Sunday, October 7, 2018

2 bad analogies about Supreme Court nominees . . .

. . . who face allegations of wrongdoing:

(1) "If I need surgery, I only care about the surgeon's medical skill. I don't care about anything else good or bad that the surgeon might have done. Therefore, we shouldn't care how a Supreme Court nominee has acted in life outside their job performance."

The problem with that: Government is different from a medical specialty like surgery, which has a clear scope and mission that's narrowly defined and uncontroversial. Government can potentially get involved in almost any area of our lives, and questions of what government should and shouldn’t concern itself with are hotly debated. So when we're talking about one of the most powerful government officials, it makes sense to look more broadly at the person's whole character, morals, judgment, etc.

(2) "If you were considering hiring a babysitter or nanny for your kids, and had heard that one candidate sexually assaulted a 15-year-old at age 17, and there were many other candidates who you had no reason to suspect of sexual assault, you'd probably pass over that person — even if it was just a rumor and you couldn't say it was more likely than not to be true. Choosing a Supreme Court Justice is a more important decision than choosing a babysitter or nanny, and therefore shouldn't have a higher standard of proof."

Problems with that: Hiring someone to help out in your own home is a private decision which you're free to make on a whim. It isn't an extended process that plays out in front of the whole country and could permanently mar a judge’s reputation. Also, choosing a nanny or babysitter isn't an elaborate governmental process that was carefully crafted to provide for separation of powers and checks and balances, in which a nominee is chosen by a president who's typically been elected after making campaign promises/statements about what kind of judges they'll choose, and another branch of government makes the final decision but is expected to give some degree of deference to the president's choice.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Nirvana's In Utero turns 25.

25 years ago today, on September 21, 1993, Nirvana released its third and last studio album, In Utero, the defiantly raw and noisy follow-up to Nevermind.

And if you really want to feel old, think about this: In Utero is an older album today than the Beatles' White Album was on the day In Utero was released!

There’s a “soulful” tribute to the album called Heart-Shaped Tracks (Spotify link). Based on the free samples, my favorite is the cover of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” which feels true to the spirit of the song while fitting comfortably in the R ’n’ B genre.

Serve the Servants” kicks off the album perfectly with a chaotically discordant chord (the ‘90s equivalent to the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night”?). The first line is a droll take on the band’s success: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.” At the end of each chorus, Kurt Cobain seemingly mocks himself for overdramatizing how he was affected by his parents’ divorce in interviews: “That legendary divorce is such a bore!” The song is unusual in that the singing in the chorus is lower and more relaxed than in the verse; the other way around is far more common.



(Here's a live performance where Kurt Cobain played a wonderfully off-kilter, anti-virtuosic guitar solo.)


Heart-Shaped Box,” the first single from the album, was perhaps the only song on In Utero that an unsuspecting listener at the time might have expected as a follow-up to the poppier Nevermind. This was one of three songs that was remixed by Scott Litt to have clearer vocals than in Steve Albini’s original mix; Krist Novoselic explained that songs like this and “All Apologies” were “gateways” to the rest of the album, which would cause more people to discover the album’s “aggressive wild sound — a true alternative record.”




Dumb” is the “Polly” of In Utero; the songs have a similar chord progression, but “Dumb” is more fully satisfying, with atmospheric cello adding depth to the soft side of the band. The cellist on this song and “All Apologies” was Kera Schaley, the only musician to play on a Nirvana studio album without being in the band.




Milk It” is an aggressively un-commercial song with shockingly dissonant guitar playing. One line is heart-breaking knowing what happened the next year: “Look on the bright side is suicide.”




Pennyroyal Tea” was going to be released as the third single from the album in April 1994 (following “All Apologies”), but the single was canceled because of Kurt Cobain’s suicide that month. He looked forward to the afterlife in an oddly non-rhyming couplet: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally.” He said: “The song is about a person who's beyond depressed; they’re in their death bed, pretty much.” Asked about the Leonard Cohen line, Cobain explained: “That was my therapy, when I was depressed and sick. I'd . . . listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse.”




Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is one of my favorite Nirvana songs, with manically oscillating guitar noise over relentlessly thumping drums. Most of the song is not quite “radio friendly,” but it gets most melodic in the bridge, with Kurt Cobain offering uncharacteristically straightforward advice: “Hate, hate your enemies/Save, save your friends/Find, find your place/Speak, speak the truth.”




All Apologies” brings the album to a bittersweet close, culminating in a meditative chant over droning guitars. Kurt Cobain had this song around since 1990, before Nevermind. When Dave Grohl heard a demo of it in the early days, he thought: “This guy has such a beautiful sense of melody — I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.”



("All Apologies" unplugged.)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha Franklin (1942 - 2018)

Aretha Franklin, the great singer, songwriter, and pianist, has died of cancer at age 76.

When Rolling Stone ranked Aretha Franklin #1 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time in 2010, Mary J. Blige wrote this:

Aretha has everything — the power, the technique. She is honest with everything she says.… And she has total confidence; she does not waver at all. I think her gospel base brings that confidence, because in gospel they do not play around — they're all about chops, who has the vocal runs. This is no game to her. . . .

Even the way she pronounces words is amazing: In "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," when she sings, "Many say that I'm too young" — the way she says "I'm," you can almost see her saying it, like she's all in your face, but you're still right with her. You can really visualize her hands when she sings, "You're tying both of my hands," on "Ain't No Way" — it's the powerful way she hits the word "both."

When you watch her work, you can see why Aretha is who she is. When we did the song "Don't Waste Your Time" on my album Mary, she just went in there and ate that record like Pac-Man. She could be doing a church vocal run, and it would turn into some jazz-space thing, something I never encountered before. You'd say, "Where did that come from? Where did she find that note?"
Last year I posted this on Facebook:
50 years ago today, in 1967, Aretha Franklin released her 11th studio album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, when she was just 24. It's best known for "Respect," but I recommend the whole album — amazing intensity. . . .
In January I posted:
50 years ago today, in 1968, Aretha Franklin released her 14th album, Lady Soul. The first single from the album was "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." . . . Few recordings are as emotionally powerful as this one is in less than 3 minutes.

It's weird to think of Aretha Franklin as being underrated in any way since her singing has been so fully appreciated, but she doesn't get enough credit as a pianist. She played piano on many though not all of her recordings, including the iconic intro to "Think." Here she is playing piano and singing at age 22 in 1964:




She was still remarkably inventive as recently as 2016 with her improvisatory style of singing and piano playing in a version of the national anthem that stretched over 4 minutes:




A full concert from 1971, which starts with "Respect":




Here's her set at President Obama's White House in 2015:




Lastly, this 1986 concert includes great performances of "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" (after 9:00) and "Natural Woman" (19:50):




Elton John has written a wonderful tribute (starting with this tweet):
The loss of @ArethaFranklin is a blow for everybody who loves real music: Music from the heart, the soul and the Church. Her voice was unique, her piano playing underrated – she was one of my favourite pianists.

I was fortunate enough to spend time with her and witness her last performance – a benefit for [the Elton John AIDS Foundation] at St John The Divine Cathedral. She was obviously unwell, and I wasn’t sure she could perform. But Aretha did and she raised the roof. She sang and played magnificently, and we all wept. We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time.

I adored her and worshipped her talent. . . . We shared the same birthday – and that meant so much to me. The whole world will miss her but will always rejoice in her remarkable legacy. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

"I sing to people about what matters. I sing to the realists — people who accept it like it is. I express problems. There are tears when it's sad and smiles when it's happy. It seems simple to me, but to some, feelings take courage." — Aretha Franklin

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Gov. Cuomo on America: "It was never that great"

The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has caused an uproar by saying:

We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great. We have not reached greatness.
Now, I can respect Americans who say that kind of thing. I thought it was fine when a Home Depot employee wore a cap that said “America was never great” in the store in 2016. If that’s how individual citizens want to express their conflicted feelings about America, more power to ‘em. Whether you agree or disagree with the sentiment, the fact that people feel so free to criticize America is one of the things that makes America great!

But most Americans don’t want to hear this kind of grim talk from their leaders. I already didn’t think Andrew Cuomo (my governor) had strong presidential prospects, and this won’t help.

UPDATE: Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo's Democratic primary challenger, responds:
I think this is just another example of Andrew Cuomo trying to figure out what a progressive sounds like . . .

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.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The problem with telling privileged people to shut up and listen to marginalized people

Whether or not you completely buy into the leftist framing and wording of this blog post, it effectively makes the case that trying to enforce a rule for privileged people of, “Shut up and listen to marginalized people,” cannot possibly work and actually prevents marginalized people from being listened to. (That quote is the blogger's paraphrase of something that's rarely said in those exact words — but is often said more euphemistically.)

Excerpt:

The formal social justice rules say something like this:

• You should listen to marginalized people.
• When a marginalized person calls you out, don’t argue.
• Believe them, apologize, and don’t do it again.
• When you see others doing what you were called out for doing, call them out.

Those rules . . . don’t actually work. It is impossible to follow them literally, in part because:

• Marginalized people are not a monolith.
• Marginalized people have the same range of opinions as privileged people.
• When two marginalized people tell you logically incompatible things, it is impossible to act on both sets of instructions.
• For instance, some women believe that abortion is a human right foundational human right for women. Some women believe that abortion is murder and an attack on women and girls.
• “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you who to believe, what policy to support, or how to talk about abortion.
• For instance, some women believe that religious rules about clothing liberate women from sexual objectification, other women believe that religious rules about clothing sexually objectify women. . . .
• Narrowing it to “listen to women of minority faiths” doesn’t help, because women disagree about this within every faith.
• When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people.
• Objectifying marginalized people does not create justice.

Since the rule is literally impossible to follow, no one is actually succeeding at following it. What usually ends up happening when people try is that:

• One opinion gets lifted up as “the position of marginalized people”
• Agreeing with that opinion is called “listen[ing] to marginalized people”
• Disagreeing with that opinion is called “talking over marginalized people”
• Marginalized people who disagree with that opinion are called out by privileged people for “talking over marginalized people”.
• This results in a lot of fights over who is the true voice of the marginalized people.
• We need an approach that is more conducive to real listening and learning. . . .

The rule also lacks intersectionality:

• No one experiences every form of oppression or every form of privilege.
• Call-outs often involve people who are marginalized in different ways. . . .
• For instance, black men have male privilege and white women have white privilege.
• If a white woman calls a black man out for sexism and he responds by calling her out for racism (or vice versa), “listened to marginalized people” isn’t a very helpful rule because they’re both marginalized.
• These conversations tend to degenerate into an argument about which form of marginalization is most significant.
• This prevents people involved from actually listening to each other.
• In conflicts like this, it’s often the case that both sides have a legitimate point. (In ways that are often not immediately obvious.)
• We need to be able to work through these conflicts without expecting simplistic rules to resolve them in advance.