Saturday, June 07, 2003

LOVE AND MARRIAGE 3: Continuing from the two previous posts (one, two), Bill Hobbs sent me an article by Ed Weathers in which Weathers disparages marriage as an artificial social "institution" and really -- in my mind -- misses the entire point.
I live with a woman who is not my wife. Her name is Gail. We share the same bed, and occasionally we make love to each other. We have been doing this for 17 years. At least once a week, Gail and I look at each other, shake our heads, reach out to hold hands, smile and say how lucky we are to be living such a pleasant life. Honestly. We do. You can ask her. ...

Last week, for the five hundredth time, a friend asked me, good-naturedly, "When are you two finally going to get married?"

I gave him the answer I always give to that question: "Never."

Sometimes I'm asked the question differently: "So why don't you two get married?"

Again I always answer the same way: "Why should we? There's absolutely nothing marriage can add to our life together that would make it any better." ...

[snip lots of stuff about how marriage was "designed" to oppress women, "certain colors", and "certain castes", as well as to "suppress the fun of sex"...]

It's not just that marriage is unnecessary, I believe, it's that it's actually harmful. It replaces choice with compulsion. It makes that which should be voluntary, compulsory. ...

Things are clearer for Gail and me, and for others who live together. We know why we're there on Sunday afternoon, reading the paper on the sofa, looking at each other occasionally and smiling. It has nothing to do with covenants and courts. We're there because we like each other best. And we'll be there as long as we both shall love.
Whew, long quote, go read the article.

Ed's is not a new view, and I've heard it before. For all intents and purposes Ed and Gail are married. You don't need to have a big ceremony in a church or a piece of paper from the state to be married; by common law both church and state will recognize their marriage after 17 years, even if they might frown upon it.

What makes his view sound childish to me (aside from all the absurdities I snipped about oppression) is the end where he says "It has nothing to do with covenants and courts. We're there because we like each other best. And we'll be there as long as we both shall love." If that's all he wants, then fine, but you have to admit that an intimate relationship must -- by necessity -- be somewhat limited where there is no commitment.

How much of your life would you be willing to share with someone who may decide on a whim that they don't like you best anymore and that it's time to leave? I wonder if Ed and Gail have joint bank accounts. Do they jointly own property? Do they have children? These are the things that put strain on relationships and that require self-sacrifice and tenacity and commitment above and beyond mere emotion.

Only when we go through trials and tribulation with someone is a friendship really tested, and only then does real love show its worth. Ed seems to see no value in a relationship beyond the extent to which it fulfills his emotional lust, but commitment and partnership take a relationship beyond that. Consider other relationships with financial involvement, such as business partners. Only a fool would go into business with someone or invest money with someone who was unwilling to assume contractual obligations that extend beyond how fun the partnership is at any given moment. How much more so for people having children together? Entering a relationship is voluntary, and voluntarily assuming compulsory obligations is what adults do.

I have a great many acquaintances and surface relationships which exist out of convenience: people I go to class with, work with, see at conventions and conferences, you name it. But there's no real substance to those relationships because there is no shared living. Ed claims that he and Gail are "living together", but I wonder how "together" they really are? How together can it possibly be if there is no commitment beyond "I'll stick around as long as it's fun"?

I will certainly never plan my future on the shifting sands of human emotion.

Thanks Bill for linking to this post, and for rightfully acknowledging the shredification.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE 2: Just to expand briefly on my earlier post -- it's important to me that love is a decision rather than an emotion. Free will is one of man's highest attributes, and if love is nothing more than a series of chemical interactions then its worthless.

Friday, June 06, 2003

BIZARRO WORLD: The liberal left is getting increasingly frustrated by their diminishing power, but they blame it on the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy rather than consider the possibility that their ideas are simply losing traction with the American citizenry. As their screeches become more deafening, sometimes it can be rather difficult to understand what they're thinking. So let's go for a ride to the Land of Make-Believe, a.k.a., the "Take Back America" seminar.
Jeff Faux, distinguished fellow at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, lashed out at the culture of talk radio during a panel discussion entitled "Shrubbed: The Radical Project of George Bush."

"I turn on the radio, and I hear these talk shows with right wing drunks calling in, and I ask myself, where are our drunks?" Faux said.
I found one!
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, charged that "Rupert Murdoch [and his] cronies" are "stifling our messages and keep our messages from being heard, and when we get them out, they are drowned in a sea of lies."
Maybe she's forgotten about ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and all the liberal media outlets. Oh, that no one watches, right. Maybe they're being stifled by stupidity and pompousity.
Maude Hurd, president of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), said liberals have been "bushwhacked" by the president.

"George W. Bush has pushed so many right wing proposals through Congress that many progressives have begun to despair," Hurd explained. "Bush's endless demands for tax cuts for millionaires are so willfully blind that he reminds me of a substance abuser," Hurd added.
Well, you can't cut taxes for people who don't pay taxes. Nice pun, by the way, but even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while.
[Callahan] told the audience that she once asked former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall how it felt to be able to pass environmental regulations during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations without much opposition.

"I asked: 'What was it like when you were running the Interior Department, and you all created the Endangered Species Act, you protected amazing lands, you did these new and insightful and far-reaching things to protect our natural environment?" According to Callahan, Udall answered: "Basically, if you could think it up, you could do it."
Now that's a great method for governing, bureaucrats who can do anything they can think up. Swell.
WOMYN: Via various sources I see that Women's Action Coalition is planning a "performance protest" during which
One by one, over 250 women will condemn the Bush Administration for destroying our basic American freedoms. Each charge will be answered by a scream of rage and resistance, fury and frustration.
Gosh, a bunch of whiny, screaming, emotional women -- play to sterotypes more, please. Will there be a special segment where female comedians make jokes about menstruation and how hard it is to find a boyfriend? Why not have a cry-a-thon or a mass ovulation or something?

Whatever. I have no doubt that Ashcroft's boot will strike quickly to crush this intolerable dissent and get these girls back to work making babies and doing laundry.
PEACE PROTEST: Here's a great picture of some Palestinian peace protesters:

Washington Post

Oh no wait, they're protesting against peace. My mistake.
MIDNIGHT MOVIE: Anyone who's in Los Angeles should make plans to come watch Rosemary's Baby tonight at midnight at the Nuart on Santa Monica Blvd.

Sure, it's directed by Child Rapist Roman Polansky, but it was made before he started raping children -- at least as far as can be proven.

Anyway, email me if you're coming. I have no idea how many (if any) of my readers are from Los Angeles.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

SEARCH ENGINES: My apologies to all those Googlers who came to this site after searching for "jessica lynch nude naked". There are no such pictures here. A while back I was getting hits from people looking for nude pictures of Shoshana Johnson as well. They must have been terribly disappointed.

But thanks for stopping by!
LOVE AND MARRIAGE: I had a pretty interesting discussion with one of my friends over lunch today about the nature of love and the meaning of marriage. I'll try to distill it down into a few paragraphs, but as the conversation was a couple of hours long that may not be easy.

The main difference in perspective can be explained thusly: for her, loving someone is the same as being "in love" with someone; for me, being "in love" is a mere emotion, and actually loving someone is a decision to act in a certain way. Emotions are fickle (at least mine are) -- they come and go seemingly at random, and are hardly under our control, if they are at all. Emotions are governed largely by chemistry; it's difficult for our will to subjugate our emotions. A great many people don't even see any value in controlling their emotions, and our culture encourages us to pursue happiness on these ground.

If it feels good, do it. Listen to your heart. How do you feel? This is how most people seem to view love, and I think that this view is intertwined with our cultural construct of dating and has a heavy influence on marraige. People look for someone who makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I call this "emotional lust". The essence of lust is the desire to use someone else to fulfill your cravings, and although it usually refers to physical desires I think it's equally applicable to emotional needs as well. It's generally acknowledged that men make many decisions based on physical lust, but it's not widely recognized that women tend to make many decisions based on emotional lust. As I said, our culture actively encourages this perspective.

Therefore, when a couple is "in love" and emotionally involved and intimate, they decide to get married based on those emotions. They ride high for a while, but eventually those emotions come to an end. It's basically inevitable. People are highly adaptive creatures, and eventually the spouse becomes a part of the environment and the highly charged emotional energy that was there at first dissipates. Clearly, marriages that are based purely on physical lust cannot be expected last, but for some reason people expect emotional lust to be different. The median American marriage lasts 7 years.

What, then, is the alternative? Approach love as a decision, rather than merely as an emotion. There is nothing wrong with the emotional aspects of being in love, but it's important that there be more to a relationship than just those emotions -- repeat after me: emotions are fickle and they don't last forever. Once the emotions are gone, many people find themselves stuck with a person they aren't even friends with. Since those emotions were the foundation of the relationship, it's over.

However, when you decide to love someone, and you make a committment to stick by them, work together, and share each others' lives regardless of circumstance, then the relationship is built on a more certain foundation. When emotional lust does not control, then the focus of love can be on the other's well-being rather than on merely satisfying your own cravings.

Many people view dating as a means of fulfilling their emotional lust. Being with anyone is better than being with no one, because at least you aren't alone. The most important thing about any person you date, then, is how they make you feel. Only when the feelings begin to drain do other components come to the fore: is there a spiritual and intellectual connection? Do the math: many friendships last a lifetime, but very few marriages do. Why is that? You may think it's because marriages are a lot more demanding than most friendships, and you would be exactly right. There is no way that any human being can live up to our expectations and desires, and if you try to lay all that on your spouse you are bound to be disappointed.

Finding a spouse should be like finding a best friend, and indeed I believe that ideally friendship should come before love. It's hard (ok, impossible) to avoid falling "in love" with people sometimes, but it's important not to let those feelings take over a budding friendship. It's very easy to fall in love, but it can be very difficult to get out later. Being "in love" is a wonderful feeling, but it won't last and it's no basis for a permanent relationship.
AJAR: I haven't written a lot of fiction recently, but I had a silly little idea on the way home tonight. It's called Ajar, and it's up over at The Forge (if the permalink doesn't work). Do people really get divorced because their spouse leaves the window open?
WHERE'S WALDO?: The search in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction continues, but it appears that many former Saddam scientists still aren't talking.
"Their questions are the same as yours," [one of Saddam Hussein's chief chemical warriors, Iraqi Brig. Gen. Alaa Saeed] said. " 'Do you know of any documents or inventory of chemical agents? Any stockpiles? Any production programs? Any filled munitions? Do you have any idea where these weapons are?' I am ready to give them all the information I have. But the answer is always the same: 'No, no, no.'

"I tell them there are no hidden chemical or biological weapons," he said. "Maybe there is some other group, like the SSO [Hussein's ruthless Special Security Organization] or the Mukhabarat [the Gestapo-like intelligence agency], who have done it. I don't know. That is not my responsibility."

A U.S. intelligence official in Washington said Tuesday that senior Iraqis in custody have provided little useful information.
Strange stuff. They can't really believe that Saddam is still around, can they? It's hard to imagine that all the higher-ups are still toeing the party line. Maybe they're afraid of prosecution for war crimes, but it seems like one or two could be offered immunity for some decent information.

If there are WMD in Iraq, then someone knows where they are. Unfortunately, those who know are probably among the ex-Baathist Sunni Arabs who are currently still fighting against the coalition forces. If the captured scientists have any reason to fear, it's because of these armed remnants who may still be able to reach their family members in Iraq.

(Link to the LA Times article via Rough & Tumble.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

DRUG LEGALIZATION 2: Danny O'Brien over at Blog O' DOB agrees with my concerns with the prospect of drug legalization.

Understand that while there are moral arguments both for and against legalizing various drugs, I don't think the government should be involved in any way in moral positioning. The only values that government should advocate are morally neutral: interfere with my life as little as possible, and protect me from the interference of others.
PALESTINIANS AND BOMBS: Donald Sensing points out that the Palestinians have a bomb that can potentially destroy Israel as a Jewish state, and it's attached to their kids! Yes, that's right, the dreaded population bomb.
Right now there are four million Muslims in Israel/West Bank/Gaza. Jews outnumber them by a mere 800,000. At current growth rates of each (see end notes), in 14 years the ratio will be reversed: 6.7 million Muslims and 6 million Jews.
One problem with projections based on growth rate is that they often don't take into account the fact that growth rates change a great deal over time, particularly as overall wealth increases and decreases.

If a workable peace is established in the region, I expect that Palestinian growth rates will decrease as their standard of living increases. It's also hypothetically possible that the Jewish growth rate would increase with added security (more people might have kids), but that's pure speculation.

Additionally, growth rates tend to drop as population density increases, so there will be a leveling-off effect over time.

So yes, I do agree that there is a population issue that the Jews must face, but I'm not convinced it's as dangerous as many make it out to be. Demographics are a tricky subject, and it's hard to make accurate projections.
ALWAYS SAVE YOUR WORK: I mentioned this post about the Nanog gene and radical life extention over at Setting the World to Rights before, and I wanted to put the link up again because the comments are rather interesting.

One commenter says that once we can create backups of ourselves death will not be permanent, but this is intuitively fallacious. Creating copies or backups of oneself clearly would not obviate death. Another commenter pointed out that a copy would be no different than an identical twin, and wold not really be you, even though they might be just like you.

Even if the copies are fungible to other people, you yourself would still be dead. Same goes for transporters in Star Trek.

Addtionally, I don't expect that we will never be able to back-up a human.
DIABLOG: Mark Aveyard and I had a chat last night about movies (and other stuff) and it's up at his site, The Diablogger. I love the concept, and it was fun to be the first diablog he's done in a while.

At least he kept my dating success rate out of it.
HALF EMPTY: I try not to bore you all with too many personal musings, but tonight my glass is definitely half empty rather than half full. Just wanted to share.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

WHY SOCIALISM DOESN'T WORK: In Britain we can see a perfect example of why socialism doesn't work. Healthcare is "free" in the sense that it's paid for by taxes, but apparently some people (such as fat people and smokers) are putting more strain on the system than it can bear. The government has responded by proposing "healthy lifestyle contracts" that doctors would encourage their patients to follow as a part of treatment.

Naturally, this "oppressive" proposal had fat smokers up in arms.
Claire Rayner, president of the Patients' Association, branded the proposal to ask smokers and overweight people to sign healthy lifestyle contracts as "oppressive and obscene".

She said the implication of the plan was to blame people for their own poor health and suggest that they would have to pay more for healthcare because they had brought their illness on themselves.

Ms Rayner said: "This is a nasty middle class document. It's the Tuscan bread and olive oil set telling people they can't eat pizzas and burgers.
She's right about one thing: this does represent the tax-payers telling the poor that they need to take better care of their health. But, that's unfair! Well, it would be, except for the fact that the tax-payers are paying for the medical care these others consume. If I were paying for my neighbor's car, I would certainly insist that he take good care of it and not waste the money I was spending.

You can't have liberty and socialism. It's just not possible for people to live however they want and have society pick up the tab by subsidizing the cost of dangerous behaviors. Because of economic realities, you have to pick: either you have freedom to make dangerous decisions and bear the cost for yourself, or society picks up the tab for everything bad that happens but also has the authority and power to make many decisions for you.

When a child lives at home with his parents, he necessarily lives under their rules. He can't just destroy stuff or leave food or dirty clothes everywhere because it puts impossible strain on the people providing for him. When a child grows up and lives on his own, he (eventually) learns to minimize harmful behaviours due to the cost of dealing with the aftermath. Same with healthcare and lifestyle, socialized jobs and productivity, you name it. There's a liberty/security trade-off that cannot be avoided.
DRUG LEGALIZATION: There's a movement afoot to legalize many types of currently illegal drugs (particularly marijuana) on civil liberty grounds, and I'm generally sympathetic, even though I have never used any illegal drugs and I rarely drink alcohol. The basic idea behind the movement is that if someone wants to use drugs, even dangerous ones, it's no business of government as long as no one else is hurt. It is also argued that if drugs are legalized then the black market and all the crime associated with it will evaporate because the premium prices will disappear when large, legal, corporations take over production and distribution.

Both of these justifications are plausible. I don't like the government involved in peoples' personal lives, and I do think legalization would quickly undermine the vast drug cartels that smuggle illicit substances into our country and wreak havoc all around the world. But. I don't think that anyone has a clear and complete understanding of how legalization would affect our society and economy.

Civil libertarians may argue that it's irrelevant, but consider what demographics would be most likely to increase consumption of currently illegal drugs. Who would these newly-formed drug companies target with their product? Alcohol has a rather high penetration rate and is often abused... what effect would wide-spread "moderate" LSD or cocaine use have on society? (Can such drugs even be used in "moderation"? Doubtful.)

It may be argued that even if drug use is legalized it will not become wide-spread, but economic theory does not support that belief. Right now illegal drugs are expensive and difficult to acquire, but if they are legalized the price will drop by a factor of 10 or more and they will be available at every corner store. It's absurd to think that this change in market conditions will have no effect on consumption. Will the productivity lost by increased hard drug use be offset by the money saved in law enforcement and gained through taxation? I'm skeptical. And do we really want our government raising money by taxing addictive substances, and thereby gaining an incentive to get more people hooked? (This is why I'm against tobacco taxes and why I think the tobacco industry scored a huge win with the structure of its lawsuit settlements with the states.)

As with all things, a balance needs to be found that maximizes liberty and minimizes the cost of that libery to society. Perhaps alcohol should be legal and LSD should not, perhaps marijuana should or should not be. I don't think the answer is as clear as the legalization-ists would have us believe, but I also think that the status quo needs some serious reconsideration.
PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST: Peace between Israel and the Palestinians doesn't seem likely as long as:
The conviction that no way can be found for Israel and the Palestinians to coexist is strongest in Morocco (90 percent), followed by Jordan (85 percent), the Palestinian Authority (80 percent), Kuwait (72 percent), Lebanon (65 percent), Indonesia (58 percent) and Pakistan (57 percent).
The numbers come from this International Herald Tribune article. It goes on to say,
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who chairs the Pew project, called these results "very disheartening, and very dangerous, frankly."

"I hope that this is temporary and that, if there are some improvements in the situation because of the peace process, it will change," she said. "There is no way Israel is going to disappear. We will just have to find some way to mitigate those feelings."
Well, it's not temporary -- these aren't new numbers and there's no reason to expect that they're transient. Albright seems to think that the "peace process" might change the Palestinians' minds, but how can there be such a process if 8 in 10 Palestinians think there's no way to coexist with Israel? Who would embark on any sort of process that they believe is futile?

As Albright said, there's no way that Israel is going to disappear. There's also apparently no way that the Palestinians are going to give up their desire to eradicate Israel. That's a stalemate that can only be resolved when one side loses, and the sole accomplishment of the "peace process" so far has been to ensure that neither side can be defeated. The Palestinians can't realistically threaten Israel's military, and Israel can't bring its full power to bear against the Palestinians due to the political pressure of the "peace process".

Until and unless one side has its will to fight broken by defeat, there won't be peace in the region. When two parties have mutually exclusive goals, the only way there can be peace is if one of them is defeated. The externally imposed "peace process" is just prolonging the agony leading up to the inevitable hot war and raising the stakes for both sides. Neither can back down and they can't both win, so it's just a matter of time.

(Thanks to Opinion Journal for the pointer to the article.)
GOLD: Just go read Lileks. He's got the dirtiest joke that's ever been on TV, and it's from the Tomacco episode of the Simpsons... one of my favorite. No, I won't just blockquote it here, go read it for yourself. Go go go.

As if you need me to tell you to go read him.
LINKAGE: Donald Sensing has posted some small blogs that have been linking to him, and I'm among them. Thanks Don!

Monday, June 02, 2003

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED TO ME ON THE WAY HOME...: While I was driving home from work just now I saw a guy on the street driving my old car! I sold my white '91 Ford Escort almost exactly three years ago, and I was quite taken aback to see it again, same license plate and everything. Naturally, I decided to follow the guy home. Turns out he lives one block away from me.
CALIFORNIA POLITICAL THEORY: As summarized by Al Rantel: If it moves, regulate it; if it keeps moving, tax it; if it stops moving, subsidize it.
NANOG: SettingTheWorldToRights has a post up about the newly-named Nanog gene, and goes in pretty much the same direction with it that I did. They seem to be in favor of using stem cells from babies killed for reasearch, whereas I am not, and they take our human form as accidental, but that's par for the course.

They focus mostly on the prospect of radical life extension, but I think that the elimination of degenerative disease will come more quickly.
YOU TAX DOLLARS AT WORK: Donald Sensing explains why paying taxes is a legal obligation, but not a moral duty. All the better for having read it right after depositing my federal tax refund check.
HEY BIG SPENDER: I like Bush a lot, and I think he's going a great job as president... for the most part. Whether through pure skill or through skill mixed with luck and timing he and his team have handled the Iraq/UN situation brilliantly -- not only achieving our immediate goals of fighting terror and oppression against a visible enemy, but also managing to throw some light into the dark recesses of international diplomacy where our "allies" have lay hidden, plotting against us for years.

Of course, his dad performed decently in the foreign policy realm as well. Bush II has managed to pass some nice tax cuts (in contrast to Bush I, who raised taxes despite his famous "read my lips" promise), but I'm still not completely satisfied. Andrew Sullivan points to a Peter Beinart article that criticizes many of the president's policies, and although I don't agree with most of the criticisms (such as "the Bush administration seems to believe that, as the most powerful country on earth, the United States should both dictate the rules of the international system and exempt itself from them" -- I entirely agree with the Bush administration), in one area Beinart is dead on: Bush needs to review agricultural subsidies.

Let me briefly explain what a subsidy is. Take cotton: for every pound of cotton grown in the US, the government pays the grower 72 cents. Without this money (or some amount), it would not be profitable to grow cotton in the US, and the industry would move out of the country. It costs one-third as much to grow cotton in Africa, for instance. If the subsidy was removed American jobs would be lost (from the cotton industry), but there would be a net economic gain because the cost of cotton products would go down (when the cost of the subsidy is factored in). Subsidies are bad for our economy. Not only that, but this subsidy is also bad for Africa, because African growers can't compete in the cotton market with our growers, who can sell the cotton at a lower price, due to the subsidy.

What's the benefit? In theory, we as a nation don't want to be wholly dependent on foreigners for essential goods, such as cotton, oil, food, steel, and the like. So it makes sense from a national security standpoint to subsidize some industries so that they don't disappear entirely. However, agricultural subsidies are often more pork than anything else, and at the very least the entire process should be reviewed and zero-based anew every year to prevent corruption; they've continued to grow under Bush, however, as they have under all past presidents.
A TALE OF FOUR SERIES: I'd like to briefly compare and contrast four recent movie series, each of which has had two out of at least three movies released. They are all designed to target the same general demographic, and all have huge budgets, but only two of them are really living up to expectations.

Star Wars: Taking the most recent movies as part of a new trilogy (episodes I through III), the general concensus is that they pretty much suck. Nifty new (ostentatious, gaudy) special effects and digital production don't make up for awful acting and absurd plotlines. Let's look at how The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones compare to the first three based on ratings from Internet Movie Database and RottenTomatoes:

Star Wars: 8.8/10, 95% fresh
Empire Strikes Back: 8.7/10, 98% fresh
Return of the Jedi: 8.1/10, 79% fresh

The Phantom Menace: 6.6/10, 63% fresh
Attack of the Clones: 7.3/10, 63% fresh
Those are significant drops in approval, and anecdotally I think most people would agree that George Lucas' most recent forays into writing and directing were less than spectacular. No big stars in leading roles, unless you count Ewan McGregor.

The Matrix: The first movie was obviously huge (8.5/10, 86% fresh) (although I wasn't a huge fan... it was good), but apparently the second isn't being as well received (7.5/10, 75% fresh). Not only that, but Donald Sensing notes that its box office receipts are plummeting much more quickly than expected. Decent star-power.

X-Men: The first movie came out in 2000 and was ok, but nothing spectacular (7.3/10, 80% fresh). The second came out in 2003 and was much better than most people seemed to expect (7.8/10, 88% fresh). The special effects were good, but there was also something known as a "plot". The characters had as many as two (even three!) dimensions, and the world wasn't completely black and white. Additionally, there were a good number of big stars.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring was pretty amazing (8.9/10, 95% fresh), and The Two Towers was excellent as well (8.8/10, 97% fresh). Again, good special effects, good acting (mostly), and a few moderate-size stars.

The first two series are struggling (some may disagree with regard to The Matrix, but box office receipts don't lie), and the last two are flourishing. I don't think many people expected much from the X-Men franchise when the first movie came out, and although people had high hopes for LoTR there was a prevailing sense of dread that the the beloved series would be butchered in production (as Star Wars was).

So what sets the last two series apart? There are a decent number of movie stars in each, they all have big budgets, they all have special effects, they all have boatloads of promotion... even Hugo Weaving is spread between them evenly. So what's the deal?

X-Men and LoTR are based on amazingly powerful prior works, and Star Wars and The Matrix are not. There are obviously hundreds and thousands of books and comic books that came out contemporaneously with X-Men and LoTR, and most of them failed and disappeared. That these two works survived long enough to be made into movies demonstrates their underlying fitness. In contrast, Star Wars and The Matrix were thrown immediately into the same entertainment niche with these proven contenders and will likely fall by the wayside, just as their earlier paper competition.

What's the lesson? Maybe Hollywood needs to consider that the same qualities that make for a good book also make for a successful movie. Special effects and promotional tie-ins will get people in for the first weekend, but ultimately a good story is what people are after. Conflict, character development, background depth, mystery, risk.

X-Men and LoTR had leading characters die (Boromir and Jean Grey). Star Wars killed off Qui-Gon Jinn (who was introduced for the sole purpose of killing off, it seems) and The Matrix has an invincible main character. In both, the heroes fight against robots who are killed by the hundred, but who cares? That's like killing Nazis -- no one sees the enemy as significant, they're just cannon fodder. In LoTR the orcs at least have some personality, and the Black Riders are actually pretty scary and cool. Their history as corrupted human kings gives them some weight, and Sauron's flaming eye is downright evil.

Magneto is more of a tragic hero than a villain, and the audience can relate to his desire to protect mutants, even if his methods are dangerous and destructive. There's a complex interplay between good and evil that's not seen in Star Wars -- the evil Jedi don't really seem that evil based on what we see on screen -- or The Matrix. Even though the evil in LoTR is very clear-cut, the conflict and struggle among and within the Fellowship is enough to sustain the feeling of apprehension and mystery (aside from the fact that we all know how it ends).

I certainly don't want anyone to take away from this the idea that movies should only be remakes of previously successful stories (argh, no!), but I think movie-makers could learn a lot from reading a few books.