The Arts

Proust as speculator

by on May 29, 2017 at 12:10 am in Books, Economics, History, The Arts | Permalink

Through a fast alternation of buying and selling, orders and counterorders, the end of 1911 marked Proust’s fastest plunge into debt exposure in his fifteen-year-long investing career. His patrimony amounted to about 1,522,000 francs, but more than 40 percent of it, precisely 640,000 francs, was tied up in forwards contracts—a crazy level of exposure for an amateur investor. In terms of American dollars, at this time Proust owned a personal fortune of $6,864,000 and had about $2,900,000 tied up in obligations to buy.

That is from Proust and His Banker: In Search of Time Squandered, by Gian Balsamo, via Ray Lopez.  Ray also passes along this from the book summary:

Focusing on more than 350 letters between Proust and Hauser and drawing on records of the Rothschild Archive and financial data assembled from the twenty-one-volume Kolb edition of Proust’s letters, Balsamo reconstructs Proust’s finances and provides a fascinating window into the writer’s creative and speculative process. Balsamo carefully follows Proust’s financial activities, including investments ranging from Royal Dutch Securities to American railroads to Eastern European copper mines, his exchanges with various banks and brokerage firms, his impetuous gifts, and the changing size and composition of his portfolio. Successes and failures alike provided material for Proust’s fiction, whether from the purchase of an airplane for the object of his affections or the investigation of a deceased love’s intimate background. Proust was, Balsamo concludes, a master at turning financial indulgence into narrative craftsmanship, economic costs into artistic opportunities. Over the course of their fifteen-year collaboration, the banker saw Proust squander three-fifths of his wealth on reckless ventures and on magnificent presents for the men and women who struck his fancy. To Hauser the writer was a virtuoso in resource mismanagement. Nonetheless, Balsamo shows, we owe it to the altruism of this generous relative, who never thought twice about sacrificing his own time and resources to Proust, that In Search of Lost Time was ever completed…
This sounds like a book I should read.

Is this a good idea?  A whole station devoted to Beatles music and Beatles music-derived products, plus a few early musical inspirations?  I ask as a fan, not a critic.  Based on about a week of listening, here are my impressions:

1. No Beatles songs were better live.  Paul McCartney had a few gems in concert, most notably the 1976 Wings over AmericaMaybe I’m Amazed.”  Oddly, “Magneto and Titanium Man” is also better live, perhaps because it was silly to begin with.

2. There are too many extant versions of “Here Comes the Sun,” though Nina Simone had a good one.

3. Ringo songs from the early 1970s, while you would never listen to them voluntarily, hold up OK in this context.

4. The worst feature of the channel is how they use short bursts of Beatle songs to advertise the channel itself.  To play only the first few chords of “Getting Better” is an abuse of the ear and maltreatment of the art, like seeing Mondrian designs on shopping bags.  Why can’t the station just advertise itself by…playing Beatle and Beatle-derived songs?  In their entirety.

5. The last sequence of “Rain” still seem to me their finest moment.  “Let it Be” remains the most overrated major Beatles song.

6. The early solo songs are what are most welcome to hear, at the margin.

7. The way this station operates doesn’t mesh well with the rest of satellite radio.  No single station on satellite radio is that good, except for the classical music station.  Yet the medium as a whole works because you can always switch to another station, especially with voice activation.  Yet one is reluctant to switch away from the Beatles station.  Even if the current song is bad, you feel something wonderful always might be coming up, and besides most of the songs are pretty short and so they will be over soon.  But if it’s just the Beatles you want to hear, you don’t need satellite radio to achieve that end.  So a funny kind of intransitivity kicks in, and maybe the Beatles satellite radio channel can nudge you away from satellite radio altogether, precisely because it is better than all the other channels, and it thus pushes you away from an approach based on a diverse menu of DJ-driven choice.

8. Would it hurt to play more Dylan, a major influence on the Beatles?

*Art Collecting Today*

by on May 23, 2017 at 2:19 am in Books, Economics, The Arts | Permalink

The author is Doug Woodham, and the subtitle is Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art.

I liked everything in this book, note that the author is a Ph.d economist, has been a partner for McKinsey and also held a major position for Christie’s.

That said, I felt it should have done much more to explain how art is used for money laundering, and also tax arbitrage through donations at inflated prices, based on corrupt appraisals.  Those are big reasons why art prices for highly liquid works have boomed so much over the last few decades.  Arguably art markets are some of the most corrupt markets in the Western world today.

Measured by the number of Instagram followers, the three biggest artists in the world today are Banksy, JR, and Shepard Fairey.

For deceased artists, the Twitter hashtags game is won by Warhol, Picasso, Dali, and van Gogh, with da Vinci, Monet, and Michelangelo coming next.

Of the 25 highest priced artists in the world today, as measured by auction sales, 8 of them are Chinese.  How many of them can you say you are familiar with? On that list are Cui Ruzhuo, Fan Zeng, Zhou Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang, He Jiaying, Huang Yongyu, Liu Wei, and Ju Ming.

Here is more by Zhou Chunya.

Oscar Wilde once said: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art.  When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.”

I can gladly recommend this book, noting it tells only part of the story.

Yes, the Garry Kasparov, here is the link to the podcast and transcript.  We talked about AI, his new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, why he has become more optimistic, how education will have to adjust to smart software, Russian history and Putin, his favorites in Russian and American literature, Tarkovsky, his favorite city to play chess in, his match against Deep Blue, Ken Rogoff, who are the three most likely challengers to Magnus Carlsen (ranked in order!) and who might win.  Here is one excerpt:

GK: The biggest problem, and I’ve been talking about for quite a while, that we’re still teaching very specific knowledge in the schools. Instead of teaching what, we have to teach how because this knowledge may be redundant 10 years from now. We are preparing kids for the world that will change dramatically. By the way, we already know it will look different. So what’s the point of trying to teach kids at age 10, 11, 12 without recognizing the fact that when they finish college, when they will become adults looking for jobs, the job market will be totally different?

And:

COWEN: …If we look back on centuries of Russian history, do you think there’s something in Russian geography or demographics or geopolitics — what has it been that has led to such unfree outcomes fairly systematically?

Where do you find the roots of tyranny in the history of Russia? Is it a mix of the size of the country, its openness to invasion, its vulnerability, something about being next to a dynamic Europe, on the other side, China? What is it?

KASPAROV: It’s a long, if not endless, theoretical debate based on our interpretation of certain historical events. I’m not convinced with these arguments about some nations being predetermined in their development and alien to the concept of democracy and the rule of law.

The reason I’m quite comfortable with this denial . . . We can move from theory to practice. While we can talk about history and certain influence of historical events to modernity, we can look at the places like Korean Peninsula. The same nation, not even cousins but brothers and sisters, divided in 1950, so that’s, by historical standards, yesterday.

And:

Let’s look at Russia and Ukraine, and let’s look, not at the whole Ukraine, but just at eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is populated mostly by ethnic Russians. In the former Soviet Union, the borders between republics were very nominal. People could move around, it was not a big deal. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official state border between Russia and Ukraine was respected, but people still could move around. They didn’t need special visas.

When we look at ethnic Russians born and raised in Kursk and Belgorod on the Russian side and across the border, say in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk on the Ukrainian side, there were people that could be hardly separated anything. They read the same newspaper, Pravda, watched the same television, spoke the very same language, not even accents. But somehow, in 2014, after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, we saw a huge difference. Most of ethnic Russians in Ukraine signed for the Ukrainian army, fighting against Putin’s invasion, against the same Russians that came from the other side.

It could be a long debate, but I would say that one of the main reasons is that Ukraine experienced in 1994 a gradual transition of power from one president to another after sitting president Leonid Kravchuk lost elections and walked away. Ukrainians somehow got an idea that power is not sacred, and government can come and go, and they can remove it by voting.

And even despite the fact that Ukraine never experienced higher living standards than Russia, people realized that keeping this freedom, keeping this ability to influence their bureaucrats and government through the peaceful process of voting and, if necessary, striking, far more effective than Russia’s “stability” where the same leader could be in charge of the country with his corrupt clique for a long, long time.

On computer chess, I most enjoyed this part of the exchange:

KASPAROV: But I want to finish this because what we discovered in this process . . . I wouldn’t overweight our listeners with all these details. I don’t want just to throw on them the mass information.

COWEN: It’s amazing what people will enjoy, though. You’d be surprised.

Self-recommending!  We cover many other topics as well, again you can read or listen here.

And I strongly advise that you buy and read Garry’s wonderful new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.

Here is a link to the download and partial transcript, Russ is one of the very best interviewers and of course he is a pioneer in the podcast genre.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler Cowen: And I think overall academics are among the most complacent of the complacent groups in American society.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

There is more…

Roberto emails me:

There is another aspect that corroborates your theory on how casual dress is somehow connected to less mobility. Dressing in a casual but very good way is economically and “socially” expensive. When I was a young associate at the biggest law firm in Rome, casual friday was the time when my Sicilian provincial middle-lower class background was most transparent. I didn’t have the money for smart but impressive casual clothing. But above all I didn’t have the cultural and social capital to know how to dress casual in the right way. My casual dressing was made of nerdy, unfashionable and cheap clothes: you could immediately say that I haven’t accomplished anything. And I didn’t even know that there was a “rich” way to dress casual. A decent suit and tie is not that expensive but, above all, is socially and culturally accessible in a very easy, standard and replicable way.

Perhaps this is a problem that affects women more seriously than men, exactly for the same reason: women’s formal clothing is not as standard and replicable as men’s. For women, even formal business dressing reveals a lot of background.

Loving winning and hating losing are two fairly distinct motivations.  For instance, a fairly joyless person may nonetheless be motivated by the humiliation of a loss, or a non-envious, non-spiteful type could receive great pleasure from being number one, while not minding if someone later climbs higher yet.

If you both love winning and hate losing that is especially useful in one-on-one, zero-sum competitions, such as chess and tennis, and also in most team sports and perhaps securities trading as well.  Such people are more motivated, and motivated from more sides of their being, and if one of the emotions flags a bit the other is there to step in and maintain the pace and focus.

In venture capital, I suspect that hatred of losing may be a disadvantage.  No matter how successful you may be, most of your individual investments will lose money and hatred of losing may make you too risk-averse.  It might be better to have the ability to simply forget your losses and put them behind you.

For academics, it is more important to love gains than to hate losses.  Provided they don’t embarrass you, your forgotten articles just aren’t that big a deal and everybody has them, including Nobel Laureates.  A single key piece can make your career, however.

Is hatred of loss also unnecessary for book authors and music stars?  Ideally, you would think they should take lots of chances, but the exact tracking of sales makes them more risk-averse and thus boosts the relative status of the loss haters.  If they release a clinker book or album, the intermediaries are less keen to promote them next time around.  To the extent intermediaries become more important, that boosts the loss-hating performers, because intermediaries themselves are somewhat loss-hating.

What is the correct mix of gain-loving and loss-hating for a Navy Seal?  For a journalist?  A lawyer, programmer, or engineer?

In a job interview, what question should you ask to discern if someone is a gain lover or a loss hater or both?  Or neither!

Here is Rufus Wainwright:

What’s the biggest financial mistake you’ve made?
Signing a publishing deal years ago and asking them to throw in a piano. I thought they were gifting me a piano, when in fact I was just paying for the piano. I was confused by the big leagues—financially, it was a no-man’s land. That happens to most musicians. They get screwed by the industry. It’s a rite of passage. Don’t ask for a piano!

Here is Lee Daniels:

What do you wish you’d known about money before getting into showbiz?
That half of it goes directly to the government. And another 20 percent goes to your representatives, so that’s 70 percent of your income right there. You’d better make some money, honey! You’ve got to put $15 of that $30 away for your retirement.

Is that what you did?
No, of course not! That was the learning experience. It took me 34 years to find that out!

It is striking that none of them refer to “The d word,” namely diversification.  (Priyanka Chopra does mention she bought land in Goa and Mumbai, and that it worked out very well for her.)  Though you also have to wonder if that is not part of the reason why they rose to the top of their respective crafts.  Rather than setting for a sufficiently happy and complacent normal existence, perhaps many kept doubling down on what might have been fundamentally unsound bets.

Here is the full piece from Bloomberg.

Patrick is co-founder and CEO of Stripe, based in San Francisco.  I recently told a reporter he was one of the five smartest people I have known; he is so smart, in fact, that he asked to interview me rather than vice versa, and so he and I created a new episode of Conversations with Tyler (transcript and podcast at that link, alas no video, and note that was recorded in January so on a few points the timeline may feel off).

We discuss whether macro is underrated, what makes Silicon Valley special, optimal immigration policy, whether Facebook is beneficial for society, whether I might ever vote for Donald Trump, how to start a new religion, Peter Thiel, Brian Eno, where I differ from Thomas Schelling, Michel Houllebecq, how to maintain your composure in an age of Trump, the origins of this blog, how I read so much, why Twitter is underrated, and the benefits of having a diverse monoculture, among many other topics.

Here is one bit:

COLLISON: …You’ve written a lot about how the study of economics has influenced your appreciation for the arts, and for literature, and for food, and all of the rest. You haven’t written as much about the influence in the reverse direction. How has your appreciation for and study of the arts influenced your study of economics? And is this a version of that?

COWEN: This is a version of that. Here would be a simple example: If you think about Renaissance Florence, at its peak, its population, arguably, was between 60,000 and 80,000 people. And there were surrounding areas; you could debate the number. But they had some really quite remarkable achievements that have stood the test of time and lasted, and today have very high market value. Now, in very naive theories of economics, that shouldn’t be possible. People in Renaissance Florence, they didn’t produce a refrigerator that we’re still using or a tech company that we still consult.

But there’s something different about, say, the visual arts, where that was possible, and it was done with small numbers. So there’s something about the inputs to some kinds of production we don’t understand. I would suggest if we’re trying to figure out, like what makes Silicon Valley work, actually, by studying how they did what they did in the Florentine Renaissance is highly important. You learn what are the missing inputs that make for other kinds of miracles.

Ireland and writing would be another example.

…COWEN: And I worry now that people in Ireland hear too much American English, too much English English, and that style of writing, talking, joking, limericks, is becoming somewhat less distinct. Still many wonderful writers from Ireland, but again, it’s like an optimal stock depletion problem, and maybe we’ve pressed on the button a little too hard.

COLLISON: The transaction costs should be higher?

And here is another:

COLLISON: Do we just need a sufficiently obfuscated version of the UBI and then we’re fine?

COWEN: We call it “disability insurance.”

And:

COWEN: Well, I voted on each of these hires. I voted for them. For a lot of them, I was on the hiring committee. Robin Hanson’s a good example. When we hired Robin, he was much older than a typical assistant professor would be. And of course, we don’t practice age discrimination, and neither does anyone else, but . . .

[laughter]

COWEN: Robin was going to have a tough time being hired. And I gave Robin some of my papers to read. He came in. He was a little, actually, obnoxious to me. Though he’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. He sent me back comments on my papers, that they were all wrong.

[laughter]

COWEN: There was no preliminary politeness: ‘I thought this was interesting, but…’ I thought this was great. So I thought, “We need to hire Robin. Robin is different.” And Robin wrote papers I thought were crazy, but he clearly also was a genius. I pushed very hard to hire Robin, and he made a good impression on a lot of other people. He’s been with us ever since.

COLLISON: Were the papers in fact all wrong?

COWEN: Robin’s criticisms were all good points.

[laughter]

COWEN: But they weren’t entirely wrong.

Self-recommending!

That is the theme of new research by Karl Halvor Teigen, et.al., here is the abstract:

Events are temporal “figures”, which can be defined as identifiable segments in time, bounded by beginnings and endings. But the functions and importance of these two boundaries differ. We argue that beginnings loom larger than endings by attracting more attention, being judged as more important and interesting, warranting more explanation, and having more causal power. This difference follows from a lay notion that additions (the introduction of something new) imply more change and demand more effort than do subtractions (returning to a previous state of affairs). This “beginning advantage” is demonstrated in eight studies of people’s representations of epochs and events on a historical timeline as well as in cyclical change in the annual seasons. People think it is more important to know when wars and reigns started than when they ended, and are more interested in reading about beginnings than endings of historical movements. Transitional events (such as elections and passages from one season to the next) claim more interest and grow in importance when framed as beginnings of what follows than as conclusions of what came before. As beginnings are often identified in retrospect, the beginning advantage may distort and exaggerate their actual historical importance.

Now let me tell you how I first became interested in this paper…we’ll leave aside why it didn’t quite convince me…

Here is one bit, from the rapid fire back-and-forth:

Ezra Klein

The rationality community.

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

There is much more at the link, entertaining throughout, with links to the full podcast as well.

Pragati: India has tremendous advantages as a producer of tourism, but its tourism sector is far too small. India is underperforming and in the process giving up tens of billions of dollars in foreign exchange revenue that could lift millions out of poverty.

IndiaTourists

Nearly nine million tourists visited India in 2016 generating foreign exchange revenues of about $23 billion USD annually. At first glance, the figures are impressive. Tourism is one of India’s largest export sectors, beating out such leading sectors as apparel ($17.4 billion, 2014) and medicinals and pharmaceuticals ($13.9 billion, 2014). A more careful examination, however, reveals that India’s tourism sector is small compared to its potential.

The table below shows the top ten countries by international visitors. France leads the list with 84.5 million visitors a year, about ten times the number of visitors to India. The European countries, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK benefit by being close to one another which generates significant mutual tourism. Mexico, Russia and Turkey, however, all have approximately three to five times as many tourists as does India. China has more than six times as many tourists as does India.

Although India underperforms on the number of visitors it does very well on earnings per visitor…Remarkably, India earns more per visitor than does China and almost as much as does the United States, a whopping $2,610. In fact, despite the small number of tourists, India’s revenues per tourist make it 9th in the world for total tourism revenues, just above Mexico. Visitors to India spend a lot of money which makes it all the more remarkable that India has so few visitors.

That’s me writing in Pragati, an Indian journal of ideas. India could increase its earnings from tourism by tens of billions of dollars with just a few simple reforms–see how at the link and some additional ideas for increasing tourism are in a podcast that I did with Amit Varma.

And, of course, even without reforms on the supply side there should still be more tourists in India as there are a great number of things to see!

Temple at Chittorgarh Fort.

Chittorgarh Temple
Udaipur (Sahelion Ki Bari) with early 18th century fountains that work entirely by gravity.
Udaipur Alex
Ajanta caves.
Ajanta1

Here is part of Ezra’s description:

I had a simple plan: ask Cowen for his thoughts on as many topics as possible. And I think it worked out pretty well. We discuss everything from New Jersey to high school sports to finding love to smoked trout to nootropics to Thomas Schelling to Ayn Rand to social media to speed reading strategies to happy relationships to the disadvantages of growing up in Manhattan. And believe me when I say that is a small sampling of the topics we cover.

We also talk about Tyler’s new book, “The Complacent Class,” which argues, in true Cowenian fashion, that everything we think we know about the present is wrong, and far from being an age of rapid change and constant risk, we have become a cautious, even stagnant, society.

This as information dense a discussion as I’ve hosted on this podcast. I took a lot away from it, and I think you will too.

Here is the link.

The Robothespian

by on March 16, 2017 at 12:55 am in The Arts, Web/Tech | Permalink

When Judy Norman walks on stage for the play Spillikin, she performs beside a somewhat different cast member — a humanoid robot.

Featuring a “robothespian”, the play brings love and technology together for a story about an engineer who builds a robot to keep his wife company after he dies.

Yet accuracy is required from the human thespian:

The robot is connected to the theatre’s control room, where a laptop transmits cues for its performance.

“[There is] a big pressure on the actor…to always have the right lines, always stand in the right place so that the robot is looking at the right direction at that particular moment,” Welch said.

Onstage, Norman talks to the robot and even kisses it. In return, the robot replies, displays facial expressions and moves its hands.

spillikin

Here is the full story, with more photos and video, via Michelle Dawson.

The last time I was in Ireland I wasn’t blogging yet.  What riches lie here, let’s give it a start:

1. Poetry: I pick Joyce’s Ulysses, then Yeats and also Seamus Heaney, especially if the word “bog” appears in the poem.  A good collection is The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty.  Beyond the ranks of the super-famous, you might try Louis MacNeice, from the Auden Group, or perhaps Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who writes in Gaelic but has been translated by other superb Irish poets into English..

2. Novel/literature: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels.  One of the very very best books for social science too, and one of my favorite books period.  After Joyce, there is also Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Lord Dunsany, John Banville (The Untouchable), William Trevor, and Elizabeth Bowen.  Iris Murdoch was born in Ireland, but does she count?  More recently I have enjoyed Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Eimear McBride, Claire Louise-Bennett, with Mike McCormack in my pile to read soon.  Roddy Doyle is probably good, but I don’t find him so readable.  Colum McCann somehow isn’t Irish enough for me, but many enjoy his work.  Can the Anglo-Irish Oliver Goldsmith count?  His Citizen of the World remains a neglected work.  The recently published volumes of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence have received rave reviews and I hope to read through them this summer.  Whew!  And for a country of such a small population.

3. Classical music: Hmm…we hit a roadblock here.  I don’t love John Field, so I have to call this category a fail.  I can’t offhand think of many first-rate Irish classical performers, can you?  James Galway?

4. Popular music: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless.  Certainly my favorite album post-1970s, and possibly my favorite of all time.  When the Irish do something well, they do it really really well.  Then there is Van Morrison, Them, Bono and U2, Rory Gallagher, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, The Pogues, The Cranberries, and Sinead O’Connor, among others.  I confess to having an inordinate weakness for Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Traditional Irish music would need a post of its own, but it has never commanded much of my attention.

5. Painter: Francis Bacon is the obvious and probably correct choice, but I am no longer excited to see his work.  I don’t find myself seeing new things in it.  Sean Scully wins runner-up.  This is a slightly weak category, at least relative to some of the others.

6. Political philosopher: Edmund Burke, who looks better all the time, I am sorry to say.

7. Philosopher: Bishop Berkeley.  He is also interesting on monetary theory, anticipating some later ideas of Fischer Black on money as an abstract unit of account.

8. Classical economist: Mountifort Longfield and Isaac Butt both had better understandings of supply and demand and marginalism, before the marginal revolution, than almost any other economists except for a few of the French.

9. Theologian: C.S. Lewis, you could list him under fiction as well.  Here is a debate over whether he is British or Irish.  Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia covers Lewis, one of my favorite books from the last decade.

10. Silicon Valley entrepreneur: Patrick Collison (duh), of Stripe and Atlas, here is his superb podcast with Ezra Klein.  Here is further information on the pathbreaking Stripe Atlas project.

11. Movie: There are plenty I don’t like so much, such as My Left Foot, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Waking Ned, and The Commitments.  Most people consider those pretty good.  I think I’ll opt for The Crying Game and also In the Name of the Father.

12: Movie, set in: Other than the movies listed above, there is Odd Man Out (quite good), The Quiet Man, and The Secret of Roan Inish, but my clear first choice is the still-underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon.

The bottom line: The strengths are quite amazing, and that’s without adjusting for population.