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Anton Ego from the movie “Ratatouille”. Image via IMDb

My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.

The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy.  Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.

[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]

Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review

“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”

This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.

Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:

“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”

This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.

Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review

“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”

This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.

And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.

That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.

Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review

“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”

This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.

This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:

Tier 4 – The Corrective Review

“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”

Or, if it’s a positive review:

“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”

The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.

The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.

Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.

Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.

Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one.  Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.

On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point.  (You may have realized that already.)

One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹

This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.

When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.

I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.

Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.

This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.

Footnote

1.Mark Twain’s brutal review of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels is a good example of this.

On this day of counting blessings, here is what I’m thankful for:

‘Tis you who read this blog and keep coming back for more!

While some may speak of all that’s wrong on ye olde internet,

Myself I’m full of gratitude to all the lovely folks I’ve met:

There’s good Pat Prescott, the historian and bard

who wrote of Optimus: Praetorian Guard.

There’s l33tminion, who always has good things to say

whenever he (or she) comes passing ‘round this way.

And Thingy, who’s prolific in prose and in rhyme—

I hope she brings back her blog real soon some time!

Eurobrat, with social commentaries dark and biting,

is as good as any satirist at strong, arresting writing.

Barb Knowles, who writes with wit and candor all

the time—must be descended from a very sharp Neanderthal!

Ben Trube, author of the thriller Surreality,

Who can both make fractals and write mystery.

Shannon Selin, one of the finest writers on

what might’ve been for old Napoleon.

And Natalie gets loads and loads of votes

for her great blogging work at boatsofoats.

Mark Paxson (or KingMidget, if I use his proper title)

has tips that any writer should consider vital.

Lydia Schoch, who writes on topics int’resting and various

that can be thought-provoking or hilarious.

Andrew Crowther is a lover of light verse, as I’m,

and I hope that he’ll forgive this rather awkward rhyme!

When it comes to G&S discussion, I’m always glad to have it,

and so I’m in debt to Charlee Hutton and Mike Pavitt.

My knowledge of the East Roman Empire isn’t e’en

a tenth of what Eileen Stephenson knows about the Byzantine.

Phillip McCollum (who is also known as beatbox32)

is writing fifty-two short stories—and really good ones, too!

And then to round it out, last but surely not the least–

ensuring good nutrition at this e-Thanksgiving feast:

is Dr. Carrie Rubin, keeping all our reading dishes full

with thrillers like The Seneca Scourge and Eating Bull.

And to all those many other readers who

I’ve left unlisted here—why, yes, that does refer to you!

My gratitude to all above for coming here,

both on this day of thanks, and all throughout the year!

“Now if you make a pilgrimage, I hope you find your Grail.
Be loyal to the ones you leave with, even if you fail.
And be chivalrous to strangers you meet along the road
As you take that Holy Ride yourselves to know.”

–Warren Zevon, “Ourselves to Know”

Inspired partly by this post by Phillip McCollum, and partly because it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, here’s a list of some of the wonderful folks I’ve met on social media over the years.

Andrew Crowther: The Secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society and an expert on all things Gilbert, as well as P.G. Wodehouse and plenty of other writers, Andrew is also quite the quick wit in his own right.

Eurobrat: A modern-day Jonathan Swift, with a real knack for very dark satire. Also a delightfully friendly and funny blogger, when not conjuring bleak and all-too-plausible dystopian scenarios. Her writing talent is undeniable, whether you agree with her politics or not.

Barb Knowles: Barb’s blog is funny, moving and thoughtful. What I admire most is how she can write about very personal subjects in an emotional and yet detached way. The way she can document even normal day-today events and make them funny or interesting is also wonderful.

Patrick Prescott: Sadly, Patrick no longer blogs. He was one of my first readers, back in the days when I was on Blogger, and he taught me a ton about both writing and history. Too many things to list, really, but here are two examples: I’d never heard of the Peterloo massacre till he told me about it. And second, whenever I write one of my rushed, description-light first drafts, I can imagine him telling me “nice skeleton, but there is no meat to this.” Then I go back and add some.

Carrie Rubin: Carrie is awesome. She’s a doctor, a novelist, a first-rate writing and health blogger… and also, she posts some really funny home life anecdotes on Twitter.  I am grateful to her for so many things, including kindly and thoughtfully answering my rambling questions for an interview.

Eileen Stephenson: Before reading her book, I could not have told you the first thing about the Byzantines. Now, between her book and her blog, I’ve learned a ton about a whole period of history I previously knew nothing about.

Maggie Swanson AKA “Thingy”: Along with Patrick, I’ve known her since the Blogger days, when she would provide encouragement by commenting on my poetry, giving me some reassurance that I was, perhaps, not simply a lunatic mumbling nonsense into the void. Her work ranges from poetry to artwork to novellas, and her blog includes delightful commentary on politics, culture, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

Russ Sype: Another Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and a very funny blogger for many years. But rather than talk him up too much, I’ll just let this video speak for itself. It gets better every day.

Ben Trube: Ben wrote the book I always wanted to write, but never could–a neo-noir, cyberpunk-y thriller set in our own hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He also shares my love of fractals–but he knows a lot more of the hard math stuff behind them.

I’m sure there are others, and so apologies in advance to anyone I’ve left off the list.

First of all, thanks are in order to loyal reader Natalie of boatsofoats.com. She notified me about a problem with the annotations on this page. I’m not even sure if I’ve completely fixed it yet, but I figure if not, I can at least make it up to her by directing some traffic to her excellent blog.

As for the annotations: I know nothing about HTML. But doing the original annotations for that page was not bad–it was just this:

<span text=”Whatever blithering comment I had”>Actual story text</span>

I then highlighted it in red to make it obvious which parts to mouse over.

But the problem was, it wouldn’t work on mobile devices–tablets, phones etc. And this bothered me. I tried to tell myself it was ok. But it was the sort of thing that would nag at me.

There must be a better way, I thought.

After consulting with a family member who does web design, downloading some plugins, and experimenting with CSS and JavaScript, I think I’ve got something.

Mind you, I said I think. I’m not actually sure if it works on all devices yet. It definitely works on my iPad, which it didn’t originally when I was just using HTML.

That’s where you come in. I am calling on readers to come to my aid and check out the page to see if the annotations work for them. In exchange…

Uh…

Let’s see,… I will teach you something about weird fiction from the 1890s?

How’s that sound?

Oh, another thing; some of the modifications I did seemed to (temporarily) play merry hell with the comments. (e.g. reducing my all-time comment count to zero, removing comment ‘likes’, stuff like that.) I think it’s fixed now, but if you notice any comment issues, let me know… unless the issue is that you are unable to comment, in which case you can use the form below or tweet at me

 

.

I don’t have much time to read these days.  For this reason, I find audiobooks really convenient–I can listen to them while I’m doing something else.  It’s a real time-saver.

So it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only person who doesn’t have time to read much.  And that led me to realize maybe my readers would find it convenient to have audio versions of some of my really long posts.

While recording some of the poetry readings I’ve posted, I also recorded a reading of one of my recent posts on geopolitical and religious history. (The original post is here.)

And so now you can listen to me pontificating about various subjects while you are doing other things.  It’s like having a little Ruined Chapel RSS feed running in your mind, as if a dystopian government had placed a propaganda chip in your brain.

Uh… bad analogy.  Never mind.  Anyway, try it out if you like.

I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)

  1. Blogging
  2. American football
  3. Pizza
  4. Economics
  5. The color red
  6. History
  7. Desert landscapes
  8. The movie Lawrence of Arabia (combines 6 and 7)
  9. Writing
  10. The book A Confederacy of Dunces
  11. A good scary story.
  12. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
  13. Political theory
  14. Hazelnut coffee
  15. Conspiracy theories
  16. Well-written, metered, rhyming satirical poetry.
  17. The number 17
  18. Thunderstorms
  19. Friendly political debates
  20. The sound of howling wind.
  21. The unutterable melancholy of a winter sunset in a farm field.
  22. Pretentious sentences like the one above.
  23. Knights of the Old Republic II
  24. Halloween
  25. The book 1984
  26. Niagara Falls
  27. The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”
  28. Pumpkin-flavored cookies. coffee, cake etc.
  29. The book The King in Yellow
  30. Hats
  31. Chess
  32. Trivia competitions
  33. Numbered lists
  34. Mowing lawns
  35. The smell of fresh-cut grass
  36. Black licorice
  37. Beethoven’s 3rd,5th and 9th symphonies
  38. The color light blue.
  39. Exercise machines
  40. My iPad
  41. Feta cheese
  42. The movie Jane Got a Gun
  43. Etymologies
  44. Gregorian chants
  45. December 23rd
  46. The story “The Masque of the Red Death”
  47. Mozzarella sticks
  48. Leaves in Autumn
  49. Long drives in the country
  50. Fireworks
  51. The song “You Got Me Singin'”
  52. The book To Kill a Mockingbird
  53. Constitutional republics that derive their powers from the consent of the governed.
  54. Strategy games
  55. Puns
  56. Ice skating
  57. My Xbox One
  58. The smell of old books
  59. Hiking
  60. Tall buildings
  61. Bookstores
  62. Gloves
  63. Rational-legal authority, as defined by Max Weber
  64. Bagels with cream cheese
  65. The Olentangy river
  66. The movie The Omen
  67. Far Side comics
  68. Planescape: Torment
  69. The song “Barrytown”
  70. Reasonable estimates of the Keynesian multiplier
  71. Stories that turn cliches on their heads.
  72. Editing movies
  73. Really clever epigraphs
  74. The movie “Chinatown”
  75. Ice water
  76. Deus Ex
  77. Silly putty
  78. Swiss Army Knives
  79. Anagrams
  80. Wikipedia
  81. Radical new models for explaining politics.
  82. Weightlifting
  83. Lego
  84. Madden 17
  85. The song “The Saga Begins”
  86. Trigonometry
  87. Writing “ye” for “the”
  88. Well-made suits
  89. Popcorn
  90. Pasta
  91. The word “sesquipedalian”
  92. The movie Thor
  93. Blackjack
  94. The movie The English Patient
  95. Pretzels
  96. Cello music
  97. Bonfires
  98. The story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
  99. Soaring rhetoric
  100. Astronomy
  101. Getting comments on my blog posts.

My favorite part of the book 1984 by George Orwell is the appendix, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak.” In 1984, Newspeak was the official language of the Party that ruled Oceania.  As the Appendix states:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.[…] This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…

Orwell then explains how, through shrinking the vocabulary of the language, heretical thoughts became unthinkable. He illustrates by quoting the following passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

Orwell then states that “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”

Why do I mention this?  Well, it is very relevant to our present political situation.

One of the most notable things about Donald Trump is how few words he seems to know. People mock his tiny hands, but to me what’s truly amazing is his absolutely minuscule vocabulary.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his tweets, where he will often conclude one of his communiques insulting someone or complaining about something with an imperative “Sad!” or “Bad!”

If Trump needs to lengthen some statement, usually all he can do is add the word “very” or, if he is talking about something he does not like, interject “so terrible”.

When Trump wants to add extra emphasis to some point, he often adds that it will be “big league”. (e.g. “We are going to win big league.”) Thanks to Trump’s peculiar accent, many people have misheard this as “bigly”; a child-like non-adjective that seems extremely fitting for the man, with his penchant for gaudy, oversized buildings.

If the problem were merely that our President-elect was a man incapable of eloquence, that would be one thing.  But it is far worse than that.

The scary thing is that his style of communicating is very infectious.  People–myself included–have picked up his habits of saying “sad!” or “big league”. It’s addictive, I won’t deny it; and there is an alarming pleasure in mimicking him–even for people like me, who find him utterly appalling and oppose him completely.

But that is the frightening thing: once you start to talk like him, you will start to think like him.  And once that happens, you could reach a point where “a heretical thought” becomes, as Orwell warned, “literally unthinkable”.

To be clear, I think Trump’s rhetorical style (if you can call it that) is more a symptom than the disease itself. I wrote back in 2010 that “Twitter = Newspeak”, and that was before Trump was even on the political map. I do think that the ascendance of Trump, who communicates through Twitter far more than most candidates, supports my point. It may be that Twitter itself made Trump possible.

You all remember a few weeks back when I made my bet with Barb Knowles of saneteachers?  We posted about each other’s blogs, and I have been enjoying following hers ever since.

Well, she provided the highlight of my week when she read and enjoyed my book, The Start of the Majestic World. She was even kind enough to post her comments both on my blog and hers. It’s always really nice to hear that someone has read my book, and even nicer to hear that they enjoyed it.

So, the least I can do by way of thanking her is to drive some traffic her way.  (Well, that and writing a sequel) I know I’ve recommended her blog before, but once again, I can’t stress enough how interesting and enjoyable it is.  Check it out!

 

 

I had a friendly bet with Barb Knowles on the AFC Championship game.  The loser had to do a post about the winner’s blog.  But, I like her blog “saneteachers” so much that I am going to post about it even though I didn’t lose.

She has a delightful post about the dialect differences she encountered on coming to Ohio Wesleyan University from New York. As she puts it:

They don’t speak New York in Ohio.  They speak Ohio in Ohio. Of course, to me it sounded more like Ahia.

As a lifelong Ohio resident–I grew up about a half-hour from Ohio Wesleyan’s campus–I know what she means.  Non-Ohioans have frequently pointed out that central Ohioans sound like this when listing our home country, city and state:

I’m ‘Merican, from C’lumbus, Ahia.

but then again, they might be from a place a little way east of Columbus: Newark, which is pronounced something close to “Nerk”.

I took a linguistics class in college where we had to do an assignment on regional dialect differences.  For instance, when informally addressing a group of people, Southerners would say “you all” (often rendered as “y’all”) whereas Midwesterners say “you guys”.

That of course was small potatoes next to the big dialect difference: what do you call those glowing insects we get in the summer–fireflies or lightning bugs?

In her post, Barb also mentions the age-old debate of “soda” vs. “pop”.  (Some also call them “soft drinks” or “fizzy drinks”.)  This one I missed, because in my family we called the drinks by their brand name, but I remember the first time I heard someone call it “pop” I was puzzled.

I’d also never heard of the confusion over “bag” and “sack” that she describes–I’ve always heard both used interchangeably. With the prevalence of television regional dialects have declined over time–maybe that’s the reason. I also never heard “rubber” for “rubber band”.  I shudder to think at the mix-ups that could cause.

I once got into an argument with two of my friends–both of whom are also native Ohioans–about whether you call this a “flathead” or a “slotted” screwdriver. (It’s “slotted”.  Don’t let my evil friends tell you otherwise.) I don’t know if this is a generational or regional thing, but it was interesting.

I’m lucky in that I have relatives all over the country, so I get to hear a lot of different regionalisms.  Even if it does cause some confusion sometimes…

Anyway, you guys–and you all–should check out Barb’s blog.  She’s a terrific writer, and has some very witty observations.  I wouldn’t have made my bet with her if I didn’t think so–and the fun of a bet like this is that everyone wins.

Every time I go to my WordPress stats page this morning, this pops up:

danger will robinson

If you aren’t familiar with WordPress: normally, the giant red bar isn’t there.  I can’t help thinking it means something–most likely something bad, since the bright red color and exclamation point clash with the normal friendly blue and white scheme.

I feel like there should probably be some text in the giant red box, but there never is. Just an “x” for me to click to dismiss it. But I don’t know what dismissing it means.  Is the box supposed to say: “click ‘x’ if you wish to have a box of weasels dumped in your bed”? Is it trying to warn me that even now the enemy is sneaking up behind me?

All I know is, it’s freaking me out.  I hope the text was just supposed to be “Don’t Panic.”