Monday, 29 April 2013

Why I left Miso for IMDb

When I came to social media in 2010, I quickly found Goodreads as a convenient way of tracking and sharing my reading habits, and was a little surprised that nothing quite as good existed for TV and movies. I knew and had used IMDb, but back then, its coverage of TV episodes seemed to me quite lacking, as did its social functions. Eventually, I settled on Miso as the closest fit for me.

I was pretty happy with Miso, and apathy would have prevented me from looking further afield until in late 2012 they merged their database with In the process, they trashed the episode histories of a couple of shows that I follow.

Since then, I’ve reappraised IMDb and think that it’s a better fit for me now. It’s sad to move on and drop the history that I’ve built up on Miso (1160 check ins!) and also to lose a couple of things that IMDb doesn’t have.

I hope that one day something even better comes along.

Here’s the list of features that I would want from such a site; with Goodreads, Miso, and IMDb for comparison:

TV episodes
Link separate titles by series
Can rate
Can review
Facebook integration
Twitter integration
iOS app
Machine recommendations
Friend recommendations
See friends’ updates

Of all these, making and maintaining lists is probably the feature I missed most on Miso, and I’d been keeping a list of what to watch next as a Google document instead. Of the things that IMDb currently lacks, I’d most want to see friends’ updates and be able to give recommendations to and take recommendations from them. is an effort to build a movie check-in website with Goodreads-like functionality. It’s still under development and looks very promising, but its (deliberate) lack of support for TV shows makes it a non-starter for me, unfortunately.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Liking books, TV shows and movies: Setting

Carrying on from last week, where I considered the effect of characters on whether I might find a book, movie, or TV show appealing, this time, I’ll talk about setting:


The role of setting is another appeal characteristic that I take directly from Nancy Pearl’s schema. It is a characteristic of a story that is—in the vast majority of cases—immediately obvious and which requires little explanation or unpacking. Simply, setting is where in space and when in time the events of the story occur.

I know that I have strong biases towards certain settings and against others, and I believe that most other people do too. It would surprise me to discover somebody who would be universally embracing of any and every setting for a tale, but perhaps this is just me over-generalising my own experience.

For a start, I admit that I have a strong positive bias for imaginary worlds, so, for example, a storyteller who says:
    ‘Let me tell you a story set on an Earth starship in the 27th century.’
    ‘Let me tell you a story set in the Elven kingdom, in the waning years of the Age of Arlûthtan.’
    ‘Let me tell you a story set in contemporary New Orleans in an alternate universe where the Confederacy had been successful in its bid to secede from the United States.’
    ‘Let me tell you a story set in a separate physical dimension—at a time unknowable and irrelevant—inhabited only by sapient flashes of light who communicate by casting three-dimensional shadows at each other’

    already has my attention in a way that a storyteller who offers:
    ‘Let me tell you a story set in the Seattle of today.’
    does not yet. This latter storyteller is going to have to find a more compelling hook to engage my interest, when I'm already listening attentively to the others.

    For me, the appeal in an imagined world is often the degree of ingenuity and detail that has gone into the world-building. I find tremendous pleasure and delight in this aspect of speculative fiction, and stories told in the real world, past or present have nothing to offer me in direct competition.

    Secondly, I admit that I find some real-world historical settings prima facie more appealing than others (and more appealing than contemporary settings). So again, for example, if the offer is:
      ‘Let me tell you a story set in Thebes during the Middle Kingdom.’
      ‘Let me tell you a story set in Jerusalem in the 11th century.’
      ‘Let me tell you a story set in London in the 16th century.’
      ‘Let me tell you a story set on a French frigate in the 18th century.’
      I’m already more interested than in an offer of a tale set just about anywhere in the world today.

      For me, the appeal of a historical setting is in its attention to detail and as a springboard for further exploration and learning. I value the novel or film that can transport me to a bygone time and place in which I have an interest, most especially if I come away knowing more than I did when I started. History lessons in fictional form are part of the great appeal of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels for me; I love fact-checking these as I read, and frequently learning that the full truth of an event or historical figure is even stranger than fiction.

      Lastly, I’ll freely admit that familiarity breeds my contempt. This was driven home to me many years ago while watching and enjoying a caper movie from Argentina, Nueve Reinas (‘Nine Queens’). At some point in the course of the film, I thought to myself, 
      I’m sure if this exact same story were told in an English-language American film set in New York instead of a Spanish-language Argentine film set in Buenos Aires, I’d have lost interest by now
      I could attribute some part of that reaction to other aesthetic preferences that I know I have (for example, a far greater reliance on non-diegetic music in most American film compared to films from most other places in the world). But mostly, I admit that the preference is rooted in the opportunity to experience something unfamiliar or even completely new.  

      Just as with historical settings, when it comes to contemporary real-world settings, I find that I really enjoy learning a little about a place about which I knew little previously; and if this learning happens via a film or TV show, I like to see foreign sights and hear languages that are not part of my everyday experience. Even a setting as basically unappealing to me as (near-)contemporary New York can become interesting to me if viewed through the lens of a culture that is not my own, for example, in the novels of Chaim Potok.

      Taken all together, I realise that my preference is essentially for stories set in worlds (real or imagined) as far from my own as possible. I’m happy to accept labels of escapism or even exoticism to describe this real preference that I know I have. 

      Setting as a filter

      One of the possible ways that setting interacts with narrative is to filter the types of stories and types of characters that are likely to be presented. When I take up that offer to read or watch that tale set on an 18th-century frigate, I already come primed with a set of expectations. I feel confident that as long as everything else is handled at least reasonably competently, I’m probably going to enjoy this story. An offer of a tale told in contemporary Glasgow isn’t ripe with the same promise for me; I am less certain of what I am getting myself into.

      Of course, this also leaves me vulnerable to bait-and-switch, something I find particularly common in science fiction. It’s all too easy to find purportedly science-fiction tales that are nothing but mindless action stories with ray guns in place of Uzis and hover sleds in place of getaway cars. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek effort in 2009 stands out to me as a particularly atrocious example of this.

      Setting not-as-a-filter

      On the other hand, some tales translate easily between settings. This premise:
      The protagonist has to make a decision whether to honour a promise made to a powerful superior and thereby injure a member of their own family; or protect their family member, defy their superior, and face the consequences.
      translates equally easily to Imperial Rome, Mediæval England, Tokugawa Japan, Prohibition-era Chicago, Nazi-occupied Europe, folks dealing drugs in the western suburbs of contemporary Sydney, and to any number of completely imagined worlds—anywhere with a feudal-like power structure. 

      A litmus test to gauge how important the setting of a particular tale is to me might be to imagine (or see!) that tale translated to another setting. All else being equal, I’d be much more interested in seeing the scenario above played out in any of  the pre-20th century settings I named, or in an imagined world.

      Similarly, I have no trouble with The Tempest reincarnated as Forbidden Planet. So it seems that I’m not especially protective of the Elizabethan setting of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, at least when one setting I like is replaced with another setting that I like.

      However, to see Sherlock Holmes lifted from his home in the late 1800s London (a setting I like very much) and deposited in early 21st century London (a setting that doesn’t appeal to me) in Sherlock left me cold. A large part of the charm had evaporated from the story for me, and while the show was unquestionably well made, I turned off ‘A Study in Pink’ half-way through, profoundly disappointed.

      Setting as everything

      Finally, setting is sometimes absolutely intrinsic to the tale in a way that makes relocating it impossible. Flatland springs immediately to mind; if the setting doesn’t intrigue you, there’s really nothing else here. The story stands and falls on that alone. But it’s far more common that a personally appealing setting will only be one ingredient in anyone’s enjoyment of a story.

      What settings bias you for or against a book, film, or TV series?

      Next week, I’ll discuss the appeal of plot.

      Saturday, 27 April 2013

      Is your small business idea viable?

      There are lots of reasons why folks want to go into small business, so there are just as many ways of answering whether an idea is worthwhile or not.

      This post examines just one criterion:

      How much do you need to earn from your business for it to compare favourably with paid employment? (ie, working for "The Man").

      Well, the median earnings for full-time workers in Australia in 2011 was $62,570 per year, including wages, superannuation, and other benefits.[1]

      A salaried, full-time worker typically works a 5-day week, with four weeks' paid leave a year, plus around 10 days' worth of public holidays and up to around 10 days' worth of sick leave available. Totalled up, that means that our typical worker earns their $62,570 in 220 days of work.

      Put simply, if your small business isn't returning you more than $285 per day on average, or if you're having to work more than an average of four days per week to earn that, then chances are you'd be better off working for someone else: most people with a full-time job are making more than you are (or are working less to make that same money).

      Furthermore, with the national minimum wage at $31,530 per year[2], if your business isn't paying you $145 per day, you're not even making minimum wage.

      I am not a financial adviser and this is not financial advice.

      Sunday, 21 April 2013

      Liking books, TV shows and movies: Characters

      Whether or not I liked a book, a movie, or a TV show, I like to try to understand why I felt that way about it. I prefer to be able to explain my reaction (to myself, or to others) in a way more substantial than simply ‘I love that book!’ or ‘I can’t stand that show’.

      In general, I’m also attracted to systems, and in thinking about the appeal of stories told in various media, I’ve become quite attached to the four ‘appeal characteristics’ defined by librarian Nancy Pearl: Setting, Story, Characters, and Language.[1] Pearl developed her criteria for use with mainstream fiction books (specifically, to help librarians quickly gauge what a patron liked about a particular book so that they could be more effective at recommending others). When thinking also about genre fiction and about stories told in media other than books, I find it useful to loosen her definitions around these characteristics somewhat, and to add another two characteristics to the mix.

      Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share a little about each of the six characteristics I use when reflecting on how I received a story.

      Two things that I don’t set out to do here:
      • I’m careful to try to distinguish this personal reaction from any assessment of whether the story was well told (‘good’) or not. I find that a book being well written or a show or movie being well made is a pretty poor predictor of whether I will like it.

        I like lots of stuff that is, on any objective assessment, poorly made; and conversely, a lot of stuff that’s won wide approbation doesn’t appeal to me at all. In other words, I find the Metacritic or IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes score has little to no correlation with whether I’ll enjoy watching something.

        When talking to people about a book, TV show, or movie, I try only ever to say something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ if I genuinely think it was well done or not. When discussing my personal reactions, I try to adhere to ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn't like it’.
      • I don’t usually think in terms of dislike or hate: I usually find it more useful to think in terms of an absence of appeal. I try to reserve ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ for things that I actually find distasteful, annoying, or offensive in some way. Happily, I find that such things are few and far between. It’s much more frequent that I just don’t find anything to enjoy in a particular book, movie, or TV show.
      Finally, I’m very conscious of the unspoken pact between storyteller and audience; I’ll keep coming back to the question of what kind of story am I being told, and what therefore might I expect from such a story.

      This week, characters.


      As a reader or viewer, characters might appeal to me in one of two ways: because of what they are or because of who they are.


      A question of ‘what’ can be examined by reference to their role in the world of the story and by imagining the author or filmmaker saying:
      ‘Let me tell you a story about a...’
      So, to use just a few random examples, if that sentence is:
      ‘Let me tell you a story about a sorcerer.’
      ‘Let me tell you a story about a sea captain.’
      ‘Let me tell you a story about a rocket scientist.’
      chances are I’m already listening for more. Conversely, if the pitch is:
      ‘Let me tell you a story about a cop.’
      ‘Let me tell you a story about a doctor.’
      ‘Let me tell you a story about a politician.’
      chances are I’m already wondering what the teller might bring to the story that would possibly make me want to listen to the tale to follow.

      Steinbeck once put it:
      [French literary theorist] ‘Boileau […] insisted that only gods, kings and heroes are worth writing about. I firmly believe that. The detailed accounts of the lives of clerks don’t interest me much unless, of course, the clerk breaks into heroism.’[2]
      I tend to agree.

      On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that I’m going to dismiss a story just because the central characters don't belong to some pre-determined set of Acceptable Professions for Protagonists. All I’m doing here is acknowledging a set of preferences that I know I have. This is not Procrustes’ bed.


      This second way of examining characters is a little more nebulous. It asks whether this imaginary person—whatever their role in the world of the story—is, subjectively to me, interesting as a person. Perhaps a very crude litmus test here would be a variation of that familiar hypothetical question that asks us who, out of the whole world and all of history, we would invite to dinner if we had a chance. Similarly, I might wonder whether the character is someone with whom I’d like to share a meal.

      For examples, I can look to books I’ve enjoyed in the last few years that have contemporary settings (to avoid any degree to which setting—to discuss another week—might influence how interesting I find these fictional people).

      So, the central characters in Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle are a male porn star and a woman suffering a psychosis.  Davidson portrayed them with such sympathy and tenderness that I felt that I knew and loved both of them by the end of the book. And although not one of the main characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex cast a fireball, commanded a patrol boat, or launched a rocket, each of them would be more than welcome at my table too.

      Another litmus test: do I actually care about the fate of this character? Have I got anything invested in this imaginary person at all? The most memorable counter-example for me: when a main character is ambushed, shot, and—I thought—killed close to the end of season 1 of The Wire, it had zero emotional impact for me at all. This left me fairly certain that I had nothing invested in that character.  The death of Adric in season 19 of Doctor Who moved me far more, and that was a character I despised.

      Considering the characteristics of a breakout novel, Donald Maass suggests:
      ‘A work of fiction grips our imaginations because we care, both about the characters in the tale and about ourselves. To put it another way, we are concerned about the outcome of the story because what is happening to the characters could happen to us.’[3]
      This seems entirely reasonable to me, but the converse is also true: if I don't care about the characters, I’m less likely to be gripped by the tale. Maass’ focus is a little different (he’s writing about the plausibility of the basic premise of the story) but he continues:
      ‘Looked at that way, the requirement that a premise be plausible is not so strange. If it could not really happen, then why should we bother with it?’[3]
      Or, presumably, if I never actually cared about any of these fictional people anyway.


      Which brings me to the credibility of characters. I've come to understand that some folks highly value psychological credibility in fictional characters: they want these characters to behave, react, and talk as real people behave, react, and talk. They want characters to have motivations that seem like plausible reasons for them to do things they do in the course of the story. I have few such expectations. To quote Steinbeck again (talking about his second novel, To a God Unknown):
      ‘Its characters are not “home folks.” They make no more attempt at being human than the people in the Iliad.’[2]
      Rather, I look for psychological credibility in characters that is commensurate with the kind of tale being told. The characters in Middlesex are ‘home folks’, and I respect and value the high degree of plausibility in Eugenides’ portrayal of them. However, if I’m reading epic fantasy or most kinds of sci-fi, I have no such expectations and probably even prefer characters who are larger-than-life: here I do want ‘gods, kings, and heroes’.

      I think much of my dissatisfaction with some recent sci-fi TV franchises is due to a growing trend to try and humanise and naturalise their characters.  The companions of the revamped Doctor Who series are certainly more well rounded than any of their counterparts on the classic series, and to me, the show is all the weaker for it. When a character becomes a companion travelling in the TARDIS with the Doctor, I really could not care less about the home life of the family that they leave behind.

      I suppose that for me, credibility intersects with the ‘what’ and ‘who’ in that if I’m interested in a character by virtue of what they are, I don’t need or perhaps even want psychological credibility. But for me to care about who that character is, they probably need to have that credibility as a prerequisite.


      Finally, a note on growth and transformation, the  expectation that the events of a story should change the characters who participate in them. Writing in 1973, David Gerrold saw this as an essential difference between plays and movies on the one hand, and TV series on the other:
      ‘In drama other than series television—say, a play or a movie—the event that is being told is the most important event in the hero’s life. It is the whole reason for the existence of a story about this person...
      What the hero learns from the event is what makes it the most important event in his life...

      The story is about the lesson that this person has to learn—and these are the events that will teach it to him...


      In a series the form has to be turned upside down—the events depicted must not be the most important events in the hero’s life. Otherwise, there’s no point in going on with the series. Everything after that would be anticlimactic.’[4]
      Since the 1990s, the rise of TV shows with season-long and series-long story arcs has certainly changed this landscape. Characters on TV now do grow and develop as their counterparts in plays, movies, and novels have done.

      I’m certainly open to growth and transformation in characters in all these media, but neither do I insist on it. I’m aware, though, that this kind of character development is very important to some people, and for example can lead to a strong preference for serial TV over episodic (or as Gerrold called it, ‘semi-anthology’ TV).

      Again, I think it comes down to the type of tale being told.

      Next time, I’ll discuss setting.