Monday, June 18, 2018

Is Harvard doing to Asians what it used to do to Jews?

Glenn Reynolds says:

I wrote four years ago that it looked as if Asian applicants to Harvard were getting the "Jewish treatment" — that is, being subjected to quotas, and rated down on “soft” qualifications, so as to keep their numbers lower than their objective qualifications would warrant. This is what Ivy League schools did to Jewish applicants for much of the 20th century, because Jewish applicants were seen as boring grinds who studied too hard, and whose parents weren’t rich enough or connected enough to contribute to the schools’ flourishing.

The Ivy League eventually ended its quotas for Jews, suspiciously at about the time that there were enough rich and well-connected Jews to benefit the Ivy League. But now it’s doing the same thing to Asians. At least, that’s the charge made in a lawsuit charging Harvard with racial discrimination against Asian-American applicants. And I for one believe that Harvard is as guilty of anti-Asian discrimination now as it was of anti-Jewish discrimination back around the time I was born.

One of the things that highly selective schools like Harvard like to say is that their admission policy is “holistic,” based on personal characteristics that go beyond high school grades or SAT scores. This goes back to the early days of discrimination against Jews, when things such as “leadership” or “well-roundedness” were used to favor rich WASP applicants over Jews who just studied hard. And, often, there was a thumb on the scale.

Now that’s happening to Asians . . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Tim Russert

Tim Russert of Meet the Press died 10 years ago today. I did this blog post.

Here are "lessons" from how Russert worked.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

What are your comments really doing?

People tend to overestimate their power to change others' views, and underestimate how much they're revealing about themselves through their comments. For instance, in a political discussion, telling me I don't have enough experience to understand [something] probably won't tell me anything new about myself; it's more likely to tell me that you leap to conclusions, because you think you know what I have and haven't experienced.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Joking

Jokes often have serious meaning. I may take you especially seriously because I know you're joking — because not only do I understand your meaning, but I appreciate the extra effort you put into conveying it well.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Aerosmith's Get a Grip turns 25

25 years ago today, in 1993, Aerosmith released their 11th album, Get a Grip, with the band sounding more slick and commercial than ever. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

Livin’ on the Edge” features a guitar solo (starting at 2:18) that’s slower and more melodic than Joe Perry’s usual solos; it almost sounds like it could have been played by George Harrison. You might think this is a fairly ordinary rock song until it becomes epic by virtue of an extended outro. It sounds like it must be winding down to the end around 4:20, but the drum fill at 4:30 decisively starts things back up.

The lyrics are Aerosmith in their socially conscious mode (probably fueled by the success of “Janie’s Got a Gun” from their previous album). In one line, Steven Tyler touches on racism in a paraphrase of the Yardbirds' “Mister, You're a Better Man than I.” Wikipedia says the line “There's something right with the world today, and everybody knows it's wrong” is a shot at conservatives (the “right”), but that seems unlikely — Steven Tyler and Joe Perry are both Republicans, and I have the impression that most if not all of the band members have conservative leanings. Instead, I view it as simply an ironic, jarring juxtaposition of opposites, akin to the Beatles’ “It’s getting better all the time/It can’t get no worse.”




Cryin’” uses a subtle trick in its song structure: it kicks off with an intense hard-rock riff at the beginning, which gives way to a country-rock tune with maudlin lyrics about lost love . . . but after the first chorus, the heavy riff returns as if it were a bridge, and the lyrics have turned from sentimental to sexual (starting at 1:13).

Below is a live performance, but if you want to hear the full country-like vocal harmonies then watch the official video.




Crazy” — This very popular video was one of 3 videos from the album featuring Alicia Silverstone, and it was also Liv Tyler's debut. There's a sweet moment (at 3:47) when the song suddenly slows down and Liv Tyler lip-syncs, “I need your love” . . . which is actually sung by her dad, Steven Tyler. His falsetto near the end (5:13) beautifully conjures up 1950s doo-wop. The video uses a longer version of the song than on the album; if you listen closely you can tell when they seem to have copied and pasted part of the chorus near the end.




Amazing” — In which Alicia Silverstone seems to have taken hitchhiking lessons from Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night . . .

The video is about virtual reality, and Steven Tyler said this song and others on the album were about drugs: “It can be fun in the beginning but then it comes time to pay your debt, and if you're not sharp enough to see that it's taking you down, then it really will get you.”

He alludes to the album title, Get a Grip, when he sings: “When I lost my grip, and I hit the floor/Yeah I thought I could leave, but couldn’t get out the door.” Then in the bridge, he alludes to a previous Aerosmith album, Permanent Vacation: “That one last shot’s permanent vacation…”

A relentlessly driving guitar solo by Joe Perry is worthy of the song title.

During the video’s final reveal, we hear the quaint sounds of a 1945 song by Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra: “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well.”

Thursday, April 12, 2018

10 years of this blog

10 years ago today, on April 12, 2008, I was having brunch in Austin while writing down a plan in a Moleskine notebook, which I published later that day as my first blog post, on Google's Blogger ("Blogspot").

Over time, the blog evolved into frequent Facebook posts (for reasons I explained here). This blog isn't completely defunct yet, but I mostly like to keep it around as a repository for old content.

I kicked off the blog with a grandiose mission statement: "There's probably a greater excess of content in the world right now than at any previous point in history. We have a glut of content but a dearth of thought. I'll try to correct the balance." 

We easily take for granted how extraordinary our current time is; when I was growing up, if you wanted to express your opinion about something in the news, your main option was to talk to whoever happened to be physically near you. Of course there were other options, like writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper/magazine, or calling in to C-Span, but you'd be at the mercy of corporations' tastes and whims to an extent that makes any concerns about suppression of viewpoints by sites like Facebook seem petty by comparison. Now we have the power to convey our thoughts and feelings to anyone in the world, at any time. We should make the most of that opportunity.

And now, here are some of my favorite posts from 10 years of this blog, in roughly reverse-chronological order (most recent to oldest). I'm sure many of the links and videos within these posts have gone dead by now, but I hope the posts have otherwise held up:

Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes turns 25

Reactions to the 2016 election

Live-blogging presidential debates: 2016, 2012, 2008

Beatles albums — "It was 50 years ago today . . ."

What are we doing when we teach fiction to kids?

Revering the irreverent

Sam Cooke died 50 years ago.

The jazz guitarist Jim Hall has died at age 83.

If people are bad at deciding what's best for themselves, is government the solution?

The "acting alone" fallacy

Thoughts on playing sad songs and easy guitar parts

2 surprising pay gaps

How much of a problem is it that you don't have enough time in your whole life to become "reasonably well-read"?

The top 10 greatest classical composers of all time

Andrew Sullivan, The Crusader

Getting it wrong: language and more

The 12 books that influenced me the most (follow-up)

6 ways blogs are better than books

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s

Penelope Trunk's Twitter post about miscarriage and abortion

Is "loser" a male noun?

Kant's categorical imperative vs. the golden rule

The 2 most overused chord progressions in pop music

"What are the simple concepts that have most helped you understand the world?"

The problem of evil (continued)

Two kinds of careers

The 40 greatest grunge songs

"Do you see what's happening?"

Thank you, Tim Russert (1950 - 2008)


* * *


So now it's been exactly 10 years that I've been blogging regularly, on this blog or Facebook. Whether I'll do this consistently for another 10 years, I don't know. But I know that my guiding principles will still matter: that facts and reason are more important than ideological commitments or partisan allegiances, and that music is as important as anything.

Thanks for reading, listening, commenting, and thinking!

(Photo by me.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Takeaway from Mark Zuckerberg's Senate hearing

Facebook needs to make sure no one says anything that makes anyone else feel bad — while giving everyone unprecedented, airtight privacy protections!

Good luck with that.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

How can you tell a good actor from a bad one?

A director answers that question in this 2014 article. Excerpt:

First, for me, an actor is good if he makes me believe he's actually going through whatever his character is going through. I'm talking somewhat about physical stuff (“He really is getting shot!” “He really is jumping off a moving train!”) but mostly about psychological stuff (“He really is scared!” “He really is in love!”). If an actor seems to be faking it, he's not doing his job.

Second, the actor has to surprise me. This is the most nebulous requirement, but it's important. Except for really small parts that aren't supposed to call attention to themselves (e.g., a bank teller who just cashes the hero's checks), it's not enough for actors to just seem real. Seeming real is a requirement, but a second requirement is that I can't predict their every reaction before they have them. Think of how someone might react if his or her significant other ends the relationship. There are many, many truthful ways—ways that would seem like a human being reacting and not like a space alien behaving in some bizarre, unbelievable way. An actor's job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of his or her own possibilities. He or she must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, the actor becomes boring and predictable. . . .

I don't hate Tom Cruise the way some people do. To me, he's believable most of the time. He's just not very interesting. He rarely surprises me, and he doesn't seem to dig deep into a anything raw or vulnerable inside him. He seems guarded. The must vulnerable I've seen him is in Eyes Wide Shut, in which he did some good work. But it wasn't brilliant, and it's not his norm.

Keep in mind that many people . . . aren't very clear on what an actor contributes to a film. It's not necessary for most audiences members to understand who does what during production. Lots of people think an actor is great if they like his or her character. But that's often a function of good writing more that good acting. Or they think she's good if she pulls off some impressive effect, such as gaining or losing a lot of weight or pretending to be handicapped. Those are impressive stunts, but they aren't the core of what actors do. . . .

Some people think acting is good if they like the movie. Keanu Reeves, in my mind, is a horrible actor—mostly because he's wooden and fake. It often seems as if he's reading from cue cards rather than saying words that are his. There is a difference between playing an undemonstrative person and being a wooden actor. In fact, playing someone who is reserved is very difficult (because you have to act without showing very much), and the actors who pull it off are brilliant. I would point you to Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, Tommy Lee Jones in many of his roles, and even Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. These actors manage to convey the sense that although they have stony exteriors there's much going on underneath.

To me, Reeves conveys an actor who is showing up and saying his lines. Having auditioned many actors, I'm used to hearing ones that can take any writer's lines and make it sound like their own words. And I'm also used to less experienced (or less gifted) ones who sound uncomfortable with words that aren't their own. They sounds as if they're are reciting or reading something. They sounds scripted. Listen to Reeves in this clip, especially at around 10 seconds in, when he says, “I have offended you with my ignorance, Count.” Many of his line-readings sound like that to me: He has not fully lifted them off the page and into his own mind and body. I don't believe much else is going on underneath except maybe nervousness. I don't know if you can see a difference between Reeves, above, and Tommy Lee Jones here. They are both pretty deadpan. The difference, for me, is that Jones seems to be speaking his own words, even though they are just as scripted as the ones Reeves speaks. Jones is just much more comfortable in his skin and much more able to “own” his lines.
I agree that Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. Not just bad, but cringe-inducing. There’s a lot more to acting than line reading, but good line readings are necessary, and he just doesn’t know how to say a line convincingly. He seems more focused on producing a vocal timbre that’s pleasing to the ear, than on saying the line how a real person in the character’s situation would actually say it. By contrast, Steve Buscemi is a much better actor even though he seems unconcerned with whether his voice is enjoyable to listen to.

Using the factors listed by this director, I value an actor’s being realistic much more than being surprising, whereas the author seems to weight them about equally. For instance, he seems to think Tom Cruise is not terrible but not that great because he’s realistic but not very surprising or deep. But I think Cruise is a great actor who does have a lot of depth, and it’s OK with me if he’s not that surprising.

If most actors are regularly trying to be surprising, I’ll be surprised by the actor who focuses only on realism and not on being surprising.

As another example, the author seems to like Dustin Hoffman, but I think he’s an unbelievable actor, which is the worst thing I could say about an actor: I can’t believe him. When I’m watching him, I feel that I’m observing an actor making decisions about how to act. And I think that might be why some people think he’s a good actor — because they’re impressed with all the acting they’re seeing!

A good actor should create the illusion that you aren’t seeing any acting. I suspect that some of the best actors are severely underappreciated by audiences because they’ve done that job so well.