Thursday, August 25, 2016

Regress

I thought I ought to write a blog post on the topic of Oklahoma State Question 779, the one-percent sales tax that promises to raise teacher wages by roughly $5,000 per year.  If you would like to read the full bill, it is available on ballotpedia.org.

Many people are for this bill for some very good reasons; however, there are better reasons to oppose the bill.

Before we get into that, however, let's talk about the current crisis in Oklahoma.  According to teacherportal.com, Oklahoma has the 8th lowest starting salary for teachers out of all states, and the 3rd lowest average pay.  The result is that teachers are leaving the state for higher paying jobs in neighboring states.

And this year, in light of reports like that, Oklahoma legislators made drastic cuts to education funding - so drastic, in fact, that they were the biggest cuts made by any state, almost 6% larger than the next worst on the list. 

The problem is two-fold: First, our state faced a record budget shortfall this year, which forced drastic cuts to a variety of programs to stay afloat; Second, planned increases in the education budget, even before those cuts, were not large enough to keep up with rising costs.

So the next question is, how did we end up with a huge budget shortfall?

A lot of it has to do with the cost of gas right now.  When you see prices at less than $2 for a gallon of unleaded, that seems like it should be a great thing - it helps you meet your own budget obligations much better, after all.  However, the price represents huge losses for oil and gas companies, companies that have to compete with oil shipped in from the Persian Gulf.  OPEC largely controls the price of gas thanks to the sheer volume of oil produced in that region, and as they've increased production in recent years, the price of gas has fallen.

The move by OPEC was seen largely as a way of eliminating competition, as The Economist reports: "When, in November 2014, Saudi Arabia forced OPEC to keep the taps open despite plummeting prices, it hoped quickly to drive higher-cost producers in America and elsewhere out of business."

But if we think back just before this price glut, part of the reason OPEC was seeking to eliminate American competition was the fact that at high prices, we were experiencing an oil renaissance.  As Luc Cohen and Joshua Schneyer report,
Before the recent 60 percent decline in oil prices, a drilling bonanza minted millionaires and billionaires in Oklahoma. The boom turned sleepy Oklahoma City into a thriving hub for drillers like Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy and Continental Resources - the troika that lobbied hardest for the tax-break extension. The rebuilt downtown hosts top notch dining, hotels, arts venues, and a top NBA basketball team.
That was a golden time for oil businesses basing operations in Oklahoma, and we can see evidence of the bonanza in the vastly increased number of earthquakes:

From the USGS
That chart was done in February of this year, so the chart is incomplete for 2016; however, the oil price glut began in 2014.  Rather than reducing the number of quakes in Oklahoma, as you might expect if oil companies are truly going out of business, it has increased that number.  That likely indicates that the amount of drilling in the state has gone up (earthquakes in Oklahoma are caused by the injection of wastewater, water that is used in the process of fracking for oil; thus, an increase in earthquakes indicates an increase in wastewater injection, likely the result of increased use of fracking).

So, what's happening?  Companies are drilling more for oil now than ever before.  However, their profits are slimmer - they are making less per gallon than they did before the price drop.

And that's the real impact of the OPEC change - as Cohen and Schneyer note, Oklahoma drastically reduced taxes on oil and natural gas during the big boom years, as though expecting the price of gas to remain perpetually high forever.  In contrast, other states have much higher rates - they point to North Dakota, a state with a 11.5% oil and natural gas tax. Ours is around 1 to 1.5%.

These states are doing much, much better financially.  North Dakota, interestingly enough, raised its spending on teachers by 31.6%, and Alaska was second in increases at 16.4% (Alaska is another state that makes a killing on taxing oil and natural gas).

And now, with the price glut, North Dakota also has a stockpile of money that cushions the blow. 

It's like the Biblical story of Joshua, who, interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh, stockpiled food ahead of a famine.  When the famine hit, other countries who weren't prepared for it begged Egypt to tap into their stockpile.  That's what Oklahoma has to do now - beg for resources from the federal government, while North Dakota (Egypt in this story) weathers the storm just fine.

We didn't learn from the book our state is so quick to erect monuments to.

Oil and natural gas, however, are not the entire reason for the budget crisis.  They are responsible for some 400 million of the 1.3 billion we found ourselves in the hole, but the rest was all our legislature.  Despite a strong economy and budget shortfalls, the state continues to cut taxes further, and while most of these were built into the tax code before the shortfall started, legislators have refused to put any safeguards into place (and sometimes eliminated them completely).

Case in point, our top tax rate.

As the Oklahoma Policy Institute reports, the top tax rate continues to fall:

As they note, this affects the budget in a big way:
The annual cost of cuts to the top personal income tax rate enacted since 2005 is $1.022 billion, according to an analysis conducted for Oklahoma Policy Institute by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a non-partisan national research organization. This amount includes the reduction of the top income tax rate to 5.0 percent from 5.25 percent that took effect in January 2016.
One billion dollars.  That plus our losses in oil and natural gas easily add up to well more than the 1.3 billion dollar budget shortfall.

The result is that we've slashed the education budget, and now legislators are asking us to fix it through a sales tax.

Note that the income tax that lost us 1 billion is part of a progressive tax - that is, as people make more money, we expect them to pay a larger share of their money back to the state.  That helps take the economic burden off the poor, but it also makes sense for a variety of other reasons I won't go into here. 

Sales tax, by contrast, is a regressive tax - that is, it makes more of its money off the poor.  There's a simple reason for this, and we can use simple logic to suss it out.

Imagine a person who makes $20,000/year.  Such a person pays rent, car repairs, food, clothing, and so on out of that income.  Their budget is extremely tight, with little room for spending on niceties.  They tend to save very little money, and when tragedy hits, they are more likely than average to have to go into debt to deal with it.

Now imagine a person who makes $40,000/year.  This person still pays rent, car repairs, and so on, but has a little bit more wiggle room.  In fact, such a person could theoretically live on the same budget as the person making $20,000 - the only reason they might not is if they spend more on a house, more on a car, more on clothing, and so on.  Because their expenditures are more by choice than necessity (that is, if necessity strikes, they can cut back), they are more likely to save, and less likely to have to go into debt to deal with tragedy.

And as income increases, those trends continue - the expenses get bigger, but the person can choose to save a larger portion of their income.

Second, think back to our two people - the $20,000 and $40,000 person.  The car that the $20,000/year person gets is likely used, because he or she can't afford the monthly payments on a new car.  The car that the $40,000/year person gets might be new, or at least recent enough used to be like-new.  That newer car, on average, is going to need much, much less work than the older car.  As a result, the person with the newer car ends up spending much less of a portion of their income on the car than the person with the old car will.  The person with the old car, additionally, is worrying constantly about the car breaking down, as such a breakdown might lead to expenses that person can't afford, leading to greater stress (and greater health problems) for the person with the older car.

This means that a person making more money not only can buy nicer things, but have them for longer, thus reducing their expenses.  This is a well-known phenomenon.

Thus, people who make less spend a larger portion of their income in ways that can be taxed.  A person making $20,000/year might spend $20,000/year on taxable items, such that a 1% increase in taxes represents a $200/year increase in their expenses.  A person making $40,000/year might only spend $39,000/year on taxable items, such that a 1% increase represents a $390/year increase - which is less than 1% of their income.

Rather than being progressive, the tax is regressive.

So the result of all of this is that Oklahoma legislators have given huge tax breaks for the most wealthy residents (both in income tax and oil tax), and are asking us to fund the shortfall caused by those tax breaks by increasing taxes on the poor.  They are trading progressive taxes for regressive taxes.

And this, my friends, is wrong. 

While we need the money, we cannot let our legislature get away with selling our children's future away for higher corporate profits.  We cannot approve of their ridiculous tax mistakes by fixing them on the backs of those who need public education the most.

This might be OK if we were doing this only temporarily as a stopgap measure; however, this amendment changes the state's constitution. It makes this law in perpetuity. Constitutional changes are notoriously hard to repeal. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

That English Vocabulary Size test is wrong

You've probably seen it shared on Facebook, with a graph that looks like this:
www.arealme.com

A 50-question test that purports to tell you how large your vocabulary is based on a smattering of words and your ability to identify synonyms and antonyms of said words.  As with all such tests, it's really just a chance for you to feel superior to other people by posting your scores and comparing them with your friends.

But is it even remotely accurate?

In short, no.  In long, nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

To explain why, let's take a look at the words we're given:
Word Comparison type A B C D
Love Synonym Left Life Live Like
Much Synonym Less Many Rather Deal
Child Synonym Kid Chill Call Forget
Large Synonym Tiny Faded New Big
Deal Synonym Sale Recoup Claim Plea
Companion Synonym Fool Mirror Entrapment Partner
Trash Synonym Crack Squeeze Punch Junk
Above Synonym Pierce Slow Over Work
Specify Synonym Designate Capitulate Arcane Assail
Fall Synonym Spit Squeal Drop Succeed
Old Antonym Tell Small Age New
Yes Antonym Notice Yep No Nice
Come Antonym Try Most Go Live
Fly Synonym Hop Peer Drink Soar
Active Antonym Unable Passive Inability Disagree
Dangerous Antonym Silly Careless Safe Sadness
Distant Antonym Disease Flex Obey Near
Narrow Antonym Scold Punish Near Broad
Separate Antonym Weak Ordinary Unite Break
Normal Antonym Doubt Standard Protracted Extraordinary
Spade Synonym Shovel Needle Club Oak
Done Synonym Embellished Squeaked Finished Talk
Beg Synonym Implore Recant Fancy Answer
Lax Synonym Negligent Mindful Neurotic Delectable
Quash Synonym Evade Enumerate Assist Defeat
Minor Synonym Crude Trivial Presidential Flow
Drab Synonym Admissible Barbaric Spiffy Lackluster
Related Synonym Steadfast Pertinent Alien Intrinsic
Annoying Synonym Facile Clicker Counter Obnoxious
Incipient Synonym Galling Nascent Chromatic Capricious
Foul Antonym Repelling Nasty Fair Dirty
Compensate Antonym Underpay Coordinate Extortion Hooking
Acquiesce Antonym Inept Resist Gentle Irascible
Adamant Antonym Disdain Adjunct Vacillant Aerate
Alienate Antonym Reunite Away Sluggish Aggressive
Avulse Antonym Suture Aver Timid Dry
Catalyst Antonym Current Damp Nadir Prevention
Amorphous Antonym Allay Abridge Inimical Definite
Aggrieved Antonym Recalcitrant Buoyant Warped Exacerbate
Apologist Antonym Physicist Critic Fidelity Canon
Widow Synonym Sire Fiend Spank Dowager
Omen Synonym Opulence Harbinger Mystic Demand
Querulous Synonym Fugacious Vapid Fractious Extemporaneous
Hightail Synonym Abscond Report Perturb Surmise
Gargantuan Synonym Promiscuous Niggardly Equestrian Titanic
Avarice Antonym Deny Dependence Generosity Yoke
Alacrity Antonym Intimate Provoker Soother Sluggishness
Altruism Antonym Apocrypha Noisome Egoism Extraneous
Affinity Antonym Disperse Antipathy Needy Warped
Baneful Antonym Blighted Jejune Inveigled Salubrious

I've bolded, italicized, or underlined words as follows:
If I've bolded the word on the left if the word did not have an answer listed on thesaurus.com (that is, none of the words on the right matched the list of synonyms or antonyms for that word)
In that case, I've italicized a word on the right that most likely fits the definition.
If a word on the right IS listed as a synonym or antonym, I've bolded that word instead.
Finally, if there could be multiple answers, I've underlined possible alternatives (leaving words bolded if they are listed as a synonym or antonym).

As you can see, we already get into trouble with the sixth word, "Deal."  This word has a few basic meanings:
Noun:
  1. a usually large or indefinite quantity or degree ...
  2. the act or right of distributing cards to players in a card game ...
Transitive Verb:
  1. a. to give as one's portion :  apportion ...
    b. to distribute (playing cards) to players in a game ...
  2. administer, deliver ...
  3. a. sell
    b. trade
Intransitive Verb:
  1. to distribute the cards in a card game ...
  2. to concern oneself or itself ...
  3. a. to engage in bargaining :  trade ...
    b. to sell or distribute something as a business ...
  4. a. to take action with regard to someone or something ...
    b. to reach or try to reach a state of acceptance or reconcilement ...
(definitions from merriam-webster.com, heavily edited to remove characters that were screwing up my html)
So you could determine that the synonym for Deal is "Sale" under the belief that the action being described is the "sell" action described by both the transitive and intransitive verb definition 3, but you just as easily could decide it is a "Plea" as part of the act of bargaining (intransitive 3a).

"Related" similarly has two possible answers - "Pertinent" and "Intrinsic".  While "Pertinent" is listed as a synonym on thesaurus.com, "Intrinsic" could be as well.  "Related" has a definition as follows:
...belonging to the same group because of shared characteristics, qualities, etc... (Merriam-Webster.com, "Related" simple definitions).
Those shared characteristics and qualities could be "intrinsic" - that is, they are "belonging to the essential nature of a thing : occurring as a natural part of something" (Merriam-Webster.com, "Intrinsic" simple definitions).  Things are often related by their intrinsic qualities, as in the case of relationships between members of a species.

The worst offender, however, is the last one: Affinity.  It is defined as:
  1. relationship by marriage...
  2. a :  sympathy marked by community of interest :  kinship...
    b (1) :  an attraction to or liking for something...  (2) :  an attractive force between substances or particles that causes them to enter into and remain in chemical combination...
    c :  a person especially of the opposite sex having a particular attraction for one...
  3. a :  likeness based on relationship or causal connection...
    b :  a relation between biological groups involving resemblance in structural plan and indicating a common origin...  (Merriam-Webster.com, again heavily edited)
What we're looking for is the antonym of that.

If we were to negate each of those, we would find that 2b(2) becomes a repulsive "force between substances or particles" - causing them to disperse.  My guess is that it's looking for "Antipathy" - "a strong feeling of dislike" (Merriam-Webster.com, simple definition), as that runs better as an antonym to what we might consider the "colloquial" definition, but clearly both words are appropriate.

Regardless, the test is trying to guess your knowledge of a language based on a very tiny sample.  Worse still, the first 30 of those are relatively easy - that is, they're words that are very common in the language.  It's only the last 20 that really test your knowledge (beyond the silly "Deal" problem).  This is not remotely large enough, as different schools would teach different words to different people.  It might represent a significant sampling, but all it could do is tell you how well you place as a percentage of the population, and NOT how many words you know. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Liberty

Liberty - it's ingrained in every child of America as an ideal not to be reached, but already acquired by the people of America.  The story of our country's independence is almost mythical now, a story of gods on earth fighting for a transcendental ideal. 

But what does liberty actually mean?

Even among the party ostensibly of liberty - the Libertarian Party - the definition sways wildly.  Almost no one agrees that people should be free to do anything they want.  At the very least, people shouldn't be free to commit murder, for instance.  We can pretty much all agree that murder and child rape are too far to take the liberty argument, but many would take it right up to that edge.  (And for those few who would take it that far, they say that we should be able to defend our lives and the lives and welfare of our children, or we didn't deserve them in the first place.)

Case in point - the current spate of Republicans who are earning Libertarian votes for their votes on education.  One of the common themes in the Libertarian Party is the destruction of public education.  They see giving tax money back to the people and letting the people spend it on education as they choose as "Liberty" - that is, you now have the freedom to get your child educated by whatever organization you see fit, and, if you prefer to homeschool, you have that extra funding to pay for educational supplies.  It's a win for everyone with the money to afford it, and a major loss for poor people (who, many of these Libertarians argue, don't deserve it anyway).  The official party line is that the destruction of public education would give poor people who work hard to send their children to school a greater incentive to make sure that child succeeds, and remove from the school children who don't want to be there.

This desire to completely eliminate governmental structures is truly ultimate freedom - but only for the subset of people who can independently afford to pay for the things that government previously provided.  For the rest, it greatly reduces liberty, reducing the ability for people of lower incomes to rise to higher incomes.

Image from the Economic Policy Institute
In the image above, lower numbers correlate with greater income mobility - that is, people in Denmark are far more likely to earn more than their parents than people in Slovenia.

If we want to talk about freedom, then we need to talk about it in terms of freedom to pursue dreams, to rise up out of poverty, to change your life no matter who you are.  In the U.S. - a nation notably more driven by the idea of "free market" than the countries listed below it on the above image - it's actually harder to do that, rather than less hard.

And this makes sense with even a little investigation.  When you have to work yourself to death to provide an education for your children, you're not also able to provide them with secure housing, food, clothing, and other basic necessities, as explained by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

From Boundless.com
To be able to learn, a child needs the immediate physiological things on the list (barring sex, which doesn't start being a driving need until later in life) - food, water, sleep, etc.  He or she also needs those things listed in the safety column, as safety can create such a driving fear that it blocks out the ability to learn (found in the Esteem category).  When you're going to bed every night wondering if you or your family are going to be shot in your sleep, or worrying about the cockroaches crawling over your body, or worrying about your mom's untreated heart condition, you're not going to be able to sleep.  And that will make you less productive at school, if you can even pay attention there while these issues are eating away at your mind.

Instead, true freedom occurs when these two tiers are secure, when you're free to pursue love and belonging, confidence and achievement, and so on.  Then, all people are free to live as they choose, to pursue their dreams, to be amazing, to rise above their circumstances.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bathroom Buffalo Bill

By now, you've probably already formed an opinion about the bathroom bills being considered across America. Arguments from the left often seem more reasoned to me - that there has never been a single instance of a transgender person attacking anyone in the restroom, that there have been many instances of trans people or people or cis people who are mistaken for trans being attacked, that laws intended to stop voyeurism, molestation, and rape can still be applied to non-trans people who try to abuse the laws - but this post is not to talk about that.  Rather, I'd like to examine the source(s) of where transphobia comes from, given my own past about it.

As a child, I experienced gender dysphoria.  That's the DSM-5 word for when the gender in your mind doesn't match the gender of your genitalia, and it's a fairly common problem for children, moreso than for adults - as many as 6% of boys and 12% of girls may experience it.

Most also outgrow it.

In my own case, my "outgrowing" it took a rather convoluted path.  When I was a very young child (under 10), I used to sneak into my mom's room when my parents were busy entertaining guests or what have you, when I was fairly certain I could get away with it, and put on my mom's clothes.  I preferred to play games with girls, was better friends with girls, and enjoyed playing with stereotypically girls' toys (My Little Pony long before "bronies" were a thing).

My sexuality, however, was always straight.  I was 5 when I had my first sexual encounter with a girl, and I absolutely loved it.  My pursuit of further encounters pretty much dominated my life until... well, let's face it, it still dominates my life.

My mom caught me more than once playing dress up, and punished me for it.  She drilled into my head this passage:
A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Eventually, I gave it up, partially over shame about that passage and my desire to serve God.  I became convinced that men who dressed up in women's clothing were silly at best (and deserved to be ridiculed), weird, and blasphemous.  As with so many other people, I took to shaming them.  Now, I've fully embraced my masculinity, and any dysphoria I felt during childhood is long gone (although as with many other people I don't fully conform to masculine ideals, I conform to more of them than to feminine ones). 

But, it was largely this one verse that pushed the issue when I was a child.

Now, it'd be easy to write this off, as so many do with the debate over homosexuality, as a person cherry-picking the Bible, picking the things that back up their beliefs and ignoring the things that don't.  In that argument, people note how there are prohibitions about mixing fabrics, about eating shellfish, and so on.  But understand that among many in the Fundamentalist movement, even those things are bad.  I didn't eat shellfish until I was in my 20s.  I believed that getting a tattoo was evil.  I believed that those who committed adultery should be executed.  I believed that women should be silent in church.

As a result, it's not so easy to just write this off as people cherry-picking, because for many people, it's not.  Even among those who do (I still mixed fabrics, for instance), it takes a supreme amount of effort to justify any deviation from the laws of Moses.  Generally speaking, those deviations took the form of, "that was appropriate for the ancient church because the laws were simply protecting the people from mold" or "that was appropriate for the Jews because they were set apart for God and thus were the image of God on Earth to the gentile peoples; they needed to look perfect." 

But these weren't arguments applied after someone already believed the opposite; that is, for those who believed in not blending fabrics, that was an important part of their faith, a defining factor of how they worshiped God.  No amount of argumentation could get them past that.  These arguments were, instead, apologies (from the definition: "a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine") for deviations from a "literal" interpretation of the Bible that we already believed.  

Such arguments could, of course, be applied to homosexuality and gender identity, but because they aren't already believed, they are fighting against the mountain that is "sincerely held belief" - a shortcut for saying "I believe this and no amount of argument or education will move me from that belief."  Showing people how they make similar apologies for other things might work, but often doesn't, because they can then make an apology for why a certain one is followed and another is not.  Cognitive Dissonance kicks in whenever people are faced with idiosyncrasies within their own beliefs, and prevents them from exploring those idiosyncrasies.  

Is the situation impossible?

Well, not exactly.  One of the things we do in our society is bury non-conformity.  That's not an illness of civilization, but rather our particular culture.  As our culture shifts and embraces non-conformity, more things pop up that will make people uncomfortable.  But the key, always, is exposure - the more people are exposed to such non-conformity, the more open and accepting they are of it, especially as it relates to relationships.  A person who is friends with someone who is gay, for instance, is more likely to internalize the conflicts their friend experiences, and to transition from attacking homosexuals as a group to defending them.  As that transition progresses, they will be faced with new moments of cognitive dissonance between their new beliefs and their old beliefs, and be forced to reevaluate their old ones and modify to fit their new ones.  That's how change occurs. The secret, then,  is to share people's stories - both in public and in private.  When people read someone's story or hear it told first hand, it's often easier for those people to internalize the emotions of the other person. It's easier for them to understand.

I'm working on a new book about the issue at the moment. I won't share more for fear of not writing it (when you tell people about something you're working on, your brain thinks you've finished it).  But, the more stories we can tell, the more we'll slowly force people to confront their beliefs, and change them.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ideal

I actually heard Hillary supporters sway Bernie supporters away during the Iowa caucuses by saying that Bernie was too much of an idealist. 

What the hell is wrong with idealism?

Idealism is what led our founding fathers to proclaim that people had an inalienable right to self-governance. Idealism is what urged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Idealism spread the right to vote to women and minorities. Idealism landed a man on the moon. 

HRC supporters think they're being pragmatic, but JFK said it best: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

We need to be reminded that when we come together, we can overcome challenges, that we can succeed in the face of adversity, that we can see a day when our reality matches our ideals. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Ingredients

Let's talk food.

I really should write more on this topic, but I tend to avoid it.  However, when media tells us something not only wrong but flat-out dangerous, I must act...


This is an actual commercial for milk, trying to lure you away from almond milk.  Boy, did they pick the wrong fight.

Their argument, boiled down, is "if you can't spell it, it's bad for you."  There are a ton of things, however, that we can't spell that are in milk!  Some of them include:
  • riboflavin
  • pantothenic acid
  • pyridoxine
  • cobalamin
  • ergocalciferol and cholecalciferol, both of which are added to milk by producers
  • ß-lactoglobulin
  • α-lactalbumin
And so on... Taking the milk industry's argument, we shouldn't be drinking milk either, just based on this information.

But they specifically pick on lecithin...

lecithin...

which is good for you.  Here's a snippet of WebMD's description of it:
Lecithin is a fat that is essential in the cells of the body. It can be found in many foods, including soybeans and egg yolks. Lecithin is taken as a medicine and is also used in the manufacturing of medicines.

Lecithin is used for treating memory disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It is also used for treating gallbladder disease, liver disease, certain types of depression, high cholesterol, anxiety, and a skin disease called eczema.
This is why we can't have nice things - because we know better, but we allow advertisers to tell us not only misleading but dangerously inaccurate information, confusing huge sections of the population into believing that healthy things are bad and unhealthy things are good.  It's how we came to believe that sugar-heavy fat-free foods were good, and fatty foods like nuts and olive oil were bad.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: The Force Awakens

It should come as no surprise that I would watch the new Star Wars movie, or that I would want to get a few thoughts about it out of my system by way of my blog.

It should also come as no surprise that there are SPOILERS here.

So don't read any further unless you've seen the movie or don't mind spoilers...

All in all, The Force Awakens was a decent movie.  If it stood alone from the rest of the Star Wars universe, it would be even a good movie, with great effects, good acting, epic characterization, and a cohesive plot.  Taken within the fabric of the whole universe, though, it is lacking on several fronts.  As someone said, it's the best Star Wars movie in 32 years - not better than the original trilogy, but certainly better than the prequels.

Although, perhaps, only slightly better than Episode 3.

So why do I think it misfired?  To answer that, I need to go into detail about the film...

Problem #1: There is nothing new under the sun...

The movie starts out as A New Hope:
The bad guy, Darth Vader Kylo Ren, who is cloaked all in black and wearing a mask, invades a rebel ship resistance campPlans to the Death Star a map to find Luke Skywalker is uploaded into a droid for safe keeping.  The droid is then set loose on the desert planet of Tatooine Jakku, where he accidentally meets a force-sensitive teenage orphan named Luke Skywalker Rey, who is a hotshot pilot and capable fighter already.  The teenager meets up with Han Solo, Chewbacca, and the Millennium Falcon, and together they fly away on a mission to deliver the droid to Princess Leia and the rebellion resistance.  On the way, the Empire's First Order's gigantic planet-destroyer is put in use, its destructive power witnessed by our heroes, who have to flee. Once they arrive at the base, they find that the planet-destroyer is being turned on their base, because the Empire First Order was secretly tracking them.

It then briefly becomes Empire Strikes Back:
We discover Darth Vader Han Solo is Luke Skywalker's Kylo Ren's father.  Darth Vader Kylo Ren reports in to his master, who we see only in hologram.

And then solidifies into Return of the Jedi:
The heroes form a plan to destroy the Empire's First Order's weapon: land on the planet and take out the shield generator, so hotshot pilot Wedge Antilles Poe Dameron can fly in and take out some critical target that will cause a chain reaction and destroy the entire base.  Luke Skywalker Han Solo confronts Darth Vader Kylo Ren, believing there is still good in him, and trying to turn him back to the good side.  This sets up an epic lightsaber battle between Vader Ren and Luke Rey, and in the end, our hero manages to win, and flies to safety as the planet-destroying weapon is destroyed.

So my biggest problem with the movie is that it's not a new movie - it's the same bloody movie they've done before.  The only thing new about it is that the dark-clad masked bad guy strikes down his relative, instead of being saved... but the story is clearly set up to let Ren turn back to the side of good, perhaps as he strikes down his master in a later movie.


Problem #2: It's too predictable
Part of its predictability has to do with the fact that it's the same movie as before, but every time they do a tiny bit of foreshadowing, it's obvious what's going to happen: the monsters Han is smuggling will get out, Leia and Han will make up, Ren will kill Han, the rebels will destroy the Death Star or whatever everyone wants to call these things now, and everyone else will survive, and R2-D2 will conveniently come back online at the end to give Rey the location of Luke so she can receive her training.  There was not one single moment during the movie that I was surprised by anything relevant to the plot, except for the moment when Rey and Finn are running towards a fancy ship and it's destroyed, so they turn and run for the Falcon.

As a result, nothing is ever tense.  The scene that's supposed to make us question who can live and who can die - the scene where Han is killed - doesn't actually serve to do that, because the foreshadowing of the scene made it clear he would.


Problem #3: The little idiosyncrasies
There are little things wrong with the movie.  For instance, in the beginning, we see an old guy who looks vaguely like the War Doctor, who we're told is someone we know and trust who might know the location of Luke.  Problem is, he's entirely new to the universe - no one has a clue who he is.  If you do some research online, you'll discover that his name is Lor San Tekka, and he runs some kind of Church of the Force or some such nonsense, and that's why he might know that location.  But, without digging into his story, you won't know any of that, and so he's just a random old dude whose death is entirely meaningless and who we have a hard time believing would have any such information.  We're left scratching our heads about who he was in the other movies, only to draw blanks.

In the same scene, we see something that is impossible in the original 6 movies: Kylo Ren stops a blaster bolt in mid-air.  Darth was able to absorb or deflect a bolt with his hand, but never did he stop the bolt in mid-air.  If such a thing is even possible in the universe (I guess it is now, but it wasn't before), then Ren should be capable of doing such a thing in even more crazy scenarios.  He could stop the bolts coming out of the x-wings that were attacking his troopers, for instance.  Instead of pushing Rey's blaster away, he could stop the bolt in mid-air with her, too.  Heck, he could stop the bolt, knock her out (we saw him knock her out with the Force), place her in front of the bolt, and let it go, so that her own shot kills her.  Yet, when he actually fights either Finn or Rey, he doesn't rely on The Force at all, and we're given no explanation or insight why, despite the fact that he's clearly capable of it.

We're also told Poe Dameron is a hotshot pilot, but what kind of hotshot pilot jumps into a tie fighter not looking to see if it's still tied down.  Any decent pilot is going to make sure he can actually take off before gunning it.

And we're told that Finn is a stormtrooper, but for some reason, he's the only stormtrooper who can hit anything.  Just like in A New Hope, where we're told that "only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise" and then see them missing every single shot they ever make, we should expect him to do the same, only to see him be this godlike badass who hits everything and can even fight a trained Dark Lord with a lightsaber...

And then there's Rey, who lacks even the training Finn has.  Her fighting prowess is great, certainly, but she uses a staff on Jakku, not a sword, let alone a lightsaber.  Ren, on the other hand, was trained by Luke himself.  And yet, Rey defeats him...

And the entire time she's beating him down, there's no moment where it seems like maybe she's giving in to the dark side.  When we saw Luke and Vader fighting in both Empire and Return, there was always the risk that Luke would give in to his hatred (an early script for Return actually had him turning to the dark side), but we see no such fear or temptation between Rey and Ren.  Ren mentions once that he can train her, and that's the extent of it.



Problem #4: The science.
Star Wars is not a science fiction - it is, rather, a fantasy set in space.  When Star Wars has tried to explain its science, such as in the midi-chlorian debacle, it has always fowled up marvelously.  It is at its best when it simply shows futuristic-looking things without explanation.

That's why the new Death Star-like thing is even more ridiculous than the last.  It's the size of a planet, and in fact appears to be built into a planet, carving out the entire thing like hollowing out a pumpkin.  It has the ability to siphon energy off of a star, taking solar power to a whole new level, but it does so by sucking in all the matter of the star.

First of all, that's bad enough.  If you want to destroy a planet, sucking in its sun is a great way to do so.  Without the gravity of the sun (which is now entirely inside the destroyer), the planet orbiting it would shoot out into deep space at whatever direction it was traveling when the gravity went away.  Since the new destroyer has come into the system, and has sucked in the solar gravity, the planet will now be gravitationally bound to it, and will have a massive course change.  If they wanted to, the First Order could simply move their destroyer near to the planet and let the two collide, or use the gravity of the destroyer to fling it into another planet or a moon.

But when you suck in the matter of a star, you're not sucking in its energy.  You'll get a bit of energy, thanks to the fact that a lot of the star is super-heated plasma that will continue to be ridiculously hot, but it won't be engaging in fusion.  The matter itself isn't destroyed, it's instead compressed inside your planet.

That's actually a key component of the film - the thing that the resistance has to destroy is the compression coil, which is keeping the matter of the star compressed inside the destroyer.

But hydrogen, under intense pressure and heat, as it would be inside the destroyer, would fuse - that is, it would go back to being a star inside the destroyer, now under much more intense pressure and heat than it had before.

but it would not cease to exist

They say they have to suck in a star each time they want to make a shot, but the star they sucked in already isn't dead, the hydrogen is converting slowly to helium.  Our own star will last for another 4 billion years.  Even under intense pressure and heat, it should last for a few million.  The shortest-lived stars still live for tens of thousands of years.  If they could somehow compress and hold onto a star like that, they would have the power to destroy planets for thousands of years.

Not to mention the gravitational issues...

Our sun has a mass of about 2×1030 kg, and a volume of 1.41×1018 km3, leading to a density of 1410 kg/m3.  If it was compressed down into the volume of our Earth, its density would be 1300000 times higher, or roughly 1,800,000,000 kg/m3.  That's still 8 zeroes away from Neutron Star, but the gravitational forces would be extreme nonetheless.  The gravity on its surface will increase by about a thousand-fold.

That's going to put tremendous gravitational forces on the destroyer.  Nothing on the surface could survive, no matter if they are our intrepid heroes.  And, under that kind of gravity, we can't even imagine technology that can survive, meaning the entire planet-destroyer-thingy would collapse.  We can't even land a probe on Venus without it instantly dying.


All of that said, it's still an enjoyable film.  Finn and Rey are believable heroes, and the film plays just the right balance between fan-service and advancing the story.  There are several moments during the film where even I cheered and laughed.  It could be better, and if Disney is to survive ownership of the franchise, it must be better.  Fortunately, this film is really just set up to the Disney expanded universe of films, books, shows, etc., and as the setup for that universe, it did a remarkable job.  Disney didn't forget that the point of the Empire is to mimic Nazi Germany, and it really nailed that point home, which is really critical at a time when so many politicians seem to be trying to lead America to becoming the ideological successor of Hitler.