On Being a Picky Consumer, or When Hype Outweighs Value

I’m very picky about which films I watch, which books I read, and which games I play.  If I realize I don’t care for a movie as it’s unfolding, I’ll try to walk out of the theater immediately.  I may have lost a few dollars, but I’ll never get that time back.

Consequently, I don’t consume much.*  I’d much rather spend my limited time with loved ones, in nature, solving problems (usually others’ problems, since I’m a physician), or being creative.  It’s even better when I can combine what I most enjoy doing.

When I do consume films or books–and this holds true especially for fiction–I want the story to be interestingly, or at least realistically, complex.  Which brings me to watching Moana, the recent animated film by Disney.  I’m embarrassed to say that I chose to see it because it garnered great reviews.  Sadly, after seeing it, my opinion sides with the few negative reviewers.  The film reminds me of why I much prefer Pixar’s animated films–which are usually fresh, clever, and appeal on multiple levels–to Disney’s.  I’m fairly certain I don’t ever want to see another Disney film again; Moana is the final nail in the Disney coffin, as far as I’m concerned.  The only positive things about the movie from my standpoint are the gorgeous visuals, the celebration of Polynesian culture, and that it features a strong female protagonist throughout.

Warning: spoilers below!

The cartoon short presented right before the film was Inner Workings.  Inner Workings portrays a man who lives in Southern California and who goes to work every day at the firm, “Boring, Boring, and Glum”.  The cartoon presents a lot of tension between the man’s fearful brain (closed to new experiences out of fear) and his enthusiastic, open heart which longs for new experiences.  During his surfside walk to work every day, he passes by a breakfast place that offers a meal of pancakes, sausage or bacon, and eggs, which his “heart” craves, but his brain reasons that this will lead to weight gain and an eventual death by myocardial infarction.  So, he keeps walking toward his firm.  Similarly, he passes by a surfer and craves surfing but passes it up because his brain reasons that he might be killed by a shark.  And so on.

When he finally gets to work, he goes through stacks of paper and types monotonously along with a legion of similar zombie coworkers.  At lunchtime, his despondency reaches a critical low, whereupon his brain lets go of the hold on his heart and allows him to go to the pancake shop.  After having breakfast for lunch, he tiptoes into the surf, a wave crashes onto him, completely soaking his work clothes.  He then gets new sunglasses from a girl selling them at a beachside stall.  He goes back to work, soaked in ocean water and covered in sand, and then starts working with a dance beat, whereupon everyone else joins in and starts dancing, too.  Later, he marries the girl who sold him the shades.

Inner Workings imparts a few lessons.  The first is the adage, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Another is that it’s important to take some risks, to not live strictly guided by fear.  The last is that Southern California is a fun place.  Fair enough.

Since I actually did live in Southern California for four years, worked at a hospital in a coveted location (La Jolla), and lived less than ten minutes from Torrey Pines Beach by car, I feel I can say something more about this sketch.  Let me just tell you that a particularly uncomfortable physical sensation is that of walking around with your plainclothes waterlogged by the salty ocean and covered with sand.

On to Moana, a movie with the segmented plot structure of a bad action-adventure video game.  It reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which also has a plotline on rails.  (I made the same poor decision in purchasing Twilight Princess, years ago, as I did in choosing to watch Moana: I took note of the many positive reviews, didn’t pay attention to Jeff Gerstmann’s “heretically” negative review of the game for its lack of innovation–he was reportedly later fired from GameSpot for his unique opinions on games–and dived in, remembering my love of the puzzles in the previous games.  I later regretted it.)

In Moana, there’s a prelude (just as in Legend of Zelda games) that gives us important background information, followed by an opening in which the eponymous protagonist is “chosen” by the ocean, which gives her a jade amulet that needs to be returned to a stereotypically dangerous place in order to save the world.  After the opening (her childhood), she undertakes a couple of subquests (find Maui the legendary demigod, then find Maui’s hook).  This involves a couple of “boss battles,” just like a Zelda game.  After she collects everything she needs, and has learned to sail, it’s off to the dangerous final plot location guarded by the stereotypically toughest “boss.”  (Yawn.)  She’s rebuffed, reaches a low point, Maui leaves her, but then her late grandmother arrives and gives her a pep talk. So, off she goes again to the dangerous final location.  This time, she pulls some tricks that would do well in any action-adventure video game from ~1998 onward and ends up fulfilling her destiny.

Moana is the “Chosen One.”  She tells us so multiple times, but the plot also directly and indirectly reinforces her pathological egocentrism throughout the film.  Moana is clearly the only innovator in her tribe, which the movie presents as a recurring problem until she is allowed to innovate by sailing beyond the reef, saving the world (yes!), and returning to have her actions validated by her people.  She suffers from the same symptomatology as other Disney protagonists:  her privileged life isn’t good enough for her; she longs for something more; she’s fond of passionate, impulsive decision-making; etc.  There are no serious consequences for any of her ill-thought-out decisions, including sailing out onto the ocean alone at age eight on a raft.

That the movie affirms and validates these undesirable traits and actions also means that this is a movie that I would not want any children to see.  Validation of egocentrism is damaging and dangerous because it supports a worldview in which those who are not key decision-makers are expendable.  Anyone who has tried to run a clinic, or a business, or any other enterprise larger than himself has quickly realized how important everybody is (schedulers, phlebotomists, medical assistants, physicians, etc.).  Researchers may produce new treatments that greatly help some segments of the population, but with a broken healthcare system, everyone suffers.  In real life, maintainers are often more important than innovators.  The greatest irony of Moana is the protagonist’s final triumph, which occurs during some of the final scenes of the film:  after reuniting with her pet pig, Moana gets her people back into sailing, exploring, and presumably, colonizing.  The Polynesians and many other early human societies were responsible for extinctions of vulnerable species (especially those that lived on islands), partly through introduced fauna (pigs, cats, dogs) that destroyed fragile ecosystems, to say nothing of more-developed societies that later waged imperialism to create wealth while destroying weaker civilizations.

As stated earlier, the plot is almost entirely on rails.  Moana is destined to save the world.  Therefore, nearly every time Moana falls into the water, the ocean *itself* saves her and plops her right back onto the raft.  (This reinforces Moana’s specialness, especially because the ocean allowed her father’s friend to drown.)  The plot progresses almost magically from scene to scene, with plot devices so ridiculously serendipitous that the characters rarely have to break a sweat in the brains department.

Beyond the vapidity of the plot devices, and almost as ironic counterpoint, the movie features the worst comic relief I’ve ever seen:  a jungle fowl or rooster so flamboyantly dumb that it repeatedly walks straight into the ocean when it isn’t pacing back and forth–changing direction only when it runs into an obstacle in its makeshift cage on the raft.  Basically a glorified drinking bird toy, it doesn’t even try to save itself from drowning once it is actually in the water.  The ocean itself saved this poor chicken multiple times.

The rest of the characters were also one-dimensional:  Moana’s character never develops beyond being the “Chosen One.”  Her father’s character doesn’t develop significantly beyond his recurring refrain of, “The ocean is dangerous.  Don’t go beyond the reef!” (Though he does eat his words in the end.)  In fact, multiple characters–Moana, her grandmother, and her father–essentially repeat the same lines in different ways throughout the film.  Maui is represented in the movie as an abusive, wisecracking demigod, particularly frustrating for his nearly impenetrable narcissism.

I prefer it when a film presents real, potentially dangerous stakes, but then it presents characters clever enough to navigate the dangers successfully instead of being given implausible breaks time and again (much less, actually being saved by the dangers around them).  This is one reason I love Studio Ghibli films.  If a cartoon doesn’t do this, perhaps to cater to kids, then it should at least have brilliant layers of humor.  Compare most Pixar films to almost any Disney film, for example.

A note on Zelda games:  I loved the first several Zelda games (up to Ocarina of Time), because they were hard, brittle games.  They didn’t pander to the player.  They weren’t guided journeys.  Life is also hard and brittle in many ways.  Good guidance is difficult to find. Many mistakes in life are serious and cannot be recovered from.  So, when the Zelda games reached such a level of popularity that Nintendo started designing them to pander to everybody, transforming them into guided tours devoid of difficulty or a memorable story, I bailed.

I like chess because it teaches a sense of responsibility for one’s actions–if you make too many bad moves, you lose.  It’s nowhere near a perfect analogy for life, but it is analogous to some aspects of life:  early advantages are important for later success.  Even a won position can be lost by carelessness.  Chess is brittle.  Life is brittle.  Think well.

In summary the lesson I learned from seeing Moana is that I really should continue to get movie recommendations from close friends instead of getting them from review sites.**  Close friends know me best, and we’re close because we’re similar in important ways.  Therefore, their advice should carry greater weight than that of a critic I don’t personally know.  That said, one ends up following the work of like-minded critics after a while, too.  For example, I could predict what Roger Ebert, Jeff Gerstmann, and Greg Kasavin would like and what they wouldn’t, since I read so many of their reviews back in the day.  (Thankfully, this is a habit I’ve long since discarded, because I watched hardly any of the movies and didn’t play the games.)

*Recently, I really enjoyed On the Move, an autobiography by Oliver Sacks; Virunga, a remarkable documentary about the eponymous national park of the Congo; and The Dark Horse, a powerful character study of Genesis Potini, the brilliant Māori chess player.  As far as video games go, I haven’t played them seriously in many years, and I don’t feel worse off for that.  I’m learning chess right now, because it’s so much more interesting to me than other games I’ve experienced.

**For news, my first rule is to minimize exposure to it.  My second rule is syntopical reading:  I try to read high-quality news from all sides to achieve the most objective/accurate viewpoints.  I especially prefer independent news.

Is Chess Obsolete?

Is chess an obsolete game now that computers are better than humans?

Is strength training obsolete now that we have machines that can easily lift much more than humans can?

Are bicycles obsolete now that we have cars?

Is walking obsolete now that we have bicycles?

No.

Computers can certainly play a much better chess game than any human in the world can play.  Computers “think” about chess differently, but they do have the advantage of being able to “look” further into the future while analyzing each possible position accurately.

So, if you’re a human and you want to play the most accurate/brilliant chess games ever, you’re already guaranteed to fail.

But you still appreciate a nice walk, even though you own a bicycle, and you still use a car or public transportation at least some of the time.

And if you go to the gym, you never think about the fact that a mechanical crane can “deadlift” much more than you can!

For the same reason, it simply doesn’t follow that chess is obsolete.

Even though humans are much less accurate at playing chess, there are numerous significant benefits from playing this and other strategy/logic games on a casual (or even serious!) level.  These benefits can be applied to the rest of your life.

Chess, Math, Video Games, and Life

I played a few chess games recently and quickly realized that I should have been playing and studying chess my entire life.  Few activities are as strategically rewarding.  Chess, in some ways, is an allegory for life.  After I played those games, I then quickly relearned the fundamentals of chess using Patrick Wolff’s excellent introduction, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Chess (second edition).

As a high school student, I developed a deep interest in math and the technical sciences (physics, chemistry) by working through a book of logic puzzles, as I explained here.  Logic puzzles are elegant, self-contained problems that can be worked out with intuition, insights, and logical reasoning.  Math and the technical sciences are similar.  I explored math, physics, and other logic-based subjects extensively on my own, forcing myself to solve any problem I encountered that required ingenuity.  I proved theorems for myself and related them to other learned material.  I developed a visual approach to learning math.  For physics, I used analogies (that I refined further and further) to understand abstract concepts.  (More generally, I often reframed concepts in terms of other concepts.)  I constantly challenged my understanding, refusing to draw conclusions whenever possible.  I cultivated skepticism to improve objectivity.  If my understanding of a concept was flawed, I would take it apart and reconstruct it a better way.

This methodical, exploratory, often tedious approach deepened my understanding and made it much easier to solve difficult problems, even those in related subjects I hadn’t studied.  My understanding of an abstract logical subject would grow with exploration until I encountered an insight, at which point it would make a quantum leap to a higher level of understanding, and so on.  (Aside: medicine is very different because it depends heavily on memorization of detailed material.  Reasoning is important, but it doesn’t matter how well you can think if you don’t have the required knowledge available to you.)

So, in terms of strategies and tactics, the above process, with a few variations, was my sole strategy for acquiring an ever-growing toolkit of tactics.  High school- and college-level problems usually required tactical approaches.  A very difficult problem might require at least one clever perspective switch coupled with a string of tactics.  You could call the entire solution a strategy.  However, if strategy is defined as a plan that makes a solution possible, and tactics are the particular methods used to arrive at a solution, then one’s ability to generate strategies was hardly challenged at all.  In some sense, the strategy was the math class itself and was already thought out for you long in advance!  The tactics were what you learned in the math class.  And then you were presented with clean, well-composed, often elegant problems that you were expected to solve intelligently.  You were on a guided tour that you didn’t control.  (This wasn’t always the case.  In computer science and engineering classes, there was a greater emphasis on novel strategies for more open-ended or complex problems, especially in project-based settings.)

More importantly, there was really no intelligent way to develop one’s ability to come up with good strategies.  And life, though messy and complicated, is all about strategies at every level!  That’s where chess comes in.  As soon as I played a few games of chess, I realized that chess is all about generating and executing effective long-term strategies in the face of extreme complexity.  Chess strategies are what make the clever tactics possible.  Your strategy can change during the course of a game, depending on what your opponent is doing.  So you came up with a good move that’s part of what you think is a good strategy.  Can you come up with an even better move, an even better strategy?  You’re always thinking hard, thinking ahead, thinking as clearly as you can about the many possible moves in front of you, and looking for clever tactics that don’t compromise your long-term plan.  You make a move, your opponent makes her move, and then you often have to reconsider everything all over again.  There are supposedly 10^120 possible moves in a typical game of chess.  As of the time of writing of this essay, chess is still an unsolved game.  You have to learn to think for yourself, to think effectively, to project yourself into future time, and to handle being the master of your own destiny.  (These characteristics hold for any complex strategy game, not just chess.)

What about video games?  Aren’t video games more complicated?  I stopped playing video games in my twenties, after the Nintendo GameCube became passe, so I can’t comment on the current gaming scene.  In my teens and twenties, I enjoyed the more cerebral games when I had the time to play them (which wasn’t often!):  Myst, the Legend of Zelda series, Braid, Portal, and similar games.  (There were strategy-heavy video and computer games on the market, but I rarely played those because they seemed too much like computerized board games.  They’re in the same category as chess and other strategy games as far as I’m concerned.)

These video games were basically guided tours filled with self-contained puzzles.  Your ability to generate strategies wasn’t challenged so much as your ability to come up with clever tactics in a strategically ridiculous “man vs world” type of situation.*  (This also applied to “boss” battles…some of the later games did give you some strategic flexibility in this regard, but it was mostly about figuring out the self-contained tactical puzzles).  Even the large-scale environmental puzzles in these games (e.g., the Legend of Zelda) were tactical in nature, because there was only one way (or at most a few ways) to solve them and you couldn’t move forward until you did so.  Braid, the critically acclaimed video game, is basically a two-dimensional guided tour with some of the most brilliant puzzles in gaming history.

This sort of thing can be quite addictive, because you get a little burst of reinforcement every time you solve a puzzle on your guided tour.  (Aside: many video game puzzles fit neatly into some branch of mathematics.  They are basically math problems in disguise.)  But, wait!  At the highest level, you’re not in control.  You’re not learning how to think for yourself.  You’re not learning how to intelligently construct your own tour.  (In defense of such games, they can certainly teach, directly or indirectly, all sorts of positive things.)

In math, someone comes up with a theorem, someone proves it, and the theorem and its proof are eternal.  In the technical sciences, someone comes up with a law (e.g., thermodynamics) and it stands forever.  This timelessness spoiled me for a long time, because I viewed anything less perfect as inherently less valuable.  This is a flawed viewpoint, however.  Even though timeless ideas may stand forever, their practical value might be quite low, while the value of practical ideas that become obsolete might actually be quite high, because they help the world and can also pave the way to better ideas.  In chess, one cannot come up (at least at this point in time) with a perfect approach.  There are only strategies and better strategies.  Analyses of games written just fifty years ago are already outdated (because computer analysis has found their flaws).  Analogously, life is even more complex.  There is no verifiably perfect approach to life.

This is important because life is all about strategies, at every level, and nobody is going to construct your life (e.g., “tour”) for you.  You’re in charge of planning ahead for yourself and for those dependent on you.  There are innumerable different situations in life that require different strategies (e.g., dating, education, financial planning, debt management, time management, building a family, choosing and succeeding in a career, and so on).  Are you able to come up with effective approaches?

Although life is much more complicated than chess and in some ways very different, I feel that chess is an allegory for life in certain important ways, and that the casual study (not too much!) of chess can be beneficial.  One can rewind a chess game and play it differently at any point to see how it could have turned out.  By playing chess, one learns to persevere, to consider many different points of view and to weigh each against the others effectively.  One practices generating and carrying out effective plans in complex situations.  One learns to make the most of one’s time.  One learns to think “outside the box.”  One learns that the hardest game to win is often the “won game,” as a famous chess master once said.  This has many parallels in life.  One learns that even a game that seems lost can be saved by a clever move (also true in life).  And, finally, the fact that computers are now stronger than humans at chess is a great thing, because it not only means you have a chess partner whenever you want one, but it also means that you can use a computer to help you objectively analyze your decision-making!

*Although I have never been interested in “speed runs” through video games, I realize that speed runs require strategic thinking on a global level.  Speed run experts are probably good strategists.

Update 1/18/2016: I suspect that anyone who masters chess or other strategy games will have a significant advantage at creating computer algorithms (because they are computational strategies).