arguments and salience of religious orders, simply because it acts to weaken them and cause disarray and distrust of them internally within religious organisations that are no longer as unified by their common belief in the great teapot. If it were thus limited to that arena of humanity, people willing to fight and die over such disagreements, this would be deeply disturbing but not something I would actively work to stop either. This group of people will expend a lot of time harming people that don't really care that much about these arguments, and mostly just wanted to follow the general messages of good teapots everywhere (or those who don't care about teapots in the first place and want some coffee or beer instead, say). Either by making such people look bad by acting like fools and defaming the good name and example of decent people, or by acting with intolerant cruelty and hypocrisy toward people of the "other" groups.

It nevertheless makes dealing with such people incredibly frustrating. The quality of theological debate is typically poor and poorly informed, the quality of philosophy poor, and the embrace of any positive social messages and changes they might otherwise have used as poorly convincing but at least beneficial evidence of their beliefs gets bogged down in these tedious spaces. Society does not progress toward a more beneficent set of arrangements for its people and risks or inflames many pointless conflicts along the way.

The fourth scenario has its obvious drawbacks. The first being that convincing people that their teapot is in fact a vile asshole is really hard. Trump, as a practical example, is really, really popular among very religious (white Christian) Americans, particularly with a lower standard of education, and not so popular at all with anyone else. Or at least many people who claim to those beliefs. This suggests these are people don't see his actions and behavior as a problem, and further suggesting their beliefs and teapot based communities are more about intolerance and cruelty he displays toward unfavored others in the first place than about any beneficial messages from their teapot.

The second and most pertinent problem is that it would lead to a lot of unethical and inappropriate behavior harming other human beings. Cruelty and suffering being things that should be avoided where possible to foster a peaceful and prosperous world for people, following such a teapot's messages or the people who think they would prosper by them, is something that should be avoided. Getting people to stop doing so is going to be really hard, and probably not usually worth the effort. But that still leaves cleaning up the messes they're making on the way, which is not absolved by ignoring vile and unpleasant people either.


12 March 2017

Final Rankings NCAA 2017

Seem to be the best two teams now.
1) Gonzaga 10-1 - 6 top 25 wins, but 3 are against St Mary's
2) Villanova 19-3

Other likely title contenders.
3) North Carolina 17-7 - top rebounding team, 6 top 25 wins
4) West Virginia 17-7-1 - forces tons of turnovers
5) Kentucky 20-5

Mixed bag, mostly teams to avoid taking too far.
6) Louisville 14-8 - only 8-7 in Road/Neutral games
6) Kansas 20-4  - lowest 1 seed, 6 top 25 wins, 14 top 50
8) Wichita St 4-4 - 10 seed, 0 top 50 wins
9) Virginia 14-10 - 5 seed, #1 defense
10) Duke 18-7-1 - most top 25 wins, 8, 15 top 50 wins, also most
11) Florida 17-8

Sleepers
12) SMU 10-3-1 - 6 seed, but rates higher than 3 seed Baylor
13) Purdue 15-6-1
14) Oregon 14-5  -only 2-3 vs top 50
15) UCLA 11-4
16) Baylor 19-7 - 13 top 50 wins
17) Iowa St 16-10 - 13 top 50 wins

Upset potential teams (in either direction)
18) Florida St 15-7-1 - 13 top 50 wins, losing record in road/neutral games
19) Michigan 15-11 - 10 top 50 wins
20) Arizona 12-4
21) Cincinnati 10-5
22) Wisconsin 16-9 - 10 top 50 wins, but 8 seed...for some reason? (RPI has them at 32, I'm not sure how)
23) St Mary's 5-4
24) Notre Dame 14-9
25) Oklahoma St 13-12 - 10 seed, #1 offense, bad defence
26) Butler 17-6-2 - 11 top 50 wins
27) Creighton 11-9 - started year 18-1 overall, but slumped since starting PG was injured (was leading nation in assists)

Most teams from here will have middling records against competitive teams.
Non-NCAA bid teams will appear in italics
28) Marquette 9-11-1 - top 3 point shooting team, but awful defense
29) Kansas St 10-13
30) Wake Forest 8-13 - 3-13 vs top 50, worst defense among at-large teams
31) South Carolina 15-9-1 -only 3-5 vs top 50, worst offense among at-large teams to make the field, plays de facto home games in first and second round (7 seed)
32) Miami 8-11
33) Minnesota 13-9
34) Vanderbilt 12-14-1 - 4 top 25 wins got them in
35) Indiana 9-13-2 - first team out
36) Xavier 10-13- only one good win post-injury (Butler)
37) Northwestern 10-11 1st NCAA bid in school history
38) Arkansas 14-8-1 - 3-7 vs 50
39) Clemson 9-15 
40) Rhode Island 8-7-2
41) Michigan St 11-13-1
42) Dayton 10-4-3
43) TCU 9-15 - 2-8 in last 10 games
44) Syracuse 9-12-2 - 2-11 in Road/Neutral games
45) Texas Tech 7-14 - 2-11 in Road/Neutral games
46) Virginia Tech 11-9-1 - 8 top 50 wins
47) Maryland 14-7-1
48) VCU 8-7-1 - 1-3 vs 50
49) Middle Tennessee 4-1-3

Last "out" at larges and mixed upset mid-majors/low rated at-larges
50) Utah 4-8-3  - 0-6 vs 50
51) Houston 5-7-3  - 1-5 vs 50
52) Nevada 5-3-3
53) Seton Hall 11-9-2
54) Alabama 8-14  
55) Georgia 11-14 - 1-11 vs 50!
56) Illinois St 1-3-3 
57) Providence 10-9-3
58) UNC-Wilmington 4-3-2 - 0-2 vs 50
59) California 6-11 - 0-7 vs 50
60) USC 5-8-1 - lowest rated at-large team, 2-6 vs 50, got in because of RPI rating (41)
65) Vermont 0-4-1
66) ETSU 2-4-3 - 0-1 vs 50
70) Princeton 1-5-1

Rest of Field
77) Bucknell 3-5-3 - 1-2 vs 50
93) New Mexico St 0-1-4
105) Florida-Gulf Coast
110) Winthrop
112) Iona
132) Kent St
134) Troy
144) N.Kentucky
155) UNC-Central
166) Jacksonville St
178) North Dakota
179) South Dakota St
186) Texas Southern
194) Mount St Mary's (only team in field with negative scoring margin, also gets clobbered on the boards)
202) New Orleans
205) UC-Davis


Critical injuries
Xavier- Sumner (6-7 since, but 3 of those wins are against DePaul)
Creighton - Watson PG (6-6 since)
Oregon- Boucher (injured in conference tournament)

03 March 2017

Cultural critique

I've been off to the side watching a lot of film and TV, during what appears to be a golden era of TV and TV writing, and cultural nerd/geek ascendancy in film. 

There are two major issues I keep seeing repeated. 


1- It's a visual medium, use "show, not tell." This fails the viewer on many levels. Showing us acts of heroism/villainy or romance or cleverness establishes clearly these features as a reason to care about or relate to the character. Telling us someone is clever or a hero is the same function as a person assuring us "I am smart". In that it generally tells us "you are an idiot." Dialogue can be used to establish any of these things instead of action, but there is a less is more style approach to this that is frequently abandoned, as though the expectation is the viewer won't understand what is going on without being spoon-fed lines of exposition constantly. Dialogue of this sort should be more about establishing the character, by making them seem more real or relatable. For example, to tell a joke or a moving back story to another character, having them gossip or engaged in some act of chicanery and mischief, rather than about spoonfeeding us details about them. With a more complicated show with many moving parts and characters (the Wire, or Game of Thrones say) this might be true that the viewer needs a little bit of explanation to follow it. Game of Thrones essentially invented the concept of "sexposition" as a method of having complicated pieces of information conveyed while someone, or several someones, is nude and engaged in various salacious actions on screen. By contrast. The Wire has a sequence, a entire brilliantly written and shot sequence, where the two characters communicate entirely by variations of phrases including "fuck" key within them, with no dialogue exposition whatsoever. It's all shown through reenactment and body language what they are thinking and doing and the viewer is simply expected to apply what exposition they've had before and know what's going on. And it isn't hard to follow in spite of this limitation of words and precision. 


The most dramatic cultural difference I've noticed is between Marvel's films and DC's in the last few years. We are constantly told Superman is a hero, and then rarely see much heroism and instead watch a city getting destroyed through collateral damage in his own fight with the main villain. This doesn't really convey much of a reason to care much about this apparently indifferent and possibly sociopathic superhero because the depiction we are seeing is at odds with the depiction we are told we are seeing. Guardians has a bunch of anti-heroes, or at least very unlikely heroes and their tree creature companion, running around eventually working together to save a planet that probably hates or fears them just as much as we are told Superman is hated or feared by humanity. It's acted out and it fits more or less what we are told needs to be done in those moments of exposition between explosions. 


Romance plot lines in most films follow a similar problem, where the chemistry and interplay and dialogue between the main love interests is usually an unconvincing dud that is neither escapist entertainment nor realistic depiction of human pair bonding and attraction. 


Even with Game of Thrones, which is one of the better shows on TV for avoiding the show not tell problem (although it often dwells too heavily on the showing of barbarism), spends most of the last couple of seasons telling us that Tyrion is clever and wise, and then watching most of his plots and clever schemes blow up in his face. We are buoyed along by the fact that he has done clever and wise things in the past, but no longer seeing the more convincing evidence of this fact. 



2- "it’s more interesting in theory than in practice." This is a frustrating component of a ton of film and TV. Rogue One could have been a very interesting and compelling work of fiction set in the Star Wars universe to tell us a story most people could conclude was not going to work out that well. The way it could have done this was to have interesting characters who will all, eventually, be sacrificed for a good cause. We should care more who these people are, why they are fighting, and that they are dying. Dirty Dozen managed to carry this off in a war-themed film, where most everyone dies (spoiler alert if you haven't been alive since 1967). Instead the characters are fairly disposable means of creating action sequences. Some of them may as well have been named "plot device", for all I know they were. This is frustrating because there's an angle where the context and content that's available should have been really interesting and engaging, but nobody bothered to use it. 

The most common example of this is sci-fi themed. Westworld and the Expanse are both shows that hit some interesting questions of psychology, neuroscience, or philosophy. What would a world with AI be like, what is consciousness, what would the discovery of alien life do to a primitive space-faring human society and its messy politics? But they fall short by being a tangled mess of story that rarely allows people to care about dynamic characters doing something interesting on its own. There is a huge gap between Omar in the Wire, a guy who runs around robbing drug dealers who should not at all be a popular and well-regarded character (and is), and whoever the hell these people are in the Expanse (I have a vague idea of names other than one of them does the voice for a Quarian admiral in Mass Effect). Or William in Westworld. One of these is a well-developed character who doesn't even appear until the 3rd or 4th episode of the series. And the others, I've been following these people around for an entire season of a show and still don't really feel like they are anything other than ciphers and plot devices around which things are supposed to happen to make me feel like there's something interesting happening. I don't relate to them. They don't seem to have complicated motivations, or even get along all that well to where I'd understand why they back each other up. 


Where I think this is falling flat mostly is that stories are about the people in them and how we feel about them. And it feels like writers or show runners have forgotten that. Sometimes in favor of flashy action sequences. Not always. A writer can and should expose people to interesting concepts or ideas, but stories they tell are primarily about people (actually primarily about themselves or the people they know well, which is why so many films or shows are about people trying to act or write or succeed in some creative endeavour). The ideas are smuggled in alongside that. I thought that having everyone important in the story die (spoiler alert from 1977) in Rogue One should have been a really interesting risk to take with a film, especially when it seems to be a war film. This would confront us with the horrific cost of war and violent resistance and that even if there seems to be a valorous sacrifice in the works, a victory will feel hollow and painful for the losses we accrue to get there. But then I didn't care about any of these people and they barely seemed to care about each other. So. It didn't work very well as a story about people. It traffics, as Force Awakens did before it, but in a less reliant way, on a cultural memory that we have seen from characters before (Han Solo or Darth Vader), rather than giving us much new about these characters now. 


There are films and shows that get around these problems. I may be expecting a bit much for a big blockbuster production to have ideas and complex characters in it for example. Still. It isn't that much of an ask to have the main character not be "the explosion in scene 24" either. 

March NCAA Ranks

All records are top 100 records only (with any losses to non-tournament quality teams designated).

1) Gonzaga  9-1
2) West Virginia 14-7

I still don't feel like these are the two best teams. Gonzaga has only played one meaningful game since last month. The gap has also closed. The next two teams are right behind them now
3) Villanova 19-3
3) North Carolina 15-6

5) Kentucky 15-5
6) Florida 16-6
7) Kansas 21-3
8) Louisville 13-7
9) Virginia 12-9

10) Wichita St 2-4
11) UCLA 11-3
12) Purdue 14-6
13) Duke 14-6-1
13) Baylor 17-6

15) Oregon 13-4
16) Florida St 12-7

17) Oklahoma St 13-10
18) SMU 11-3-1
19) Butler 18-5-1
20) Iowa St 13-9
21) St Marys 4-3
22) Wisconsin 14-7
23) Cincinnati 10-4
24) Arizona 9-4
25) Creighton 12-7
26) Notre Dame 13-7

Bubble thoughts going into the tournament weeks
Teams I have "in". These are not all teams I would put in, in fact none of them are). These are teams ranked high enough to sneak in basically.
31) Wake Forest 7-12 - All of Wake's losses are in the top 50.
34) Texas Tech 7-12
36) Kansas St 7-12 (yes all three of these teams have 7-12 top 100 records)
38) Indiana 7-13-1
39) Clemson 10-14
40) Vanderbilt 9-13-1
46) Houston 7-6-2

Of these, Wake, Kansas St, Vandy, and Houston are the only ones even getting bubble chatter. The fact that any of these teams are seems like a problem. The bubble looks incredibly soft this year.

Teams I have "out" that will almost certainly get in
47) Michigan St 12-11-1 (injuries and actually a decent record against top-100 teams and a tough schedule)
56) Providence 11-9-2
58) Seton Hall 10-9-1
67) USC 5-7-1

Actual bubble right now
42) Xavier 11-12, fallen about 15 spots in the ranks in the two weeks. Probably safe, but fading badly
44) Syracuse 8-12-1
49) Rhode Island 5-7-2
50) California 4-8-1
51) Illinois St 1-2-3 (not much of a schedule)
All of these teams are in right now, probably. If there's a couple of at-larges because of upsets in conference tournaments, these are the teams getting axed. Syracuse appears to have a terrible RPI, but will probably be getting in anyway (again). Which is a good sign the RPI is useless and starting to be ignored/replaced.

08 February 2017

Early NCAA ranks

All records are top 100 records only (with any losses to non-tournament quality teams designated).

1) Gonzaga  9-0
2) West Virginia 9-5

I don't have much faith these are the best two teams, mostly because they both have lower quality schedules, so far. Partly this is because nobody seems that far ahead of the rest of the pack this year.

3) Virginia 11-5
4) Louisville 10-5
5) Villanova 15-2

6) Kentucky 10-5 (seems to be in a funk, they were ranked #1 two weeks ago)
7) North Carolina 13-4
8) Kansas 13-3
9) Florida 11-5

10) Purdue 10-5
11) Wisconsin 12-3
12) Baylor 13-3
13) Duke 9-5
13) Florida St 11-4
15) Wichita St 2-4
16) UCLA 8-3

17) Cincinnati 7-2
18) Oregon 7-3
19) SMU 6-3-1

20) Arizona 7-3 (currently projected as a #2 seed on bracketmatrix)
21) Oklahoma St 7-8 (toughest schedule in the country)
22) Creighton 11-4
23) St Marys 5-2
24) Butler 14-4-1
25) Notre Dame 9-7

Non-top 25 notes
Michigan and Indiana are the first teams which I have ranked that are considered bubble teams (and probably out), at 31 and 32. Followed by Wake Forest and Miami. And Syracuse, as the ACC has a string of middling teams. None of these teams looks that distinguished. Syracuse has only one road/neutral win so far all year, for example. This is typical as bubble teams are usually mediocre.

ACC vs Big 12 as the "power conference" for the year
ACC has 11 potential teams up for bids (more like 10, Clemson hasn't beaten anyone, neither has Wake Forest), and the #3 and #4 and #7 teams.

Big 12 has 8 teams most likely all getting in, with #2 and #8 also in the conference. Additionally, even the weakest two teams that won't get in (Texas and Oklahoma) are in the top 100.

In general, the Pac-12 looks overrated by tournament prospects. Arizona's very high on the projected seed line, and Utah is projected as a bubble team, with a 2-7-1 record, and USC has a very low computer ranking (I have them at #59), mainly because they don't appear to have played anyone (5-4 record). California also has some bubble potential and a poor ranking (I have them at #55). I'd say there are probably some of the usual RPI shenanigans, but I don't look at RPI. These things could improve, but don't count on it.

UCLA rates as the best offense in college basketball.. but their defense is outside of the top 100.

Best non-major conference teams as upset spoilers should they get in:
#54 Middle Tennessee 5-1-3
#57 UNC Wilmington 3-3-1

28 January 2017

In which I am a hypocrite?

In the wake of this election and the early days of the new administration, there are two core themes I'm picking up on as problems

1- How do we find and evaluate reliable news and information. Particularly news that Trump fans/conservatives in general will find reliable? (to the extent that is possible). There are extended and competing narratives about the nature of various problems (crime, immigration, climate change, racism), which sometimes rest upon factual assessments.

I am often asked this, or somehow regarded as a broker of information. Even if people disagree with me about what I conclude should be done about it as a matter of public policy (often: nothing). And to be honest, I'm not sure that I have a good answer. I trust sources that tend to be more grounded in what evidence is available on a subject, make sound and robust interpretations of that evidence, or include and attempt to evaluate contrary evidence/studies. I try to avoid too many obvious partisan sources (so no Fox News, no HuffPo, MSNBC, Breitbart, Catholics4Trump, etc). Not that these are equally bad, just that they tend to be less useful than some other source that will require less filtering. Then avoid subjects on which the writer/journals in question might exercise a great deal of bias without grounding that bias in attempting to convey a relevant expertise in the subject at hand. That is: if they're studying the subject with a particular eye on what policies or ideas it should favor, chances are conclusions and methodology will be sloppy or unserious, and if they're not studying the subject at all, chances are they don't know what they are talking about (so an example here would be "don't read David Barton or David Wolfe", and probably don't talk to people who have taken him seriously either).

This is not a snappy answer directing people to a single source ultimately. So it isn't a very good one. People don't like it.

2- How do we resist effectively objectively bad policies from being enacted?

The second question, as someone who thinks there are always bad policies being enacted, is hard. But one core insight someone familiar with the division of powers and activities of government has is to suggest that local and state politics are much easier to influence, and still likely to have direct influence upon your own life. Local politics and events can be ignored to a point, but the things that happen there tend to be more noticeable immediately. Opposing or supporting changes at this level, or even introducing such changes, would have an immediate impact as a result upon the lived experiences of your neighbours. People you see or interact with every day at work or school, or church should that be your thing. It feels good to (potentially) affect change like this because people who might be helped are evident and visible to us. And the people who might be harmed are likewise, suggesting we could take more caution in adopting harmful policies (not that we do). Large scale policies like federal income taxes, trade policy, international relations, and Supreme Court rulings can impact large numbers of people at once significantly, but often the impact is modest, if still attributed to government actions at all by the time it reaches the public (there can be individual actors that benefit mightily of course, by distributing the costs across hundreds of millions of people). It also involves many, many activists and actors clamoring for attention at that level that it can be difficult to get attention or affect any changes. It magnifies and intensifies these political and cultural chess matches such that they can take years, decades even, to shift noticeably.

Meanwhile. Voters, in their infinite wisdom, have essentially acted to punish the President or the President's party for increases in their local property taxes. Rather than looking to punish them solely on the basis of these large scale shifts in policy at the top. This is not a new problem to this election; it's been on-going. One reason for that is a lack of involvement or rigorous coverage of local and state politics. This is something I routinely encourage people to seek out and engage with. Voter participation in local or state elections is often abysmally low. Some, like school board votes, are deliberately scheduled in off years, sometimes even off months, such that interested parties might influence the results, on this basis that there simply won't be enough voter turnout to overcome such effects. This is clearly something we could attend to with more interest as a public. But accepting that turnout is low, that also means there is more opportunity to overwhelm popular attention quickly, or to be well known by political officials within that community and have concerns or demands engaged with seriously (it could also mean such notoriety is punished of course, so be careful what you wish for).

There are obvious limitations to this as a strategy, for instance if you favor XYZ policies and live in an area dominated by other people that find XYZ policy to be abhorrent or a terrible idea, advocating for it is likely to be unpopular, and getting a movement of people started to potentially alter public views is likely to take quite a while. Most people would find it more convenient to move to somewhere that does want to do those things, as sometimes that doesn't even require uprooting to a new area, just another civic jurisdiction nearby. So paying attention in a sustained way to the local policies and politics and views of the local populace is not something most people do beyond this first pass screening to look for cultural cues and heuristics suggesting they are moving somewhere which modestly favors their outlook and views. And will tend to vote accordingly.

But there's one bigger problem with attending to local political action and activism, and it ties into the first issue that's afflicted people in the wake of the last few years: in most cities there isn't as good of a pipeline of routine and reliable information about local and state politics. So knowing what is going on, what might be changing, and why, is hard to discern. Local TV news is usually a useless stream of stories about how everything in your home and outside the door is trying to kill you (spoiler alert, they're not out to get you), in a vicious cycle of bleeds and leads coverage. I would even suggest that people watching it are less informed than people that do nothing at all, because they will routinely be misinformed rather than properly contextualizing new information about potential hazards, criminal activity, and so on (this is a common issue with Breitbart or Fox and various other national news outlets as well but its much worse locally because there is less competition). Local papers might still have some coverage of local politics, but it can be hit or miss on how focused this is, and space in newspapers is limited. National news coverage soaks up a lot of attention because it's usually easy to find a bigger story somewhere else than what is happening to be announced by a town crier, and for which another paper or news organisation has produced news in a format that can be readily published more cheaply than paying reporters to go sit in on city council meetings. To an extent, it should absorb considerable coverage, because the policies enacted can have weighty consequences. But such coverage devoted to political infighting and horse trading as often occurs can be readily looked up later by interested parties (at election time for instance), and is often of little significance to the average voter. The ugly sausage making of writing laws and regulations meanwhile, is. At least some of this oxygen could be devoted to supporting lower levels of journalistic activity in states and cities.

I myself probably should consume much more local news and events (or produce more of it) in order to have some occasion to do productive, or at least productive seeming, political and cultural effects upon the land. At a national level, I find sources that I can deem somewhat reliable at producing information I can then use to make decisions. Flawed sometimes. But reliable. Locally. Not so much. Lacking good reliable sources of information, it will be difficult to determine what might need to be done in a local community, or what needs to be blocked and protested at the statehouse.

That leaves things like political activist and advocacy groups, who will have biased messaging or political and local facebook groups/friends, again, with a self-selected bias problem endemic to all social networks. The amount of filtering, expertise shortages, and biases involved in sorting these sources could be immense. I would not look forward to that starting from scratch in a way that filtering national news sources takes ample time already. Instead, there are institutions within a community, such as churches and some non-profits, which do interact and engage, and may possess valuable information that could be directly used (even if it is sometimes amounting to town gossip). If turning this into clear policy initiatives seems less likely, at least initially, it at least provides the probability of direct action helping some small number of people.

I've been thinking about this problem as a consequence of being mildly associated with a local group of atheists and contemplating how to organise that typical band of misfits to do productive social and civic things (besides hang out and tell other atheists how ridiculous some theological point is). There are opportunities to do this and they have been pursued in the past, but sporadically at times. That is ultimately a concern that there are fewer institutional ties to the community which can be easily pulled to produce a thread of something to go do in that community, and often stubborn resistance to using some of the existing ties (such as those conceived of by churches and other religious entities) and precious little group cohesion to build some infrastructure of our own. Drawing upon local knowledge of events, where possible, at least offers the prospect of civic engagement to such a group. Whether or not it chooses to take up arms.

There are two other important consequences to local activity and activism I could conceive of.

- More people could be exposed to the idea that other people hold some really strange ideas to be true. That would include some of the people they consider friends or respected co-workers or public figures, or people who might otherwise be fellow ideological travelers (on one issue or another). Or concurrently be aware some of their own ideas are thought of in strange terms by others.

- More people could be engaging in semi-productive, possibly respectful dialogue over said strange ideas.

Or possibly more shouting matches and protest fighting would occur and I would be people watching such events.

19 December 2016

Rogue One and Arrival

This isn't a contest to see which is better. Arrival is clearly a superior film. People should not be confused or considering it another way. I could conceive of having non sci-fi fans watch Arrival and get something out of it anyway. It's that good, and that understated as to the science fiction elements.

Rogue One.

Good

Action sequences are generally well laid out and create a strong sense of running battles and impending destruction.

Vader finally plays a badass again (hasn't really happened since Empire and New Hope). Good villains help these stories. There weren't quite any in this. But at least Vader showed up as Vader. I was fine with that.

There are some very gorgeous cinematographic sequences. They did really well picking up fun locations to shoot (Maldives, Jordan, Iceland, etc). They took full advantage of what they had to work with to make it crisp and chewy as scenery goes. And to blow it up.

This was generally better than Force Awakens. It also seems to have a point or a story to tell of its own. That being "war sucks, people will die". This feels more like a WWII movie with blasters and space combat than a "Star Wars" movie at points. That's a good thing. There are little moments like listening to a turncoat spy or a stormtrooper chattering about something just before they are attacked and killed to drive home even the enemies of the rebellion are people of some sort. This works better than Finn as a defector in Force Awakens to humanize the enemy as probably a lot of people who haven't had much choice in occupation.

This is also a key point sorely lacking in the Star Wars prequels, which do try (and mostly failed) to explore the politics of a gigantic bureaucratic nightmare with a veneer of democracy. There isn't really a sense that wars are bad and have terrible costs. What costs are involved are paid for reasons totally divorced from the wars themselves, and mostly involved lightsaber mishaps and insane rants about the "high ground". So from the perspective of trying to set an action movie with a lot of desperate and bad things happening within the contextual structure of the Star Wars universe and its rebellions and galactic conflicts, I was happy with that attempt. This was the biggest problem with Force Awakens was it took no risk to tell a new and engaging story, or even to spin that story that much that it wasn't obviously a mishmash of the original trilogy with some of the same key players. It was further plagued that most of its universe based elements made little or no sense even in the context of that universe (why is there even a "resistance" if there's a Republic again?), or were annoying (Finn, Kylo Ren).

The droid is funny. Probably taking up all of the film's humor, but still. Probably funnier than C3-PO. Sarcastic droid wins over whiny droid.

Mixed
While I think they did a good CGI job on Tarkin (and one other at the end of the movie), it is a little strange seeing an actor who has been dead for 20 years in a movie. This is not a trend I would look forward to.

There are a lot of Star Wars Easter eggs. Some of them are annoying. Others are fun reminders of the original films. This was a mixed bag issue with Force Awakens also. Telling a different and new story in Star Wars can be done, and can be done to use these little touches to remind us what universe we are in (like the Stan Lee cameos in Marvel films). I feel like this did a little to push the envelope, much more than Force Awakens/Abrams, but not enough. It could have been a spy thriller for example but with Jedis and a space battle, or battles and devastation happening in the background. I had thought that was kind of what it was going to be from the trailers. There are nods like that's what they will be doing when they recruit a team of saboteurs and assassins to come help them, and they start sneaking around the base. Then a lot of the stuff from the trailers don't make any appearances in the film, and a lot of things start blowing up, and a fleet shows up to attack. People can make a war-spy movie drama/thriller, something that would resemble Dirty Dozen maybe. But the film has to commit to the spy or sneaky part to pull it off. This never really does.

There are no extraneous "cute" characters to be marketed to children. This is a harsher world than Ewoks and Jawas and whatever Jar Jar was supposed to be, and as a result, no cuddly creatures appear. I would consider this a good thing, if they had taken the added time not doing this form of marketing and expended it on making the actual people in the story a little more compelling.

Bad
Jyn isn't terribly well written. She spends a lot of time giving muddled speeches about hope, making bold decisions, and not doing much action herself (a little at the end). But because she keeps taking these bold choices, it feels like an interesting character was in there that other characters had decided to follow and listen to. That isn't always a compelling view of good leadership. But it works okay here because we know what she's doing. She is going to end up going off script, so to speak, and do something very dangerous or radical within the Star Wars universe. Other than Han, nobody else has that kind of pull to play by their own rules. Jyn doesn't quite rise to that level. We're sort of supposed to assume she can be in the "tell not show" problem endemic to many films these days. This is also one of the key downgrades from Force Awakens. Rey, despite being super-capable very fast in a sometimes annoying way, is at least acted and written as an interesting or mysterious character and as a leading character. There's a brief but engaging backstory and personal charisma, and her competence and rising confidence is an infectious element of the story (and there isn't anything else in the story that is). Jyn has basically none of those things going for her. She's not shown as a great resistance fighter (one scene maybe). Or spy. Or leader. Or pilot. Or warrior. Her backstory, what we know of it, is mainly why she is picked to be on the mission in the first place; because of her connections to other key characters. As a plot device. Later on she does some fun, bold, and determined things, and a few of her speeches lines are not terrible to rile up the troops as it were (they're mostly corny and lame). But that's really late in the film to care that much about what's going on anymore.

There's very little chemistry between the various cast members. They're pretty much interchangeable and expendable characters that we aren't that attached to as they are inevitably killed off. There's a little between the quasi-Jedi and the hired gun friend he has. And that's it. Oh. Spoiler: anybody who isn't in New Hope that we meet here should be assumed to be killed off during the course of this movie. Further more obvious spoiler, go read the crawl before New Hope and you know exactly what must happen in this film. This kind of death and sacrifice, meaningful or not, should have more emotional weight. We should care that these people are dying, because each death has some resonance on the other characters. Force Awakens got a lot of cheap but effective emotional mileage out of having Han die. Because people were attached to him as a strong and interesting character (and because Harrison Ford actually bothered to do some acting). Both Jyn's mentor and her father die and we shrug and move on, because they basically shrug and move on and because neither seems that compelling. They each die because they're no longer integral to the plot and are expediently removed from it.

The overall writing struggles. I'm not sure why Forest Whitaker's character was even in the film other than a plot point to get Jyn in the movie. We spend many tedious minutes early on wandering around several planets without much happening on them to remind us I guess that Star Wars has a lot of planets with cool volcano bases and evil installations in tropic locales (I'd think Scariff would be a plum assignment for an Imperial officer?). Introductions of characters, other than Donnie Yen's blind quasi Jedi with a staff beating people up, are often weak and forgettable. I can barely remember anyone's names other than Jyn (Cassio? Che Guevara? Droid? Chinese film market tie-in? General Director British Villain/Tarkin knock-off?). Compare this to Jabba in RotJ, as a giant gangster slug who has a pretty short character arc in film time but a rather large footprint on the film and series by being a memorable character (Lucas later would destroy this by having him appear in New Hope when it was re-released later). Even the Pit of Carkoon has more of a memorable feel than these poor saps.

Note the pilot, the actual defector in Rogue, is equally badly written as Finn was, if not quite as annoying or central to the movie. The method of humanizing some of these characters being chosen by directors and writers seems to be to pick the most social inane and awkward people alive and write them into the film.

Because these characters are expendable and uninteresting, the plot is very slowly paced early on.

I'd say RotJ is around a 7 out of 10, basically like a C+ movie. Force Awakens is maybe a 6, a solid C or maybe C-, though still much better than the prequels. This is maybe a 7 at best as well, possibly lower (a C+/C movie). It's fine. But not that interesting.

Arrival

Good

There's a lot of scene economy in how this is shot. It's minimalist in the way it uses disorienting elements to build the overall story of trying to communicate and interact with aliens, and to build around the function of circles as a shape in scenes. It's subtle sometimes about when or how they've made one. And the use of shapes to frame sequences is a fun little way to design a more interesting scene, and how to draw our attention toward or away from other things. The circles the aliens draw take our attention away from the creepy looking squid things in the background for instance.

The concept is intriguing. It doesn't limit to simply using language to alter a brain either. Most of us have a propensity to alter ourselves according to roles we seek and take on. Parent. Spouse. Lover. Single parent. Divorced. Grieving. Sick. Recovering. Addict. Activist. Child. Adult. Even the jobs we do (or the fact that we have them) can define us in a new way to others. And so on. These things change our decisions, our thinking, our identity, and our comfort with the past, present, and future in a number of ways. Language does this too. But it isn't even the only thing happening within the film on this form, just the most explicit. Her transformation as a person and the roles she has is implicit. There are even little moments about this where she is resisting other transformations (the non-zero sum game conversation).

I found that overall a fascinating concept. It works more easily within science fiction structures of "hey we are aliens and we'd like to talk to you". But it is an element of distinction between different languages here on Earth. Chinese seems to be advantaged for how math is thought about for instance (where there is no "eleven" but instead "ten and one", a more direct elaboration). German was the favored language for a long time of philosophy and engineering for its vibrant economy of complex terms. And so on. There are also broader discussions about the effects of mind altering substances on the sort of identity and interactions with others we have that can tie into this. The idea that "how we think about ourselves" as the main "gift" brought by benevolent but bizarre aliens is an implied effect that creates the Star Trek universe, and it is here as well.

Amy Adams is being wasted in the Superman films, even as she's probably the only good character in them (Batfleck being a possibility as well). She's very good in this.

Mixed
Renner's character is kind of meh. Other than as a counterfoil to Adams, it's hard to see what he does. Maybe making a computer do some work toward the end of the film to provide some kind of mathematical analysis to say "see, she is not crazy". He tends to provide "Hawkeye" levels of workable production in films in that he doesn't add or take away much. That's fine if he's a role player, with some occasional elevation as in the Avengers series. Less so if he is supposedly a main character.

There's a nod to people freaking out about possibly hostile aliens, as there was in Contact (a similar kind of Sci Fi film, but not as good). Perhaps more and less appreciative of how big a problem this would be. I think it plays off reasonably well within the plot, but it doesn't ramp up any tension very much so much as feel forced in by events.

Overall I'm nitpicking here to find things I did not like. So. That's a good sign.