Stories as religion

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

Robin Hanson on stories as religion. He mentions Syd Field's famous book on screenwriting Screenplay as one of the influences that codified this predominant form of Hollywood storytelling.

This notion of justice in movies is indeed the dominant model in Western filmmaking, to the point where movies sacrifice the unexpected in the name of conformity to norms of morality.

However, in some cultures, movies don't reflect such optimism about the world. When I was a child my dad would rent many Chinese movies from local video stores, and I was struck by the dearth of happy endings. Families lost children to tragic accidents, wives suffered in marriages to abusive husbands, citizens suffered again and again at the hands of heartless government bureaucrats, institutions, and policies.

Having grown up mostly on a diet of Hollywood films up until that point, it was a shock to the system. Where in the world would people make movies with such a grim worldview? Perhaps this is one reason Hollywood movies make for such good exports.

Now that I have several thousand movies under my belt, I'm more easily bored by movies that adhere to the "good guys win out" archetype. Genre movies still intrigue me, but predominantly when directors play off the form. Film festivals are a draw for their wealth of movies that work outside storytelling conventions. I'm curious to watch Boyhood not just because of the way it was filmed (over 12 years, using the same actors) but because Richard Linklater has always been a bit of a sui generis in Hollywood.

With the internet, cord-cutting, and the slowdown of growth in per capita attendance of the movies, perhaps we've also reached the peak of demand for the 90 to 120 minute filmed drama. Art forms have always come and gone, and the movie drama has had a good run. It's not likely to just disappear, but its cultural and economic pull may never be as great again.

Perhaps I'm extrapolating too much from San Francisco given that I last lived in Los Angeles with a ton of movie-loving film school classmates, but fewer and fewer people, especially those in Generation's Y and Z, seem to love the movies. Isn't this how you suddenly graduate to being old? One day you just look at the younger generation and wonder why they're on YouTube and Snapchat and Tumblr instead of appreciating movies the way you do. It just sneaks up on you, and then you're gaping across the chasm.

In another fascinating post on the same subject, Hanson writes:

Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. This is similar to how people have long been encouraged to be religious, so that they could similarly be liked more by others.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

The economics of South Korean TV

Fascinating article on the unabashed leveraging of product placement to finance the ever popular South Korean TV dramas.

While details of product placement deals are not disclosed, industry sources say exposure on popular shows costs at least 100 million won ($96,000) and much more for a hit drama featuring A-list stars with a regional following.

The biggest spender of all is Samsung — the world’s largest technology firm by revenue — which sponsors around two thirds of all domestically-produced soap operas, according to Kim Si-hyun, head of 153 Production, a major PPL agency in Seoul.

“It’s a full package, meaning all visible consumer electronics like smartphones, computers, cameras, air conditioners, TVs and refrigerators are Samsung products, from beginning to end,” Kim said.

Commodification of the dramas begins at the earliest stage of production, once a script writer has produced a basic story line listing characters and their professions.

The workplaces that will feature in the show are offered for sale to real companies looking for exposure.

According to Kim from 153 Production, the workplace of a lead character can go for between 500 million and 1 billion won.

That was how the female lead in “The Heirs” — a teenage romance that was a huge hit in Asia last year — ended up working for Mango Six.

More of note within, including just how effective such placement can be.

The South Korean TV industry is a machine. In the time a US studio takes to make one 24 episode season of television, South Korea will have produced two or more 30 to 50 hour K-dramas. Some of that relies on some brutal filming schedules as I've heard from some of my film school classmates that have worked in Korea, but it also comes from a heavy reliance on story archetypes, simplified lighting setups, and a stable of goto actors that cut down casting lead times. It's a formula, but thus far it hasn't exhausted its millions of devoted viewers throughout Asia.


Great piece by Rany Jazayerli on the mysterious formula of success of MLB pitcher Mark Buehrle.

In his 1984 Baseball Abstract, Bill James described “The Tommy John family of pitchers” as having “5 things in common.” James wrote:

1. They are all left-handed.
2. They are control-type pitchers.
3. They cut off the running game very well.
4. They receive excellent double-play support.
5. They allow moderate to low totals of home runs, lower-than-normal totals for a control pitcher.

This combination of abilities or tendencies enables this family of pitchers to be effective and to win at unusually high levels of hits per game, which then is another defining characteristic of the group.

Points four and five are essentially the same thing. James didn’t have access to ground ball/fly ball data 30 years ago, but he’s basically saying that Tommy John–style pitchers are extreme ground ball pitchers; ground balls lead to double plays and don’t lead to home runs. John himself allowed more than a hit per inning in his career, but many of those runners were wiped out on 6-4-3s.3

Buehrle would fit into the Tommy John family of pitchers perfectly, except for one small detail: He isn’t a ground ball pitcher. His career ground ball rate of 45 percent is just barely higher than league average, and thanks to spending most of his career at U.S. Cellular Field, he has surrendered 333 home runs in 3,009 career innings, a rate of exactly 1.00 per nine innings; John allowed 302 home runs in a career that spanned 4,710 innings. Thanks to all of those home runs in addition to hits surrendered on balls in play, Buehrle has allowed a higher batting average (.272) than John did (.265), even with a higher strikeout rate.

It's worth reading the piece to find out which two factors isolates as being enough to tip Buehrle over from failure to success, and just how fine that line is (as measured in outs and runs).

How we read online

Certainly, as we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker on the ways we read differently online than we do words on a physical page. Interesting throughout.

This piece echoes concerns raised in the results of a study published earlier this year that those taking notes on a computer remembered far less than those taking notes with pen and paper.

The common thread seems to be one of mental focus. If you're reading online but distracted constantly by all the other sites you could be visiting, the ads all along the margin, the multitude of hyperlinks, your email, the whole Pandora's Box of digital age distractions, your mind isn't going to process as much. Similarly, if you're taking notes on a laptop and not mentally trying to comprehend what you're jotting down but instead just mindlessly transcribing in a half zoned out state, your mind may not absorb much of the material.

I'm as guilty of falling victim to mental distraction in this age as anyone (I'm embarrassed to share how many browser windows and tabs I have open on my computer right now), and I think with nostalgia back to my childhood, pre-Internet, when my favorite pastime was finding some nook to deep dive into a novel for hours on end.

Bill Viola

From a review of one of Bill Viola's latest video art installations Martyrs:

Viola was one of video art’s earliest exponents, and is now one of its most popular and critically divisive. He was the first video artist to have a retrospective to himself, at the Whitney in 1998. When Ada Louise Huxtable saw a work called The Crossing there—which, with effects very similar to some of those used in Martyrs, shows a walking man being consumed by falling water and by flames—she wrote in The New York Review that it was “an unforgettable image” that “can be taken as a morality play or a stunning piece of visual theatre.” It’s a combination of mystical ideas and aesthetic drama that perhaps explains why crowds flock to his shows. The New Yorker‘s art critic Peter Schjeldahl, though, is one of a chorus of dismissive voices: “unremittingly, emptily pretentious” and “a master of special effects passed off as spiritual epiphanies.” One of the most perceptive remarks has come from Roberta Smith. When she reviewed his Whitney exhibit for The New York Times she wrote that “it may be that Mr. Viola is better in small doses, in situations where you can contemplate his work without having to walk into another Viola.”

The reason for that is a mixture of portentousness and pace. Viola makes most of his work in slow motion, and a whole exhibition is agonizingly languorous. Most of his videos are very long, and the climaxes, when they come, are often vacant and predictable. Going Forth by Day (the title is drawn from the Egyptian Book of the Dead) is a huge five-video installation. One part shows a team from the emergency services packing up their kit after a flood in the desert, while a woman, wrapped in a blanket, waits by the water. Nothing much happens and eventually they all go to sleep. Then a man rises out of the water and up into the sky. It begins to rain, then the sun comes out and the people wake up. The piece lasts more than half an hour.

I enjoyed the first Viola exhibit I ever saw when living in New York City, slow motion high definition video has a hypnotic fetishization of thin slices of time that is like a more luxurious version of an animated GIF, but I empathize with Viola's critics in the semantic emptiness of his images.

With a proliferation of high resolution displays in the world, perhaps an artist will come along who makes this type of slow video art that can be enjoyed as background to your life rather than as a cultural luxury you have to take in at a museum in one focused visit. Something like a revival of the screensaver. Ambient art.

I wish I could buy a copy of Christian Marclay's The Clock and have it playing on a display in my apartment 24/7. It features so many images of clocks and watches that it really is a clock as art in the purest sense of the expression.

Cities are superlinear, companies are not

But unlike animals, cities do not slow down as they get bigger. They speed up with size! The bigger the city, the faster people walk and the faster they innovate. All the productivity-related numbers increase with size---wages, patents, colleges, crimes, AIDS cases---and their ratio is superlinear. It's 1.15/1. With each increase in size, cities get a value-added of 15 percent. Agglomerating people, evidently, increases their efficiency and productivity.

Does that go on forever? Cities create problems as they grow, but they create solutions to those problems even faster, so their growth and potential lifespan is in theory unbounded.


Are corporations more like animals or more like cities? They want to be like cities, with ever increasing productivity as they grow and potentially unbounded lifespans. Unfortunately, West et al.'s research on 22,000 companies shows that as they increase in size from 100 to 1,000,000 employees, their net income and assets (and 23 other metrics) per person increase only at a 4/5 ratio. Like animals and cities they do grow more efficient with size, but unlike cities, their innovation cannot keep pace as their systems gradually decay, requiring ever more costly repair until a fluctuation sinks them. Like animals, companies are sublinear and doomed to die.

From a Stewart Brand summary of research by Geoffrey West.

From a long conversation with West at Edge:

Let me tell you the interpretation. Again, this is still speculative.

The great thing about cities, the thing that is amazing about cities is that as they grow, so to speak, their dimensionality increases. That is, the space of opportunity, the space of functions, the space of jobs just continually increases. And the data shows that. If you look at job categories, it continually increases. I'll use the word "dimensionality."  It opens up. And in fact, one of the great things about cities is that it supports crazy people. You walk down Fifth Avenue, you see crazy people, and there are always crazy people. Well, that's good. It is tolerant of extraordinary diversity.

This is in complete contrast to companies, with the exception of companies maybe at the beginning (think of the image of the Google boys in the back garage, with ideas of the search engine no doubt promoting all kinds of crazy ideas and having maybe even crazy people around them).

Well, Google is a bit of an exception because it still tolerates some of that. But most companies start out probably with some of that buzz. But the data indicates that at about 50 employees to a hundred, that buzz starts to stop. And a company that was more multi dimensional, more evolved becomes one-dimensional. It closes down.

Indeed, if you go to General Motors or you go to American Airlines or you go to Goldman Sachs, you don't see crazy people. Crazy people are fired. Well, to speak of crazy people is taking the extreme. But maverick people are often fired.

It's not surprising to learn that when manufacturing companies are on a down turn, they decrease research and development, and in fact in some cases, do actually get rid of it, thinking "oh, we can get that back, in two years we'll be back on track."

Well, this kind of thinking kills them. This is part of the killing, and this is part of the change from super linear to sublinear, namely companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, and unfortunately, it's necessary. You cannot run a company without administrative. Someone has got to take care of the taxes and the bills and the cleaning the floors and the maintenance of the building and all the rest of that stuff. You need it. And the question is, “can you do it without it dominating the company?” The data suggests that you can't.

Lastly, from an article about West and his research in the NYTimes.

The mathematical equations that West and his colleagues devised were inspired by the earlier findings of Max Kleiber. In the early 1930s, when Kleiber was a biologist working in the animal-husbandry department at the University of California, Davis, he noticed that the sprawlingly diverse animal kingdom could be characterized by a simple mathematical relationship, in which the metabolic rate of a creature is equal to its mass taken to the three-fourths power. This ubiquitous principle had some significant implications, because it showed that larger species need less energy per pound of flesh than smaller ones. For instance, while an elephant is 10,000 times the size of a guinea pig, it needs only 1,000 times as much energy. Other scientists soon found more than 70 such related laws, defined by what are known as “sublinear” equations. It doesn’t matter what the animal looks like or where it lives or how it evolved — the math almost always works.

West’s insight was that these strange patterns are caused by our internal infrastructure — the plumbing that makes life possible. By translating these biological designs into mathematics, West and his co-authors were able to explain the existence of Kleiber’s scaling laws. “I can’t tell you how satisfying this was,” West says. “Sometimes, I look out at nature and I think, Everything here is obeying my conjecture. It’s a wonderfully narcissistic feeling.”

The pace of technology has already shifted some of the old company scaling constraints in the past two decades. When I first joined Amazon, one of the first analyses I performed was a study of the fastest growing companies in history. Perhaps it was Jeff, perhaps it was Joy (our brilliant CFO at the time), but someone had in their mind that we could be the fastest growing company in history as measured by revenue. Back in 1997, no search engine gave good results for the question "what is the fastest growing company in history."

Some clear candidates emerged, like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club or Costco. I looked at technology giants like IBM and Microsoft. Two things were clear: most every company had some low revenue childhood years when they were finding their footing before they achieved the exponential growth they became famous for. Second, and this was most interesting to us, many companies seemed to suffer some distress right around $1B in revenue.

This was very curious, and a deeper examination revealed that many companies went through some growing pains right around that milestone because smaller company processes, systems, and personnel that worked fine until that point broke down at that volume of business. This was a classic scaling problem, and around $1B or just before it, many companies hit that wall, like the fabled 20 mile wall in a marathon.

Being as competitive as we were, we quickly turned our gaze inward to see which of our own systems and processes might break down as we approached our first billion in revenue (by early 1998 it was already clear to us that we were going to hit that in 1999).

Among other things, it led us to the year of GOHIO. Reminiscent of how, in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, each year in the future had a corporate sponsor, each year at Amazon we had a theme that tied our key company goals into a memorable saying or rubric. One year it was Get Big Fast Baby because we were trying to achieve scale ahead of our competitors. GOHIO stood for Getting Our House In Order.

In finance, we made projections for all aspects of our business at $1B+ in revenue: orders, customer service contacts, shipments out of our distribution centers, website traffic, everything. In the year of GOHIO, the job of each division was to examine their processes, systems, and people and ensure they could support those volumes. If they couldn't, they had to get them ready to do so within that year.

Just a decade later, the $1B scaling wall seems like a distant memory. Coincidentally, Amazon has helped to tear down that barrier with Amazon Web Services (AWS) which makes it much easier for technology companies to scale their costs and infrastructure linearly with customer and revenue growth. GroupOn came along and vaulted to $1B in revenue faster than any company in history.

[Yes, I realize Groupon revenue is built off of what consumers pay for a deal and that Groupon only keeps a portion of that, but no company takes home 100% of its revenue. I also realize Groupon has since run into issues, but those are not ones of scaling as much as inherent business model problems.]

Companies like Instagram and WhatsApp now routinely can scale to hundreds of millions of users with hardly a hiccup and with many fewer employees than companies in the past. Unlike biological constraints like the circulation of blood, oxygen, or nutrients, technology has pushed some of the business scaling constraints out.

Now we look to companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, companies that seem to want to compete in a multitude of businesses, to study what the new scaling constraints might be. Technology has not removed all of them: government regulation, bureaucracy or other forms of coordination costs, and employee churn or hiring problems remain some of the common scaling constraints that put the brakes on growth.

Inspirational singing competition movies

The contemporary choice, to be sure. The beauty queen, striding confidently to the head of this group with its gloss and its gleam and its Anna Kendrick’s “Cups.” A worthy addition to the collection of movies we’re discussing today to be sure. It meets all the necessary requirements with its tight choreography and even tighter harmonies, a regional competition and colorful misfit archetypes. But is it “Pitch Perfect”?

No. No it most certainly is not. 

While on the surface this piece is bursting with verve and energy, it’s also bursting with oppression and negative stereotypes about Asian women. Circling the periphery of this romp are the dragon ladies and geishas, hardly speaking English and when they do, only at a whisper. Just what was going on here? 

In Joyful Noise, we didn’t even have time to discuss the homicide of the only Asian American member of the choir, and yet the treatment of the Asian American women trapped in this film is far worse. That’s right, the Asian women in Pitch Perfect would be better off dead

Sick mash-ups though. 

From an overview of inspirational singing competition movies. It's a minority opinion (pun intended), but I agree with the author about the depiction of Asian Americans in Pitch Perfect, an otherwise charming pop flick. Let's hope they avoid those easy stereotypes for Pitch Perfect 2 because this genre is a real cinematic treat.

Where have all the cartoon mothers gone?

Why in so many popular fairy tales and cartoons are the mothers always dead?

In The Uses of Enchantment (1976), Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, saw the dead mother as a psychological boon for kids:

The typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother … is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad “stepmother” without endangering the goodwill of the true mother.

You may notice that these thoughts about dead mothers share a notable feature: they don’t bother at all with the dead mother herself, only with the person, force, or thing that sweeps in and benefits from her death. Bettelheim focuses on the child’s internal sense of himself, Dever on subjectivity itself. Have we missed something here? Indeed. I present door No. 3, the newest beneficiary of the dead mother: the good father.

The author goes on to argue that the “dead mother making way for the caring single father” trope in cartoons is “misogyny made cute.”

I have not seen many of the animated movies cited in the piece, so I can't speak to whether the caring single father is really a culprit behind the ubiquitous dead mothers, but I can think of some other explanations that are credible as well:

  • Many fairy tales were written in an age when many more mothers died giving birth and so it was not so uncommon a scenario. Since many Disney movies are adaptations of those fairy tales, such as those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, they retain the basic structure of those stories, even as advances in medicine have reduced the risk of childbirth by an order of magnitude.
  • Mothers have traditionally been such dominant forces in running the household that they can actually shield a child from any extreme turmoil. That's good for the child but not great for the drama. An absent mother in a fictional drama lengthens the menu of credible external stresses on a child. You can have a mother present and still put the child into dicey situations, but then the mother just seems negligent, and that's often not the story the writer wants to tell.
  • In contrast, many single fathers are seen as not really understanding what is going on in their children's lives, often because the father is always off at work. Many fictional fathers are also seen as somewhat incompetent around the house. This, too, may become a more outdated stereotype as more and more women choose to pursue full-time careers while their husbands handle a greater share of child care duty.

If we want movies that really reflect this age, we should be seeing more movies that show kids having to move back in with their parents after graduating because the unemployment rate is so high. This sounds like fertile ground for an Apatow flick, starring Seth Rogen as the harried new college graduate, trying to carve his way in the world while dealing with his meddling, overbearing parents, played by Liam Neeson and Tina Fey.