Decline of voice character-actors?

I finally saw The Jungle Book remake, and the contrast with the original cartoon (one of my all-time favorites) was quite striking.  Sure, there was the live-action and CGI vs. hand-animation — take it or leave it — the darker tone, the different ending (not to my taste).  But what jumped out most to me was how much better the voice acting was in the original cartoon.

To be fair, Idris Elba was a capable Shere Khan.  I’d take George Sanders personally, but I’m extremely partisan towards George Sanders.  And Ben Kingsley acquitted himself well as the Bagheera straight-man.  But Bill Murray played … Bill Murray, who I happen to be a tremendous fan of, but was far short of Phil Harris’s Baloo.  And Christopher Walken was enjoyable as Christopher Walken, but again was overshadowed by Louis Prima.  The contrast was highest in their versions of the two signature songs, performances I would say were “trying hard”.  Scarlett Johansson sounded like a telephone operator, made me really miss Sterling Holloway.

What gives?  I guess one theory could be that the remake traded A-list celebrity names for voice-acting ability.  I could imagine that someone went to see the remake because it featured Bill Murray or Scarlett Johansson, but — guessing here — I think it’s less likely someone would have gone to see the original just because of the draw of George Sanders, Phil Harris, or Louis Prima.  This probably makes good business sense.  I see hints of this effect in other recent projects too.

Another theory, advanced by Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, is that there’s a decline of character itself.  That argument goes, movie studios used to groom actors like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant not just for their acting ability, but also because of their distinctive manners and personas.  Everyone has probably heard a Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant impression, but how do you do an impression of Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson, for example?  I think there’s probably something to this.

Another element of this that I haven’t heard mentioned is that the decline of smoking is reducing variation in voices.  Of course, fewer people smoking is a good thing.  But Phil Harris’s voice, to take one example, wouldn’t have been as distinctive if he weren’t a heavy smoker.

Maybe there’s some combination thereof.  At any rate, I’d recommend watching the 1967 The Jungle Book first, and then maybe catch the remake if you’re bored and can watch it for free.

Highest standard: Week 3 (final)

The mainstream media is doing an adequate (but not great) job of covering the incoming administration.  The coverage isn’t so much a matter of shining a light on questionable actions, but more trying to decide which unprecedented moves and threats to focus on.  That’s pretty much the most charitable way I can phrase it.  So  I don’t think it’s a good use of my time to continue to write these; just read the paper(s).

What is a good use of my time and yours is reaching out to friends and family and reminding them that opinionated news aggregators and even individual newspapers can report the same day quite differently.  Comparing say, Fox News and NY Times, one might wonder sometimes if they’re reporting on the same country (yes, I’m exaggerating a bit).  But if you average over 4 or 5 news sources, a picture starts emerging.  And I emphasize sources: aggregators don’t do any actual journalism, they merely exist to profit off people clicking on links.  And, please pay for your news.  If we keep ourselves willfully mis- or un-informed, it’s hard to be optimistic about where we’re headed.

Highest standard: Week 2

Reminder: we’ve made the choice who the president elect is.  It’s now time to hold him to the highest standard as we do for all presidents.  This is explicitly intended to be a nonpartisan post.  If you disagree with something I’ve written here or think it’s slanted, I’m genuinely curious why; please take the time to comment!

Since week 1, a few concerns remain unchanged:

  1. No tax returns released.  Unprecedented in modern politics, has to be made right.
  2. Operators of blind trust are members of transition team, creating clear conflict of interest.  Unprecedented in modern politics.
  3. Appointment of Stephen Bannon as Chief of Strategy, who’s explicitly created a platform for “alt-right” and has published Antisemitic, racist, and misogynist content.  This is not a nomination to unite the country.  Hard to understand anyone of high character having a person like this as adviser.
  4. Appointment of children as operators of “blind trust”.  Hard to understand how business will be operated “blindly”.  Not illegal for president and vice president, but would be illegal for lower-level officials in executive branch.

One concern was resolved:

  1. Settled fraud lawsuits around Trump University (note, promised not to settle while campaigning).  There will probably be “no admission of guilt”.  Unprecedented in modern politics.

And several more issues arose:

  1. Reported to be seeking security clearance for son-in-law to be made an adviser.  This would be actually illegal.
  2. Evidence of personally operating on behalf of existing businesses and may be using PEOTUS status on their behalf.  This is unprecedented and ethically a gray area but probably not illegal.  If done as POTUS, it would be actually illegal.
  3. Calls with heads of state on unsecured private cell phone.  At best careless.  And if the phone is android as evidence suggests, it’s quite possible that domestic, foreign, and/or private agencies could have recordings.
  4. Senior and experienced members of transition team purged over what might have been a 10-year-old personal vendetta.  Not high character.
  5. Off-the-record meeting with press to “rip them new assholes” over reporting.  Dangerous precedent to be setting.
  6. Fabricated claim to have saved Ford plant from moving to Mexico.  Hard not to call this carefully crafted domestic propaganda.
  7. Ongoing personal feud with major newspaper.  Not high character.

As an editorial aside, I’m surprised with how brazenly the president-elect is behaving, it’s happening very fast.  We’re going to have to be vigilant in not growing tired of these reports and normalizing failure to operate by the highest standard.

Highest standard: Week 1

Reminder: we’ve made the choice who the president elect is.  It’s now time to hold him to the highest standard as we do for all presidents.  This is explicitly intended to be a nonpartisan post.  If you disagree with something I’ve written here or think it’s slanted, I’m genuinely curious why; please take the time to comment!

I find the following hard to square with a person who’s operating by the highest standard:

  1. No tax returns released.  Unprecedented in modern politics, has to be made right.
  2. Upcoming fraud trial regarding Trump University.  Unprecedented in modern politics, has to be made right.
  3. Operators of blind trust are members of transition team, creating clear conflict of interest.  Unprecedented in modern politics.
  4. Appointment of Stephen Bannon as Chief of Strategy, who’s explicitly created a platform for “alt-right” and has published Antisemitic, racist, and misogynist content.  This is not a nomination to unite the country.  Hard to understand anyone of high character having a person like this as adviser.
  5. Appointment of children as operators of “blind trust”.  Hard to understand how business will be operated “blindly”.  Not illegal for president and vice president, but would be illegal for lower-level officials in executive branch.
  6. Threat of legal action to a sitting US Senator over criticism.  This is reminiscent of Richard Nixon, who was not a man of high character.

Mr. Trump: We’re holding you to the highest standard

Wouldn’t it be insulting to be held to anything less?  Whether you voted for the president elect or not, I hope that you’ll read this and find yourself agreeing.

The President of the United States is a position that demands the highest moral character.  There’s not much to say about the office that you don’t already know; POTUS commands a huge military, negotiates international treaties, sets domestic policy directions that can affect the world’s largest economy, and has been described as leader of the free world.  And sure, there are the nukes.  There’s a lot at stake.  We expect the executive in charge to uphold the best standard among us.

Have all, most — or even — many US Presidents lived up to that standard?  I’d say no.  When they’ve fallen short, have we generally called that out as a failure?  I’d say generally yes.  That’s as it should be.

We expect Mr. Trump to live up to the standard like all other presidents.  If he falls short, we must call that out as we would for every other president.  Given that Mr. Trump is generally considered the least politically experienced president-elect in US history — and many consider that a good thing — then the level of scrutiny must be even higher because less is understood about how he’ll govern.  The leash is that much shorter.  But it’s the same one we hold every president on.

If Mr. Trump fails to uphold that standard, we can’t excuse failures as “yeah but X would have been better/worse”.  When there was a choice between Mr. Trump and X in a matter, then “X would be better/worse” was an argument to ponder and debate, as it was for the last year and change.

But we just made the choice that Mr. Trump is the president elect.  He stands on his own and answers for his own actions.  If it helps, try the “Rick Astley test”: if the point “yeah but Rick Astley would have been better/worse” adds as much weight to your argument as “yeah but X would have been better/worse”, maybe reconsider the point.  This is pretty hard to get your mind to do and takes a lot of practice.

Trump has a checkered past, perhaps more so than recent presidents elect; at the very least, less is known about his finances and business operations.  But others have had checkered pasts too.  Past behavior doesn’t lower the bar of expectations or excuse failings.  If anything, that makes us more vigilant in watching for more smoke that might be coming from underlying fires.

To do all this, we need the help of government watchdogs.  Please pay for your free press.  Please promise to resist the temptation to propagate false “news” — of any ideological slant — no matter how tempting.  It’s very hard to resist and we’ll fail sometimes.

If you’ve made it this far and you find yourself unable to agree with the statement:

Mr. Trump: We’re holding you to the highest standard

then I’m genuinely curious why and would appreciate it if you left a comment here.  Thanks!

A two-question screen for character

I’ve found this to be a simple and pretty useful way to think about business associates, political candidates, etc.

1. Would I be comfortable with this person babysitting my kids / nieces / nephews?

Test of basic human decency: is this a generally good person or do they have serious character flaws?  There are very few people I associate with who fail this test, because why would I want to be around them.  The starting point for people you’ve just met is “I don’t know yet” (if it’s not, you’re prejudiced), and I find I can answer this question pretty quickly.  If a person passes, you can move on to the next question.

2. Would I be comfortable giving this person access to my bank account?

This is more complex and difficult.  I think most people are good and decent, but the real test of character is when you’re in a difficult situation, or you’re alone and facing strong temptations.  I think it takes a lot more to find this out about someone, and I don’t think most of the people I know, I know well enough to answer this definitively — but I trust that most would pass.  (If thoughts about audit trails and access controls and fraud insurance come to mind when trying to answer this, then you’re probably an engineer and you’re overthinking it.)

Getting past this simple screen is just the first step of course: you next have to ask yourself whether the person is well suited for the relationship you’re considering.  But that’s obviously case by case.  And failing the bank account test isn’t necessarily a fatal error; I’ve associated with people who I don’t think pass it, but it does rule out some kinds of interactions.

Let’s try this out on the 2016 US presidential candidates.  I haven’t met either one, but they’ve been public figures long enough that I feel I have a read on them.  I would definitely feel comfortable with Hillary Rodham babysitting my kids (if I had them); I think fundamentally she’s a decent human being, and a mother and grandmother besides.  I doubt there are many sane people of any political alignment who would disagree with that in private, although of course opponents would feel compelled to say otherwise on TV (and yes, I’m wary of the “no true Scotsman” hazard there).  I think there’s a lot more room for disagreement on access to bank account, and I don’t see much benefit from discussing that further here.  This is how a good number of politicians tot up in my mind, but maybe not a majority.

Now let’s look at Donald.  He fails the babysitting test so spectacularly that it feels like there should have been a question number (0) to weed him out already.  I would be worried about Donald sexually abusing my kids or bilking them in some way, let alone the bad example I would fear his character would set.  I doubt even his ardent supporters would disagree with that, in private.  And if you wouldn’t let him babysit your kids, why would you trust him as president to help determine their future?

End of an era in the NBA

With the 2016-2017 NBA season starting today and some high-profile retirees after last season, my thoughts wander back to twenty years ago.  Twenty years ago, Michael Jordan totally owned the NBA.  Shaquille O’Neal — young, slim, athletic — was perhaps the most dominant individual player.  The question was who would be the successor to Jordan.  My two favorite candidates were Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, though I wasn’t sure who would eventually be more successful; I hedged my bets by buying both their rookie cards.  (And, actually, this was my first “investment” in a sense, and the return has been great!)


Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan were also on the rise and in the post-Jordan conversation as well.  Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitski were in the NBA pipeline and came on the scene a couple years later.

If we call that the dawn of the post-Jordan era, then that era is pretty much over now.  Shaq and AI have been retired for a while.  Kobe, KG, and Tim Duncan retired after last season.  The question of whether Kobe or AI would have the better career has been settled so definitively that it feels a little silly now even comparing them.  Vince Carter is an old man, a three-point-shooting specialist.  (Do the kids these days know how he used to play?)  Dirk is probably the only one still recognizable from his old self.  This all hit me with a strong wave of nostalgia, because this is around the time I really started following the NBA.

Twenty years ago, I was in elementary school in a small town in Missouri; I’d never really visited a big city.  I was finally able to convince my parents to get Internet access; we started with CompuServe, but made our way onto AOL not too long after that.  PCs were king, Apple was kind of a distant memory; our old IIGS was in a box somewhere.  Bill Clinton was president; I collected his card too!bc.jpg  The White House sent back a form letter and picture in response to a letter of mine that I’ve forgotten now — and yes, using physical mail carried by the Post Office.  Golf was an incredibly boring niche game that only old rich white guys played; somebody named “Tiger” was just turning pro.  The two movies I remember most from around then are Independence Day and Space Jam.   Although now that Independence Day, Space Jam, and a Clinton presidency have been or are about to be remade, some things haven’t changed much.

Alright, that’s enough nostalgia-indulgence for today.  The king is dead, long live the king and all that.

Stephen Jay Gould was the JK Galbraith of biology

If you’re reading this, you’re probably somewhat familiar with Stephen Jay Gould.  Most likely, you know of him as a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, and you may even have read one of his (excellent) popular-science books like The Panda’s Thumb.  You probably assumed, like I did, that from this work and as a Harvard professor he was an eminent figure in academia as well.

Well, no.

I remember first learning about Gould’s most famous theory, “punctuated equilibrium“, quite some years back.  I won’t digress into the details here, but when I thought I’d understood it, I remember thinking something like, “OK this might be true, but then what?”  I assumed that I was missing something and didn’t think much more of it.

Then a few years ago, the scales fell from my eyes.  This letter in reply to a couple of Gould’s summarizes how “real” evolutionary biologists felt about Gould:

John Maynard Smith, one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, recently summarized in the NYRB the sharply conflicting assessments of Stephen Jay Gould: “Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.” (NYRB, Nov. 30th 1995, p. 46). No one can take any pleasure in the evident pain Gould is experiencing now that his actual standing within the community of professional evolutionary biologists is finally becoming more widely known.

In other words, evolutionary biologists considered Gould what we might call a “useful idiot”.  The letter continues with one of the meanest paragraphs I’ve ever read:

Now, given the foregoing, one is left with the puzzle of why Gould so customarily reverses the truth in his writing. We suggest that the best way to grasp the nature of Gould‘s writings is to recognize them as one of the most formidable bodies of fiction to be produced in recent American letters. Gould brilliantly works a number of literary devices to construct a fictional “Gould” as the protagonist of his essays and to construct a world of “evolutionary biology” every bit as imaginary and plausible as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Most of the elements of Gould‘s writing make no sense if they are interpreted as an honest attempt to communicate about science (e.g., why would he characterize so many researchers as saying the opposite of what they actually do) but come sharply into focus when understood as necessary components of a world constructed for the fictional “Gould” to have heroic fantasy adventures in — adventures during which the admirable character of “Gould” can be slowly revealed.

Wow.  (To be fair, Gould really did bring this on himself.  Read the entire discussion.)  So, stay for Gould’s pop essays, pass on his “theory”.

Around the same time, I found a talk by Paul Krugman entitled What Economists Can Learn from Evolutionary Theorists.  Krugman had the same unpleasant surprise about Gould that I did, and dropped another nugget:

I am not sure how well this is known. I have tried, in preparation for this talk, to read some evolutionary economics, and was particularly curious about what biologists people reference. What I encountered were quite a few references to Stephen Jay Gould, hardly any to other evolutionary theorists. Now it is not very hard to find out, if you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is bevolved by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about – not just the answers, but even the questions – are consistently misleading.

Now, you’re probably less likely to be familiar with John Kenneth Galbraith.  I first encountered him in William F Buckley’s excellent Firing Line archive.  (Go watch for a while; I’ll be here when you come back.)  Galbraith played the role of “Serious Liberal Economist”, counterpoint to Buckley and his guru the (actual) Serious Conservative Economist Milton Friedman.  Before life as a public intellectual, Galbraith did extensive work in public policy and politics, in addition to economics.  But as Krugman introduces before the paragraph above,

And I guess it is no secret that even John Kenneth Galbraith, still the public’s idea of a great economist, looks to most serious economists like an intellectual dilettante who lacks the patience for hard thinking.

Ouch.  (Although, I’ve read that Krugman’s dismissal of Galbraith is somewhat more controversial than the dismissal of Gould, that Galbraith’s public policy work had substance.)

Both these were quite surprising to me — I hope you learned something as well.  And it’s always worth checking the credentials of the popular “TV experts”.

Paying for our free press

The concept of a “free press” comprises

  • free, as in free speech
  • independent, as in free from conflict of interest
  • pluralistic, as in free marketplace of ideas

Take away any of those elements and the system is weakened.  Authoritarian states always restrict free speech, and the results are well known.  If your press consists of multiple, free-speech publishers all dependent on the government, for example, then you would have to read their publications with heightened scrutiny.  And if you take away pluralism by gating access to journalism through a single large content distributor, for example, then your views become colored by the biases of the distributor.  This is all old news, of course (pun intended).

As the “press” has moved online, people have come to expect another “freedom”: free as in beer, no charge.  That’s eroded publishers’ traditional revenue streams, as many have written about already, and now the news has become a tough business to be in.  This is also not a new observation.

What happens if, in a worst-case scenario, high-quality investigative journalism becomes financially unsustainable and collapses?  Previously I’ve imagined this leaving behind a news vacuum, to be filled with clickbait rotgut.  (Maybe some think we’re heading into that territory already.)  This would be an Idiocracy-style tragedy, to be sure.  But now there’s something new on the horizon.

In this US election cycle, attempts by foreign governments to influence American thought through reporting with particular biases have become higher profile.  (Or you might call it “propaganda” if so inclined.)  Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it’s something we should eagerly welcome into a pluralistic free press; at best it provides another perspective to consider, and at worst we can roll our eyes and ignore it.  And, it’s a big middle-finger to authoritarian regimes who would, and have, banned the same at home.  The challenge comes from the fact that, when financially sustained by those foreign governments, those news outlets don’t face the same revenue-generation constraints as independent outlets.

Not to dabble in tinfoil-hat paranoia, but now imagine the worst-case scenario above again, but with foreign-government-controlled news outlets, with their own ulterior motives, ready to fill the vacuum.  By remaining free-as-in-no-charge and presenting the semblance of traditional journalism, they might be able to exert a real influence.  That would have been completely unthinkable thirty years ago, for a variety of reasons.

What’s the solution?  We have to financially support good reporting.  With the way online news is evolving, it’s almost a patriotic duty now as well; that’s not a thought that had occurred to me before.  I don’t want to get too sidetracked on the mechanics of financial support since lots has been written about it too.  Subscriptions are fine but have some flaws; crowdfunded journalism is interesting; micropayments, for example as implemented in the Brave browser, is a new idea that might have potential.  But really it can be all of the above.  The important thing is,

Please, pay for our free press!

ES6 + react + flow: achievement unlocked

This weekend I refactored a couple pieces of my react web app.  I kept whacking at the code until the flow type checker stopped erroring.  And after that, … my app still worked!  Achievement unlocked.  This is a major improvement over the dark-ages web-app workflow that went something like, edit; refresh; see what broke; repeat.  (Of course, not to poke the embers of that religious war, but fanciers of statically-typed languages, like myself, will be saying “well, finally”.)

In the react + flow development workflow though, type errors don’t block the app from updating on changes.  So I can quickly hack up something half-broken to try out an idea, and then if it works go back and fix up the code to be less broken.  (Gradual/optional typing enthusiasts won’t be surprised at this either.)  But of course, type errors do block deployment in my setup.

And I’ve been finding ES6 to be a pretty nice language to work with; a big advance over vanilla JavaScript / ES5, which is not my cup of tea.  Lots has been written on this topic, and I won’t go down that rabbit hole here.

Then finally, enabling all these goodies nowadays is as simple as

npm install -g create-react-app
create-react-app foo

Previously, you had to be something of a node.js pseudo-build-system ninja to set up this kind of environment, although it was possible.

In all probability, this environment won’t graduate beyond the prototype I’m hacking up right now (more on this later), but current mood: