Beyond the Algorithm Part II: Breaking the System

As I was thinking once again how much I dislike giving “star ratings” to things, I got to thinking about how the insistence of asking for them – or the simple binary “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on Netflix – on sites is just a base manipulation to get the recommendations field populated by the algorithm.

And it occurred to me what I should have been doing all along, and what I should consider doing from this point forward. It might seem weird, but it might be the thing to smash the algorithm altogether.

Sure, I had the thought of finding things without the aid of the algorithm. This is the next step.

Instead of giving an honest rating to the media you just consumed – be it movie, book, television show, music, or anything else – give it the opposite rating of what you think it deserves. It’ll feel like a betrayal to the things you love. It will seem a lie to the world at large.

But what wonders might you discover with this little deception?

Will the algorithm start to expose you to other fantastic genres you’d never consider?

Like Sybok says to McCoy…the next steps, we’ll take together. Join me in this digital sabotage.

Like so many theoretical models we’ve seen in the last few months, garbage data produces garbage results. Feed the wrong input to the machine, and see what the machine produces.

What do we have to lose?

Give Neil Breen Movies Five Stars!
Give Neil Breen movies five stars!

Theme Songs & Patience

We live in an era of on-demand streaming, with a surfeit of entertainment options. We are collectively a culture defined by impatience.

Recently, while sitting down to watch a program with Agent Bun, she availed herself of the “Skip Intro” feature on Netflix. I’m not ashamed to say she got an earful from me for being so impatient.

I complained about this feature when Netflix first introduced it. I don’t think I complained here on the blog. Regardless it still irks me.

It irks me because it’s so lazy. We can skip or fast forward commercials already. We can watch subscription services that never bother with commercials. (This is true with the exception of Amazon, which forces me to watch an ad for Troop Zero on such a constant basis that I refuse to watch it on principle.)

Setting a Mood

Theme music and introductory credits set a mood. They remind you to remove yourself from immediate distraction and enter a different mindset. Naturally they’ve gotten shorter as we’ve moved away from the once-a-week model for TV shows, though LOST was the first major show where I’m aware they jumped past that as well.

Either way, there were at least a few moments to act as overture and remind you that the real world needs to melt away for awhile.

As I’m watching The Office for the first time, I’ve grown very fond of the opening music. I’m not a binge watcher per se, though I may watch more than one episode over the course of a day.

In that lower right hand corner, though, is the “Skip Intro” option. It’s tugging on that childish impulse to pronounce myself too busy for that extra thirty seconds of music to set the mood.

It was there as the theme song from Cheers struck up on my relatively-recent rewatch of the entire series. One of the greatest television theme songs in history, and they prompted me to skip it. I never did, but the prompt was there.

I imagine, if they ever stream the classic Sanford & Son they’ll prompt people to skip past Quincy Jones’ melodic masterpiece. The same would hold true for All in the Family, or The Jeffersons.

I’m completely aware that it’s a choice to skip ahead and I’m electing not to use it. Why, someone might ask, would it bother me that the option is there if it’s not my choice (and never will be)?

Honestly, I think it’s just because it’s a reminder of how lazy and distracted we’ve allowed ourselves to become even when at leisure. It’s about consuming the content, as opposed to appreciating the craft or, in the most fortunate of experiences, the art.

In Conclusion

Regardless of what you might think of a piece of entertainment and whether Mr. Belvedere would ever be considered “art,” or if Who’s the Boss? demonstrated any actual “craft,” the intro music should be appreciated and respected.

It’s a part of the experience. What’s it cost to spend that extra little bit of time to immerse yourself as much as possible?

Does my argument extend in an absolute way to include watching the end credits? Of course not. I’m not a madman.

P.S. The incident to which I refer at the opening, where I got cranky with Agent Bun? It’s because she exercised the option of lazy indulgence and didn’t even ask if I wanted to watch the opening credits, which I did. I’m willing to compromise on occasion if it’s a shared experience, but at least ask.

P.P.S. She doesn’t read what I write or listen to my podcasts, so don’t worry about her getting huffy about that last part. I can speak with impunity and unless on of you were to rat me out, she won’t even know I said it.

P.P.P.S. If you want to listen to one of my podcasts, you should try out “House of Fincher” on The Nerd Party.

Beyond the Algorithm

As covered in my previous post, I watched 31 movies in 31 days. (Some may claim that simply suffering through as much of Soul Plane as physically possible without medical guidance requires an “asterisk” on my phenomenal feat, but I stand by my record.) As I looked over the opinions logged about that stint, I noticed something atypical about the movies I watched.

A strong majority of them were good. Sure, I usually watch at least some good movies to justify the amount of time I’m blasting my corneas with the flickering glow of radiation, but like a moth to a flame I have a penchant for diving into an evening of substandard entertainment. One dear friend argued that I’m a masochist, which is arguably true when you look at other facets of my life as well. Someone with whom I work once called me the “king of bad movies.”

I know, I know, I have a wonderfully supportive network of friends. I humbly acknowledge that.

A Little Context

I think I’ve made the disclaimer before, but it’s not just some hipster-doofus reflex that spurs me to watch bad things so I can brag about it how I “love bad movies.” It’s that I legitimately enjoy these movies when they capture the spirit of filmmaking that’s pure and delightful. A movie might be bad like Black Belt Jones, but there’s an exuberance that is infectious.

Even my beloved Star Trek V: The Final Frontier captures that kinetic flash of impish glee. It leaks through, that certain thrill that someone has in making a movie. It’s a combination of childlike impulses and love of creation, that I can’t resist.

Movies like that usually result in bigger risks and less self-consciousness. Things can get crazy. At worst, it’s a fun night spent seeing a product of love and sacrifice.

Some people have pills, I have movies.

Back to the Algorithm

The truth is that my viewing habits in the last year have largely been guided by Amazon Prime’s algorithm. It’s far better than the one on Netflix, which is just some sort of hideous hash designed to promote its latest product at all costs. Amazon Prime’s algorithm seems to weight its recommendations by the real connective tissue, as opposed to simplistic triggers built by some overpaid antisocial half-wit with anarchy stickers on his skateboard.

However, something odd happened in May. As I looked through my viewing habits, and then checked it against past habits, my movie watching took a decided turn for the better. It magically came out of nowhere. But a theory formed.

My subconscious mind, used to escaping the mundane through “bad” movies, has turned to good movies as a salve for the seeming insanity of the modern day. Obviously I needed to escape, the same way people who were living through the 1970s needed Star Wars.

That made me think of something a little deeper.

Also be careful that the algorithm doesn’t steal your brainwaves.

It’s very easy to get trapped by the algorithm. Everything we do is now virtually programmed to force feed what “it thinks” we should eat/see/do/think into our eyeballs by brute force. Looking at how I stepped away, and started choosing things without the aid of an algorithm, and I wound up finding the things that helped me escape my days.

That’s what entertainment is supposed to do. That’s what we are supposed to do. Embrace the things that help us, not cling to the things that trap us. So step away from the algorithm, take a risk, and try something new.

There are plenty of things that will reinforce your habits and ways of thinking. Find something fresh and new.

Failing that, stick with me on Letterboxd. Trust me, I’ll make it a fun ride.

On the Topic of the Documentary about Flat-Earthers, “Behind the Curve,” on Netflix

We live in interesting times. I was pointed toward a documentary about members (adherents? disciples?) of the Flat Earth movement that’s currently showing on Netflix, called Behind the Curve.

The documentary primarily follows Mark Sargent, a prominent evangelist for the Flat Earth movement that has taken on a bit of momentum in recent years. We meet others as well, from Patricia Steere to Math Powerland (no, really).

Each of these people seems sincere in their beliefs. That could easily make this a challenging watch. It’s not, though. It’s fascinating. In many cases the subject matter is stronger than the structure at play, but it all comes together to create a compelling moment. It’s certainly one I won’t forget.

Flat Earth is a bunch of bunk, but I want to give people a hug and tell them it's OK that the world is crazy and scary.
The flat-hand signal there is apparently the “salute” (?) that Flat Earthers give.

I have to give the documentary a lot of credit for remaining kind in the treatment of its subjects. It’s a force of habit for many people simply to ridicule and deride others who don’t believe accepted doctrine.

This is especially true when it comes to accepted consensus. You need only to turn on your television to see everyone from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Stephen Colbert turning derisive sneering into an oft-lucrative art form.

In short, it’s easy to call someone “stupid” or “crazy” and move on with your life. It’s an emotional bloodsport we’ve elevated to a place of great honor in our society. Everything from sitcoms to Twitter have reinforced the idea that the best way to deal with “heterodox” thought is to tear down the person.

I agree instead with the person speaking at a convocation of scientists, captured in this movie. He points out that many of the people who believe things as outlandish as flat earth theory, faked moon landings, or the artistic merit of The English Patient, aren’t stupid people.

In many cases, they’re intelligent people who would benefit greatly from empathetic communication. They can and should be spoken to with a presumption of respect and intelligence, and work from there.

Calling someone stupid simply stops the conversation. Finding out why they believe something like Flat Earth Theory can go a long way toward understanding how to discuss it with them. If you start from a point of disrespect and attack, any human being is going to go into a defensive mode and stop listening.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t point out the flaws in their reasoning. You’re not obliged to go along with a delusion, as much as that seems to be the cultural norm these days. It’s fine to pretend someone you love is Teddy Roosevelt, but only so long as you’re Abby and Martha Brewster.

There will also be people you simply can’t reach. It might be beyond your personal ability. That’s OK, let them encounter someone else who can continue the conversation.

By and large, the movie does a terrific job of approaching these people sympathetically. Where it fails is that it diverges every so often from the intellectually curious to the self-righteous, as if it’s forgetting its own lesson.

Then it wraps up with a moment that needed more exploration than being interspersed with the end credits. A Flat Earth group, doing an experiment to prove that curvature is a lie, fails. Instead of continuing to explore their reaction to the failure in detail, it’s seemingly played for a chuckle. That’s all well and good, but undercuts the empathetic approach advocated earlier in the movie.

There’s another experiment earlier in the movie that works against another set of Flat Earthers, but that’s not followed up, either. It’s left dangling, and as a viewer I was unsatisfied that it was discarded and we just kept moving.

You can’t help but feel like the movie moves past these moments because the director can’t completely resist the default urge to mock just a little bit. That may feed into the perspective of other viewers, but for me it just doesn’t work.

In all, it’s a worthwhile movie to watch. If anything, it’s a fascinating exploration of the human desire to be important, to be heard, and to be special. It’s a testament to what makes conspiracy theories enduringly powerful; their adherents can hold a claim to intelligence and perception beyond the average.

There are undoubtedly conspiracies in this world. But we should approach the claims of them with extreme skepticism. The burden of proof should be on the people proving them to exist, not vice versa.

In short, I recommend this movie to you, if you have Netflix.

This review can also be found on my Letterboxd profile. Share and share alike, as it were. I also talk about it on a podcast. Cheers!

The Ruining of Netflix Ratings & Amy Schumer

Netflix has pushed the button on changing its ratings system. Now, instead of the apparently-overwhelming star rating system used by everyone from common reviewers to Letterboxd, they’ve made it a thumbs-up and thumbs-down. They’ve moved, then, from a nuanced system to a plain binary, without even the opportunity to write a review that may explain the thinking like Siskel & Ebert did on At the Movies.

While this system had been beta-tested before, the attributed influence of the action is generally recognized as Amy Schumer’s whining about getting poor reviews for her poorly-executed program, The Leather Special.

I know that The Leather Special is supposedly victim of a conspiracy from “alt-right” people to derail the ratings for Ms. Schumer. A special prize goes to the magazines who ran with that as a factual statement instead of measuring if it would have had an actual impact if true.

I watched as much of The Leather Special as I could tolerate before giving the lazily profane effort a one-star rating myself. It recalled the worst of Andrew Dice Clay, when he fully embraced replacing punch lines with shock value.

The funny thing is, if she hadn’t ginned up controversy to get people to watch, I’d likely have missed its release and not contributed my own low rating. But it really is bad.

The whole thing amounts to Ms. Schumer’s own insecure view that no one could possibly have disliked her special for any other reason than political malice. It’s a pitiable window into her own thinking and inability to divorce politics from personal life.

white house
Photo by Aaron Kittredge on

Why This Stinks

I also wondered how Netflix was going to treat the existing ratings in its system. While not a tremendous hardship to have personal ratings removed, the fact is that they were given and I’m not especially inclined to go back and rate things again, especially since I’ve already watched them.

So when I got the notice today that Netflix had changed its ratings, I checked a few titles I know I’d rated before. As I thought, they wiped them out. After all, there’s no way for them to know a metric for whether I’d consider 3 out of 5 stars a “thumbs down,” or if I’d only give one to a one-star monstrosity.

So everything was wiped out. They didn’t bother, as they could have, to give users a link where previously-rated titles were inventoried and you could do a quick rundown.

Again, it’s not like I’m equating this with bread lines in the USSR or having bad tap water in Flint, Michigan. It’s at worst an inconvenience.

Feet of Clay

However, it is an unnecessary inconvenience, poorly conceived and executed. And with the timing matching Amy Schumer’s whining self-pity, it’s a clear indicator that Netflix considers itself beholden to the tantrums of those in need of special handling.

I wonder, if someone gets too many thumbs-down, they have a crisis response team to spring into action to cap the number of bad boolean results. After all, if there is some sort of conspiracy to keep Ms. Schumer down, there’s nothing to stop these bad actors from making the simple click frenzy happen again. Based on the interface, it’s even easier.

At the very least, it’s good to know Ms. Schumer has an easy mental excuse if people continue to give her poor reviews. Then she can whine again and they can remove reviews altogether to give only “likes” to things the way Facebook does, or “loves” if you REALLY like it.

If you don’t like it, they may reason you shouldn’t rate it at all. Let’s all think happy thoughts only!

My Repeating Hope: Killing the Expanded Universe (EU)!

OK, that headline is a little bit of an attention-getter on purpose. Maybe I really just want the wounding of the Expanded Universe since there is some stuff worth retaining, like the Thrawn books and a lot of the Prequel Era stuff I’ve read.

I won’t spoil anything, but the recently-unveiled Season Six of Star Wars: The Clone Wars had a final story arc that completely blew up an accepted fact from other sources of “Expanded Universe.” People not very steeped in non-film Star Wars lore likely won’t even catch onto it, but I literally giggled when the simple twist of a name erased a footnote to the “history” of the EU.

Like I said, I won’t spoil anything. But it was a gleeful moment for me that signaled again the willingness on the part of Lucasfilm (and now Disney/Marvel, buying back the comic license) to destroy even a tiny piece of the complex arcana that has been constructed over the last couple of decades.

How much they’ll destroy remains a question. Some sources indicate that it will steer clear of what has happened to allow fans who like the EU to reconcile the new films with the extra materials. This is something I still contend is an issue some fans had with the Prequels; they contradicted EU materials blatantly and willingly. If a fan held those materials dear, there’s undoubtedly a sense of “betrayal” that is felt.

But at least I can believe that the new films won’t feel restricted to follow only the stories that have been put in novels and games up to this point. This gives it all a real chance to feel as fresh and original as the first six, and that’s sure to please me as much as an all-you-can-eat buffet would please Jabba.

And in the end, isn’t the new trilogy just about making me happy?

I think we can agree that it is.

Also, every time I write “EU” I imagine that Vladimir Putin is nodding, saying, “I hate it too!” And then getting really disappointed when I tell him we’re not talking about the same thing.