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Archive for February, 2012

Meryl Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress yesterday for her role in The Iron Lady, a bad movie. People have variously justified her win over Viola Davis as a de facto lifetime achievement award for all her great work that has gone unrecognized. After all, she’s the “best actress of her generation.”

But is she really that good? Considering that most lists of “best actresses of the last 30 years” would put her at or around number one, how good were her performances? Last night, as I tried to list her best performances, I found them variously lacking (more on this in a bit). She’s a bit like a Barry Larkin — consistently good but never “the best.” Certainly she belongs in the pantheon, but her brilliance rarely rose to the level of her predecessors or contemporaries.

Slate has a good rundown here, but I’ll point out that my favorite Streep performance is probably one of Adaptation, Kramer vs. Kramer, or Angels in America. And yet, these are not in the same stratosphere as, say, Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, or Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, or Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, et al. Even in each of those movies, Streep’s performance is arguably overshadowed by one of her costar’s work (Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, and Al Pacino in Angels).

I think Streep’s pedigree is part of the problem here. Her choice in films tends toward the prestige project or the indulgent (Devil WearsPrada, a fun but unnecessary movie; Julie and Julia, a movie that I enjoyed for its Streepness). When she goes off the beaten path, it’s not in search of an unusual new director or a bizarre indie picture. Instead, it’s for Mamma Mia! or A Prairie Home Companion.

Again, I like Streep’s work, and I enjoy the way that she fully embodies her characters. She’s clearly a sharp woman with phenomenal talent, but she’s cautious with that talent, which may lead her away from the most intriguing roles.

Perhaps I can’t blame Streep for her choice in movies, which is to some degree out of her control, but she’s Meryl Streep! She has her pick of movies! She could star in (almost) anything she wanted, and can play comedy, drama, thrillers, etc. Yet, she cannot help but hew towards the conventional.

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The Times Magazine has a neat piece last week about how Target and other retailers use psychological analysis of habits to predict and affect people’s buying behavior. In extremely brief summary, your brain has certain habits that it generally follows — what to buy, what to eat, etc. But Target went out of its way to try to find moments when your habits change drastically — usually coinciding with major life decisions. Much has been made of the article’s description of Target’s semi-creepy sending of baby advertisements to pregnant mothers based on their buying patterns, but I find the habit-changing material more potentially useful in the long run:

But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.

Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.

I was thinking about this in the context of areas other than purchasing goods and services. I thought of this as I played the piano, where bad habits inculcate themselves with surprising ease. One plays something wrong once, and then continues on, creating the stimulus->response->reward feedback loop that develops all those bad habits.

In the realm of education, so many bad habits get ingrained — study habits, reading habits, after-school habits, etc. How can we change our behavior in a positive direction? How can we combat obesity, or get kids to study math? When shifts in kids’ lives happen, good habits can be lost and bad habits can develop. I think this is part of the success of the KIPP schools and their ilk; rather than just changing curriculum, they are trying to create and take advantage of those “unique moments” when people are vulnerable to changes in habits.

In many ways, we have tried to envision people as complicated actors, with deep-seated root causes for our behaviors, which is absolutely the case. But in making decisions about our daily lives, we may be simpler than we thought we were, and that may not be such a bad thing if we know how to use it ourselves.

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Because we have to keep up our lead in Useless Bullshit somehow.

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In a Gallup poll, Americans have named Iran as their “top enemy.” But I think part of the problem here is the framing of the question. This assumes that the United States has “enemies” in the sense of nation-states out to compete against or injure the United States. And even with a country such as Iran, I think both the imminence and scope of the threat are not so great as to render them “enemies.”

China is only our “enemy” insofar as America and China have occasionally divergent geopolitical goals, but those goals do not necessarily come at the expense of the other country. Yet, China’s international political goals of favorable trade policies and stability in developing countries’ regimes are quite similar to our own. Iran, even in pursuit of a nuclear weapon, can barely get a handle on its own population and its neighbors, let alone the United States.

Put differently, just because a country exists with geopolitical goals different from our own does not make them our “enemy.” And Gallup, by framing the question as such, continues the militaristic assumption that America must have an enemy at any given time.

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OK, it was a bad joke about how women should just keep their legs closed if they don’t want to get pregnant. And it’s easy for the Santorum campaign to shrug it off as a joke, just as it’s easy for us to laugh about it.

But the problem here is that it’s actually not a joke at all. Rick Santorum believes that birth control is a dangerous sin, and that abstinence is the only acceptable form of birth control.

That is to say, the joke about “squeezing an aspiring between your knees” as birth control is not “off-color” or “crossing the line”: It’s accurately depicting the Santorum campaign’s position on birth control and consensual male-female sex.

Santorum may say now that he thinks birth control should be available (one wonders why his argument doesn’t apply to abortion, but we’ll skip that), but his stance on birth control affordability/availability is clear: he believes birth control pills are bad, and that people should not use them and that abstinence is the only method.

“Aspirin between the knees” is the reality of the Santorum campaign, not just a one-off line by a surrogate.

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Carmelo Anthony says he still wants the last shot, but insists that he is not selfish:

“Of course I want to take the last shot, let’s be quite frank: I’ve been doing for nine years already, and I’ve made a ton of them,” he said.

OK, so let’s be clear. Carmelo Anthony does make last shots. In fact, he makes them quite well. A 48% clip on final shots is a big deal.

Except… it turns out there is more to a basketball game than the last 5 seconds. Games are often decided by more points, and those games are not quite as peachy for Anthony.

In the rest of the game, Anthony is, well, not that great.

He shoots at lower efficiency and rebounds at lower rates, despite his gaudy topline numbers, which mostly come from an ungodly number of shot attempts. The league average small forward takes 16.5 shots per 48 minutes; Anthony takes 26.3. For comparison, Lebron James averages 24.0, Kevin Durant takes 24.7, and Luol Deng takes 18.1. Anthony is not better at shooting than these players, nor are his teammates that much worse. Anthony loves isolation, though, and enjoys shooting the basketball, like many basketball players.

Unfortunately, it turns out that winning basketball is not dependent on the number of shots you take, but on the percentage of shots you make and the number of possessions your team has. And that makes Anthony much less valuable than many other small forwards in the league.

We have a problem in sports where we look at the magnificent last minute shot and the drama that it entails, and we believe that value in a player resides in that moment (see, Aaron Boone, “Big Shot” Billups, Adam Vinatieri, etc.). In fact, most games are decided by more than the last minute shot, and even in the NBA playoffs, wins by more than 4 points are more common than wins than 3 or fewer.

In short, by continuing to play basketball and jack up a huge number of shot attempts despite being inefficient at making them, Anthony is the definition of selfish, regardless of how many times the final shot makes it.

Baseball starts in, like, three days, so basketball will probably take a backseat, but it’s worth noting that the points in any game count the same, no matter what form they take.

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This WSJ piece about the “science” (such as it is) behind Adele’s “Someone Like You” has been floating around. The premise is interesting, of course: Why do certain songs make us cry? This is fine, as far as it goes, but I find the article to be deeply unsatisfying:

“Someone Like You” is a textbook example. “The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern,” said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.

When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

OK, let’s back this up. First of all, the article purports to identify certain traits that make a song particularly weep-worthy, or rather, universally weep-worthy. Yet, the emotional framework that prompts particular reactions has more roots than mere sonic stimuli. That is to say, context matters. Cross-cultural studies reveal differences in the kinds of stimuli that provoke crying and different social functions that it serves. Any attempt to build the “perfect crying pop song” is probably misguided, or at the very least, restricted by the local culture. Consider the findings of this study about the cathartic nature of crying across cultures:

Several contextual features of crying episodes were indeed predictive of crying-related catharsis. Specifically, the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis. Crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic. The data suggest that contextual factors may play an important role in shaping crying-related catharsis.

Although it’s interesting, of course, that appoggiaturas are present in many songs that people identify as causing them to cry, one wonder what made people cry prior to the invention of the appoggiatura, or to pianos, or to the modern musical instrument generally. I think the context matters much more than the piece of music itself (for example, in one study (JSTOR PDF registration needed for full article), women consistently experienced more chills when listening to music than men.). There seems to be more at play here than some inherent connection between appoggiaturas and crying; maybe it’s that we have ascribed certain emotional cues to certain types of music as a society, rather than anything essential to the construction/arrangement of the sounds themselves. I hypothesize that playing “Someone Like You” for a Maori tribesman 400 years ago would have led to a very different reaction.

That said, let’s assume that there is a manipulative way in which Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Schumann’s “Traumerei” have been constructed to make us cry. Let’s say that they are cynical ploys to engage our waterworks, in the same way that certain pop song earworms are designed to be stuck in your head until you die. Does that actually affect your enjoyment of the song? I know that there are dopamine releases when I eat fatty foods that make me feel good, but so what? I can still feel great when I eat it! I know that my favorite movies include manipulative tools to make me feel a certain way. That doesn’t stop me from feeling that way? Perhaps the sign of a work of art that has achieved greatness is its ability to move us even as we know we are being manipulated.

Or, as a friend of mine said, maybe “it makes us cry because it’s BEAUTIFUL.” I think I’m okay with that.

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