What’s new in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As I walked out of my first viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the many thoughts going through my head was how familiar everything was.

Everyone’s noticed this, of course. JJ Abrams has even been explicit that this was their intent.

Well, it’s also the root of most of the criticism for the film. Some people think there are too many identical story beats and symbols from the original trilogy. You know what I mean: A third Death Star, really?

I read this piece from The Verge and it summed up my thoughts better than I could’ve. It argues that The Force Awakens is an object lesson in how nostalgia can be great, but only takes you so far. The film is diminished because it didn’t construct enough of its own originality.

The second time I saw the film, I wasn’t bothered by this at all.

Even conscious of what I considered to be a flaw, as I noticed every familiar beat, somehow it just didn’t matter. The film worked, and didn’t leave me feeling empty or shortchanged.

After my third viewing, I started to realize that all of those familiar elements distract from what are in fact many fresh and original ideas that we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars film.

The idea that Episode VII is just a rehashing of the first three Star Wars films falls apart on close inspection.

We have never seen such wonderfully empowered and bad ass women and people of color in a Star Wars movie before. This alone is worth a lot of celebration.

But we’ve also never seen Kylo Ren’s prodigious abilities with the Force before. He can restrain a person, suspend a blaster bolt, and probe minds for interrogation. And we’ve never seen anyone resist the power of the Dark Side the way Rey can resist his mind probe.

We’ve never seen a TIE fighter that seats two, heroes stealing enemy ships, or melee combat with quarterstaffs and riot batons (that can spar with a lightsaber!). We’ve never seen scavenger camps, starships flying through the ruins of larger ships, entering hyperspace from inside of a hangar, or exiting it inside of a planet’s atmosphere.

We’ve never seen a stormtrooper remove their helmet and become a character, let alone defect. We’ve never seen someone so committed to the Dark Side being so conflicted or vulnerable. We’ve never seen someone murder a member of their own family.

There is plenty of new stuff to sink your teeth into here.

Some of those things — say for example, the two-seater TIE fighter — may seem minor. But even small differences like that go a long way toward making a work of fantasy an original.

That’s right: Star Wars is a fantasy. It only looks like science fiction.

It has all of the classic elements of fantasy. It completely and totally disregards physics, and makes magic very important. Epic quests revolve around delivering precious information or mythic items. There are heroic characters, super villains, overt Good versus Evil themes. Exotic locations season the story. An exclusive order of knights wield swords and wizard-like power, with their own code and arcana…

Works of fantasy are marked by their very specific vehicles, items, quests, and heroes. The specifics are what make a work rise above the genre’s tropes to stand on its own.

So together, The Force Awakens’ new bits, major and minor, add up to a fresh, original work.

By the same token, some of these symbols need to be familiar for the story to be Star Wars. The existence of the Millennium Falcon and our old heroes, etcetera provide continuity. The familiar elements make this fit better as a Star Wars movie than the prequels did.

Below, I’ve made a longer list of things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film.

I haven’t listed everything we have seen before, so I’m not sure what the ratio of familiar to fresh is. But whatever it is, that balance works well to make The Force Awakens both joyfully familiar and excitingly new.

Things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film


  • Rathtars, the bad beasties aboard Han’s freighter
  • Dozens of new alien races


  • Black stormtroopers
  • A lead black character
  • A female villain
  • A female stormtrooper
  • Female officers serving on an Empire / First Order ship or facility
  • A featured female character using the Force (by “featured” I mean minor/nameless Jedi characters in the the prequels don’t count)
  • A featured female character using a lightsaber
  • A featured female character piloting a starship
  • A female character being an expert mechanic
  • A female sage

Weapons, Items, and Ships

  • BB class droids
  • A two-seater TIE fighter
  • A quarterstaff
  • A sought-after star map
  • Han discovering the power of Chewie’s bowcaster
  • A lightsaber whose blade extends crossways to form a hilt (which makes perfect sense)
  • A riot control baton that can spar with a lightsaber

The Force

  • Using the Force to halt the forward motion of a blaster bolt, suspending it in midair
  • Using the Force to restrain others, paralyzing them where they stand
  • Using the Force for interrogation, to rip information out of others’ minds
  • Using the Force to resist interrogation
  • Learning to use the Force without training, in the heat of the moment
  • Using the Force to put someone to sleep

Locations and settings

  • A scavenger camp
  • The inside of a large crashed starship
  • Starships flying through the ruins of larger ships
  • A planet covered by lake-dappled forests (Takodana, the setting for Maz’s watering hole)
  • A misty yet un-swamp-like rainforest planet (D’Qar, the setting for The Resistance’s HQ)
  • A planet featuring stunning rocky islands rising from a global ocean (Ahch-To, where Luke’s been in exile)

Characters Doing Things

  • Pilot a stolen TIE fighter
  • Scavenge to make a living
  • Attempt a droid-napping
  • Fight with a quarterstaff
  • Dogfighting starfighters inside of an atmosphere
  • Battle with lightsabers in the snow

Villains Doing Things

  • A stormtrooper removing their helmet (I’m not counting clone troopers from episodes II and III)
  • A member of the Empire / First Order defecting
  • A dark lord committed to the Dark Side being conflicted and vulnerable
  • Stormtroopers slaughtering an entire village (of humans, on screen)
  • Disciplining stormtroopers through “reconditioning”
  • Conscripting children into stormtrooper ranks
  • Stormtroopers wielding melee weapons
  • Flametroopers wielding flamethrowers

Events and Plot Points

  • A quest for a missing hero
  • The heroes having information that the villains are trying to obtain (distinct from leaked information the Empire is trying to recover, as in the Death Star plans in Episode IV)
  • Introduction of the Knights of Ren, an order of Dark Side baddies distinct from The Sith
  • A roguish hero developing into a character willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for others
  • Someone murdering their own family member
  • A superweapon draining a star to power up
  • The sound a TIE fighter makes when starting up its engines
  • A ship entering lightspeed from inside of another ship’s hangar
  • A ship exiting lightspeed inside of a planet’s atmosphere

Thanks to my brother Dan and my partner Catherine for providing feedback on drafts of this post. The Force is strong with them. Just imagine our family gatherings.

12 parsecs

Star Wars is often lampooned for getting physics wrong, most famously this quote from Episode IV, A New Hope:

You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?…It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

— Han Solo

Yeah, yeah. We know. Parsecs are a unit of distance, not time. You nerd.

Admittedly, Han’s line from in A New Hope confuses the issue, because he was trying to persuade Obi-Wan that the Falcon is a fast ship.

But here’s the thing. Han referred to ‘parsecs’ correctly. He’s bragging that his ship is fast because its hyperdrive covers distance more efficiently than most.

I’ll break this down for you with two facts, smarty pants.

One. Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy. The fastest way from point A to point B through hyperspace is not a straight line. It is a vector carefully calculated to keep you safe while navigating around the gravitational wells of all the stars and other matter in proximity to your route. The vector is complicated by weird relativistic things that happen at faster-than-light speeds, which I don’t have time to explain to you right now.

Point is, the better your calculations are, the shorter your route is.

(Making these sophisticated calculations is the primary reason astromech droids like R2-D2 exist.)

Two. The Kessel Run involved a series of hyperspace jumps through a dense, dynamic star cluster. It was a region of space with twisted and dangerous routes thanks to a very high density of things to crash into and exert gravitational force on you. It was so dangerous that it couldn’t be effectively policed, making it ideal cover for smugglers transporting the illicit spice mined on Kessel.

Navigating the Kessel Run skillfully wasn’t about high velocity. It was about covering as little distance as you could. The shorter the distance you covered — that is, the fewer parsecs you traveled — the less your fuel you spent, the better your hyperspace engine’s speed and maneuverability, the better your skill as a pilot, and the greater your bragging rights.

See? Not a goof. Not a mistake.

Who’s the nerd now?

To Derek Sivers, success means helping others

Yesterday (well, late last night) I wrote about the danger in equating one’s wealth with one’s value.

I set aside all metrics for a person’s value besides money, because it was convenient for my point. In fact, I believe wealth has very little to do with one’s value to society.

A similar question is, what makes a person successful?

Tim Ferriss’s two recent interviews with Derek Sivers are both excellent. One highlight from the second episode is Derek’s definition of success.

The more you think it through, the more you realize that you have to define success first by your inner game, not some outside measure of money or fame, right? Mastering yourself, your mind, and your actions.

But now if you only master yourself, and you don’t help anyone else, well then we’d call you happy, but no one would define you as successful. So the very definition of success must include how much you helped others.

The point is, if you want to be undeniably successful, you need to both master yourself, and help others.

This has the ring of sage truth to me.

Some other big takeaways from Tim’s two-part interview:

  • Derek may be the world’s most focused person. He claims to do one thing he is excited about at a time for hours, days, and weeks. Science suggests multitasking is terrible for productivity, and it sounds like Derek’s almost completely eliminated it in his own life. I’m sure his high output stems from that.
  • “To me, ‘busy’ implies that the person is out of control of their life.”
  • The “Hell yeah! or No” approach to life, which means only say yes to things you want to enthusiastically say “Hell yeah!” to. Derek explains in more detail here.
  • Derek is collecting lessons learned in the form of directives for a good life. It’s the core of what most of us need to read books for anyway, so why not distill things down for people to save time, and to share them with people who are too busy to read, anyway? The power of these is evident when you hear them. For instance:

How to be useful to others:

  1. Get famous. Do everything in public and for the public. The more people you reach, the more useful you are. The opposite is hiding, which is of no use to anyone.
  2. Get rich. Money is neutral proof that you’re adding value to people’s lives. So by getting rich, you’re being useful as a side effect. Once rich, spend the money in ways that are even more useful to others. Then, getting rich is double useful.
  3. Share strong opinions. Strong opinions are very useful to others. Those who are undecided or ambivalent can just adopt your stance. But those who disagree can solidify their stance by arguing against yours. So even if you invent an opinion for the sole sake of argument, boldly sharing strong opinion is very useful to others.
  4. Be expensive. People given a placebo pill were twice as likely to have their pain disappear when told that that pill was expensive. People who paid more for tickets were more likely to attend the performance. So people who spend more for a product or service value it more and get more use out of it. So be expensive.

I really enjoy that Derek’s directive #2 above directly contradicts what I wrote yesterday, which has indirectly proven his directive number #3!

Derek has a happy, wise, and yet not smug quality that I really like. Check out interview parts one and two.

To get rich quick is to steal

I have recently been pondering the idea of a person’s value.

Are people truly ‘equal’ in terms of their value to others? What makes a person valuable to society? How does society value a person? How is a person’s value made visible to others?

I believe that some inherent value exist in everyone. This is manifested through the empathy we experience for others, and the rights we codify into law. Let’s ignore the notion of inherent human value for now, though, because it is difficult for society to measure.

Let’s narrow our concept of value to just what’s easy: Transactional value. Value that can be quantified, with money.

By this simplistic view, capitalist economies clearly do value some people more than others: Those with great wealth. Exhibit A is their spending power. Exhibit B is their celebrity.

However, what makes a person valuable to society, and how society values the person, are not the same.

Ideally, society would most value the individuals who provide the greatest value to society. In practice, that is too difficult. Non-financial evaluations of a person have the major disadvantage of being less quantifiable. I am thinking here of such things as civic awards and recognitions, IQ tests, athletic achievements, social media followers, public opinion… These are measurements that don’t stack up easily for clear comparisons of peoples’ across-the-board value.

So, we let wealth be a proxy for value.

Consequently, many of us would like to be rich. We can rightly expect that if we can achieve wealth, society will treat us as more valuable. And, we think that will tell us that we are valuable.

This has been true of me.

But this is a trap.

Acquiring wealth is a very unreliable indicator for the value you have created. Sometimes a person becomes wealthy by stealing or transferring value to themselves, instead of creating it.

To illustrate that concretely, I need to better define ‘value’.

Let’s say I sell you a cup of coffee for $2. Let’s also say that you would’ve spent as much as $3.00 for that coffee, because you really wanted it.

Since I charged you $1.00 less than the coffee was worth to you, in a way I have created $1.00 of value for you.

(I’ve actually created more value for you than just that: You also have the inherent value of enjoying the cup of coffee. But, remember that we’re ignoring anything we can’t easily put a price tag on.)

The point is, you’ve received at least $1.00 of value for my efforts.

Meanwhile, the cup I sold you only cost me $0.25 cents to brew. Thus, I’ve also created $1.75 of value for myself, in the form of profit.

All told, that’s more than $2.75 of value I created, of which I kept $1.75.

This illustrates how when transacting business in a capitalist society, we generally don’t earn value without creating more value than we receive.

This non-zero-sum aspect of transactions motivates us to do business together. Everyone benefits.

The person who scales up this coffee business model enough to get rich doing it will be both valued by society (through their amassed wealth) and be valuable to society (through the value given to customers).

I realize that this is a simplistic example that you could poke holes in. For instance, you could argue that I’m carelessly conflating coffee customers with ‘society’. I am giving economists and capitalism the benefit of the doubt here, which perhaps they don’t deserve.

But if it holds true for the coffee capitalist, this model of value also works for those of us collecting a paycheck. Our employers pay us because they get even more benefit than we cost, i.e. we create value for them.

Note how the process of becoming wealthy through this value creation happens gradually over time.

Something different happens when someone gets rich (relatively) quickly.

Consider hedge fund trading, exorbitant corporate officer pay, government and corporate corruption, tax evasion, scams, cons, and Ponzi schemes.

From society’s viewpoint, getting rich through these kinds of methods can be viewed as a form of stealing. It skips value creation. Instead, it generates wealth through value transfer.

The person who would like to be valuable to society should avoid get-rich-quick methods. They should pay attention to the value they create for others, and ensure that it well exceeds the value ending up in their own bank account.

I will blog every day in January

Beginning today, I will blog once a day in January.

At the end of this month, I’ll reflect on the experiment and decide whether to continue.

Why you should give a shit, Dear Reader

Here’s what’s in it for you:

A developer’s journal. I’ll write more about things I learn as a practicing WordPress developer, and publish references that help me for recurring tasks or situations. Looking back at traffic statistics for this blog and others, technical topics are clearly the most attractive to readers — in particular, “cheat sheets”.

Podcast recommendations. I’m a dedicated listener to dozens of shows — I’m currently subscribed to 29. I’ll tell you which episodes and which shows have added the most value to my life, and why.

Music recommendations. I also listen to a lot of music, and I’ve been told I have a gift for describing what I like about a song or a band. I’ve never penned music criticism before, so set your expectations to ‘amateurish’.

Business leadership insight. I am involved daily in managing the company I own. This is a rich experience that occasionally inspires thoughts I’d like to share. Sounds boring, right? I promise only to publish the ones I think are truly good.

Comedy. I am honing my make-you-laugh skills. Thus, I may occasionally try to make you snort your drink through your nose. Again, I’m new at this, so I can’t promise that will taste or feel very good.

Football, a.k.a. soccer. We’re in the MLS offseason, but that does not stop me from thinking about the Timbers every day. Perhaps I shall write about them, too.

General nerdery. I have mostly been shy to fly my nerd flag in public. This is a vestige of social anxiety born of mostly-forgotten agonies endured in middle school. Now well into my thirties, I belatedly see that the world is better when I share my prodigious knowledge of Star Wars, than when I don’t. (My other current nerd obsession is Kingdom Death: Monster.)

Politics and current events. Because I can’t help myself and it’s an election year here in the U.S., I will occasionally tell you what to think.

Religion. I may get inspired to tell you more about my beliefs, etc. I’m in a waning phase of religious involvement, so this is unlikely.

Personal updates and stories. I am the sharing type. You may only care about my personal highlights, growth, and challenges if you are a friend or family member. Then again, maybe not.

What’s in it for me

Taking the time to blog every day seems good for several reasons, but mainly this:

I expect the daily practice to make me a better writer. I also expect the discipline will benefit other areas of my life.

The truth is that I’m tempted to pledge to do this all year long, right now. But I realize that’s a terrible idea.

I could quickly grow to wish I hadn’t made such a pledge, in the moment, when it seemed like a good idea, before I tasted the reality of it. I could simply become overwhelmed by the commitment. I could decide I have more important things to do with my time. Less likely, I could simply run out of topics. (Actually, no way that’ll happen.)

But, I still want to give this a shot.

So as a gift to my present self and to my future self, I pledge to do this for just a month, and then decide whether to continue.