Results for “writing”
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*Collected Writings of Morton Feldman*

Feldman probably was the most important American composer of his generation, he interacted with the leading NYC painters of his time, and it turns out he is a splendid writer as well.  His observations are to the point, often with a Nassim Taleb kind of sting.  Here is one bit:

Recently in the Sunday papers an article about Messiaen appeared in which a great virtue was made of his political “disengagement.”  Reading this article, we learn how deeply religious this composer is, how much he looks forward to his vacations in Switzerland, how proud he is of Boulez, and how involved he is with bird calls.  Can we say man is really disengaged?  His chief occupation seems to be this disengagement.  There is something curiously official in the way his interests and views are described — as though nothing could now disturb all this.


But he has nothing to worry about, that chap in Tempo.  He’s going to have it all.  Pitch relationships, plus sound and chance thrown in.  Total consolidation.  Those two words define the new academy.  You can tie it all up in the well-known formula, “You made a small circle and excluded me; I made a bigger circle and included you.”  A kind of Jonah-and-the-whale syndrome is taking place.  Everything is being chewed up en masse and for the mass…

It may seem strange to call Boulez and Stockhausen popularizers, but that’s what they are.  They glamorized Schoenberg and Webern, now they’re glamorizing something else.  But chance to them is just another procedure, another vehicle for new aspects of structure or of sonority independent of pitch organization.  They could have gotten these things from Ives or Varèse, but they went to these men with too deep  prejudice, the prejudice of the equal, the colleague.

More books should have sentences like: “[Virgil] Thomson disliked me on sight, as a youth, and it’s never changed.”

The full title is Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman,” edited by B.H. Friedman.

I think Feldman two greatest works are For John Cage, and also String Quartet #2, which is about five hours long.  This year I have been listening to the Philip Thomas 5-CD set of Feldman’s piano music more than just about any other CD.  It is not the very best Feldman, but it is some of the best Feldman to listen to, if only because the pieces typically are shorter.

The three ideas you all are writing me the most about

1. Segregating old people, and letting others go about their regular business.  Given how many older people now work (and vote), and how many employees in nursing homes are young, I’ve yet to see a good version of this plan, but if you favor it please do try to write one up.  One of you suggested taking everyone over the age of 65 and encasing them in bubble wrap, or something.

2. Tracking and surveillance by smart phones.  Here is one story, here is another.  Here is an Oxford project.  Singapore is using related ideas, China has too.

3. Testing as many Americans as possible, or at least a representative sample, to get data.

I hope to analyze these more in the future.

“Two big names in European writing win literature Nobels”

I chuckled at that FT headline, fortunately the on-line version names Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke in its header.

Can you imagine a sports header: “Big name wins NBA most valuable player award.”  No, they would name the “big name” because that big name is in fact big.

I still think Stephen King should get one.  I didn’t enjoy trying to read Tokarczuk, though I suspect she is a very good writer in Polish.  By Handke I can recommend his Sorrow of Dreams, a memoir of his mother dying, and also a book that influenced Knausgaard.  But mostly I am find him boring, pessimistic, and nasty, perhaps consistent with his support for Milosevic and the tyranny in Serbia.  I don’t think that disqualifies him from the prize per se, but neither do I see him as an author who had to win, though he is indeed “a big name in European writing.”  The thing is, he is nothing more than that.

Here you can buy The Stand for $8.30, by the way I love Houllebecq but the new one isn’t very interesting, as sadly it reads like a parody of his earlier, superior work.  Submission remains one of the truly great novels of recent times.

How do you teach writing in a scalable manner to third- and fourth-graders?

This is a bleg, so please leave your sagacious answers in the comments.  Kelly Smith, of Prenda, writes me:

To summarize, I want kids to love writing, to see themselves as writers, and to improve their skill. I’d love to know about anyone who has done that systematically.

Are you able to help?  Rest assured that your answers will be put to good use.

Philip Serzo on travel writing

Philip sent me this email, and very generously allowed me to reproduce it:


I know you’ve been going back and forth recently on travel writing. I don’t read a ton of travel writing, but I could totally see why it has limitations, like all genres. I say this after studying Graham Greene a favorite writer of mine. He crossed over successfully into many genres of writing. Travel writing being one of them.
Here’s my point. Rolf Potts interviews Pico Iyer on a book he wrote about Graham Greene and Pott’s asks this questions below:

One interesting contradiction you raise in your book is how Greene was better at evoking the humanity of faraway places in his fiction than in his nonfiction travel books. You even go so far as to say that “his travel books were a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel.” Why do you think this is the case, and what does it say about Greene’s way of seeing the world?

We are never less forthright than when writing of ourselves; that’s one of the lessons I feel I share with Greene (or maybe partly learned from him). Memoir to me is a kind of fiction, and the most striking autobiographical works I know—whether Philip Roth’s The Facts or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn or V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival—all present themselves as novels. So it’s always seemed perfect to me that in his two quasi-memoirs, Greene uses charm and anecdote and childhood memory to avoid really telling us anything about himself, his loves or his beliefs; yet in his novels, given a mask or cover, he’s as naked and unguarded as any author I know. Give yourself an alias or call your work fiction and you can say things you might not say to your closest friends.

In his travel-writing, likewise, Greene was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he’d seen in Mexico into a novel—The Power and the Glory—he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.

He might be almost offering us—inadvertently—a lesson on the limitations of travel-writing, much as Naipaul or Theroux or Maugham also do in novels that are far more compassionate and sympathetic than the travel-books that gave rise to them. In writing a non-fictional book about travel, you usually have to create a fictional persona of sorts, some convenient version of the self that will make the narrative work. But that front is almost never as rich or deep or conflicted as the self we allow ourselves to entertain in fiction; it can’t be. Very often the travel-writers we enjoy are engaging or buoyant or splenetic on the page, but all those are really just useful props, tiny fragments of the self, and don’t always take us very deep.

Why is most travel writing so bad?

The most painful sections of a bookshop to have to read through would be the management books, self-help, and also the travel books.  Yet management, self-help, and travel are all very important and indeed extremely interesting matters, so I am wondering why these books are so bad.  Today let’s focus on travel.

My biggest complaint is that travel books seem not to discriminate between what the reader might care about or not.  Here is a randomly chosen passage from a recent travel book of Jedidiah Jenkins:

We walked our bikes over one more bridge and into Tijuana.  Weston was barefoot, which he noted out loud as we entered Mexico.  We got on our bikes and rode into immediate chaos.

Or this:

I drank my coffee and read the news on my phone.  I felt him sitting next to me.

Who cares? And who is Weston anyway?  (Longer excerpts would not seduce you.)  Yet this book — To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret — has 85 reviews on Amazon with an average of four and a half stars and it was a NYT bestseller.

Is travel like (some) sex, namely that you can’t write about it because it is viscerally exciting in a “you had to be there” way?  Why cannot that constraint be overcome by shifting the focus to matters more factual?

Too many travel books seem like an inefficient blending of memoir, novel, and travel narration, and they are throughout too light on information.  Ideally I want someone with a background in geography, natural history, or maybe urban studies to serve up a semi-rigorous account of what they are doing and seeing.

Here is one mood-affiliated blurb for the Jenkins book:

“A thrilling, tender, utterly absorbing book. With winning candor, Jedidiah Jenkins takes us with him as he bicycles across two continents and delves deeply into his own beautiful heart. We laugh. We cry. We feel the glory and the agony of his adventure; the monotony and the magic; the grace and the grit. Every page of this book made me ache to know what happened next. Every chapter shimmered with truth. It’s an unforgettable debut.”
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things

What do people want from travel books anyway?  It seems the Jenkins work sold well because he is famous on Instagram, which may or may not correlate with book-writing skills.

Here is another randomly chosen passage:

I wait.  I drink some more water.  It sit in the grass and chat with the others.  I have a few false starts: “Ooh, I’m feeling it…just kidding, no I’m not.”  “Okay, now I am!  No, that’s an ant on my ankle.”

Is the problem an absence of barriers to entry for writing travel books?  That many books will sell automatically “by country” rather than because of the quality of their content, leading to an excessively segmented market?  Other travel book readers seem to obsess over the mode of transportation, such as whether a particular trip was undertaken by bicycle.  Are there too many celebrities and semi-celebrities trying their hand at a relatively easy-to-fudge literary genre?

What are the microfoundations for this failure in the quality of travel books?

Here are various lists of the best travel books of all time.  Even there I find many overrated, noting that Elizabeth Gilbert is better than most.

If you are wondering, three of my favorite travel books are Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, David G. Campbell, The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica, and also Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, perhaps the best travel book ever written.

Somebody — fix this problem!

Model this is songwriting becoming more complex?

In the 1960s, an average hit song on the Billboard Top 10 had an average of 1.87 writers and 1.68 publishers each year. Songwriting duos were common, and creativity a simpler endeavor…

During the LP era (60s-80s), the number of songwriters and publishers on hit songs didn’t rise as dramatically.  Based on the Songdex analysis, in the 70s, hit songs on the Billboard Top 10 had an average of 1.95 writers and 2.04 publishers each.  During the 80s, the number of average publishers in top 10 songs slightly rose to 2.06.  The number of writers remained the same.

In the 90s, the number spiked to an average of 3.13 writers and 3.49 publishers per top 10 song.  Incidentally, the change coincides with the rise of digital music formats, such as the MP3.  Napster also launched in 1999.  All of which ushered in an era of massive data overload (and that’s before streaming took hold).

Consumers quickly adopted digital music formats, resulting in a “market need for registration, licensing and reporting systems,” says Music Reports.  In the 2000s, Billboard Top 10 hits had an average of 3.50 writers and 4.96 publishers each year.

This past decade, streaming has emerged as a major source of revenue for record labels.  Using its Songdex catalog registry, Music Reports noted that Billboard Top 10 hits saw an average of 4.07 writers and six publishers.

Here is the full story, I am glad Beethoven never did much co-authoring, with apologies to Diabelli.

A short interview with me about writing

It is with Writing Routines, here is the interview, here is one bit:

When you first sit down to write, how do you start?

The keyboard is the most useful part, though I will check my email and maybe Twitter first, so I don’t miss something big.

What’s your process for editing your own work?

I repeatedly edit it many times, at least ten. I just keep on doing it, until I can’t think of further improvements. I can’t say that is a process in any formal sense, simply a recognition that the “process” to date hasn’t worked very well and so it must continue. I don’t pretend this is efficient.

And this:

For better or worse, I just don’t have that many modes.

Anne Enright on plot and writing

 AE: Plot is a kind of paranoia, actually. It implies that events are connected, that characters are connected, just because they are in the same book. I like the way Pynchon exposed the essential paranoia of plot in The Crying of Lot 49. When I read that book as a student, I realized that if you bring coincidence or the mechanics of plotting into a book, it begs all the questions about who is writing this book and why, or why you’re making this mechanical toy do these things. That, to me as a reader, is slightly alienating. But, you know, things do happen in real life. People die in car accidents. There are connections and coincidences.

She is an Irish writer, there is more here, interesting throughout.  I also liked this sentence:

The unknowability of one human being to another is an endless subject for novelists.

And this bit about writing:

It’s like getting a herd of sheep across a field. If you try to control them too much, they resist. It’s the same with a book. If you try to control it too much, the book is dead. You have to let it fall apart quite early on and let it start doing its own thing. And that takes nerve, not to panic that the book you were going to write is not the book you will have at the end of the day.

Hat tip goes to The Browser.

American writing is now more emotional than British writing (big data for books)

From Alberto Acerbi, Vasileios Lampos, Philip Garnett, and R. Alexander Bentley:

Our results also support the popular notion that American authors express more emotion than the British. Somewhat surprisingly, this difference has apparently developed only since the 1960s, and as part of a more general stylistic differentiation in American versus British English, reflected similarly in content-free word frequencies. This relative increase of American mood word use roughly coincides with the increase of anti–social and narcissistic sentiments in U.S. popular song lyrics from 1980 to 2007, as evidenced by steady increases in angry/antisocial lyrics and in the percentage of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., Imemine), with a corresponding decrease in words indicating social interactions (e.g., matetalkchild) over the same 27-year period.

And there is this:

As these findings appear to genuinely reflect changes in published language, a remaining question is whether word usage represents real behavior in a population, or possibly an absence of that behavior which is increasingly played out via literary fiction (or online discourse). It has been suggested, for example, that it was the suppression of desire in ordinary Elizabethan English life that increased demand for writing “obsessed with romance and sex”. So while it is easy to conclude that Americans have themselves become more ‘emotional’ over the past several decades, perhaps songs and books may not reflect the real population any more than catwalk models reflect the average body; the observed changes reflect the book market, rather than a direct change in American culture. We believe the changes do reflect changes in culture, however, because unlike lyrics of the top 10 songs, the book data are independent of book sales.

The full article is here, with other points of interest.  For instance of the major emotions coded for, disgust is the one least likely to show up in book writing.  I owe the pointer to someone or other on Twitter, but right now it is simply an open window on my computer, next to the Twitter window.

Writing for free

The always-insightful Matt Yglesias discusses the benefits and propriety of writing for free.

I would add that I see the new “writing for free” model as changing in (at least) two ways.  First, high living costs make it harder to leverage the patronage of writers into significant impact.  There will arise new arrangements where newbies are offered 15k a year to go blog from the Yucatan, or somewhere else with low living costs but ok broadband.  Foundations or donors will pick up the bill and the newbies will consider the country to be an adventure not a burden.  The “winners” of these tournaments will end up with jobs similar to Matt’s.  Some people, especially those with “lender of first resort” parents, will manage to cover a Brooklyn lifestyle with the 15k.

Second, one’s choice of spouse will matter increasingly for journalism and also commentary.  The returns to a good marriage will rise.  Look for on-line writers to become slightly more establishment, slightly more romantic, and just a wee bit closer to the philosophy of Ross Douthat, minus the enthusiasm for a higher birth rate of course.

Evan Soltas is now writing for Bloomberg

Here is his excellent column on decentralized provincial health care provision in Canada.  Excerpt:

By fixing the maximum federal contribution, block grants offer Canada’s provincial and territorial governments far better incentives to reduce the cost and improve the quality of the medical services they purchase. When costs rise, the provinces that run the programs are forced to pay 100 percent of the added costs at the margin, unlike in the U.S., where state governments pay an average of 43 cents at the margin for every dollar of added Medicaid expense.

Decentralized administration gives provinces the flexibility and the accountability to design their programs according to their needs and particular local challenges, rather than federal “one-size-fits-none” imposition. It also creates opportunities for innovation. By sharing notes, provinces and territories learn from one another and improve their Medicare programs.

Canada has been using block grants for 35 years. After several years of ruinously high growth in Medicare expenses during the 1970s, their federal government abandoned a 50-50 cost-sharing plan in 1977. Through the Canada Health Transfer program, which gives states some money directly and some through tax-shifting agreements, Canadian provinces and territories receive equal per capita aid, regardless of actual health care expenditure.

Hat tip goes to Miles Kimball.

Writing naked puts and how the financial sector makes so much money

In part the financial sector does the equivalent of writing "naked puts," namely taking risks which usually yield extra income but occasionally blow up and bring large losses, part of which are socialized.  Lending money to homeowners under relatively loose terms is one way of taking such a position but of course trading strategies can replicate related risk positions.

H. Peyton Young just wrote me that he and Dean Foster have a piece in the latest QJE on a closely related logic; I have yet to read it closely but it strikes me as a very very important article.

The key problem underlying all of this is we don't know how to punish people in a manner consistent with the rising size of absolute rewards.  As I wrote:

Another root cause of growing inequality is that the modern world, by so limiting our downside risk, makes extreme risk-taking all too comfortable and easy. More risk-taking will mean more inequality, sooner or later, because winners always emerge from risk-taking. Yet bankers who take bad risks (provided those risks are legal) simply do not end up with bad outcomes in any absolute sense. They still have millions in the bank, lots of human capital and plenty of social status. We’re not going to bring back torture, trial by ordeal or debtors’ prisons, nor should we. Yet the threat of impoverishment and disgrace no longer looms the way it once did, so we no longer can constrain excess financial risk-taking. It’s too soft and cushy a world.

That’s an underappreciated way to think about our modern, wealthy economy: Smart people have greater reach than ever before, and nothing really can go so wrong for them. As a broad-based portrait of the new world, that sounds pretty good, and usually it is. Just keep in mind that every now and then those smart people will be making—collectively—some pretty big mistakes.

Matt is correct that the argument doesn't require bailouts, although bailouts make the problem much worse, by neutering creditors as a risk-reducing force.

Most likely, shareholders favor some but not all of these "going short on volatility" risks.  To some extent they are ripping off the creditors by taking such risks, to some extent they are ripping off the public sector through an expected bailout (not true for most non-financial firms, of course), and to some extent the managers are pushing the risk beyond the point shareholders would desire, if they understood what was going on.  Keep in mind that shareholders and bondholders are also potential market competitors, so the firm's trading book can't be completely open to even the owners of the firm (a neglected point, in my view).

One question, raised by Robin Hanson, is why everyone doesn't write these naked puts.  You can introduce the "not everyone can expect a bailout" point here and it works fine.  But there are other reasons too:

1. Large-scale banking involves economies of scale (after the few biggest U.S. banks, size drops off dramatically).  You don't have to think these economies are socially productive; the point remains that Goldman can take positions which my local bank will not or cannot with equal facility, for a mix of institutional and expertise reasons.  The prospect of bailouts, of course, cements concentration in the sector because everyone wants to lend to "Too Big to Fail."

2. Arguably every bank does write the equivalent of naked puts to a socially non-optimal degree.  It is often homeowners on the other side of the market, arguably to an irrational degree.  In any case the resulting price of the put can be actuarially fair and the basic mechanism still operates.  If you play this strategy, you can expect (the mode) a bunch of years of multi-million returns, followed by an eventual unceremonious firing (if that) and life in the Hamptons.  If you follow an efficient markets strategy, you can expect the going rate of return on the diversified market portoflio.  Which sounds better?

Soon I'll write a post on whether vigilant creditors can neuter this risk-taking, so please hold off on that question for now.

Addendum: This "going short on volatility" risk strategy is receiving a good deal of attention from commentators on my piece, but I actually think "arriving there first with a good asset purchase," as I discuss in the article, is a somewhat more important mechanism for increasing income inequality among the top one percent.  A lot of the rise in income inequality has come outside the financial sector narrowly construed, though it still is related to the existence of relatively open capital markets.

Writing down the principal on mortgages

It's obvious that the economy still isn't doing well.  Furthermore the rate of foreclosures won't peak until the end of 2010.  On top of that, most observers agree that the Obama mortgage modification plan has been a failure.

That all said, I'm surprised that so few commentators have leapt on the "we should write off some of the principal" bandwagon.  It's not currently a bandwagon at all.

I know that a) this idea is WRONG, b) it is terrible for the long run rule of law, and c) it is EVIL and UNFAIR.  It's also one of the few suggested economic remedies that might have worked or maybe could still work. 

How so?  It limits value-destroying foreclosures.  It gives homeowners the right marginal incentive to keep on making payments and maintain the value of the home and to maintain their credit capabilities.  It gives the housing market a fresh start rather than this waiting/coordination game where we wait for everyone to move on down a notch in house quality, thereby freezing parts of the housing market and choking off required recalculations.  (How can you have a well-functioning housing market when so many people have negative equity?  I've read estimates of twenty percent of the U.S. population.)  It also limits the problem of future ARM resets, once interest rates rise in the future.

It's all about long-run vs. short-run and I usually side with the long run.  But the short run modification of property rights has so many defenders in other contexts, so why not here?  Call it "clearing up financial logjams" if you wish.

Is it a better marginal incentive than suddenly increasing the taxes on banks?

Bernanke himself once suggested the idea.

I might add that by fostering an actual recovery, writing off the principal on mortgage loans might limit some of the other bad interventions that we will try or have ended up trying.  There's more than one way to toss away the rule of law.

Writing to Peter Singer about Down syndrome

I liked this Michael Bérubé post; here is an excerpt:

…in the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read.  OK, so now the rationale for seeing these people as somewhat less than human is their likely comprehension of Woody Allen films.  Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing “sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies–they completely fail to appreciate the breakthrough of Interiors.”  Surely you understand my sense that the goalposts are being moved around here in a rather arbitrary fashion…

You’re looking for things people with Down syndrome can’t do, and I’m looking for things they can.  We each have our reasons, of course.  But I don’t accept the premise that cognitive capacity is a useful criterion for reading some people out of the human community, any more than you would accept the premise that we should grant rights to animals on the basis of whether humans think they do or don’t taste good with barbeque sauce.