Category Archives: Arts

Who Likes What Movies

In The New Yorker, Tad Friend on what movie marketers say about who likes what:

Young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, "you're so gay" banter, and sex – but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance – but not sex (though they like to hear the naughty girl telling her friends about it). They go to horror films as much as young men, but they hate gore; you lure them by having the ingénue take her time walking down the dark hall.

Older women like feel-good films and Nicholas Sparks-style weepies: they are the core audience for stories of doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit. They enjoy seeing an older woman having her pick of men; they hate seeing a child in danger. Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most "review-sensitive": a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars. In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them.

Older men like darker films, classic genres such as Westerns and war movies, men protecting their homes, and men behaving like idiots. Older men are easy to please, particularly if a film stars Clint Eastwood and is about guys just like them, but they’re hard to motivate. "Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to `Wild Hogs' or `3:10 to Yuma'."

This seems a nice set of "stylized facts" to explain. Must we invoke age and gender specific random cultural drift to explain these, or can we find more systematic and functional explanations?

I can roughly understand young men liking action, violence, and sex while young women like fashion, gossip, and romance.   But why do old men like darkness and idiocy while old women like critical praise, "doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit"?   Can you, for example, tell a plausible story of how this helps them learn about something useful, or helps them signal a valued characteristic?

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Data On Fictional Lies

A spectacular paper analyses a dataset of 519 Victorian literature experts describing 382 characters from 201 canonical British novels of the nineteenth century.  Characters were described by gender, as major or minor, as good or bad, by role (protagonist, antagonist, friend of p, friend of a, or other), by a five factor personality type (from a ten-question instrument), as their (5-point-scale) degree of twelve different motives (converted to five factors: social dominance, constructive effort, romance, nurture, subsistence), and as the degree of ten different emotions they arouse in readers (converted to three factors: dislike, sorrow, interest). Experts agreed 87% of the time.  They found:

Antagonists virtually personify Social Dominance – the self-interested pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. In these novels, those ambitions are sharply segregated from prosocial and culturally acquisitive dispositions. Antagonists are not only selfish and unfriendly but also undisciplined, emotionally unstable, and intellectually dull. Protagonists, in contrast, display motive dispositions and personality traits that exemplify strong personal development and healthy social adjustment. Protagonists are agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and open to experience. … The male protagonists in this study are relatively moderate, mild characters. They are introverted and agreeable, and they do not seek to dominate others socially. They are pleasant and conscientious, and they are also curious and alert. They are attractive characters, but they are not very assertive or aggressive characters. …

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She has joined the Conspiracy


I have no idea whether I had anything to do with this.

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Building Weirdtopia

Followup toEutopia is Scary

"Two roads diverged in the woods.  I took the one less traveled, and had to eat bugs until Park rangers rescued me."
        — Jim Rosenberg

Utopia and Dystopia have something in common: they both confirm the moral sensibilities you started with.  Whether the world is a libertarian utopia of the non-initiation of violence and everyone free to start their own business, or a hellish dystopia of government regulation and intrusion – you might like to find yourself in the first, and hate to find yourself in the second; but either way you nod and say, "Guess I was right all along."

So as an exercise in creativity, try writing them down side by side:  Utopia, Dystopia, and Weirdtopia.  The zig, the zag and the zog.

I'll start off with a worked example for public understanding of science:

  • Utopia:  Most people have the equivalent of an undergrad degree in something; everyone reads the popular science books (and they're good books); everyone over the age of nine understands evolutionary theory and Newtonian physics; scientists who make major contributions are publicly adulated like rock stars.
  • Dystopia:  Science is considered boring and possibly treasonous; public discourse elevates religion or crackpot theories; stem cell research is banned.
  • Weirdtopia:  Science is kept secret to avoid spoiling the surprises; no public discussion but intense private pursuit; cooperative ventures surrounded by fearsome initiation rituals because that's what it takes for people to feel like they've actually learned a Secret of the Universe and be satisfied; someone you meet may only know extremely basic science, but they'll have personally done revolutionary-level work in it, just like you.  Too bad you can't compare notes.

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Eutopia is Scary

Previously in seriesContinuous Improvement
Followup toWhy is the Future So Absurd?

    "The big thing to remember about far-future cyberpunk is that it will be truly ultra-tech.  The mind and body changes available to a 23rd-century Solid Citizen would probably amaze, disgust and frighten that 2050 netrunner!"
        — GURPS Cyberpunk

Pick up someone from the 18th century – a smart someone.  Ben Franklin, say.  Drop them into the early 21st century.

We, in our time, think our life has improved in the last two or three hundred years.  Ben Franklin is probably smart and forward-looking enough to agree that life has improved.  But if you don't think Ben Franklin would be amazed, disgusted, and frightened, then I think you far overestimate the "normality" of your own time.  You can think of reasons why Ben should find our world compatible, but Ben himself might not do the same.

Movies that were made in say the 40s or 50s, seem much more alien – to me – than modern movies allegedly set hundreds of years in the future, or in different universes.  Watch a movie from 1950 and you may see a man slapping a woman.  Doesn't happen a lot in Lord of the Rings, does it?  Drop back to the 16th century and one popular entertainment was setting a cat on fire.  Ever see that in any moving picture, no matter how "lowbrow"?

("But," you say, "that's showing how discomforting the Past's culture was, not how scary the Future is."  Of which I wrote, "When we look over history, we see changes away from absurd conditions such as everyone being a peasant farmer and women not having the vote, toward normal conditions like a majority middle class and equal rights…")

Something about the Future will shock we 21st-century folk, if we were dropped in without slow adaptation.  This is not because the Future is cold and gloomy – I am speaking of a positive, successful Future; the negative outcomes are probably just blank.  Nor am I speaking of the idea that every Utopia has some dark hidden flaw.  I am saying that the Future would discomfort us because it is better.

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Serious Stories

Previously in seriesEmotional Involvement

Every Utopia ever constructed – in philosophy, fiction, or religion – has been, to one degree or another, a place where you wouldn't actually want to live.  I am not alone in this important observation:  George Orwell said much the same thing in "Why Socialists Don't Believe In Fun", and I expect that many others said it earlier.

If you read books on How To Write – and there are a lot of books out there on How To Write, because amazingly a lot of book-writers think they know something about writing – these books will tell you that stories must contain "conflict".

That is, the more lukewarm sort of instructional book will tell you that stories contain "conflict".  But some authors speak more plainly.

"Stories are about people's pain."  Orson Scott Card.

"Every scene must end in disaster."  Jack Bickham.

In the age of my youthful folly, I took for granted that authors were excused from the search for true Eutopia, because if you constructed a Utopia that wasn't flawed… what stories could you write, set there?  "Once upon a time they lived happily ever after."  What use would it be for a science-fiction author to try to depict a positive Singularity, when a positive Singularity would be…

…the end of all stories?

It seemed like a reasonable framework with which to examine the literary problem of Utopia, but something about that final conclusion produced a quiet, nagging doubt.

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Why Fiction Lies

Most religious activities make a lot of sense, especially in terms of group bonding.  It is religious beliefs that seem the most puzzling.  Many suggest supernatural beliefs are just a side effect of our having a theory of mind, and applying it liberally.  Back in 2001 I read and reviewed Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained.  Boyer noted 1) supernatural concepts tend to violate one ontological assumption each, making them maximally memorable, and 2) supernatural entities tend to know and care about human-socially-relevant info, and to punish humans who are not nice (i.e., cooperative).  I was puzzled that Boyer didn’t explicitly make what seemed to me the obvious suggestion:  we evolved a tendency to accept strange memorable group beliefs to create a high cost of leaving our group, and to show that we expect to be punished if we are not nice.

Our obsession with gossiping about each other makes a lot of sense, but more puzzling is our obsession with stories we know are not true, about unrelated people in strange worlds.  I recently finished literary-expert William Flesch’s Comeuppance, a literary expert’s evo psych account of why we like fiction (reviewed here and here).  Flesch says humans cooperate via a norm of celebrating cooperators and punishing defectors and those who violate this norm:

In narratives we … [are] disposed to want to see the cooperators triumph over the obstacles set up by defectors of various sorts.  …. [We] root for characters with a propensity for strong reciprocity, not because the judge them as like us or identify with them, but because  a disposition to reward cooperators and to punish defectors is itself a central aspect of cooperation. (p.126)

Social life is all about signaling our abilities and cooperativeness, and discerning such signals from others:

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US TV Censorship

David Henderson:

[Most believe] the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was yanked by CBS because of CBS’s objection to the Smothers Brothers’ edgy commentary about social issues. Various "public" television stations, in their December fund-raising, are showing a documentary special that pushes that view. … But that’s only part of what got the show yanked. The other part was … guest Dan Rowan … gave the "fickle-finger-of-fate" award (i.e., the finger) to John O. Pastore, a U.S. Senator … [with] a great deal of power over … the federal agency that censors radio and television.  That man was not even mentioned in the documentary. Why not? Here’s my "public choice" speculation. Pastore is also known for pushing hard for subsidies to public broadcasting. Indeed he did so only about a month after CBS yanked the Smothers Brothers show. He became a hero to those who believe in tax-financed subsidies to public television.

Or you could just read this as saying US TV was and is censored by powerful politicians.  If you believe that sort of thing happens all the time in other nations, why not here too?

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Cheap Wine Tastes Fine

Cheap wines taste just as good as expensive ones:

Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment. Our results are robust to the inclusion of individual fixed effects, and are not driven by outliers: when omitting the top and bottom deciles of the price distribution, our qualitative results are strengthened, and the statistical significance is improved further. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.

So why do so many people have the opposite impression?  And how much more data would it take to convince them they have been wrong?  HT to Daniel Houser.

Added: The key question: does wine taste training make you enjoy some wines more, or other wines less?   And is any added enjoyment just the pleasure of knowing you can distinguish something others cannot? 

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Lawful Creativity

Previously in SeriesRecognizing Intelligence

Creativity, we’ve all been told, is about Jumping Out Of The System, as Hofstadter calls it (JOOTSing for short).  Questioned assumptions, violated expectations.

Fire is dangerous: the rule of fire is to run away from it.  What must have gone through the mind of the first hominid to domesticate fire?  The rule of milk is that it spoils quickly and then you can’t drink it – who first turned milk into cheese?  The rule of computers is that they’re made with vacuum tubes, fill a room and are so expensive that only corporations can own them.  Wasn’t the transistor a surprise…

Who, then, could put laws on creativity?  Who could bound it, who could circumscribe it, even with a concept boundary that distinguishes "creativity" from "not creativity"?  No matter what system you try to lay down, mightn’t a more clever person JOOTS right out of it?  If you say "This, this, and this is ‘creative’" aren’t you just making up the sort of rule that creative minds love to violate?

Why, look at all the rules that smart people have violated throughout history, to the enormous profit of humanity.  Indeed, the most amazing acts of creativity are those that violate the rules that we would least expect to be violated.

Is there not even creativity on the level of how to think?  Wasn’t the invention of Science a creative act that violated old beliefs about rationality?  Who, then, can lay down a law of creativity?

But there is one law of creativity which cannot be violated…

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