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.

Finding common ground over the 2016 election

I probably have to say it up front in order to write this, so I will: I consider myself economically-conservative-slanted (but not dogmatic about it) and socially-liberal-slanted (but not dogmatic about it). Unfortunately, I don’t see my views well represented by either the Republican or Democratic party. If I did, I would align with them, but I don’t, so I don’t. That’s fine, I don’t lose any sleep over it, and I don’t judge anyone who feels differently. Overall I would call myself a greedy capitalist pig who doesn’t like politics. I’m trying hard to go back to being one. I didn’t much care when either Bush II or Obama were elected.

I’ve written things about the 2016 election that aimed to be neutral, and I’ve written things that used inflammatory rhetoric. I don’t use inflammatory rhetoric lightly. I use it to inflame my intelligent friends for a specific purpose. Anything less is wasting words and reducing their power.

If I’d accumulated any political capital I’ve spent it all by now, and I’m under no illusion that I haven’t really made a difference. I’m spending the literal capital I’ve accumulated on organizations that actually can and do make a difference. I’m going to keep complaining about things I don’t like, but this is the last time I’m going to be dramatic about the 2016 election.

Many people, including me, freaked out about Donald Trump being elected. I say “freaked out” meaning exactly what I say. It’s taken a lot of time and debate for me to understand why, and why other people didn’t. To me personally, I would say that Trump trafficked in “alt-right” skinhead slime. He still is to a degree, even though he’s walking it back now. He said a lot of things that I interpreted as tarnishing our democratic process at best, and playing with populist demagoguery at worst. And it’s hard for me to see how someone wouldn’t agree that he’s openly corrupt and dishonest. Sure, other politicians are too, and we can have a reasonable debate about the degree.

He also ran on a platform of hard-line social conservatism, which I don’t personally agree with but don’t freak out about. I’m not sure anyone knows what his economic platform will be yet, but I almost certainly won’t freak out about it either. I’m sure I’ll agree with parts of it and disagree with parts of it.

I freaked out about the irredeemable skinhead trash and the populist demagoguery and the corruption, and I didn’t bother much with the other stuff because of it. If someone else instead running on a left-leaning policy platform had played with those things, I would have freaked out in exactly the same way. Tactically speaking, that’s probably the wrong thing to do and we should keep that in mind going forward, all of us. I think some of my friends and family focused on the bad things about Hillary Clinton (there are plenty! I’d concede “kind” but not “degree”) and the socially conservative platform of Trump, and maybe overlooked or didn’t take at face value some of the things that freaked me out. Trump has already shown he was “exaggerating” (lying) about a lot of his bluster, and I’m happy to say that I’m glad about it even though that doesn’t excuse the blustering. People with different ideological slants can receive the same message very differently. It’s taken time and effort for me to understand how this played out, and I really honestly don’t judge. I’d usually call this a trope and mock it, but we’re all in this together, and all we can do is work to improve things going forward.

The time and debate has made me figure out where I “draw the line”, or at least “a line”. Here it is: if the “alt-right” skinheadism goes mainstream in my United States of America, I’ll go to war over it. It literally threatens many people I know and love. I don’t say that lightly, I’ve never said it before in my entire life even as a rhetorical device. I know exactly what I mean by saying that. My grandpa went to war over an extreme version of that which did include other ideological components, and I’m proud of him for it — I’m being dramatic and exaggerating somewhat by saying that, but I’m happy to tell you how and why. And I say that knowing my grandpa would have voted for Trump if he were still alive and I wouldn’t have judged him for it either. But if we can’t agree on disowning the “alt-right”, then we don’t have any common ground, sorry.

I’ll do everything in my power (very very little) to get rid of populist demagoguery and corruption, but I wouldn’t go to war over it as it stands here yet. That stuff doesn’t help anyone other than bad actors in the long run, it just corrodes our great country. There are plenty of legal means to deal with it. I hope we have common ground on that too, and we can lock that Pandora’s Box going forward. It would be pretty hard for me to understand how someone who calls themselves a proud American wouldn’t find common ground with me on that, but we could have that debate.

And there are probably many other issues where we have common ground. I would agree with the people who think that Hillary Clinton is an unusually dishonest and corrupt politician. Some might disagree and we could debate that on the merits. I think that Bush II and Obama have made the executive branch way too powerful and unaccountable, and I eagerly want to dynamite that (not literally, I’m using a rhetorical device). It’s a little bit harder for me to understand how people would disagree with that, but I’d also be happy to debate it on the merits.

I’d even say something that would leave most socially liberal people aghast: I think Antonin Scalia was the most influential jurist in at least 50 years, and I wish we could raise him from the dead and put him back on the Supreme Court. The two of us would have disagreed about a lot of if not most social policy, but he lived to defend the Constitution and ensure its processes stayed intact. If that’s not common ground I don’t know what is.

I write this knowing that I’m being trolled and played and that things like this help to normalize it. Even so, I think it’s more important for us to start coming back together and walking back the extremism that’s all too easy to indulge.

I’m literally tired, and I want to go back to being a productive person.

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?