Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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Perhaps as a consequence of our recent spate of deeply vivid, sometimes terrifying dreams, Nell and I are physically exhausted. Either that, or the enervating monotony of not knowing precisely when our sheltering in place will end—or whether some number of us will catch COVID-19—has taken its toll. “Chippy” is the word Nell sometimes uses to describe our moods…mostly my mood upon waking.

It does not help that the weather turned cold, wet and raw over the weekend, making going outside onto the porches or into the backyard far less appealing. Our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever, who likes cold air but not precipitation, was particularly flummoxed by the lack of outdoor exercise.

We do our best to be careful—rarely venturing to grocery stores or pharmacies, thoroughly washing hands and surfaces, and so forth—but this is an insidious virus, and even the best-laid plans can go awry.

For all that, however, we are extremely lucky:

  • We live in a large two-story apartment with three porches and sufficient nooks and crannies to provide a sense of separation. As much as we love each other, we need our own space at times.
  • I was already working at home—in the expectation of future, if not current, income—while Nell was only working two days a week, for less than 13 hours in total. It is our daughters who needed to adjust to being home all day every day, other than for long walks and runs in the neighborhood—and so far, they have done a reasonably good job.
  • Nell is a trained elementary school teacher who relishes the opportunity to teach her own children.
  • I have never taught children—but I have taught multiple subjects in multiple settings, and I have a plethora of data sets, PowerPoint presentations, prior posts and book chapters upon which to draw.
  • Our children, for all their quirks, genuinely like to learn.
  • We have financial assets independent of salaried employment, and Nell is an online-shopping maven—so we do not (yet) lack necessities.
  • Nell is also a superb cook who, happily for us, is using those skills to alleviate her anxiety. This gives me much more to clean at the end of the evening, about which I may grumble, but it also makes that nightly moment when the kitchen is thoroughly clean—counters and iron stove-top grillwork washed, dishes either in the dishwasher or washed and put away, coffee maker set up for the morning—even more satisfying.

One other thing I have observed. Major League Baseball Opening Day was supposed to be Thursday, March 26, 2020. Due to COVID-19, however, the start of the 2020 season has been pushed back indefinitely. I am a longtime diehard Philadelphia Phillies fan—and, yet, I do not miss baseball at all. Maybe this is simply perspective—it is hard to get excited about a group of millionaire athletes playing a game, however entertaining and imbued with civic pride, when much of the country is shuttered.

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Our weekend was again very quiet. Nell and I chose to skip our regular weeknight joint 8-10 pm MSNBC viewing to watch episodes three and four of the first season of Broadchurch. For those keeping score at home and know how much I love Doctor Who, three actors in the series—David Bradley, David Tennant and Jodie Whittaker—have all played The Doctor in the  last 15 years, while Olivia Colman and Arthur Darvill both appeared in the first episode Nell and I ever watched, “The Eleventh Hour.” This is precisely why my Anglophilic mystery-loving wife–who half-jokes there are really only like 10 actors and actresses in Great Britain—first watched the series five or so years ago.

While we watched, our older daughter had a “virtual sleepover” with two friends. This ended by 11:40 pm, however, as a sleepy daughter grew tired of watching Black Panther on a friend’s television through her iPhone. Her younger sister still became jealous, though, thinking she was going to watch as well—but was otherwise perfectly happy to FaceTime with a friend all evening.

Still, the following day she cajoled Nell into having her own virtual sleepover. She ultimately chose a friend with whom she has had issues in the past—our younger daughter insists on believing the best about everyone regardless (mostly) of contrary evidence. I expressed my displeasure in rather strong language, but I am sheepishly pleased to report the “sleepover” went very well.

After punting the evening before, meanwhile, Nell chose Saturday to make pizza from scratch for the first time. She used whole wheat flour, which was delicious, and let us each choose our own toppings. Our younger daughter despises any tomato product other than raw tomatoes, so Nell basically melted cheese on dough for her. Our older daughter, who is in what could loosely be called a “healthy eating” phase, had an array of sautéed vegetables and non-sautéed pineapple on her pie, while Nell went with caramelized onions and, I believe, mushrooms. I opted for pepperoni and pineapple. The pizza was flat and crispy, not unlike what you would get from a brick over pizzeria.

While younger daughter had her “sleepover,” and older daughter spirited herself away to her pre-teen bedroom, Nell and I binge-watched the final four episodes of season one of Broadchurch. Kudos to my wife for not uttering a single spoiler, even as I posited one incorrect theory after another.

Much later that night, or early the next morning, I excitedly stretched out on our white sofa to watch The Beast of the City, a proto-noir from 1932. I was disappointed in this choppy film, however, writing in my nightly note to Nell, “Beast of the City? More like nobody in this film except Wallace Ford can act city!”

Sunday was even lazier. With our older daughter having just completed the first book in the series, Nell and the girls watched The Hunger Games that evening. I took the opportunity to write this updated assessment of post-2005 Doctor Who instead.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Monday, March 30, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I have redacted identifying information.

March 30

This was the first week of the revamped “Popschool” schedule:

Monday: Using a single story to illustrate some aspect of American political history/economy

Tuesday: Using the book I am writing to learn about our daughters’ and my Jewish-American heritage

Wednesday: Discussing the history of jazz and rock using my personal collection of DVDs and online tools like Polyphonic. 

Thursday: Learning more applied math by examining a wide range of interesting datasets

 Friday: Film history and, most likely, additional quizzes.

The night before, I had been undecided between beginning to discuss capitalism, socialism and the basic elements of the American economy—despite the less-than-stellar grades I had received in introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics my senior year at Yale—or return to the Constitution of the United States to highlight its 27 Amendments, especially the Bill of Rights.

Nell pointed out that much of what I taught them would not make sense without studying the Bill of Rights, and I agreed. Plus, I had researched their origin for the closest thing to a polemic I have ever published on this site—a call to repeal Amendment II. The upshot was that after I briefly relayed the history of those first 10 Amendments, we read them aloud. Fascinating sidebars on the American judicial system dominated our discussion.

After a 30 minute break, I walked them through both the…impolite…responses I had received when I first started tweeting about Amendment II repeal in July 2017—our younger daughter was particularly amused at the contrived “demseftist” and the absurd right-wing pejorative “snowflake”—and my counters to the 12 categories of opposing arguments I had received on Twitter. I also summarized my repeal arguments on the always-popular white board.

Repeal Amendment II

While she was listening to this point/counterpoint, our younger daughter had been giving herself “tattoos.” She insisted I photograph them, knowing full well they would appear here; she, like her sister, is a wicked awesome kid.

Tattoo you

And then, at about 6:30 pm, I acted like a crazy mad fool.

I climbed into Nell’s SUV and drove to the Star Market on Commonwealth Avenue. Parking in the nearly-empty lot, I grabbed my reusable bags and walked to the lower rear entrance. There, a sign informed me they had temporarily disallowed the use of such bags, so I trundled back to the car with them.

The grocery store had maybe a dozen customers wandering its aisles. Studiously avoiding them, I managed to find everything I sought—even two bags of unbleached King Arthur’s flour—which I then wheeled over to one of the two or three open checkout lanes. Blue strips of tape on the floor informed me where to stand to be at least six feet from the nearest customer. Essentially, one person at a time used the conveyor belt. Nonetheless, once I had unloaded my shopping cart, I instinctively reached for one of the yellow plastic dividers. Realizing there was no point in putting it on the belt, I immediately put it back, observing to the smiling brunette six feet behind me, “Force of habit.” She chuckled her assent.

Meanwhile, I had overheard the young man working the cash register tell the customer in front of me that Star Market does allow reusable shopping bags, so long as the customer bags her/his own groceries. We thus have five new white reusable shopping bags for later trips.

Emboldened by this much-needed outing, I filled up Nell’s SUV’s gas tank—requiring me to go into the attached convenience store for my receipt—then drove to a nearby CVS.

Living my life with reckless abandon I am.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 31, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I again redacted identifying information.

March 31

For the first time in 12 days of home schooling, when we convened at 2:45 pm I discussed something other than American political history, statistics or film noir…well, I managed briefly to sneak in the latter. Instead, we began to discuss the history of their father’s family—his legal family, that is: Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement who settled in Philadelphia between 1891 and 1913, with a Philadelphia-born son from one family marrying a Philadelphia-born daughter from another family; they would then in-utero adopt—as their second child—a boy in the summer of 1966.

To set the stage for those stories, I condensed 4 millennia of Jewish history into 24 slides and wrote the names of the birth cities of four of their great-great-grandparents on the always-useful white board. The first one is pronounced “Pruhzh-nitz,” and it is where David Louis Berger was born just over 150 years ago.

Pale of Settlement

The Pale of Settlement

When I came to the final slides, examples of places to which Jews fleeing the pogroms immigrated between 1881 and 1914, I attempted to sketch on the increasingly-valuable white board the River Thames in London, as well as the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Street. This was by way of illustrating how the 100,000 Jews arriving in the East End of London in the early 1880s became a majority of the population around that intersection. In 1888, they became enmeshed in the hunt for a serial killer known variously at the time as The Whitechapel Fiend, Leather Apron, and, of course, Jack the Ripper.

I then wrote the word “Juwes” on the handy-dandy white board to illustrate how the word was spelled when it was written in chalk on the bricks inside the entryway to the Wentworth Model Dwellings on Goulston Street early on the morning of September 30, 1888. The full sentence, according to one account, was “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing,”

Every time I think our younger daughter is not paying attention, I turn around and see she has drawn something like this…and I remember she misses nothing.

Whitechapel sketch

We took a 30-minute break at that point. When we returned, our daughters took turns reading aloud a short summary of the first five chapters of my book, after which I had to reassure our older daughter those were not the actual chapters.

“Oh no,” I said. “Here is Chapter 1,” as I dropped onto the table a sheaf of 17 pages—printed on both sides, Palatino Linotype 12, single-spaced—held together by a small binder clip. Our younger daughter was getting tired, and she is sporting a 102-degree fever, though that is not necessarily unusual for her, so her older sister happily read aloud the first eight pages, starting from the middle of page two. In so doing, she successfully got the Berger clan from Pryasnysz to Philadelphia by way of Quebec.

While our older daughter read beautifully, albeit stumbling over the pronunciation of more than a few tricky names, her mother was listening from the living room, where she was sitting at a table building a Stranger Things LEGO set. I apparently was correcting our older daughter too often because after about two pages, Nell piped up with, “If you keep correcting her like that, you lose the flow of the story.”

She was right—and I loved that she was engrossed in the story—so I limited my corrections only to truly tricky names like the Schuylkill River.

And with that, day 12 of home schooling was over—punctuated by our older daughter jumping up from the table with a “See ya suckers!”

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Updating the Doctors: 13 is not a lucky number for Jodie Whittaker

One of the first data-driven essays to appear on this website was a three-part assessment of every episode of Doctor Who following its revival in March 2005. You may find those three essays—as well as a, frankly, much better written July 2018 update—here; you will also find a much longer essay I wrote demonstrating the influence of classic film noir on the revised series. 

On December 25, 2017, Jodie Whittaker debuted as the 13th incarnation of the multi-thousand-year-old Doctor. Since then, Whittaker has portrayed the Gallifreyan Time Lord in 21 additional episodes, with the most recent airing on March 1, 2020.

With two seasons of Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor behind us, here is an updated assessment of the 165 total episodes of the revived Doctor Who.

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Just as I collected ratings data to rank every Charlie Chan film, every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and my own guilty pleasures, I collected ratings data to assess the relative popularity of the 165 episodes of the resurrected Doctor Who[1], from “Rose” (March 26, 2005) through “The Timeless Children” (March 1, 2020). Excluding John Hurt’s  irascible War Doctor, there have been five incarnations of The Doctor during this time period: 9 through 13. These 165 episodes comprise 12 Series of between 10 and 13 episodes plus 13 Christmas specials and four stand-alone specials, three featuring the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) as well as the November 2013 50th anniversary epic, in which Doctors 10 and 11 (Matt Smith) teamed with the War Doctor to save Gallifrey, The Doctor’s home planet.

For each episode, I collected four values:[2]

  1. Its BBC “Audience Appreciation Index” (AI) Score, an integer from 0-100 revealing how much the British audience enjoyed each episode when it first aired. Higher scores indicate greater enjoyment.
  2. Where the episode ranked that week in Great Britain (Chart), with a lower score indicating more viewers.
  3. Its weighted-average Internet Movie Database (IMDB) score on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the most favorable, and…
  4. The number of IMDB “raters” whose scores were averaged. The higher the number of raters, in principle, the more “compelling” the episode—though higher ratings could also simply reflect a longer rating time frame or a trollish desire to “trash” an episode.

Analyzing these data will reveal:

  • How popular individual episodes are now,
  • How an episode’s current popularity compares to how popular each episode weas when it first aired,
  • The comparative popularity of individual Series, and
  • The comparative popularity of Doctors 9-13

I decided mostly to set aside “Chart” values as they are difficult to compare over time.

Table 1 provides details on each Series. It excludes the 13 Christmas specials from 2005 through 2017, two 2009 10th Doctor specials (“Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars”) and “The Day of the Doctor.” However, given its chronological and story-arc proximity to the prior 10 episodes, I chose to include the 2019 New Year’s Day special “Resolution” as the 11th and final episode of Series 11.

Table 1: Doctor Who Series (2005-20)

# Dates # Episodes Doctor Primary Companion(s)
1 March 26-June 18, 2005 13 9 Rose Tyler
2 April 15-July 8, 2006 13 10 Rose Tyler
3 March 31-June 30, 2007 13 10 Martha Jones
4 April 5-July 5, 2008 13 10 Donna Noble
5 April 10-June 26, 2010 13 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
6 April 23-June 4, 2011;

August 27-October 1, 2011

7

6

11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7a September 1-29, 2012 5 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7b March 30-May 18, 2013 8 11 Clara Oswald
8 August 23-November 8, 2014 12 12 Clara Oswald
9 September 19-December 5, 2015 12 12 Clara Oswald
10 April 15-July 1, 2017 12 12 Bill Potts
11 October 7, 2018-January 1, 2019 11 13 Yasmin Khan/Graham O’Brien/Ryan Sinclair
12 January 1-March 1, 2020 10 13 Yasmin Khan/Graham O’Brien/Ryan Sinclair

Individual episodes. Overall, the resurrected series has been very well-received with a “global” IMDB rating of 8.6 (192,481 unique raters). Upon first airing, average AI score was a remarkable 84.3, with a small standard deviation (“sd”) of 2.9; all but 12 episodes have an AI Score between 80 and 89. Enthusiasm has only somewhat diminished over time: average IMDB rating is 7.78 (sd=1.1), with 113 episodes (68%) between 7.0 and 8.9. In the previous version of this post, average AI Score was a tick higher (84.9) while average IMDB rating was higher still (8.13). While the former, as we shall see, represents a diminution of the show’s popularity in recent years, the latter suggests more recent IMDB raters are not as enamored with these episodes as prior raters; only the 2009 special “The Waters of Mars” had a higher IMDB rating, increasing from 8.7 to 8.8.

Two extremely highly-regarded episodes—2007’s “Blink” (9.8) and “The Day of the Doctor” (9.4—each attracted more than 15,000 raters (median=5,050; 120 [73%] between 3,000 and 5,999), accounting for the discrepancy between the series’ global IMDB rating and the mean across all 165 individual episodes.

Table 2: Most- and least-admired Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) when first aired

Title Series-Episode Doctor AI Score
Journey’s End 4-13 10 91
The Stolen Earth 4-12 10 91
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 89
Doomsday 2-13 10 89
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 89
Asylum of the Daleks 7a-1 11 89
The Parting of the Ways 1-13 9 89
The Big Bang 5-13 11 89
The End of Time: Part Two 10th Doctor Specials 10 89
14 Episodes 3  to 50th Anniversary 10 (8), 11 (6) 88
5 Episodes 1,9,11-12 9,12,13 80
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror 12-4 13 79
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos 11-10 13 79
The Tsuranga Conundrum 11-5 13 79
Can You Hear Me? 12-7 13 78
Sleep No More 9-9 12 78
Praxeus 12-6 13 78
Orphan 55 12-3 13 77
Rose 1-1 9 76
Love & Monsters 2-10 10 76
The End of the World 1-2 9 76

      * The Unquiet Dead (1), Heaven Sent (9), Demons of the Punjab (11), Resolution (11-NYD), The Haunting of Villa Diodati (12)

The first thing we learn from Table 2 is that British viewers did not immediately warm to Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor upon Doctor Who’s resurrection: the first two new episodes (“Rose,” “The End of the World”)—are tied with the execrable Series 2 episode “Love & Monsters” for lowest AI Score. More recently, however, there are signs British audiences may be cooling to the show and, specifically, the ascension of Chris Chibnall as Doctor Who showrunner. Setting aside the even-more-execrable Series 9 episode “Sleep No More,” the other six episodes with the lowest AI Score date from his tenure, evenly divided between Series 11 and 12. Overall, 13 13th Doctor episodes (54%)—14, if you include “Twice Upon a Time”—rank in the bottom 24 in AI Score; no episode in which Jodie Whittaker portrays The Doctor tops 83.

Meanwhile, four of the five episodes with the highest AI scores came as the 10th Doctor’s song was ending: the spectacular two-part Series 4 finale (“The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) and the equally-brilliant two-part “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” The top nine is rounded out by four other “finale” episodes: “The Parting of the Ways” (9th Doctor’s regeneration), “Doomsday” (Rose Tyler [Billie Piper] gets trapped in a parallel universe), “The End of Time: Part Two” (10th Doctor’s regeneration) and “The Big Bang” (Series 5 finale), as well as the first episode of Series 7a, “Asylum of the Daleks.”

But while AI Scores are a fixed starting point, albeit solely with British audiences, the IMDB ratings (flaws and all) in Table 3 signal how attitudes toward Doctor Who episodes have evolved over time, after they have been watched and re-watched, shared with others, and discussed at length.

Table 3: Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) with highest/lowest IMDB ratings

Title Series-Episode Doctor IMDB Rating # User-Raters
Blink 3-10 10 9.8 17,343
Heaven Sent 9-11 12 9.6 8,935
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 9.5 7,789
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 9.4 7,480
The Day of the Doctor 50th Anniv 10/11 9.4 16,566
Doomsday 2-13 10 9.3 7,291
Vincent and the Doctor 5-10 11 9.3 8,961
The Girl in the Fireplace 2-4 10 9.3 9,064
5 Episodes* 1,3,4,10 9 (1), 10 (2), 12 (1) 9.2 4,001-7,138
3 Episodes 2,8,11 10 (1), 12 (1), 13(1) 6.0 4,475-6,787
Can You Hear Me? 12-7 13 5.9 2,154
Sleep No More 9-9 12 5.8 4,185
Resolution 11-NYD 13 5.7 3,751
The Timeless Children 12-10 13 5.6 2,481
The Witchfinders 11-8 13 5.6 4,531
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos 11-10  

13

5.2 3,868
Praxeus 12-6 13 5.2 2,517
Arachnids in the UK 11-4 13 5.0 6,048
The Tsuranga Conundrum 11-5 13 4.9 5,582
Orphan 55 12-3 13 4.1 3,778

      * The Empty Child (1), The Family of Blood (3), Journey’s End (4), World Enough and Time (10)

        † Fear Her (1), In the Forest of the Night (8), The Ghost Monument (11)

Twenty-four resurrected Doctor Who episodes have an IMDB rating of 9.0 or higher, topped by “The Day of the Doctor,” “Silence/Forest,” the penultimate Series 9 episode “Heaven Sent” and, of course, “Blink.” The extremely high number of “Blink” raters supports the idea this is the episode most often used by Doctor Who fans to introduce the show to non-fans; if you are wondering, my wife Nell’s and my introduction was the remarkable “The Eleventh Hour” (88, 8.6), the first episode of Series 5. Somewhat less often used this way (ranked 3rd and 4th in raters) are the bittersweet episodes “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Series 2) and “Vincent and the Doctor” (Series 5). The heartbreaking “Doomsday” rounds out the top eight. My personal favorite episode, “A Good Man Goes to War” (Series 6), is in a 7-way-tie for 13th with a 9.1 IMDB rating.

Bringing up the rear, by contrast, are 13 episodes with IMDB ratings ≤6.0, all but three from Series 11 and 12. In the previous version of this post, “Sleep No More” ranked lowest at 6.0; even though its IMDB rating dropped to 5.8, fully eight episodes are now ranked below it, including the Series 11 episode “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (4.9) and the wretched Series 12 episode “Orphan 55” (4.1).

There is clear overlap across these three rankings: “Doomsday,” “Silence/Forest,” “Stolen/Journey’s,” “The End of Time: Part Two,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “A Good Man” and “Day” remain among the most admired and oft-rated episodes, while “Sleep No More” and “Love and Monsters” are still best forgotten. It is likely too soon to know if attitudes toward the two most recent Series will evolve. On the other hand, an episode like “Heaven Sent,” which was relatively poorly received when it first aired in November 2015 (AI score=80), is now the 2nd-highest rated episode on IMDB!

A correlation coefficient (r) measures how well two measures “agree” in a linear way. R ranges between -1.00 and 1.00; if r is negative, then as one measure increases, the other decreases, and if r is positive, as one measure increases, the other measure increases. When r=0.00, the association is completely random.

The correlation between AI score and IMDB rating is a very solid 0.61, while that between IMDB rating and number of raters is a solid 0.46. These associations are seen more clearly in Figures 1 and 2 below. The correlation between AI score and number of user-raters was a more modest, though still positive, 0.28 (data not shown).

Figure 1: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 1

Figure 2: IMDB Rating vs. # Raters, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 2

Attitude evolution. Comparing each episode’s AI scores and IMDB ratings reveals which episodes have increased in appeal over time, and vice versa. To do this, I converted each value to its z-score (number of SD above/below average) to account for differing scales; every z-score has average=0 and SD=1. For example, “A Good Man” has an IMDB rating of 9.1. Subtracting the average of 7.8 from 9.1, then dividing by the SD of 1.1 yields a z-score of 1.25, meaning this episode is 1.25 SD more highly regarded than average based upon its IMDB score.

Figure 3: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating (z-scores), Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 3

Two-thirds (66%) of these episodes remain either better regarded than average (both z-scores>0, n=55) or less well regarded than average (both z-scores<0, n=54). Once again, “Blink” and “Stolen/Journey’s” were, and remain, highly regarded, while “Love and Monsters” and “Orphan 55” continue to be episodes best to avoid.

Twenty-seven episodes (16%) went from above average to below average in public esteem–as shown in the lower right quadrant of Figure—most notably the Series 3 episodes “Daleks in Manhattan” and “The Lazarus Experiment.” The latter declined 1.7 SD from a respectable AI score of 86 to a well-below-average IMDB rating of 6.6, while the former dropped 1.6 SD (87 to 7.0). The only other episodes to decline at least 1.5 SD while going from more- to less-well-regarded than average are “The Curse of the Black Spot,” “The Poison Sky” and “Planet of the Dead.” Other than “Curse,” these four episodes feature the 10th Doctor, though nothing else obviously links them.

Finally, 29 episodes (18%) went from below average to above average in regard (upper left quadrant of Figure 3), most notably “Heaven Sent,” which has increased an astonishing 3.2 SD (80 to 9.6) since its November 2015 debut; this episode—the Groundhog Day of Doctor Who—rewards repeat viewing. The next highest increase in SD is 1.85 for “Listen” (82 to 9.0), one of the 12th Doctor’s earliest and most personal adventures. In fact, four of five episodes to increase at least 1.5 SD to become more well-regarded than average, including “Hell Bent” and “The Doctor Falls,” feature the 12th Doctor. Perhaps his imminent departure from the series prompted this positive reevaluation; “The Girl in the Fireplace” rounds out the list.

Series. As seen in Table 1, there have actually been 13 resurrected Doctor Who Series, as Series 7 was split into two halves: one with companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and one with companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). While Series 6 featured a nearly three-month gap between the first seven and the final six episodes, I consider it a single Series because it features the same companions and a unifying story arc.

Further complicating the demarcation of individual Series are the 13 Christmas episodes, three 10th Doctor specials and the 50th anniversary special (Table 4). It is not clear into which, if any, Series these episodes should be placed. Christmas episodes were equally admired at initial airing (average AI score=84.1 vs 84.4 for all other episodes) and are slightly better-regarded now (average IMDB rating=7.99 vs. 7.76 for all other episodes). The four stand-alone Specials, however, were—and, excepting “Planet,” are—much better-regarded.

Table 4: AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Christmas and Special Episodes (2005-17)

Title Year/Date Doctor AI Score IMDB Rating
Christmas Specials
The Christmas Invasion 2005 10 84 8.1
The Runaway Bride 2006 10 84 7.6
Voyage of the Damned 2007 10 85 7.6
The Next Doctor 2008 10 86 7.5
The End of Time: Part One 2009 10 87 8.2
A Christmas Carol 2010 11 83 8.6
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe 2011 11 84 7.2
The Snowmen 2012 11 87 8.4
The Time of the Doctor 2013 11 83 8.4
Last Christmas 2014 12 82 8.3
The Husbands of River Song 2015 12 82 8.5
The Return of Doctor Mysterio 2016 12 82 7.4
Twice Upon a Time 2017 12 81 8.1
 

10th Doctor Specials (after Series 4, excluding Christmas)

Planet of the Dead April 11, 2009 10 88 7.5
The Waters of Mars November 15, 2009  

10

88 8.8
The End of Time: Part Two January 1, 2010  

 

10

89 8.9
 

50th Anniversary Special

The Day of the Doctor November 23, 2013 War, 10, 11 88 9.4

For simplicity, then, I assessed individual Series using only the 148 episodes listed in Table 1.

Figure 4: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Series (2005-20)

DW Figure 4

Series 1 started slowly (Figure 4; AI Scores divided by 10 for apples-to-apples comparison), although four of the final five episodes rank among the most well-regarded now (“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” “Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,” average IMDB score=9.0).

While Series 2 is now slightly less well-regarded than Series 1, and average IMDB rating for Series 3 drops to 7.94 without “Blink,” Series generally became better-regarded through Series 4. This latter Series is the best-regarded of the revived Doctor Who, both when first aired (average AI score=88.1) and now (average IMDB rating=8.42). It started slowly: while “Partners in Crime” through “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (n=7) have a solid AI score average of 87.3, their average IMDB rating is only 7.73. Starting with the brilliant two-part “Silence/Forest,” however, the six episodes through “Journey’s End” have an astonishingly-high average AI score (89.0) and IMDB rating (9.20)! Outside of the three-episode sequence “The Name…” (88, 9.2), “The Day…” (88, 9.4) and “The Time of the Doctor” (83, 8.5), this is the pinnacle of the resurrected Doctor Who, rivaled only by the conclusion to Series 9.

Following the 10th Doctor’s regeneration, however, Series 5 and 6 dropped back to the more-than-respectable levels of Series 1-3. Series 6 had two distinct parts: the seven-episode sequence of “The Impossible Astronaut” through “A Good Man” have solid average AI score (86.7) and IMDB rating (8.16), which drop to 85.7 and 7.95, respectively, for the final six episodes (“Let’s Kill Hitler” through “The Wedding of River Song”).

Starting in Series 7a, these measures diverge, with average AI score jumping to 87.2 and average IMDB rating dropping to 7.98; the Series started (“Asylum of the Daleks,” 89, 8.6) and ended (“The Angels Take Manhattan,” 88, 9.0) well, though it faltered in between (n=3, 86.3, 7.43). The advent of companion Clara Oswald in Series 7b appeared to spike a further decline in public esteem, which only deepened when she teamed with the 12th Doctor in Series 8 and 9, excepting the average IMDB rating of 8.90 for the three-part Series finale (“Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent”). Series 10, with the first openly lesbian companion (Bill Potts [Pearl Mackie]), then signaled a return to Series-8-level regard.

And then…the popularity of Doctor Who took a nosedive over cliffs as steep as those which dominate Broadchurch, which also starred Tennant and Whittaker.

To be fair, average AI Score did not decline nearly as much, perhaps because Britons wanted to give the first female Doctor a fair chance. Indeed, the first full Whittaker episode—“The Woman Who Fell to Earth”—was the top-rated program of the week, the first time that had happened since “Day” in November 2013. And that episode has an OK 6.9 IMDB rating to go with its respectable 83 AI Score. “Rosa,” featuring American civil rights icon Rosa Parks two episodes later, has similar scores of 83 and 7.0. Overall, the first seven episodes averaged 5th place in their respective weeks, rivaling only the 2009-10 Tennant Christmas and standalone specials. Moreover, those seven episodes have been rated by an average of 6,548 IMDB users, rivaling the average 6,740 IMDB raters for the last six episodes of Series 4, which aired a full decade earlier.

For all that attention, however, those seven episodes have a mean IMDB rating of 6.06, which does not materially differ from the Series 11 average of 5.93 and is lower than the Series 12 average of 6.26; the latter series featured the only three other 13th Doctor episodes with IMDB ratings of 7.0 or higher: “Ascension of the Cybermen” (7.0), “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” (7.3) and “Fugitive of the Judoon” (7.7). And every one of these episodes still ranks below the overall average of 7.78. Plus, the 14 episodes which followed “Kerblam!” ranked an average 23rd in their respective weeks, following the historic pattern of a sharp ratings decline over the course of each Series.

Nine of these 21 episodes (43%), meanwhile, have IMDB ratings between 4.1 and 5.9. For context, here are 38 movies in the same range (full disclosure—I have seen each one multiple times, and I genuinely like some of them):

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)

Batman Forever (1995)

The Big Mouth (1967)

Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989)

Bright Lights, Big City (1987)

Casual Sex? (1988)

City Heat (1984)

Cookie (1989)

Delirious (1991)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Doctor Detroit (1983)

Dog Park (1998)

Earth Girls are Easy (1989)

The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992)

Hexed (1993)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Legal Eagles (1986)

Mannequin (1988)

The Marrying Man (1991)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

The Meteor Man (1993)

Mixed Nuts (1994)

Mr. Saturday Night (1992)

Once Upon a Crime… (1992)

The Opposite Sex, and How to Live With Them (1993)

The Phantom (1996)

The Pick-Up Artist (1987)

Queens Logic (1991)

Random Hearts (1999)

The Spirit (2008)

Summer Lovers (1982)

Sunset (1988)

Tapeheads (1988)

Thank God, It’s Friday (1978)

Wholly Moses (1980)

Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989)

Wild Wild West (1999)

Young Doctors in Love (1982)

It is certainly possible that these 21 episodes, as was the case with the first Eccleston episodes, will be positively reevaluated in later years.

Figure 5: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Doctors (2005-17)

DW Figure 5

Doctors. Figure 5 displays average values for all 9th (n=13), 10th (n=47), 11th (n=44), 12th Doctor (n=40) and 13th Doctor (n=21) episodes; excluding Christmas episodes and Specials made no appreciable difference.

While websites like WatchMojo.com suggest David Tennant’s 10th Doctor is the best-regarded Doctor ever (rivaling Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor), this is not necessarily borne out by the data. The 10th and 11th Doctors have essentially identical average AI Scores—86.3 and 86.0, while the 12th and 9th Doctors are not that far behind at 82.7 and 82.2, respectively; even the 13th Doctor’s average AI Score of 80.7 is broadly respectable. Moreover, Tennant’s 8.12 average IMDB rating is not appreciably higher than Smith’s 8.04, Eccleston’s 8.01 and Capaldi’s 7.89—though all are considerably than the lowly 6.08 for Whittaker’s 21 episodes.

Conclusions. Overall, the resurrected Doctor Who has been enormously popular by all three primary metrics used above. Its 8.6 overall IMDB rating places it in the rarefied heights between Back to the Future and The Dark Knight. Still, the show did not find its footing until late in Series 1. The 10th and 11th Doctors are held in modestly higher regard than the 9th and 12th Doctors, even if the ends of Series 1 and 9 are very highly-regarded now. The pinnacle of the revived series is the latter half of Series 4, although the most highly-rated episode currently is “Blink” (Series 3), followed by “Heaven Sent” (Series 9) and the 50th-anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor. “Blink” and “Day” also have received the most IMDB user-ratings by far (>15,000 each). By contrast, it is best to avoid the Series 3 episode “Love and Monsters,” the Series 9 episode “Sleep No More” and many episodes in Series 11 and 12, though not “Fugitive of the Judoon” and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” While many 10th Doctor episodes have lost stature over time, a similar number of 12th Doctor episodes have done the opposite. Finally, there are extreme warning signs in the dramatic decline in ratings and public esteem following the ascension of Chibnall as show runner and the first female Doctor.

We shall see if this changes in Series 13 in 2021.

If you are interested, here is a PDF of the data compiled for these analyses.

Doctor Who Episode Data, 2005-20

Until next time…please stay safe, sane and healthy…

[1] The “classic” series aired from November 1963 to December 1989, with only one 1996 television movie—intended to be an American series pilot—before its triumphant return in 2005.

[2] As of March 28, 2020

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IV

On Monday, March 23, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and asked residents to stay in their home as much as possible: to “shelter in place.” The order went in to effect at noon on Tuesday, March 24, and it will stay in effect until noon at April 7.

In three previous posts (I, II, III), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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After a successful, albeit exhausting, first week of home schooling, we laid low over the weekend.

The highlight of Saturday stemmed from an idea our older daughter had: she desperately wanted a burrito, which she would happily eat at every meal. Choosing not to walk down the street to our preferred takeout joint, we explored delivery options instead…and discovered that our favorite Mexican restaurant—a drive of at least 20 minutes away in Cambridge—would deliver to us. It felt like such a ridiculous treat, and the food was so good, I did not mind they had given soft, not crunchy, tacos. While I ate my food and worked on my “lectures,” Nell and the girl swatched Onward, which emotionally wrecked my wife.

Later that night, I walked our golden retriever up to our local dog park—and I mean “up;” Brookline is renowned for its many streets that slope upward at nearly a 45-degree angle. To be honest, I needed the outing and the exercise more than she did. We stayed about 15 minutes, as she ecstatically chased an increasingly-filthy fuzzy ball hurled by a Chuck-It. Returning home, I put her to bed, bathed and settled down to watch the excellent I Wake Up Screaming via Turner Classic Movies OnDemand.

The choice of film–other than its sudden aviability–was in keeping with my discussion of film noir with the girls the previous day, during which I used “oneiric” to describe the dream-like quality of many films noir. This spurred a conversation about we all are having intense, more-anxiety-than-nightmare dreams during our “lockdown.”

Also in keeping with Friday’s “lecture,” our younger daughter and I watched Stranger on the Third Floor on Sunday evening. She very much enjoyed it, patiently allowing me to pause the movie at times to explain the difference between “high-key” and “low-key” lighting.

As to why we watched this particular film, here is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the book I am writing—and need to finish soon:

Another myth to be exploded was film noir’s origin story. In the traditional telling, first outlined in Schrader’s essay, waves of mostly-German émigré filmmakers arrive in Hollywood throughout the 1930s, bringing with them the cinematic techniques of Expressionism and, later, French poetic realism. Vincent Brook, as we saw in the Introduction to Part 1, argues these filmmakers were often deeply and specifically influenced by their Jewish heritage, a primary reason they abandoned Europe, however temporarily, in the first place. Meanwhile, starting in 1931, Universal Studios—aided by German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had arrived in Hollywood two years earlier—makes a series of dark shadowy horror films (about which more in Chapter 8).  That same year, rival studios like Warner-First National, later Warner Brothers, start to produce high-quality gangster films, inspired by the lawlessness of Prohibition, ironically set to be repealed just two years later. Needing work for this influx of cinematic talent, studio heads take a long second look at works of hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately relegating their new talent to the B-movie backlots to turn those works into films. Applying everything they know about filmmaking, and drawing upon the visual style of the popular horror films and the rapid-fire plots of the gangster films, they make films that would later be labeled film noir. The quality of these films is only enhanced throughout the 1940s by a slow loosening of the restrictive Hays Code of “voluntary” censorship, Italian neo-realism and technological advances. And the first of these films is almost certainly a 64-minute-long B-movie directed by an Eastern European émigré named Boris Ingster—and featuring an Eastern European actor named Peter Lorre—called Stranger on the Third Floor. Released on August 16, 1940, it has 33.0 POINTS, tying it for 71st overall—and, if forced to choose, it is what I designate the first film noir as commonly understood today.

For an explanation of POINTS, please see here.

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On Monday, March 23, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 23

The night before, Nell had drawn this homage to author Mo Willems—whom we once met in Maine—on the ever-popular white board.

Happy Monday Gerald and Piggy

Our younger daughter had again had a very rough morning—literally getting no work done even as our older daughter continued to thrive; indeed, on Tuesday, the latter would finish her work by at 11:30 am then ask “Is that it?!?” Still, the former daughter recovered sufficiently to sit attentively through the first hour of “Pop school,” during which we discussed the history and composition of American political parties.

March 23

For…reasons…our daughters have assigned nicknames to some of our early national leaders. Alexander Hamilton is “Hottie” Hamilton, while his rival Thomas Jefferson is “Smoking Hot” Jefferson. Our seventh president is now, unfortunately, “A**hole Jackson.” Our older daughter thought the name “Martin Van Buren” sounded “nice,” but she did not assign him a nickname.

We used two handouts to explore two ways to understand contemporary political parties:

  1. Elected officials and voters who share a common philosophy of government and policy preferences
  2. Coalitions of groups based on such factors as demographics, socioeconomic status, religiosity and cultural outlook.

The first sheet condensed an analysis I performed in August 2017 of issues on which a majority of Democrats—and often Independents—differed from a majority of Republicans. Our older daughter, fully in the throes of puberty and naively exploring her own sexuality, was particularly interested in partisan stances on LGBTQ+ rights.

Issue Differences Democrat v Republican

Whatever makes you happy, kid.

The second sheet, however, provoked the most interest. Less so from our fading younger daughter, but definitely from the older daughter, who delighted in reading aloud for Daddy to note on the white board which groups had voted, on average over the previous four presidential elections, at least 55% for the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee; data taken from CNN exit polls conducted in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

How Groups Voted for President 2004-16.docx

You can see how that ended, complete with the tissues I use in lieu of a proper eraser:

Group voting for president

Following a break of an hour or so, we reconvened to begin to learn about probability. Which meant we each flipped a penny 30 times; by a neat fluke, in total, we had 45 heads and 45 tails—there was an a priori 8.3% chance this would happen. Then we rolled a die 30 times—the totals diverged sharply from 1/6 for each number; the number two noticeably received very little love. Our younger daughter asked to record my rolls on the white board, and, regretfully, I grew testy with her when she did not write numbers evenly on the row. I apologized immediately; clearly sheltering in place takes its toll on everyone at some point.

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Knowing the Commonwealth would be shuttering its doors the following day even more than it already had, I was tasked with making a run to our local Star Market. I chose to drive to one ten minutes away on Commonwealth Avenue, a stone’s throw from the main campus of Boston University; not surprisingly, we call it “the BU Star.” It normally closes at midnight, and with the campus all-but-deserted I thought this would be a relatively sane place to search for the 27 items listed in a text message from Nell on my iPhone, mostly varieties of fresh fruit and vegetable.

I never got the chance to determine it sanity, however. When I drove by its lower rear entrance, I could see the vast parking lot to my left was practically empty. Nonetheless, I parked and walked across the street to the locked sliding glass doors. A series of notices taped to those doors informed me this Star now closes at 8 pm every night.

Rather than turn around and drive home, though, I realized I was enjoying being out of the apartment and decided to drive over the nearby Charles River into Cambridge, through Harvard Square—eerily quiet—and north on Massachusetts Avenue to Porter Square. Like the BU Star, the Star Market used to be open 24 hours a day; it was my primary grocery store when I lived one block away in Somerville between September 1989 and February 2001. Driving to this Star always feels a bit like traveling back in time, with many landmarks remaining from two, three decades ago.

This Star now closes at 8 pm as well, meanwhile, which did not really surprise me. The silver lining is that a CVS sits in the same Porter Square parking lot; it is mandated by law never to close so that it can dispense emergency medications at any time of the day. When Nell nearly “broke her face” falling into a gate latch four years ago this May, this is where I acquired her pain medications after she was released from the hospital at around 1 am.

The older, deeply-freckled, red-haired manager of the CVS wore a blue face mask and darker-blue gloves. There was a strip of duct tape on the carpeting every six feet reminding patrons to observe social distancing. I collected what foodstuffs from the list I could find—including fresh-looking cut strawberries in clear plastic containers—and went to a register to pay. The manager scanned and helped bag my groceries—using the reusable bags I always keep in my car–as we chatted amiably.

As I thanked him for being there, he pointed out a woman I had noticed earlier—heavy-set, a bit unkempt and of indeterminate age—hunched over a wheelchair loaded with items she was pushing slowly around the store.

“I have to worry about thieves,” he said.

“Really? Her?” I responded, or words to that effect.

“Last week she managed to get all the razors…This never happens when George is in charge.”

He may not have been that upset, though, as he cheerfully handed me four dollars bills and some change—“You could have bought one more thing!”—before gently warning me not to forget my iPhone.

My route back to Brookline took me past the 7-Eleven on Market Street in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, which was also still open. They had respectable-looking bananas, limes, lemons and small red and green apples, so I purchased a handful of each along with a few other items. Returning home five or so minutes later, I thoroughly washed my hands before putting away the four total bags of groceries.

A few hours later, as I was preparing a steaming-hot bath, Nell—who had gone to sleep hours earlier but now was restlessly tossing and turning—informed me she had put her wakefulness to good use by placing an Amazon Fresh order on her iPhone. She added that rather than give the recommended $10 tip, she chose to give $25 instead.

“Was that right?” she asked me as I soaked sleepily.

Of course it was,” I assured her.

When Nell placed the order, meanwhile, she thought it would arrive Tuesday night at 6 pm, only to realize later that morning it would not arrive until Thursday.

C’est la vie.

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The next afternoon, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.” Apparently there was no “word of the day.”

March 24

“FATHER COLLEGIO” did not start until 2:52 pm, as I was moving slowly this day. Once we assembled, though, after a BRIEF review of political parties, I began to tell the story of the 2000 presidential election by way of introducing American presidential elections generally and the Electoral College specifically. And our younger daughter was riveted.

March 24

The night before, Nell and I had discussed whether she should start taking her Ritalin on weekday mornings again. The last time she had taken any was two Thursdays earlier, her last day at her elementary school before it temporarily closed due to COVID-19, in part because we thought it was why she had been having a hard time falling asleep at night recently.

But despite refusing to take any of “her medicine” that morning, she was fully attentive and engaged as I described watching CNN continually reverse itself on who had won Florida that November night in 2000. Her attention did not wane as I walked through the history and defenses of the Electoral College, breaking more than 200 years of elections into a handful of epochs. We concluded with a discussion of how few states actually appeared to be in play as the 2016 presidential election approached—mooting the argument repealing the Electoral College would limit campaigning only to the most populous areas. At this point, our older daughter turned to her and said, “You probably don’t even remember that election. You were only [pause for arithmetic] six.”

I reminded them how both had cried the following morning upon learning that Hillary Clinton had not, in fact, been elected the first female president.

Breaking at 3:45 exactly, we reconvened one hour later to do two things as our “applied math” lesson:

Discuss how exactly Clinton lost the Electoral College in 2016 while winning the national popular vote

How Hillary Clinton Lost in 2016.docx

This is where our older daughter perked up again. While both daughters read from the one-page sheet, it was the older daughter who said “Wow!” every time I described how the Republican percentage of the non-urban vote in the pivotal states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had skyrocketed between 2012 and 2016. And when we were finished, this is what the white board looked like.

Discussing 2016 election

Incidentally, you may find the answer to the question posed in the upper right-hand corner of the white board here.

I also used my wall maps of the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections to help to illustrate why the notion of a Democratic “blue wall” was absurd—voting patterns can clearly change dramatically from one election to the next. Those wall maps, by the way, are covering up an original painting by my maternal first cousin once removed; yes, that really is what my great-aunt and uncle named her. 

Color in a blank map to show current state partisanship

A few years ago, I developed 3W-RDM to assess how much more or less Democratic a state is—at least at the presidential level—than the nation as a whole.

States Ordered from Most to Least Democratic

Using the attached list of states and the District of Columbia, we each colored in our blank map as follows:

  • Dark blue = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Democratic
  • Light blue = 3-10 points more Democratic
  • Purple = between 3 points more Republican and 3 points more Democratic
  • Light red/pink = 3-10 points more Republican
  • Dark red = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Republican

Given how much both our daughters love to draw—they doodle and do other art projects as they sit and listen to me talk—this was easily their favorite afternoon activity so far. Even as our younger daughter was trying to keep up with which states were which—she got there soon enough—our older daughter was touting her “perfectionism” in carefully coloring in each state. She even gently chided me for my blunt-instrument approach to filling in “all those islands off of Alaska,” which she delicately colored one by one.

Hand drawn Democratic strength map

This is what my final map looked like. I may not be as good at drawing as my cousin, or even my wife and daughters, but I still think I produced a solid work of art, despite the single sweep of dark red across the Aleutian Islands.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing III

In two previous posts (I, II), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I were coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 3, 2020. Other than staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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On Friday, March 20, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 20

And this homage to the brilliant Netflix series Stranger Things by our 4th-grade daughter was on the always-popular white board; apparently she still retains the obsessive love of the show I instilled in her, and one I discussed last December.

Upside Down Nora

While that same daughter had something of a rough morning, our 6th-grade daughter had a terrific morning; the latter girl is genuinely enjoying her workbooks and other projects. Providing ample time for each daughter to exercise and/or FaceTime friends helps immensely as well. That said, it was our younger daughter who, in the evening, asked if we could have “school” again tomorrow (Saturday). I am certainly happy to oblige—I have a review “quiz game” I have been thinking about putting together—but Nell and I suspect her outlook will be different in the morning. Still, to the extent these “classes” are about imposing structure and routine in the era of social distancing, maybe we should do some form of group learning activity every day, including weekends.

As I noted in the first “dispatch,” I planned to teach basic politics/government for an hour and basic applied math for an hour every weekday afternoon—except Friday. To break up the monotony, I will teach a hopefully-more-entertaining form of history on Fridays.

It is no secret I am a massive film noir fan. In October 2018, I had the opportunity to teach a course titled “What Is Film Noir” through Brookline Adult and Community Education. I only had six students, and I had a series of technical glitches trying to show movie clips—using my own DVDs—using Nell’s ancient laptop, but I nonetheless immensely enjoyed those four Wednesday nights.

Our daughters have actually watched a handful of classic films noir: both girls have seen The Maltese Falcon; Murder, My Sweet; Laura; The Naked City; Strangers on a Train and Rear Window; as well as long chunks of Out of the Past. Our older daughter has also seen Double Indemnity. They each spent some time at the first-ever NOIR CITY Boston in June 2018, watching the aforementioned Murder, My Sweet and helping their father sell Film Noir Foundation merchandise; this was my “reward” for having help to set up the festival. And they have certainly heard their father talk at great length about the subject.

It thus made perfect sense when it was time for “Daddy Prepatory” yesterday afternoon for me to set up my desktop computer in the “classroom” and open the PowerPoint slides from my first class. While I basically jumped ahead to slide 22 (of 130), in which I begin to tell the history of film noir as an idea, we did linger briefly on two photographs I had used to help to establish my bona fides to teach this class in 2018.

What is Film Noir

The first one I took in July 2017. It shows part of the “film noir” section at the now-defunct Island Video Rentals on Martha’s Vineyard.

IMG_3137

The second photograph was of yours truly attending NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, California the following winter.

IMG_3603

The two-part class went extremely well, with both girls asking insightful questions for the most part; our younger daughter did try to invoke Stranger Things once or twice, along with other more recent bits of pop culture. In the first hour, we focused on how “film noir” was a label first imposed after the fact on a particular set of American crime films, starting with two French film critics in 1946. After a 30-minute break, I told them two different, albeit broadly overlapping, “origin stories” for film noir:

  1. Traditional story: it was an inevitable organic artistic movement
  2. What in my opinion is a more accurate modification: it emerged from economic and creative necessity with the rise of B-movies in the 1930s

To be fair, by the middle of the second origin story, the usual doodling-based fidgeting had become sitting on the floor playing with our golden retriever, so I wrapped up quickly.

And with that we ended—possibly—classes for week one of our necessary experiment in home schooling.

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In my previous post, I briefly discussed some thoughts I had about the efficacy of using a designated test to determine whether a person has a condition such as the novel coronavirus. Specifically, I introduced the concepts of sensitivity (the percentage of persons who have the condition who test positive for it) and specificity (the percentage of persons who do not have the condition who test negative for it). And, given how hard it is to have 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, I asserted epidemiologists generally prefer to have higher specificity (i.e., fewer false positives), which is achieved by loosening the criteria used to identify the condition. This preference stems from the relative rarity of most conditions epidemiologist study, which results in having many more false positives than false negatives.

Being the sort of person who does these sorts of things, though, I decided to use Microsoft Excel to test this idea. I set up a series of 2×2 tables such as the following in which I varied four values: sensitivity, specificity, prevalence (a proxy for whether everyone is tested, or only those persons deemed likeliest to have the condition) and the total number of tests performed.

Truth

Positive Negative
Observed Positive 142,500 42,500 185,000
Negative 7,500 807,500 815,000
150,000 850,000 1,000,000
Sensitivity 95%
Specificity 95%
Prevalence 15%
# Tested 1,000,000
Ratio FN/FP 5.7

What I was primarily interested in, beyond the raw number of false positives (FP) and negatives (FN), was the ratio of the former to the latter. Table 1 summarizes the results; the number of tests administered did not alter these ratios given the same set of sensitivity, specificity and prevalence values, so I omitted it from the table.

Table 1: Ratio of False Positives to False Negatives Using Different Combinations of Sensitivity, Specificity and Prevalence, Based on 1,000,000 Tests

Prevalence Sensitivity Specificity FP/FN #FP #FN
15% 95% 95% 5.7 42,500 7,500
90% 95% 2.8 42,500 15,000
95% 90% 11.3 85,000 7,500
80% 95% 1.4 42,500 30,000
95% 80% 22.7 170,000 7,500
33% 95% 95% 2.0 33.350 16,650
90% 95% 1.0 33.350 33,300
95% 90% 4.0 66,700 16,650
80% 95% 1.5 33.350 66,600
95% 80% 8.0 133,400 16,650
50% 95% 95% 1.0 25,000 25,000
90% 95% 0.5 25,000 50,000
95% 90% 2.0 50,000 25,000
80% 95% 0.25 25,000 100,000
95% 80% 4.0 100.000 25,000
85% 95% 95% 0.18 7,500 42,500
90% 95% 0.09 15,000 42,500
95% 90% 0.35 7,500 85,000
80% 95% 0.04 30,000 42,500
95% 80% 0.71 7,500 170,000

A test with sensitivity<80% and/or specificity<80% should not be utilized. Also, for any prevalence, the ratio of FP to FN will be the same across cases where sensitivity=specificity, albeit with different raw values.

Here are the primary conclusions from Table 1:

  • The lower the prevalence—or, in the case of COVID-19, the less you restrict testing only to those deemed likeliest to have it—the higher the likelihood you will have many more false positives than false negatives, irrespective of sensitivity and specificity
  • Within a given prevalence level, FP/FN is
    • Lowest when specificity > sensitivity
    • Highest when sensitivity > specificity
    • In the “middle” when sensitivity = specificity
  • The total number of “false” values (FP + FN) is
    • Lowest when both sensitivity and specificity are equal and close to 100%
    • Highest when sensitivity >> specificity

I saw a report on Twitter that 33% of persons testing positive were false positives. Based on these 20 scenarios, that would seem to indicate a situation where a fairly wide swath of the population is being tested (prevalence=15%), both sensitivity and specificity are at least 90%, and sensitivity > specificity. That percentage, which is not THAT meaningful, to be pehonest, would decrease if specificity were equal to or higher than sensitivity.

If you want to explore other scenarios like this, here is a protected copy of the workbook.

Disease Testing Worksheet

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…

Ranking every Marvel Cinematic Universe film

My memory is slightly fuzzy on this point, but I believe I had already heard of the excellent British comedy Coupling the night I happened upon the hysterical Series 4 episode “Nightlines” sometime in late 2004 or early 2005; the show first aired on May 17, 2004. Despite being completely unfamiliar with any of the characters or previous storylines, I have rarely laughed that hard before or since.

And I was hooked, to the point where I have seen all 28 episodes multiple times. In so doing, I learned the name of the man who wrote every episode: Steven Moffat.

A little over five years later, in the late spring of 2010, a friend sent me this short video to watch. This was what finally convinced me to set aside my reticence and watch an episode of Doctor Who; please see here and here to see how THAT turned out.

Among other things, that video marked the advent of Moffat as Doctor Who showrunner, a fitting reward for writing some of the best episodes of the post-2005 revival to that point. It also meant that by the end of 2010, two of my favorite television shows—period—had Moffat’s fingerprints all over them.

This probably made it inevitable, especially given my lifelong obsession with detective fiction, that I—along with my wife Nell—would eventually start watching the television show Moffat co-created and co-wrote with Mark Gatiss,[1] the one which debuted on October 24, 2010, just six months after his tenure as Doctor Who showrunner began:

Sherlock

Though I had seen him act before, in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock marked the first time I was aware I was watching an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch.

Flash forward to early January 2020, by which point I had seen every episode of Sherlock, as well as every episode of Coupling and post-revival Doctor Who. Having worked through my obsession with Stranger Things, I was casting about for the next film or television series over which to obsess. I was well aware of the pop culture phenomenon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but until then I had not been especially interested in watching any of its 23 interconnected films. Curiously, one of our daughters had already seen and loved Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as portions of Avengers: Infinity War, while the other one had seen Captain Marvel on the big screen with one of her best friends. As much as I had enjoyed the Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, though, none of the other characters who seemed to inhabit the MCU—Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Thor—particularly spoke to me. And that could well be because my primary association with those characters was spending five days as a nine-year-old in early January 1976 staring blankly at Captain America on my Mighty Marvel Bicentennial wall calendar as I recovered from one of the worst flus I have ever had.

Well…there had been one mild exception. When Doctor Strange was released in 2016, starring Cumberbatch in the title role, I was intrigued. Nell and I had loved Cumberbatch in Sherlock, and there was something about his being both a doctor—my Twitter handle is @drnoir33, after all—and a “master of the mystic arts” that felt like a fresh twist on the classic superhero epic battle trope.

Plus, I was really curious about the sparkly golden circles he kept making with his hands.

Which is how I found myself watching—and genuinely enjoying—Doctor Strange roughly six weeks ago. Following a pre-credits fight scene and the opening credits, we meet Doctor Stephen Strange as he prepares for surgery. A short time later, nearing the end of the procedure, he asks a fellow physician to play the “challenge” round in a musical trivia game. After easily identifying “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione, along with its correct year of release—1977, not 1978—Strange is asked about all the “useless” knowledge he has.

His flabbergasted response recalls my own immersion in musical esoterica: “Useless? The man charted a top ten hit with a flugelhorn!”

Doctor Strange FunkoPop

As we have been told for years about Pringles, you cannot stop at just one MCU film—especially not when your wife has a massive lifelong crush on Robert Downey, Jr., who portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man in nine MCU films. Subsequent days of film watching culminated with the four of us watching the wholly-satisfying, 3-hour-long Avengers: Endgame on the evening of February 16, 2020; for me, I now only have Spider-Man: Far From Home left to watch. And we are already making plans to see Black Widow when it is released in May 2020.

**********

In two previous posts, I gathered online film rating data to rank…

As I watched the MCU films, I decided to perform a similar analysis of this set of films.[2] Opening a blank Microsoft Excel worksheet, for each film I entered its:

  • Title
  • Date of release (according to the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb)
  • Year of release (ditto)
  • Length in minutes (ditto)
  • Estimated budget (ditto)
  • Gross worldwide earnings (ditto)
  • IMDb score and number of raters
  • Rotten Tomatoes (RT) Tomatometer score (% RT-sanctioned critics deeming film “fresh”), average critic rating (0-10) and number of critics
  • Audience Score (% RT users rating the film 3.5 or higher on 0-5 scale), average user rating and number of user raters

I collected budget and earnings data because I was curious whether, and how much, estimated profit—gross earnings minus budget—was related to perceived quality. Data are current as of 1:30 am EST on February 24, 2020. Analyses were performed using Microsoft Excel (Office Home and Student 2016) and Intercooled Stata 9.2[3].

History of a financial juggernaut.

As Table 1 reveals, the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off on May 2, 2008 with the release of Iron Man. Produced for an estimated $140 million, it ultimately earned nearly $585.4 million worldwide; the resulting $445.4 million profit was more than three times what the film cost to make. At the end of the film, in the first MCU post-credits scene, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) first reveals something called “the Avenger initiative” to Downey’s Stark.

Table 1: MCU Films by release date and financial status

Title Release date Run time (mins.) Estimated budget Gross worldwide earnings Estimated profit Profit/

Budget

Iron Man 5/2/2008 126 $140 million $585,366,247 $445,366,247 3.18
The Incredible Hulk 6/13/2008 112 $150 million $264,770,996 $114,770,996 0.77
Iron Man 2 5/7/2010 124 $200 million $623,933,331 $423,933,331 2.12
Thor 5/6/2011 115 $150 million $449,326,618 $299,326,618 2.00
Captain America: The First Avenger 7/2/2011 124 $140 million $370,569,774 $230,569,774 1.65
Marvel’s The Avengers 5/4/2012 143 $220 million $1,518,812,988 $1,298,812,988 5.90
End of Phase 1
Iron Man 3 5/3/2013 130 $200 million $1,214,811,252 $1,014,811,252 5.07
Thor: The Dark World 11/8/2013 112 $170 million $644,783,140 $474,783,140 2.79
Captain America: The Winter Soldier 4/4/2014 136 $170 million $714,421,503 $544,421,503 3.20
Guardians of the Galaxy 8/1/2014 121 $170 million $772,776,600 $602,776,600 3.55
Avengers: Age of Ultron 5/1/2015 141 $250 million $1,402,805,868 $1,152,805,868 4.61
Ant-Man 7/17/2015 117 $130 million $519,311,965 $389,311,965 2.99
End of Phase 2
Captain America: Civil War 5/6/2016 147 $250 million $1,153,296,293 $903,296,293 3.61
Doctor Strange 11/4/2016 115 $165 million $677,718,395 $512,718,395 3.11
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 5/5/2017 136 $200 million $863,756,051 $663,756,051 3.32
Spider Man: Homecoming 7/7/2017 133 $175 million $880,166,924 $705,166,924 4.03
Thor: Ragnorak 11/3/2017 130 $180 million $853,977,126 $673,977,126 3.74
Black Panther 2/16/2018 134 $200 million $1,346,913,161 $1,146,913,161 5.73
Avengers: Infinity War 4/27/2018 149 $321 million $2,048,359,754 $1,727,359,754 5.38
Ant-Man and the Wasp 7/6/2018 118 $162 million $622,674,139 $460,674,139 2.84
Captain Marvel 3/8/2019 123 $175 million $1,128,274,794 $953,274,794 5.45
Avengers: Endgame 4/25/2019 181 $356 million $2,797,800,564 $2,441,800,564 6.86
Spider Man: Far From Home 7/2/2019 129 $160 million $1,131,927,996 $971,927,996 6.07
End of Phase 3

Six weeks after Iron Man hit theaters, The Incredible Hulk was released—and while it turned a modest $114.8 million estimated profit, it remains the only MCU film to have a lower estimated profit than estimated budget. Perhaps this is why the third MCU film, Iron Man 2, did not arrive in theaters for nearly two more years; while not as successful as its predecessor, its estimated profit was still more than twice its estimated budget. The same was true of the next two films, which introduced Thor (and Clint Barton/Hawkeye) and Captain America; we had already met Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in Iron Man 2.

On May 4, 2012, these six “Avengers” would unite in the most successful MCU film to date: Marvel’s The Avengers. This was not only the first film in the franchise to earn more than $1 billion in estimated profit—a staggering 5.9 times its estimated $220 million budget—it is fully 23 minutes longer than the first five films, on average; it also contains my favorite post-credits scene. Avengers provided a highly profitable end to what is now known as “Phase 1,” with the six films combining for more than $2.8 billion in estimated profit.

Phase 2 launched almost exactly one year later with Iron Man 3, the second consecutive MCU film to top $1 billion in estimated profit and have a profit/budget ratio (PBR) of at least 5.0. The next five films, ending with the more explicitly-comedic Ant-Man, all had a PBR of at least 2.79, with Avengers: Age of Ultron becoming the third MCU film to top $1 billion in estimated profit. Overall, the six Phase 2 films earned nearly $4.2 billion in estimated profit, as the franchise steadily increased in popularity. Besides Ant-Man (and, by implication, The Wasp) this Phase also introduced War Machine/James Rhodes, The Falcon/Sam Wilson, Vision/Jarvis, Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff, Rescue/Pepper Potts, Winter Soldier/James “Bucky” Barnes and the Guardians of the Galaxy: Star-Lord/Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora and (though not yet an Avenger) Nebula.

Phase 3, the final Phase of what is known collectively as “The Infinity Saga,” began with the release of Captain America: Civil War on May 6, 2016; this film was the longest film to date, at 2 hours, 27 minutes, and it featured the debut of Spider Man. The aforementioned Doctor Strange was released six months later, also introducing Wong, with three films—one introducing Mantis and another introducing Valkyrie, Korg and Miek—following in 2017. The release of Black Panther on February 16, 2018 not only signaled the impending showdown with Thanos in the subsequent Avengers: Infinity War, it also introduced four more Avengers: the titular Black Panther/T’Challa, Okoye, Shuri and M’Baku, bringing the total to 31. Black Panther and Infinity War would become the fourth and fifth MCU films to top $1 billion in estimated profit; the latter’s estimated $1.73 billion in profit easily made it the most profitable film in the franchise to date.

Following an Ant-Man sequel and the introduction of Captain Marvel, the interlocking storylines reached their crescendo on April 25, 2019 with the release of Avengers: Endgame. This latter film, the most profitable of all time at an estimated $2.44 billion—6.9 times its $356 million estimated budget, was just over three hours long, continuing a trend of increasing run times; the previous nine Phase 3 films average 2 hours, 12 minutes in length. Overall, the 11 Phase 3 films accrued $11.16 billion in estimated profit—meaning the average Phase 3 film netted more than $1 billion—bringing the total estimated profit across all 23 MCU films to $18.15 billion, for an average of more than $660 million per film.

As for the sheer length of these films, they combine for 2,996 minutes of run time: 2 days, 1 hour and 56 minutes in total. So, you could knock them off in one weekend-long epic marathon, though I would not recommend it.

Online ratings and increasing public awareness.

Table 2 presents five online ratings and three counts of online raters for the 23 films in the MCU.

Table 2: Ratings Measures for MCU Films

Title IMDb Score

(# Raters)

Tomato-

meter

Mean Tomato-

meter Rating

(# Raters)

RT Audience Score Mean

Audience Rating

(# Raters)

Iron Man 7.9

(898,514)

94 7.7

(278)

91 4.3

(1,082,398)

The Incredible Hulk 6.7

(416,152)

67 6.2

(231)

70 3.7

(739,115)

Iron Man 2 7.0

(686,963)

73 6.5

(297)

71 3.7

(480,400)

Thor 7.0

(711.939)

77 6.7

(284)

76 3.8

(247.469)

Captain America: The First Avenger 6.9

(701,165)

80 6.9

(267)

74 3.8

(188,979)

Marvel’s The Avengers 8.0

(1,218,614)

92 8.1

(384)

91 4.4

(1,135,342)

Iron Man 3 7.2

(721.159)

79 7.0

(318)

78 3.9

(484,684)

Thor: The Dark World 6.9

(565,662)

66 6.2

(271)

76 3.9

(310,425)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 7.7

(698,659)

90 7.6

(295)

92 4.3

(281,813)

Guardians of the Galaxy 8.0

(996,682)

91 7.8

(322)

92 4.4

(255,076)

Avengers: Age of Ultron 7.3

(700,440)

75 6.8

(360)

83 4.0

(288,171)

Ant-Man 7.3

(533,917)

83 6.9

(321)

86 4.0

(166,462)

Captain America: Civil War 7.8

(621,385)

91 7.7

(406)

89 4.3

(179,582)

Doctor Strange 7.5

(554,767)

89 7.3

(364)

86 4.1

(109,969)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 7.6

(624,996)

85 7.3

(403)

87 4.2

(108,403)

Spider Man: Homecoming 7.4

(472,178)

92 7.7

(384)

87 4.2

(107,475)

Thor: Ragnorak 7.9

(534,496)

93 7.6

(409)

87 4.2

(93.959)

Black Panther 7.3

(565,228)

97 8.3

(494)

79 4.1

(88,211)

Avengers: Infinity War 8.5

(748,778)

85 7.6

(455)

91 4.5

(57.790)

Ant-Man and the Wasp 7.1

(277,244)

88 7.0

(417)

76 3.7

(24,169)

Captain Marvel 6.9

(395,538)

78 6.8

(504)

48 2.9

(94,460)

Avengers: Endgame 8.5

(670,991)

94 8.2

(504)

90 4.5

(68,431)

Spider Man: Far From Home 7.5

(264,988)

91 7.5

(427)

95 4.6

(69,222)

 Table 3, meanwhile, summarizes all 14 measures.

 Table 3: Summary MCU Film statistics

Measure Mean

(SD*)

Median Minimum Maximum
Year of Release 2014.7

(3.4)

2015 2008 2019
Length (mins.) 130.3

(15.5)

129 112 181
Estimated Budget $192,782,609

($55,961,802)

$175,000,000 $140,000,000 $356,000,000
Gross Earnings $982,024,151

($576,952,326)

$853,977,126 $264,770,996 $2,797,800,564
Estimated Profit $789,241,543

($52,6038,263)

$663,756,051 $114,770,996 $2,441,800,564
Profit/Budget 3.8

(1.6)

3.5 0.8 6.9
IMDb Score 7.5

(0.5)

7.4 6.7 8.5
# IMDb Raters 629,584.6

(216,222.3)

621,385 277,244

 

1,218,614
Tomatometer 84.8

(8.9)

88 66 97
RT Critic Rating 7.3

(0.6)

7.3 6.2 8.3
# RT Critics 363.7

(80.2)

360 231 504
RT Audience Score 82.4

(10.5)

86 48 92
RT User Rating 4.1

(0.4)

4.1 2.9 4.5
# RT User Raters 289,652.4

(308,813.2)

179,582 24,169 1,135,342

*SD=standard deviation, a measure of how tightly packed values are around the mean: the smaller the value, the tighter the packing. In a normal distribution, 68% of values are within 1 SD, 95% are within 2 SD and 99% are  within 3 SD.

Two conclusions emerge from these data:

  1. As a group, these films are relatively well-regarded
  2. There is minimal variation in how well-regarded these films are.

The median IMDb score for the MCU films is a more-than-respectable 7.4, meaning half the films have a lower score and half have a higher score. Only four films have a score below 7.0: The Incredible Hulk at a good-but-not-great 6.7 and three films at 6.9. The median Tomatometer score was a very-high 88, with a solid average RT Critic rating of 7.3. Only Hulk and Thor: The Dark World have a Tomatometer score less than 70 and an average RT Critic Rating below 6.5. Finally, the median RT Audience Score is an impressive 86 and the median RT User Rating is a very solid 4.1. Only Captain Marvel has an RT audience score below 70 and an average RT User Rating below 3.5, a medicore 48 and 2.9, respectively.

For comparison, the median IMDb Score, Tomatometer, RT Critic Rating, RT Audience Score and RT User Rating values for the 557 films I analyzed in my “guilty pleasures” post are 7.2, 85, 7.1, 76 and 3.5, respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame both have an IMDb score of 8.5, with two other films scoring 8.0.  Fully 10 films have Tomatometer≥90, topped by Black Panther at an eye-popping 97. Black Panther also has the highest RT Critic Rating at 8.3, followed closely by Endgame and The Avengers. Seven films have RT Audience Score≥90, topped by Far From Home at an astonishing 95. Finally, Infinity War, Endgame and Far From Home all have RT User Ratings of 4.5 or 4.6.

As for how little variance there are in these rating measures, all five standard deviations were lower than or (RT User Rating) identical to those for the far more disparate 557 films I analyzed in the earlier post. Broadly speaking, these films are clustered around an appraisal of “good, just shy of great.” Even the (relatively) lower-rated films like Hulk, Dark World and Captain Marvel are far more “meh” than “awful,” while films like Black Panther, The Avengers and Endgame approach “critical darling” status.

The three “number of raters” measures also have relatively low variance. Perhaps because it is the more-established online movie information resource, there are consistently many more IMDb Raters than RT User Raters. At the same time, while none of the 557 films discussed in the earliest post had more than 342 RT Critics, fully 13 MCU films do, topped by the 504 who weighed in on Captain Marvel and Endgame. Curiously, while the number of both IMDb Raters and RT User Raters appears to be lower for more recent films, as one would expect, the number of RT Critics actually seems to increase over time. Correlations (“r”)—a measure ranging from -1.00 to 1.00 of how closely two variables are linearly related to each other[4]—between date of release and each of these three measures confirm this: the former two are negatively correlated (r=-0.47 and -0.78, respectively) with date of release while RT Critics is very highly positively correlated at 0.88.

**********

To assess these films in a more sophisticated way, I used a statistical technique called factor analysis, which groups variables into underlying “dimensions,” or “factors,” used the 14 variables in Table 3. Each variable has a “factor loading” for each factor, essentially its correlation with the underlying dimension. This technique[5] generated three factors accounting for 90% of the total variance in these data, which is remarkably high.

The first factor (accounting for 39% of total variance) is dominated by gross worldwide earnings (0.96), estimated profit (0.96) estimated budget (0.93), run time (0.84) and PBR (0.77); number of RT critics (0.61) and IMDb score (0.56) also load relatively high on this factor. As this dimension mostly combines the cost and profitability of each film with its length, I label it “Epicness.”

The second factor (30%) is dominated by RT audience score (0.91), average RT user rating (0.88), Tomatometer (0.85), RT Critic Rating (0.81) and IMDB Score (0.74). This dimension is clearly “Perceived Quality” (PQ).

The third factor (21%) is dominated by year of release (0.88), number of RT audience raters (-0.84), number of RT critics (-0.74) and number of IMDB raters (0.72): precisely the same pattern outlined above. This dimension is effectively “Recency;” I do not dwell on it below, echoing the “guilty pleasures” post.

Table 4: How MCU Films Compare on Three “Ratings” Dimensions

Title

Epicness

Perceived Quality Recency
Iron Man -0.66 1.19 -1.97
The Incredible Hulk -0.81 -1.55 -1.25
Iron Man 2 -0.12 -1.27 -1.01
Thor -0.80 -0.61 -0.54
Captain America: The First Avenger -0.96 -0.55 -0.39
Marvel’s The Avengers 1.05 1.01 -1.64
Iron Man 3 0.68 -0.73 -0.92
Thor: The Dark World -0.35 -1.30 -0.48
Captain America: The Winter Soldier -0.64 0.97

-0.30

Guardians of the Galaxy -0.54 1.24 -0.48
Avengers: Age of Ultron 0.96 -0.76 -0.41
Ant-Man -1.05 0.15 0.35
Captain America: Civil War 0.33 0.62 0.19
Doctor Strange -0.67 0.44 0.55
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 -0.36 0.30 0.73
Spider Man: Homecoming -0.42 M 0.64 0.80
Thor: Ragnorak -0.48 0.76 0.81
Black Panther 0.47 0.49 1.06
Avengers: Infinity War 1.87 0.32 M -0.03 M
Ant-Man and the Wasp -0.74 -0.35 1.68
Captain Marvel 0.68 -2.47 1.50
Avengers: Endgame 2.98 0.47 0.33
Spider Man: Far From Home -0.66 1.19 -1.97

Table 4 reveals how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) all 23 films are on these three dimensions.[6] Values≥1.0 are boldfaced, and values≤-1.0 are italicized; median value is marked with an “M.”

When reading these values, keep in mind that each of these factors is as “disentangled” from the other two as possible, though Epicness and PQ still overlap to some extent. This is why, for example, Infinity War and Endgame have by far the highest “Epicness” scores—they are the longest films with the highest budgets earning the most money—but do not have as high PQ scores despite their generally high ratings: they are far more “epic” than they are “high quality” according to these data. And it is why Guardians and Iron Man top these films on PQ—they are the highest-rated films which, while very profitable, were not quite on the scale of the final two Avengers films; the well-received Captain America: The Winter Soldier falls into this category as well. Somewhere in between are epic, but not well-regarded films like Ultron and less-epic, but relatively well-regarded films like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange.

The only film, meanwhile, with value≥1.0 on both measures is The Avengers, while the only film to have positive values on all three measures is Civil War.

At the other end of the spectrum, not surprisingly, are films like Hulk, Dark World, and Iron Man 2 that made far less money and are relatively lower-rated, as well as the anomalous Captain Marvel, which turned a tidy profit despite the lowest PQ score by far. In fact, every film between Iron Man and Avengers has negative values for all three measures, as does Dark World.

Summary. For those new to the MCU, these data suggest starting at the beginning, with Iron Man then jumping ahead to The Avengers; you do not miss much along the way, with the mild exception of First Avenger, which introduces key characters and plot points. Watch Winter Soldier and Guardians next, then Civil War. I personally would watch Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther after that, if only because each is interesting in its own right and, like First Avenger, relay key characters and plot points. And then you can conclude with Infinity War and Endgame, bearing in mind their combined run time is 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Or, you can choose your own MCU adventure, which these data strongly suggest you would enjoy.

Until next time…

[1] I strongly recommend Gatiss’ three-part series on the history of horror films. Part 1 may be found here.

[2] Only to learn Leonard Maltin stopped publishing his annual Movie Guide in 2015. ata Statistical Software: Release 9. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.

[4] Essentially, a positive correlation means that as one variable increases, the other one does as well, while a negative correlation means that as one variable increases, the other one decreases.

[5] Principal factors, with an orthogonal varimax rotation, forced to three factors.

[6] Using the “Predict” command—regression scoring method—in Stata. In essence, it converts each variable to a “z-score” (mean=0, SD=1), recalculates the factor loadings, then sums each value weighted by the factor loadings.

Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

**********

But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

**********

In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

**********

I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

**********

I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

**********

That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

**********

There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.

Reaching milestones of my own invention

In my last post, I described how a great friend of mine and I exchange generous Amazon gift cards for our birthdays. One gift I have already used this year’s card to purchased is this four-DVD film noir box set:

Filn Noir collection.JPG

Filn Noir collection--titles.JPG

Of the four titles in this no-frills set (the only extras are trailers for every film except Storm Fear), the only one I had already seen was He Ran All the Way. Both the surprisingly-well-made Storm Fear and the classic He Ran All the Way are superb examples of what could be called “hostage noir.” Other examples would be Suddenly—featuring a spellbindingly psychotic Frank Sinatra; Blind Alley and its 1948 remake The Dark Past; and the underrated gem Dial 1119.

Witness to Murder, despite featuring Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders and Gary Merrill, is a watered-down version of the brilliant Rear Window; what redeems it is mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography by the ground-breaking John Alton. The titular witness, Stanwyck, does her best with the material, including a hard-to-swallow romance with Merrill’s homicide detective. Sanders, however, is believably menacing and creepy as he-who-is-witnessed; no spoilers here, as the trailer itself reveals Sanders is the killer.

A Bullet For Joey is a 1955 film best described as “bonkers,” albeit generally entertaining. Edward G. Robinson, terrific as always, is wasted as a homicide Inspector—working in a Montreal which looks suspiciously like Los Angeles, and where nobody speaks with a Canadian accent. Audrey Totter looks bored, and George Raft is—well, George Raft, wooden yet strangely charming. Both Robinson and Raft had great early success in early 1930s gangster films, but while Robinson seamlessly shifted to other roles, Raft always seems stuck around 1931. To be fair, Raft is quite good as a homicide detective in a 1954 film I quite like called Black Widow, a rare example of color film noir from the “classic” era, roughly 1940 to roughly 1960.

**********

But wait, IS Black Widow a film noir?

Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote about the “personal journey” I had taken to become a devoted fan of film noir. Two months later, a conversation with my wife Nell about career paths inspired me to write the book I am close to finishing (working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive into My Family’s History…and My Own). My original plan was simply to flesh out the multiple facets of my personal journey into book-length form, but it quickly morphed into a full-on investigation of…what the working title sums up nicely.

In that May 2017 film noir post, I introduced my quantitative film noir research project. Essentially, I collected as many published—either as a book or on a credible website—film noir lists as I could find. These lists could be explicit (encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, filmographies) or implicit (discussed as film noir within the text of a book about film noir), and needed to include a minimum 120 films.

Ultimately, I acquired 32 such lists, from which I created an Excel database of 4,825 films at least one “expert” labelled film noir, however indirectly. From these data I calculated a score cleverly called “LISTS,” which denotes how many lists feature that title. The idea is simple: the more film noir lists on which a film appears, the more widely it is considered film noir. Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a measure of how “noir” a film is, merely how often it is cited by acknowledged experts as noir. To date, no agreed-upon definition of “film noir” exists.

Somewhat to my surprise, only four films appear on all 32 lists: Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice; not surprisingly, these are exemplary films noir. Along those lines, only 201 titles (4.2%) appear on as many as 20 lists, and only 478 titles (9.9%) appear on as many as 12 lists; at the opposite end, just under half of the films appear on only one list.

Using additional information from 1) 13 shorter lists and 2) lists within lists, such as the 50-film Canon in The Rough Guide to Film Noir[i], I next calculated a score called “POINTS.” The maximum number of POINTS a film can receive is 67.5; Double Indemnity comes closest with 62.0 POINTS, followed by Out of the Past (59.0); The Maltese Falcon (58.0); Kiss Me Deadly (54.0) and Murder, My Sweet (53.5). As with LISTS, shockingly-few films had as many as 20 POINTS—249, or 5.2%–while only 515 (10.7%) had as many as 12 POINTS. Just under half—48.2%–of films had only one POINT; by definition, they appeared on only one list as well.

You may review my 46 total sources and POINT-allotment system here: Film Noir Database Sources.

Based upon the similar distributions of LISTS and POINTS[ii], every title is classified as Universal (≥12 LISTS or POINTS), Debatable (>5, <12 LISTS or POINTS) or Idiosyncratic (≤5 LISTS or POINTS); the percentage of films in each category is roughly 10%, 10% and 80%, respectively.

So, to answer the question with which I opened this section: Black Widow has 7 LISTS and 8.5 POINTS, putting it squarely in the Debatable category. I encourage you to watch it and draw your own conclusions.

**********

When I first wrote about my film noir fandom “journey” in May 2017, I had seen 558 (11.6%) of the films in the database. Incrementally increasing the LISTS minimum from 1 to 20, the percentage of films I had seen increased steadily to 87.1%. And the films I had seen comprised well over 30% of total LISTS and 40% of total POINTS; unfortunately, I failed to record the precise percentages at the time.

However, through my recent viewing of Storm Fear, every one of those values has increased. I have now seen 698—14.5%–of the 4,825 films in the database; that is 140 first-time film noir viewings in nearly 30 months, or nearly five titles a month. Updating the original breakdown:

Any film        698/4,825=14.5%

LISTS≥3        564/1,613 =35.0%

LISTS≥6        470/890    =52.8%

LISTS≥12       362/478    =75.7%

LISTS≥15      308/364    =84.6%

LISTS≥20      193/201    =96.1%

As of this writing, the only films with LISTS≥20 I have yet to see are The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Suspense, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Rogue Cop, Nightmare, The Thief, The New York Confidential and World For Ransom. The bottom line, however, is that the 698 films I have seen total 8,887 LISTS, or 46.3% of all LISTS in the database, putting me 705 total LISTS shy of a majority. I could reach that milestone by watching the top 40 films, by LISTS, I have yet to see, which I very much look forward to doing.

Meanwhile, when my DVD set arrived, I had seen 695 films totaling 10,735 POINTS, or 49.85% of all POINTS in the database. Witness to Murder (19 LISTS, 19 POINTS) got me to 49.94%, while A Bullet For Joey (10,10) got me to 49.98%. And…after watching Storm Fear (16,16), I was at 10,780 POINTS, which is 50.06% of the 21,534.5 POINTS in the database.

Having seen a set of films comprising a majority of all POINTS in my film noir database is a milestone I invented, but that makes it no less fun to celebrate.

**********

Speaking of milestones…I am extremely reluctant to tout my blog statistics. I write on this site because I think I have something interesting to say, not for accolades or gaudy view numbers—not that I am averse to either, mind you.

This reticence, to be honest, stems in large part from the statistics themselves: as I approach the end of three years writing on this site, I have “only” 109 followers, and my posts have been viewed “only” 8,814 times. Still, the rate of increase for both—and the latter especially—has been steadily accelerating over time. And I greatly appreciate every single follower and view—even the fellow on Twitter who said that someone to whom he had shown this post—which I published two year ago today—had called it “trash.”

And, to be fair, a number of my posts have been (relatively) widely read. In fact, in September 2018, Film Noir: A Personal Journey became my second post to receive 100 views; it has now been viewed 148 times. One month later, this post on now-Associate-Justice Brett Kavanaugh became the third to reach that milestone, and last month it topped 200 views, my second-ever post to do so. It has now been viewed 215 times, while five posts in total have now topped 100 views—133 or more views, actually.

So which post beat “Personal Journey” to 100 views and “Kavanaugh” to 200 views?

It was one I wrote on a lark as I began to write the “Charlie Chan” chapter of my book, the one in which I describe how my love of classic black-and-white crime and mystery films was predicated upon my discovery—just shy of my 10th birthday—of the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films of the late 1930s and early 1940s[iii]. Collecting information about those films, I built an SPSS database containing, among other data, how various organizations and critics rated those films. Combining those data into a single value, I was able to “rank” every Charlie Chan film in relative quality from lowest to highest.

I published Ranking Every Charlie Chan Film on August 26, 2017 to what could best be described as crickets. It was viewed only seven times that month and only 23 times through the end of the year, close to the median 25 views my posts receive. By the end of April 2018, it had received 42 views, just over my post-average of 40.

But starting in July 2018, something happened. The post received 20 views that month, followed by 33, 34, 46, 55 and 53 views over the next five months; by the end of 2018, it had been viewed 299 times. And, of course, the more it was read, the higher it rose on Google searches, and so the more it was read. Over the first eight months of 2019, in fact, it was viewed an astonishing (to me, anyway) 823 times, or 103 times a month. And in July 2019, nearly two years after I published it, it crossed the 1,000-view threshold. As of this writing, it has been viewed 1,234 times.

Not coincidentally, if you Google “Charlie Chan films,” the 41st entry is my post; until recently it had been 16th, but I am not complaining one bit. And if you add the word “ranked” to the search, the very first entry is my post.

As esoteric and specific as that is, I am deeply humbled by it.

**********

There is one last thing.

I do not read or follow as many blogs as I am “supposed” to in order to a “successful” blogger, but there are a handful whose latest posts I am always excited to see appear in my Inbox. In no particular order, they are:

In Diane’s Kitchen

bone&silver

MadMeg’s Musings

JulieCares

What these sites have in common, besides each author’s gracious reactions to my, at times, long-winded comments, is they are all authored by women with uniquely interesting and powerful personal stories to tell. I always have something to learn from them.

Until next time…

[i] Ballinger, Alexander and Graydon, Danny. 2007. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London, UK: Rough Guides, Ltd.

[ii] The correlation between the two scores is 0.983.

[iii] There is a lot more to this story, of course, mostly involving my relationship with my father, his gambling and an old family business, but I save that for the book itself.