About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Blog break

I've enjoyed revitalising this blog lately, and my stats are now back to where they were in 2010/2011 at their previous peak (whatever those stats really mean; I have no idea how many actual human beings are reading). Alas, I need to take a break from blogging here for at least the next month or so. I have some tight deadlines on big projects, and while I've spent much of this year immersed in research I'm now trying to hit the ground running with actually producing copy. I also have smaller things that need to be done and give me enough distractions from the big projects. With any luck, I may have a productive September and feel by the end of it that things are under control. Farewell until then!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Lawrence v. Texas: A Right to Personal Freedom?"

This article, "Lawrence v. Texas: A Right to Personal Freedom?" , was first published in Quadrant back in 2003, shortly after the US Supreme Court case that struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law. The effect was not only to make all laws banning homosexual conduct unconstitutional (and so ineffective) in the US; beyond that, it implies a very wide area of sexual privacy and freedom in highly personal matters. Within that area, the law can't be permitted to intervene. Since I'm something of a libertarian in this respect (though I am not a political libertarian in the sense of being opposed to taxes and the welfare state), the outcome was very welcome to me. Of course, it applies only to the US, but what happens there can affect legal and cultural trends far more broadly.

At the same time, I can't help but be bemused at some of the ways in which US constitutional law has developed over the past 50 to 100 years (and to some extent even beyond). The Supreme Court has tended to find a lot more in the US Constitution than is explicitly stated there, including a wide range of "unenumerated rights" - rights that are never stated but are somehow implicit. This approach to constitutional interpretation can't be ruled out entirely, since much in any document must be taken to go without saying or the document would make no sense, or at least not its obvious sense. For example, it seems fair enough to find it implicit in a democratic constitution that there will be no political censorship, even if no such provision (or any provision on free speech) appears explicitly. But how far can such a process of interpretation go? Surely we can't read in just anything (whether it is an unstated right or an unstated restriction on an explicit right) that seems to the courts to be good policy at the time.

On the gripping hand, Lawrence v. Texas does seem to be correctly decided, given the line of cases that it relies on. Constitutional courts need to make sense of the entire body of legal materials relevant to a case, especially past precedents. Even if I thought that US constitutional law went off the track at some point, a time comes when the body of interpretations adopted by the highest courts is sufficiently dense, consistent, and accepted by the society as a whole that there is no turning back. The US seems to have reached that point long ago with the idea of constitutional protection of sexual privacy and a broad area of freedom in personal matters. As you might expect, I'd hope that something like this would operate as a political principle even in a society where the principle is not regarded as constitutionally entrenched.

This article may also be the first time that I commented publicly (and presciently) on same-sex marriage. I say:
Again, some argument may be put forward in future constitutional cases to retain prohibitions on gay marriages. If, however, no sufficiently compelling argument can be found, what is lost? It seems oppressive and unjustifiable that social and sexual partnerships between gay men or lesbians cannot have the same formal recognition by the state (and the same legal privileges and responsibilities) as heterosexual relationships, if that is the wish of the individuals involved. If the law in the U.S. evolves to reflect this, much is actually gained. This now seems to be the legal position in Canada: Halpern v. Toronto (2003). It does not portend the doom of Canadian society.

A useful piece on "trigger warnings"

I found this piece via Brian Leiter's site, so a hat tip to him. Published in Inside Higher Ed in May 2014, "Trigger Warnings Are Flawed" sets out the legal, psychological, and pedagogical problems with a policy of issuing trigger warnings for potentially confrontational materials. My own sense of it, as someone who has done quite a lot of teaching at university level in Eng. Lit. and Philosophy, is that an attempt to warn students systematically of even the most obviously potentially "triggering" material would tie teachers in at least those subjects (and certainly Law, and probably History) in knots. It doesn't follow that we need to take harsh attitudes to students who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but as the authors describe there are more effective and professional ways for universities to handle this. I don't necessarily agree with all the points and assumptions made in the last few paragraphs, but universities have great resources available to them, some of which should be (and in my experience are) directed at supporting students with mental health problems.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) at the box office - a reality check

I didn't see the new Ghostbusters movie (and I probably won't bother until it comes to free-to-air television) for the single, simple reason that its trailer didn't hook me. Sorry.

There's been much media discussion as to whether failing to see Ghostbusters - or not liking it if you do see it - somehow makes you a bad (perhaps politically suspect) person. In reaction, there's been much crowing in some quarters about its failure at the box office.

Well yes, it has been something of a failure at the box office, but a reality check is needed here. On a budget of $144 million it has made over $124 million in the American domestic market. It has made an additional $84 million in "foreign" markets, adding to $208 million so far. It's still being shown in cinemas, so its first-release global cumulative result may end up being around $220 million. Some earnings may not yet have been reported; but otherwise, even $220 mill. may be out of reach.

That's certainly too low for a movie with such a budget. It's undoubtedly disappointing to the studios involved. But it's far from the worst result in recent times. Compare, say, last year's disastrous Fantastic Four. Let's not even think about how the new Ben Hur is going. Because it has failed mainly in the foreign markets, where the profit percentage for studios on the box office is lower than in the US, Ghostbusters has arguably done about as well, overall, as Alice Through the Looking Glass ($294.5 milllion globally, but only $77 million of it in the domestic market, on a budget of $170 million).

Of course, so many factors go into the profit and loss on these movies that it is difficult to know in any specific case what is needed for one of them to make an eventual profit. One estimate that I read for Ghostbusters was $300 million globally to break even, though I have also seen a claim that the studio thinks this figure is too high. A blockbuster movie may have received all sorts of subsidies and deals that we don't know about, it will have associated merchandising, there can be theme park attractions tied in, novels and comics tied in, and on and on. It will eventually go to Blu-ray and DVD, and there will be television rights. It can also attract interest in other movies belonging to the franchise, acting as an advertisement to gain them more Blu-ray sales, more television broadcasting, more rentals, and so on. As studio executives have been pointing out, this all affects the bottom line of whether the effort was worth it. On the minus side, advertising costs can be as high as actual production costs.

My rough rule of thumb is that a big-budget Hollywood movie probably needs to make at least twice its production budget in its global total... but that is very rough.

In all, Ghostbusters has seemingly been a commercial failure - significantly enough to make a sequel unlikely any time soon - but not a total commercial disaster. Many big-budget movies end up like that. To some extent, it's a crap shoot for the studios when they invest large sums of money.

As for where it all went wrong, note again the American-versus-foreign box office. The performance in the domestic market is really not all that bad. Many big budget movies fall below their budget figure with their American box-office earnings, but make up for it somewhat with good takings in foreign markets. When you dig into the foreign figures for Ghostbusters, it also doesn't seem to have done all that badly in other English-language markets. Its big problem to date has been its very poor performance in non-English-speaking markets.

Compare X-Men: Apocalypse. In the domestic market it made "only" $155.5 million on a budget of $178 million. That's not good, though again it's probably not disastrous. The negative reaction of the critics doubtless kept attendances down, as, no doubt did certain perceived weaknesses (much as I loved this movie). But anyway, it's comparable to Ghostbusters' American performance, considering their respective budgets. It's not all that bad.

However, unlike GhostbustersX-Men: Apocalypse performed credibly in foreign markets. It clawed in $120 million in China alone, and it looks as if it's going about as well as can be expected in Japan, where it's still playing. So far it has over $385 million from the foreign markets, and its eventual global total will be close to or around $545 million. That's surely a disappointment for Fox, but probably only a minor one; it will be some two-and-a-half times what Ghostbusters eventually makes globally.

So, here's a big difference. X-Men: Apocalypse made that large figure that I mentioned in China, while Ghostbusters was actually banned in China (the authorities there don't like ghosts) and so made nothing. Again, Ghostbusters pretty much failed in large markets such as Russia and Brazil. It is currently going head to head with X-Men: Apocalypse in Japan. The X-Men are not all that big in Japan, so there may not be that much difference in how the two movies perform there when their runs are over, but X-Men: Apocalypse should eventually get $10 million. Overall, the X-Men and their battles have translated pretty well, yet again, to the Asian markets in particular.

The significant failure of Ghostbusters stems from a combination of somewhat disappointing (but not in themselves disastrous) results in the domestic market, lack of access to China, and the (seeming) fact that its humour doesn't translate well outside of English-speaking countries. That's a prosaic explanation, but it seems about right to me.

[All figures in US dollars, of course.]

Hugo Awards 2016 - and, alas, a bit about the Puppies

The 2016 Hugo Awards were decided last Saturday, 20 August. Congratulations to the winners! I've taken far less interest in the awards than I did last year (in particular, for last year, see here and especially my summation here). Many people are still beating to death the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies angle on the Hugo Awards, but as far as I am concerned the "Puppies" are a spent force. Continuing to go on about them now is more like virtue signalling than making a genuine contribution to debate within the SF community. I'll say something brief and then leave it.

I wish the Puppies would go away, frankly, which hasn't happened. I previously said (see the above links): "I repeat my hope that the Sad Puppies campaign will not take place next year [i.e. in 2016], at least in anything like the same form. If it does, my attitude will definitely harden. I've been rather mild about the Sad Puppies affair compared to many others in SF fandom, and I think I can justify that, but enough is enough."

Well, the Puppies did have some influence, again, on what works were nominated: see especially items associated with Castalia House. However, that's not necessarily such a terrible thing in itself. They are entitled to champion work that they consider valuable, as others have always done.

But there was far less of a sense than last year of meretricious work getting on the ballot merely from knee-jerk, politicized Puppy support, or that high-quality work was being driven off the ballot. The exception is "Best Related Work" - which was a mess once again.

As for the outcomes, the Puppies had no real success in obtaining awards for their favourite works and authors (this was also the case last year). All in all, the form of the campaign was less virulent, this time round, and except for "Best Related Work", the consequences were less destructive.

I still say this: if the Puppies think that good work by politically conservative authors is overlooked in the Hugo process - or if they think the composition of delegates at World Science Fiction Conventions is biased against conservative authors - they need to make the case rationally (or they can organise their own conventions!). At the same time, the rest of us in the SF community can take some blame if we didn't take part in nominations or if we didn't nominate worthy titles for "Best Related Work". Plenty of good commentary and criticism related to SF was published in 2015. Why didn't enough of us nominate it?
Best Novel (2,903 final ballots, 3695 nominating ballots)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
Best Novella (2,903 final ballots, 2416 nominating ballots)
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
  • Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
  • Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)
  • Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)
  • The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)
Best Novelette (2,560 final ballots, 1975 nominating ballots)
  • “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)
  • “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)
  • “Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)
  • No Award
  • “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
  • “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
Best Short Story (2,706 final ballots, 2451 nominating ballots)
  • “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015)
  • No Award
  • Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)
  • “Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)
  • “Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
  • “If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)
Best Related Work (2,545 final ballots, 2080 nominating ballots)
  • No Award
  • Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by Marc Aramini (Castalia House)
  • “The Story of Moira Greyland” by Moira Greyland (askthebigot.com)
  • “The First Draft of My Appendix N Book” by Jeffro Johnson (jeffro.wordpress.com)
  • “Safe Space as Rape Room” by Daniel Eness (castaliahouse.com)
  • SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police by Vox Day (Castalia House)
Best Graphic Story (2,171 final ballots, 1838 nominating ballots)
  • The Sandman: Overture written by Neil Gaiman, art by J.H. Williams III (Vertigo)
  • No Award
  • Invisible Republic Vol 1 written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, art by Gabriel Hardman (Image Comics)
  • The Divine written by Boaz Lavie, art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka (First Second)
  • Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com)
  • Erin Dies Alone written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (2,171 final ballots, 2904 nominating ballots)
  • The Martian screenplay by Drew Goddard, directed by Ridley Scott (Scott Free Productions; Kinberg Genre; TSG Entertainment; 20th Century Fox)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris, directed by George Miller (Village Roadshow Pictures; Kennedy Miller Mitchell; RatPac-Dune Entertainment; Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, directed by J.J. Abrams (Lucasfilm Ltd.; Bad Robot Productions; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
  • Ex Machina written and directed by Alex Garland (Film4; DNA Films; Universal Pictures)
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron written and directed by Joss Whedon (Marvel Studios; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (2,423 final ballots, 2219 nominating ballots)
  • Jessica Jones: “AKA Smile” written by Scott Reynolds, Melissa Rosenberg, and Jamie King, directed by Michael Rymer (Marvel Television; ABC Studios; Tall Girls Productions;Netflix)
  • Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay (BBC Television)
  • Grimm: “Headache” written by Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt, directed by Jim Kouf (Universal Television; GK Productions; Hazy Mills Productions; Open 4 Business Productions; NBCUniversal Television Distribution)
  • No Award
  • Supernatural: “Just My Imagination” written by Jenny Klein, directed by Richard Speight Jr. (Kripke Enterprises; Wonderland Sound and Vision; Warner Bros. Television)
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: “The Cutie Map” Parts 1 and 2 written by Scott Sonneborn, M.A. Larson, and Meghan McCarthy, directed by Jayson Thiessen and Jim Miller (DHX Media/Vancouver; Hasbro Studios)
Best Editor, Short Form (2,257 final ballots, 1891 nominating ballots)
  • Ellen Datlow
  • Sheila Williams
  • Neil Clarke
  • John Joseph Adams
  • No Award
  • Jerry Pournelle
Best Editor, Long Form (2,386 final ballots, 1764 nominating ballots)
  • Sheila E. Gilbert
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • No Award
  • Toni Weisskopf
  • Jim Minz
  • Vox Day
Best Professional Artist (1,907 final ballots, 1481 nominating ballots)
  • Abigail Larson
  • No Award
  • Michal Karcz
  • Larry Elmore
  • Larry Rostant
  • Lars Braad Andersen
Best Semiprozine (2,063 final ballots, 1457 nominating ballots)
  • Uncanny Magazine edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, and Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky
  • Strange Horizons edited by Catherine Krahe, Julia Rios, A. J. Odasso, Vanessa Rose Phin, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons staff
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies edited by Scott H. Andrews
  • No Award
  • Daily Science Fiction edited by Michele-Lee Barasso and Jonathan Laden
  • Sci Phi Journal edited by Jason Rennie
Best Fanzine (2,281 final ballots, 1455 nominating ballots)
  • File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
  • Lady Business edited by Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan
  • No Award
  • Tangent Online edited by Dave Truesdale
  • Superversive SF edited by Jason Rennie
  • Castalia House Blog edited by Jeffro Johnson
Best Fancast (1,497 final ballots, 1267 nominating ballots)
  • No Award
  • Tales to Terrify, Stephen Kilpatrick
  • The Rageaholic, RazörFist
  • 8-4 Play, Mark MacDonald, John Ricciardi, Hiroko Minamoto, and Justin Epperson
  • Cane and Rinse, Cane and Rinse
  • HelloGreedo, HelloGreedo
Best Fan Writer (1,909 final ballots, 1568 nominating ballots)
  • Mike Glyer
  • No Award
  • Jeffro Johnson
  • Morgan Holmes
  • Shamus Young
  • Douglas Ernst
Best Fan Artist (1,855 final ballots, 1073 nominating ballots)
  • Steve Stiles
  • No Award
  • Christian Quinot
  • Matthew Callahan
  • Kukuruyo
  • disse86
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (2,406 final ballots, 1922 nominating ballots)
Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2014 or 2015, sponsored by Dell Magazines. (Not a Hugo Award, but administered along with the Hugo Awards.)
  • Andy Weir *
  • Alyssa Wong *
  • No Award
  • Pierce Brown *
  • Sebastien de Castell *
  • Brian Niemeier
* Finalists in their 2nd year of eligibility.