Why don’t they compose music like Bach any more?

Well, they do, or at least they did once.  I am thinking of a recent recording by Nikolaus Matthes, namely Markus Passion, which fills 3 compact discs and sounds remarkably like a Passion from Bach’s time.  It could even be by Bach.  The text is from the time of Bach.  Yet Matthes was born in 1981.

To be clear, it does not rival Bach’s best work, but I have no problems comparing it to a median Bach cantata, which still is pretty good.  It is also better than many of the works by Bach’s contemporaries, including the better-known ones.

And yet no one cares.  Have you heard of this work before?  How many times will you hear of it from now on?

Perhaps you doubt my judgment as to the quality of this work?  Well, you might check out Fanfare, the world’s number one classical music review outlet.  Fanfare gives the work six distinct reviews.

Colin Clarke for instance wrote: “But does it work?  Absolutely.  This is the most remarkable Baroque music of our time — by which I mean this does not feel like the 21st century looking back, instead, it feels as if it were written back in Bach’s time, with the exception of the odd detour forwards.  Most of the time, it could be music written by Bach himself, and I can offer no higher praise to Matthes’s achievement.”

Or from David Cutler: “…Matthes has accomplished something marvelous.  It has more than a hint of Bach, but is it Bach?  The jury must be out on that, but is that not the idea?”

James A. Altena writes: “In sum, both the work itself and this performance are a complete triumph, and do full and worthy honor to Bach.  I cannot think of higher praise than that.”

All the reviewers are very positive, as was a composer friend of mine who listened to the piece.  The home page for the work offers further positive reviews.  And no, I don’t like Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony.

You can buy it on German Amazon, and a few other places, streaming links here.

I feel I need to update some of my views on aesthetics, I am just not sure which ones.  And who exactly is Matthes?  Is this another Ossian thing, or rather the inverse?

Emergent Ventures 35th cohort

Luke Strathmann, Brooklyn, to pursue projects related to economics and comedy.

Tanvi Reddy, Austin, neural implants.

Guillaume Blanc, Manchester/Provence, to study fertility and the demographic transition.

Pedro Aldighieri, Northwestern, RiodJ, LLMs and progress in science.

Inayi Folarin Iman, London,  “The Equiano Project, a UK-based charity that promotes freedom of speech and open dialogue on matters of race, identity and culture.”

Ayan Ansari, Greenville, SC, to run a web lab project for his high school.

Henry Bass, 15, Stowe, Vermont, to live in the Bay Area, work on computer projects.

Janna Lu, GMU/Singapore, to visit SF and tech/ai events, with an economics background.

Lyman Stone, Lexington, Kentucky, and Institute for Family Studies, to study and promote ideas of pro-natalism.

Thanosan Prathifkumar, 16, Brampton, Ontario, AI and the monitoring of plants.

Naime Hoxha, Pristina, Kosovo, to find and train young talent in Kosovo.

Kushal Thaman, Stanford, AI studies.

Theo Jaffee, podcasting, San Francisco/Florida.

Joseph Jojoe, Columbia, data labeling tools + AI architectures.

Patricia Hurducas, The Hague/Romania, writing, general career support.

And here are previous cohorts of EV winners, just scroll through.

U.S.A. retail fact of the day

At the remaining publicly listed department stores, credit cards — rather than retail sales — now generate a surprisingly large chunk of profits. Credit income accounted for about 47 per cent and 66 per cent, respectively, of Nordstrom’s and Kohl’s operating income last year, according to Bank of America Global Research. At Macy’s, the figure was about 55 per cent in 2022, said Citigroup.

Here is more from Lex at the FT.

Wednesday assorted links

1. The evolving economics of cocaine in Colombia (NYT).

2. New NBER paper, surveys theoretical approach to designing research grants.

3. On the pricing of wines.

4. The Trump plan for AI, very different from the Biden Executive Order.  This could prove very important.

5. How do we radically improve Britain’s state capacity?  Video with Munira Mirza, Dominic Cummings, and Lord Adonis.

6. Six questions for post-liberal Christians.

7. African School of Economics Zanzibar now has a live website.

The changes in vibes — why did they happen?

Clearly it has happened, and it has been accelerated and publicized by the Biden failings and the attempted Trump assassination.  But it was already underway.  If you need a single, unambiguous sign of it, I would cite MSNBC pulling off Morning Joe for a morning, for fear they would say something nasty about Trump.

Another way to put it is that Trump was a highly vulnerable, defeated President, facing numerous legal charges and indeed an actual felony conviction.  Yet he now stands as a clear favorite in the next election.  In conceptual terms, how exactly did that happen?

I had been thinking  it would be a good cognitive test to ask people why they think the vibes have changed, and then to grade their answers for intelligence, insight, and intellectual honesty.

For instance, I used to read people arguing “Trump is popular because of racism,” but now that view is pretty clearly refuted, even if you think (as I do) that racism has some marginal impact on his support.  Or other people have attributed the development to “polarization.”  Whether or not you agree with the polarization thesis, it begs the question here, as we could be polarized with Trump as a big underdog.

In any case, thought I should start this process by offering my answers.  Here they are, in a series of bullet points:

1. Trump and his team understand that we now live in a world of social media.  Only a modest part of the Democratic establishment has mastered the same.

2. The “Trumpian Right,” whether you agree with it or not, has been more intellectually alive and vital than the Progressive Left, at least during the last five years, maybe more.  Being fully on the outs, those people were more free to be creative, noting that I am not equating creative with being correct.

3. The deindustrialization of America has mattered more than people expected at first, and has had longer legs, in terms of its impact on public opinion.  I would say this one is squarely in the mainstream account of the matter.

4. Many Trumpian and MAGA messages have been more in vibe with the negative contagion effects of our recent times.

5. The Democrats made a big bet that trying to raise the status of blacks would be popular, but at best they had mixed results.  Some part of this failing was due to racists, some part due to immigrants with their own concerns, and some part due simply to the unpopularity of the message.

6. The ongoing feminization of society has driven more and more men, including black and Latino men, into the Republican camp.  The Democratic Party became too much the party of unmarried women.

7. The Obama administration brought, to some degree, both the reality and perception of being ruled by the intellectual class.  People didn’t like that.

8. Democrats and leftists are in fact less happy as people than conservatives are, on average.  Americans noticed this, if only subconsciously.

9. The relentlessly egalitarian message of Democrats is not so popular, and furthermore — since every claim must have messengers — it translates in lived practice into an “I am better than you all are” vibe.  Americans noticed this, if only subconsciously.

10. The Woke gambit has proven deeply unpopular.

11. Trans support has not been a winning issue for Democrats, but it is hard for them to let it go.

12. Immigration at the border has in fact spun out of control, and that has been a key Trump issue from the beginning of his campaign.  And I write this as a person who is very pro-immigration.  You can imagine how the immigration skeptics feel.

13. Higher education has been a traditional Democratic stronghold, and it remains one.  Yet its clout and credibility have fallen significantly in the last few years.

14. The Democrats made a big mistake going after “Big Tech.”  It didn’t cost them many votes, rather money and social capital.  Big Tech (most of all Facebook) was the Girardian sacrifice for the Trump victory in 2016, and all the Democrats achieved from that was a hollowing out of their own elite base.

15. Various developments in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Israel did not help the Democratic cause.  Inflation was very high, and real borrowing rates went up sharply.  This is true, whether or not you think it is the fault of Biden, or Trump would have done better.  Crypto came under attack.  The pandemic story is complicated, and its politics would require a post of its own, but I don’t think it helped the Democrats, most of all because they ended up “owning” many of the longer-lasting school closures.

And we haven’t even gotten to “Defund the police,” the recurring rise of anti-Semitism on the left, and at least a half dozen other matters.

16. In very simple terms, you might say the Democrats have done a lot to make themselves unpopular, and not had much willingness to confront that.  Their own messages make this hard to face up to, since they are supposed to be better people.

You might add to this:

17. Trump is funny (he is one of the great American comics in fact), and

18. Trump acts like a winner.  Americans like this, and his response to the failed assassination attempt drove this point home.

19. Biden’s recent troubles, and the realization that he and his team had been running a con at least as big as the Trump one.  It has become a trust issue, not only an age or cognition issue.

On the other side of the ledger, you might argue, as do many intelligent people, that the Democrats are better at technocracy, and also that Democrats are more respectful of traditional political processes, especially transitions after elections.  I’m not here to debate those issues!  I know many MAGA supporters are not convinced, most of all on the latter.  I’ll simply note that, in the minds of many Americans, those factors do not necessarily outweigh #1-19.

And there you go.

Addendum: Of course there was and is plenty wrong with Trump and the Trump administration. But the purpose here is not to compare Biden and Trump, rather it is to see why the Democrats are not doing better.  If your response to that question is to cite reasons why the Democrats are better than Trump…well then you are exactly part of the problem.

One view, not to be entirely dismissed

EAs building God. NRxers conquering the state. No more wokes vs chuds, but Thiel vs Karnofsky; Land smiles bitterly. Debates not about bathrooms, but «fear Apocalypse less and Antichrist more» and «we must secure the future of the light cone». I’ve been there, when it all began.

https://x.com/teortaxesTex/status/1813052509012824188.  And a modest comment from David Brooks.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Marc Nerlove has passed away.

2. Those new Strava jockey service sector jobs.

3. Polostan, new Neal Stephenson novel, with nuclear themes.

4. Mental health AI app with capybaras, it is definitely happening.

5. How cost-effective is the new R21 vaccine compared to existing malaria interventions? Quite effective.

6. Creating space in space: “Their main product is a furnace that will manufacture glass spheres from lunar regolith, which is rich in silicate.”

7. Good FT story on just how premature the EU AI regulation was.

Disappearing polymorphs

Here’s a wild phenomena I wasn’t previously aware of: In crystallography and materials science, a polymorph is a solid material that can exist in more than one crystal structure while maintaining the same chemical composition. Diamond and graphite are two polymorphs of carbon. Diamond is carbon crystalized with an isometric structure and graphite is carbon crystalized with a hexagonal structure. Now imagine that one day your spouse’s diamond ring turns to graphite! That’s unlikely with carbon but it happens with other polymorphs when a metastable (locally) stable version becomes seeded with a stable version.

The drug ritonavir originally used for AIDS (and also a component of the COVID medication Paxlovid), for example, was created in 1996 but in 1998 it couldn’t be produced any longer. Despite the best efforts of the manufacturer, Abbott, every time they tried to create the old ritonavir a new crystalized version (form II) was produced which was not medically effective. The problem was that once form II exists it’s almost impossible to get rid of it and microscopic particles of form II ritonavir seeded any attempt to create form I.

Form II was of sufficiently lower energy that it became impossible to produce Form I in any laboratory where Form II was introduced, even indirectly. Scientists who had been exposed to Form II in the past seemingly contaminated entire manufacturing plants by their presence, probably because they carried over microscopic seed crystals of the new polymorph.

Wikipedia continues:

In the 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, the narrator learns about Ice-nine, an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and acts as a seed crystal upon contact with ordinary liquid water, causing that liquid water to instantly freeze and transform into more Ice-nine. Later in the book, a character frozen in Ice-nine falls into the sea. Instantly, all the water in the world’s seas, rivers, and groundwater transforms into solid Ice-nine, leading to a climactic doomsday scenario.

Given the last point you will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the hat tip goes to Eliezer Yudkowsky who worries about such things.

Migrant exposure and anti-migrant sentiment

The subtitle of the paper is The Case of the Venezuelan Exodus, and the authors are Jeremy Lebow, Jonathan Moreno-Medina, Salma Mousa, and Horacio Coral.  Here is part of the abstract:

We study the mass exodus of Venezuelans across Latin America, which coincided with an unprecedented worsening in migrant sentiment in the countries that received the most Venezuelans. However, we find no evidence that this decrease occurred in the regions within-country that received the most migrants. We do this using multiple migrant sentiment outcomes including survey measures and social media posts, multiple levels of geographic variation across seven Latin American countries, and an instrumental variable strategy. We find little evidence for heterogeneity along a range of characteristics related to labor market competition, public good scarcity, or crime. The results are consistent with anti-migrant sentiment being a national-level phenomenon, divorced from local experiences with migrants.

Keep in mind that domestic natives typically have significant (national-level) misinformed objections to the migrants, such as thinking they are far more numerous than in fact they are.  But they don’t dislike the actual presence of the immigrants, quite the contrary.

Why Is Sweden Paying Grandparents to Babysit?

I am not sure the policy is a good idea, but it is worth trying to think through its logic, as I attempt in my latest Bloomberg column.  After outlining the case against the change, here is the argument for it:

If you look at Sweden’s policy closely, it adheres pretty well to some basic economic principles: namely, the notion of Pareto improvements, which benefit all parties involved.

Start with the fact that Swedish parents currently receive extensive paid leave upon the birth of a child, and so it can be said they are already paid to look after their children. Whether or not you agree with that policy, it is longstanding and well-established. Take it as a given.

Now imagine that you are an ambitious Swedish doctor or lawyer, climbing the career ladder, and are self-aware enough to realize you do not always have entirely the right degree of natural patience necessary for parenting. In that case, you might prefer to go back to work following the birth of your child. Under the status quo ex ante, you could not work and draw your normal salary and still get the full child-care benefit, even though some child benefits are paid automatically.

There is thus a potential inefficiency in the system. You may stay at home just to get the money, even when an alternate arrangement might be better for everyone.

Now add grandparents to this equation. If the grandparents can be paid to take care of your child, all of a sudden the extended family as a whole doesn’t lose the money by having the parent go back to work. Instead, that money is transferred to the grandparents, so the work disincentive is diminished.

And economists will tell you that the parents and grandparents can do their own settling up. If the grandparents are well-to-do, for instance, and eager to spend time with their grandkids, they might funnel some of that money back to the parents or the child, either directly or indirectly. In some cases, on net, the grandparents may not end up getting paid anything at all.

In essence, you can think of this policy as a model designed to maximize gains from trade.

One side effect is that, to the extent the parent who returns to work is a high earner, government tax revenue will increase. That will help pay for the policy, partially if not entirely.

The logic for this policy may hold all the more for single parents.

Worth a ponder.  When it comes to issues of transferability of benefits, there are few a priori answers.