Saturday, May 5, 2018


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.)


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.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Now can we take Bill Clinton's alleged sex offenses seriously?

In an article for the Atlantic called "Bill Clinton: A Reckoning," Caitlin Flanagan writes:

let us not forget the sex crimes of which the younger, stronger Bill Clinton was very credibly accused in the 1990s.

Juanita Broaddrick reported that when she was a volunteer on one of his gubernatorial campaigns, she had arranged to meet him in a hotel coffee shop. At the last minute, he had changed the location to her room in the hotel, where she says he very violently raped her. She said she fought against Clinton throughout a rape that left her bloodied.

At a different Arkansas hotel, he caught sight of a minor state employee named Paula Jones, and, Jones says, he sent a couple of state troopers to invite her to his suite, where he exposed his penis to her and told her to kiss it.

Kathleen Willey said that she met him in the Oval Office for personal and professional advice and that he groped her, rubbed his erect penis on her, and pushed her hand to his crotch.

It was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault; the women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks. But Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today’s accused men have experienced. . . .

The notorious 1998 New York Times op-ed by Gloria Steinem must surely stand as one of the most regretted public actions of her life. It slut-shamed, victim-blamed, and age-shamed; it urged compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused. Moreover (never write an op-ed in a hurry; you’ll accidentally say what you really believe), it characterized contemporary feminism as a weaponized auxiliary of the Democratic Party.

Called “Feminists and the Clinton Question,” it was written in March of 1998, when Paula Jones’s harassment claim was working its way through court. It was printed seven days after Kathleen Willey’s blockbuster 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley. If all the various allegations were true, wrote Steinem, Bill Clinton was “a candidate for sex addiction therapy.” To her mind, the most “credible” accusations were those of Willey, whom she noted was “old enough to be Monica Lewinsky’s mother.” And then she wrote the fatal sentences that invalidated the new understanding of workplace sexual harassment as a moral and legal wrong: “Even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb, and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”

Steinem said the same was true of Paula Jones. These were not crimes; they were “passes.” Broaddrick was left out by Steinem. . . .

The widespread liberal response to the sex crime accusations against Bill Clinton found their natural consequence 20 years later in the behavior of Harvey Weinstein: Stay loudly and publicly and extravagantly on the side of signal leftist causes and you can do what you want in the privacy of your offices and hotel rooms. . . .

The Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton. The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president . . . that it abandoned some of its central principles. The party was on the wrong side of history and there are consequences for that.
I'm inclined to agree with all that. And yet, this article seems oddly incomplete: it talks a lot about "Democrats" and "feminists" . . . but says nothing about the media as a whole. The media is making a bigger story of a movie producer's sex offenses than the media ever made out of the 42nd President's sex offenses! The vast majority of articles I've read that mention Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct use relatively benign-sounding terms like "personal life," or "affairs," or "peccadilloes." A "peccadillo" means "a slight offense." I've seen the media use that kind of language to describe what Bill Clinton has done far more often than I've seen terms like "sexual harassment," "sex offenses," "sex crimes," "sexual violence," "sexual assault," or "rape."

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian, who played guitar in Benny Goodman's band, would have turned 101 today. He died of tuberculosis in 1942, at age 25.

If you were asked to quickly write up a list of the most influential guitarists off the top of your head, you’d have to include Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. You might also say Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Eddie van Halen.

But would you think of Charlie Christian?

The great jazz guitarist Jim Hall said that when he started playing guitar, listening to a recording of Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman was his “spiritual awakening.” He also influenced Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

But in “Waiting for Benny,” we hear Charlie Christian in 1941 playing licks not far from what Chuck Berry would start playing in the mid-‘50s. (See the first comment.)

That recording is on the Charlie Christian album appropriately titled The Genius of the Electric Guitar, which I can't recommend enough.

This is a poor-quality recording which unfortunately has a few seconds where the volume goes way down, but you can hear the influence of Chuck Berry even more clearly here.

From an NPR profile on him:

Charlie Christian was the single-greatest influence on the signature 20th century instrument, the electric guitar, even though he died at age 25 and did all his recording in under two years. He made most of his records in Benny Goodman's sextet, where he competed for space with other good soloists. In that band, he took beautifully crafted 30-second improvisations, serving up fresh variations on every take of a tune. . . .

Amplified slide guitarists in white western swing bands showed Christian how electric guitar could project. He wasn't the first electric picker who played on the frets. He dug Chicago pioneer George Barnes. But Christian had the most imposing sound.

Charlie Christian's timing was impeccable. His heavy, front-loaded attack underlined his aggressive beat and inspired untold jazz, blues, and rock-guitar players. Benny Goodman loved him but begged him to turn his amplifier down. Christian once explained, I like to hear myself. Like other great lead players, He was an adept rhythm guitarist - strumming like mad, riffing with precision or cutting against the grain. . . .

He died in hospital the following spring before he could hear the new music of bebop come to fruition and long before electric guitar conquered popular music and the full impact of his playing could be felt. Charlie Christian has left his mark on many thousands of musicians who never knew his name. That's about as influential as you can get.
My favorite solo by him is in "Rose Room" starting at 1:00. Not his most technically impressive, but every note is perfectly chosen.

By today’s standards, his facility with the electric guitar is fine but not outstanding. But he’s widely regarded as the most enduring of the instrument’s original pioneers. For his influence on both jazz and rock music, I’d rank Charlie Christian among the most important guitarists of all time. And certainly one of the most tragic losses.