Richard Davis requests

Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:

Melancholy among academics.

We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity.  Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high.  Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring.  It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different.  I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise.  What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?

Your favorite things Soviet.

Shostakovich.  And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels.  Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s.  The early chess games of Tal.  Magnitogorsk.  War memorials, most of all in Leningrad.  Tarkovsky.  I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky.  Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.

The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.

I would think fairly few.  I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality.  But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality?  Did Euclid have one?  Euler?  Does it show you will be a great teacher?  Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.

What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?

Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been.  Michelangelo was a major figure of renown.  Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated.  Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event.  Goethe ruled his time as a titan.  A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.

The future of Northern New Jersey.

Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation.  The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen.  So many young people already don’t know them or care.  I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.

Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?

The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away.  Many of the major architects.  Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro.  Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore.  Perelman.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports.  A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.


Why not?


RDJ in the "greats" list is both surprising and 100% correct.

Also, Shalamov is substantially better than Solzhenitsyn.

I confess, I double checked for Robert Downey Junior after reading this comment.

Sonny Rollins didn't make the cut?

Wayne Shorter? Carla Bley?

I came here to say exactly both these things.
Never knew Tyler appreciated or even knew of Aphex Twin.
Shalamov over Solzhenitsyn.

I have a half-finished copy of Kolyma Stories on my bookshelf. At some point I just ran out of steam to keep reading stories of unbroken misery.

Tyler, before asking to abolish the math PhD, why don’t you try to summarize what math research? For someone who holds standardized tests in high regard, you sure don’t have a lot of respect for people who scored higher than you in math.

I'm not sure I understand Tyler's remarks. Does this mean he would be okay with abolishing the econ PhD out of respect to say Adam Smith and others who shaped the field despite lacking that specific degree?

Summarize the current state of math research*

In an age of bias and outright fraud, Math is almost uniquely open to independent inspection and verification. Quite apart from the value of the knowledge it brings, this makes it valuable as a sign of intellectual prowess less vulnerable to counterfeiting than e.g. post-modernist cultural studies. I think we should be encouraging advanced study in mathematics and its attendant disciplines, such as statistics. I would be reluctant to abandon the Math PhD until I had something better to replace it with. (don't have anything above MSc myself - used to work as a computer programmer in a team including Math PhDs - look back fondly on those days).

I would not be surprised this openness is part of the reason it is so much deeper than other fields, not just cultural studies but also economics (reading any article in the most recent issue of QJE takes less preparation than reading almost any article in the Annals from the past 50 years). In mathematics there is a distinct sense that one succeeds by the merit of ideas rather than their salesmanship.

Math allows depth because formal proofs mean we can build up a big foundation of accepted results and then use it to study other topics. (By and large) agreement over what is true now is very useful for building the next layer of research. In that sense, it's not surprising that the further you get from math the less deep they seem.

This is an anecdote, but it's a true story. Really, I’m putting it on the Internet with all the other true stories.

I am not a math academic of any sort, but once upon a time I had lunch with a then non tenured harvard math prof who was doing a private sector stint on Wall Street. He was trying to hire me, I told him he wasn’t going to succeed, but he said he wanted to have lunch anyway so I went and we had a nice chat, with him learning useful stuff from me about working on Wall Street, and me learning, for me, useless but interesting stuff about being a math professor. I never saw him again, but I read about him in the newspaper a few years later, and by then he’d gone back to Harvard and was tenured. He said some interesting things about getting tenure at place like the math dept at a place like Harvard.

There were three ways to do it. The first was to solve some old traditional problem, like something on Hilbert’s list. The second was to solve a problem that was currently useful in something like physics or computer programming. Hardly anybody ever does either of those.

The last was to solve some theorems in a category that interested you. Sometime in the future, said theorem might be useful in physics say, but there is no way to tell that in the present. One didn’t get tenure out of that by itself, because everybody else did that too. Also, math being math, everybody’s theorems were every bit as ‘objectively correct’ as everybody else’s theorems, ‘merit’ is tough to assign. So how did they decide who got tenure? Salesmanship, though he used the word politics.

Given that he did go back to Harvard too, and got tenure, I don’t think he was merely grousing about why he hadn’t got tenure, though I didn’t know that at the time.

Soviet poetry is not amazing, surprisingly. Gaidar is almost as good as Doctor Seuss without the pictures, and Brodsky was good, but not really Soviet, and the fey little geniuses like poor Woody Allenish Mayakovsky and the Bolshie Rod McKuens like the boyfriend of that poor woman whose scarf got caught in the wheels - okay, dude, we get it, you liked the blossoms on apple trees but so did everybody else - were not that good, really. Konstantin Simonov had a Shakespearean moment, and so did Mandelshtam, but trust me, you are not missing much if what you are missing is "Soviet poetry" - now, the human history of the resistance to evil among Soviet citizens is amazing, but the poetry is pretty average.

As far as I can tell after living a long time and knowing who almost all of those people are for a long time, I think I can safely say Not a Single One of the people you mentioned as being among the greats who walk among us is more than a little above average, when you factor in how hard they tried.

Still, this was maybe your best post ever, and if you had stopped before that last paragraph that started with "who are the greats" .... I would have been super impressed.

Don't feel bad - I happen to think Orson Welles was one of the greats, and just last night I watched an interview of him where he foolishly said the only geniuses of the 20th century were Einstein and Picasso.

If Orson Welles can be so egregiously subservient to propaganda, almost anyone can.

Wow, my opinion of Orson Welles just went up even higher than it was! Picasso was a genius, the Bob Dylan of painting. Maybe the most creative, imaginative artistic mind of the 20th century. The enormity of his artistic output, at all stages of his life, is a tremendous inspiration for me.

Einstein I have to read more about.... Who will be the Picasso of this century? By this point in 1920 we already knew that Picasso would be one of the greats.

I have watched a couple of interviews of Welles recently.

Absolutely, breathtakingly a genius.

He was up there with Picasso and did not know it!

and, for the record, Shalamov was to Dostoevsky what Milton was to Spenser.

Of course Brodsky was Soviet. He wasn’t “Russian”, which is why so many Russian conservatives dislike him. Pasternak was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Akhmatova also became a „Soviet” poet whether she liked it or not.

I've only read translations, but I agree, Pasternak counts.

Pasternak and Khodasevich are absolutely overwhelmingly gifted poets, as is Akhmatova, and, in her way, Tsvetaeva.

I'm not from New Jersey, but I'd say that referencing a time famous for the Soprano's and Bruce Springsteen as the defining cultural peak is a value laden statement, which is almost certainly not true for many, many people who know or care who they are; but as well as people not born yet who may do even greater things in future.

Personally I wouldn't be proud of a state famous for mobsters, but perhaps other people are.

I'm with you. I lived and worked near Morristown for a year out of college in the early '90s and then returned on business a couple times a year for three years. I found it parochial and socially closed, and so did many of my middle-aged colleagues not from the area. If you're non-native it's still difficult to integrate yourself socially to this day. I have current friends from there who attest to it.

Some good food, particularly in the money-laundering-front Mob restaurants. The government was awful, too. Years later I worked with a guy who had been an Assemblyman in the area. He had some stories about that.

Oh, and the infuriating jog-handled exits off the highways instead of intersections. And no self-serve gas stations.

Springsteen and The Sopranos as a cultural apex? (He forgot Bon Jovi, of course.) Color me confused. I found The Sopranos interesting for a while. Early Springsteen was exhilarating. After The River, however, he went steeply downhill.

Yeah. Don't get it. I've stayed in and near Morristown 4-5 times during the past decade. Seems the same. I'm always reminded of The Wedding Singer when I'm there.

Eric Weinstein? Oh... the self proclaimed super genius, who works for Peter Thiel and is trashing physicists like Sean Carroll as uninspired?

"What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?"

Blogging. Faffing on Twitter.

To the moon, Tyler, to the moon!

The process of becoming a professor or even getting into a strong graduate profession has become all consuming.

After all getting into a good college means that you not only have top flight academics, but that you also have strong extracurriculars and are able to emote passion on command. How many Ivy League grads do you know who ever held a summer job?

Getting into a strong graduate program means that you bucked the college social norms and spent less time partying/video gaming/dating than your peers. You also likely did some sort of research or other intensive work. Most likely you also had to work had to impress professors for letters of rec and inspire them to make an effort on your behalf above and beyond that of the average student.

Once there, you know that there are more people working towards the top of the pyramid than can ever be offered slots. You likely had to make significant sacrifices of your time, your present consumption, and possibly long term interests. Again, your fate is often controlled by how well others go to bat for you so again your life is lived with massive consequences under circumstances of intense, near continuous inspection.

Once you finally snag a tenure track slot, you now must produce to attain. And now we start seeing all the petty politics of publish or perish, grant whoring, and following endless diktat from the administration. And somewhere in there you had to move cross country, take your third-best-option, and sacrifice your personal goals and motivation to better fit the needs of your advisor/the school/the profession.

And once you sacrifice the better part of two decades you get what exactly? A comfortable, but not particularly wealth salary. Lifetime employment (contingent on the university not going broke or giving in to some mob of student demands). And maybe you will still have time to do the things you most enjoyed out of academia.

There are many priesthoods one can join that demand less than modern academia. At least their payout is being part of a divine plan or attaining some degree of kenosis. Academia? Well if you are really lucky a bunch of people with actual power will seek your opinion and try to generally follow your recommendations. Oh and you get a bunch of status points from various people and institutions.

Having treated my share of suicidal academics I do not wonder that any are depressed. I really wonder at the ones who aren't

> How many Ivy League grads do you know who ever held a summer job?

I repeatedly tried to get one as a high schooler and then early college student in the late 2000s. I submitted 50+? applications to a variety of businesses and never got an interview. Most places aren't interested in hiring a random kid for a summer. At some point I figured all the applications were a waste of time and went back to doing practice SATs or something

Pools didn't need lifeguards back then?

This is a strange comment. What part of the country is this? The grocery store in your town didn't need baggers? Landscape company didn't need help? Fast food? So many options out there. Possible that you had a unique experience finding part time work I'll give you that.

I'm guessing the poster tried to get high level internship positions to build his resume without having an inside contact anywhere. So, not really a mundane job to earn money (and some life lessons) that are generally in plentiful demand everywhere.

Nah, I didn't apply to anything fancy. Pretty much just grocery stores, fast food places, and restaurants, bottom-of-the-ladder positions for all of them. Big US city, 1mil+ people, though I only applied to a subset of the 100+ places within walking distance.

Dunno if it was 1) bad job market in the late 2000s, 2) employers want someone for more than 3 months, or 3) I had no connections to get this kind of job.

Similar experience actually I can corroborate. I didn’t apply so aggressively but many people here really over estimate the amount of these kinds of jobs available and also don’t realize they many jobs that used to be for high school kids are done by adults now. General downward slide of non-college educated labor.

+1, thanks for the follow up. It's good to get that kind of data.

It's amazing that you couldn't find work at those place, but it's good to remember that it's a big country, not everywhere or every when is the same.

"And once you sacrifice the better part of two decades ..." is a sure sign that the niches are full. So find something else to do. It's absurd to waste your youth and young adult years on this sort of silly game.

I assume that bright, high-spirited young people eschew this nonsense. So find out what they do do with themselves and see if you can join them before those niches fill up too.

This has not been my experience. There is a steady stream of bright young things going into medicine. The hours are getting better, the pay is roughly the same, but the sacrifices to get through hoops are becoming ever greater. Something like half the docs currently in practice would not be accepted into medical school with the resumes, grades, and MCAT scores they applied with back then. Of those who got in, the vast majority would not be allowed into their current specialty unless it was internal or family med.

Nor does it seem to be unique to medicine. When I talk with the younger folks when I do my reserve duties they seem to also be facing more hoops to jump through for career advancement, more evaluations against their peers, more need for credentialing (e.g. where will you get your masters if you plan to go beyond O-4), and less control of their billets and duty stations.

I am just not sure what these niches are. The game to climb the corporate ladder also tends to involve going to one of a small number colleges, inspiring instructors to help you get coveted time with recruiters, and then long hours, international moves, and significant career setups if you make mistakes your peers are lucky enough to avoid.

I think academia has it worse because eventually doctors get paid well. Lawyers make partner, make good money, and get back control of their lives. Military officers can quit and go civilian with no shame or real loss or stick it out and acquire real power. Academics, in a lot of cases, make longer sacrifices with fewer results at the end of it.

I could be wrong, but it looks to me like we have prized stability and status, created cutthroat competitions to get them, and then wondered why a generation meets more DSM criteria than any before it.

I think there are many jobs now with decent conditions and pay, and good status rewards, but with highly opaque and very competitive entry requirements such that most young people cannot properly estimate the degree of difficulty involved in attaining even modest "success." That is certainly true of research academia in the last few decades, as it was always true of high end, law, accounting, and very winner take all fields like journalism or acting. It is also revealed in the huge disparity between superstar returns to academic stars at the top five or ten schools (salary plus grants) vs. pay for ordinary tenure track professors at Boringtown Teaching College vs adjunct at Nowheresville. Somewhere there is a paper by a bunch of top profs showing that the official salary gap in economics really started to take off in the 90s whereas prior to that you might even have earned a little less at Harvard starting out than some entering profs at top state universities.

HAHAHAHA aren’t you some kind of Oxbridge dufus? You think you’d have a snowball’s chance in hell to get into either of those universities today with that attitude?

the answer is more competition, for everything (pity for the poor academic who now has to compete like a big firm lawyer, etc.).

..."Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it."
Yevtushenko is amazing in translation itself.

*Who are the greats that still walk among us?*

Cormac McCarthy - greatest living writer - Blood Meridian one of the masterpieces of 20th Century literature.

An embarrassingly bad writer, especially Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men is pathetic as well.

What do you propose replacing the math PhD with?

It seems to me that the rise of modern math academia has been accompanied by a massive increase in the depth and quality of pure math research. It seems from my POV like an institution that works very well at producing knowledge better than any other institution in history -- this is a point I am willing to defend. You could argue this knowledge translates in to relatively few $ per idea, or some variant of this regarding its irrelevance to other fields, but shouldn't the focus then be how best to create reforms that create points of contact with existing fields rather than taking measures to erode an institution that is doing its job very well?

Until around 1870, an industrialized society could get by without math PhDs, but the next stage of the industrial revolution required the application of theory to industrial processes. That meant actual PhD level chemists, physicists, biologists and so on. People who could find out how things worked. It also meant more mathematics, because mathematics is the language of science.

An increasing need for mathematics meant a lot more research in mathematics, and that meant research at the PhD level. For an idea of how a PhD relates to other levels of training, I'll point at the classic and poignant Basically, getting a PhD in a STEM field means actually pushing, even if only a tiny bit, past the edge of existing knowledge. (If you follow the link to that page, scroll down to "Why Biology?" for a good cry.

Mathematics, and especially theoretical mathematics, tends to all too recondite, but again and again,apparently useless mathematics research winds up a the heart of things. The Fourier transform and its descendants are in every music app, in CAT scanners, and JPEG images. Rieman's warped spaces were waiting there for Einstein and relativity. Arcane research on prime numbers enabled secure communications.

Yes, we need math PhDs if we are going to maintain our industrial civilization. I'll admit that's not a sure thing.

Jasper Johns? Gerhard Richter? You've got to be kidding.

I was afraid he was going to mention Francis Fukuyama. And I take the mention of Philip Glass to be outright trolling.

Note to myself: ignore Tyler Cowen's visual art recommendations. Sheesh!

I wonder if the melancholy isn’t a result of having youth thrown in your face each year as you age.

I suggest vigorous exercise.

Some people actually have kids and grandkids. Perhaps they're melancholy because the only time they have youth "thrown in their face" is at work. Or it could possibly be something else.

Well, perhaps it's because of what my father observed as he retired from a 45-year academic career in the humanities at a Tier I research university. When I asked him what his biggest regret of his career was, he said: "not having even a handful of colleagues during that time for whom I had respect."

I've spent enough time around universities and graduate programs to understand what he meant. People respond to incentives, after all.

Complete humanity comprises integration of heart and mind. There's not enough of the former and too much of the latter in this milieu. No surprise that you get depressed in middle age if you (1) haven't become fully human or (2) have done so but find few if any around you every day who have done, too.

Then there's the ever-thickening epidermis of administrators and committees, and the deadening political conformity. Yeah, lots to be depressed about.

If you don't mind me saying so, I think naming tech founder CEOs is a very outside view.

Ken Thompson and Dennis Richie did a lot more to make this world, but how many of you will have to look them up?

And then of course Linus, who maybe would not make any libertarian list, because his free market choices were not sufficiently mercenary ..

(And maybe since this is a WordPress blog, we could name check Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little. There a lots of people out there quietly making big changes to the world.)

I see that Matt is doing some interesting things, supporting secure decentralized communications.

I hope MR continues their support, voting with their feet as they are ..

Yeah the comment about major tech founds being "greats" pretty much lost this guy buckets of credibility in my mind. Lots of people who have contributed massively to technology are not famous founders or CEOs. This is just more Silicon Valley ego-stoking pablum just like the sort that Tyler loves to spew out. Keeps his donors/sponsors happy though.

I thought these were Tyler's answers to the other guy's questions.

Oh ha! I didn't read the top part carefully. Well in the end it's just a typical Tyler Cowen BJ for Silicon Valley. He knows who feeds him I guess.

I'm not that harsh, but I do think innovators can be off the economists' radar.

Good names esp. the first two. I'll add Jim Keller and John Carmack. Two heroes from my youth when I was obsessed with computers. Then I got bored (realized I wasn't smart enough)

Jim Keller

John Carmack (this is peak Joe Rogan)

I did not know the name Jim Keller, but he's a good one. The reason we run "AMD 64" instruction sets even on Intel. Without him we'd have had to wait for Itanium to get fast .. but oops, he actually beat Intel and killed it.

And then of course Linus, who maybe would not make any libertarian list, because his free market choices were not sufficiently mercenary ..

Question -- is insisting that libertarians are all about money a slur on the same level as insisting that Jews are all about money? Does this joke still work?

Two progressive guys are walking when one notices a sign on a building that says "Become a libertarian, and we'll give you $100."
The one says to the other, "should we do it?"
The other says "NO!! Are you crazy?"
The first guy replies "Hey, a hundred dollars is a hundred dollars... I'm gonna do it."
So he walks in to the building, and little while later, he walks back out.
The friend says "well, did you get the money?"
He replies "Oh that's all you people think about, isn't it?"

I'm old enough to remember when ..

The libertarian audience didn't just eat the up, they birthed it.

Now, that was a long time ago. Perhaps many have forgotten. Perhaps youngsters can't even believe it happened.

I'm not following -- are you claiming Balmer is some kind of libertarian hero? Or that libertarians ate up his argument? Or that many libertarians were part of the open source and network freedom movements -- but that they're not like that any more (they're all about the money now)!?

The 'libertarians are mercenary and only care about money' slur is quite odd when you think of it. How many libertarians are obsessed with flash and bling and luxury goods? Would you expect to see a lot of designer clothing, Italian suits, and expensive watches &jewelry at a typical libertarian meetup or party convention? To ask the question is to see how absurd a picture that paints.

Or think of Tyler, Alex, and other libertarian bloggers and writers. Do you think they've tried to maximize their income and wealth at the expense of all other values? Isn't it pretty obvious that isn't the case at all and that they're far more interested in ideas than in maximizing their own wealth?

I have my own argument, and I don't think you are getting too close to it.

I like Tyler and his blog, but I do notice that he likes billionaires and their monopolies, even as he votes with his feet to use open source blogging software.

That's funny.

I think that he is more likely to extol someone like Zuckerberg than Mullenweg. Again, funny.

And yes, I think this does relate to an ancient libertarian distrust of altruism.

Interesting comment that young people don't know Springsteen. He's so engaged politically, and from what I read online at least he seems to be very popular with the Bernie Sanders type crowd.

Think of it this way: When you were young, how much did you know about the Broadway performers that your grandparents listened to? He's politically active, but his politics are safe and banal and won't make him stand out.

Uchida? Above Argerich? Puh-lease! And even in repertoire that Argerich mostly doesn't play (Schubert, Beethoven), Pollini has the edge (although he's a bit past his prime).

You know what? They're all pretty good. As Tyler says, the best classical musicians in history are alive today. Too good, maybe. Where is there room for an Artur Schnabel in classical music today?

"Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations..."

Dont the wrenching changes which will precede the defaults on pension obligations preclude NNJ continuing on "much like the present"?

Before the defaults:
>>massive tax increases
>>outmigration of the extreme wealth
>>collapse of the consumer-driven economy of NNJ

Isnt NNJ culture ultimately a shopping mall?

Plus, would you call Springsteen northern or southern NJ. In the 1960's, Freehold was culturally southern NJ.

What about Wozniak?

It would be easy to have a long debate just about the Soviet question.

My answer would always include The Master and Margarita.

You say: "Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math."

What academic disciplines is this *not* true for?

Or do you have a scale where it's more true for math, and less true for, say, medicine?

Indeed, there is a good argument for reducing the number of PhDs we produce across the board, with some needing the reduction more than others. But i see no case at all for especially cutting back on math ones at all, although I may be biased as the son of a late famous mathematician (who had a PhD from Princeton in the 1930s).

could academics have a cataracts
free eye test #11

can you spot the decadent harvard hyper moralism, the syllogy,
the sophistry & the tautology, the inner elite churchlady? yes!
can you spot the part where humanities scholar david brooks
forgets to tell us newyorktimes.con has been reporting bigly bucketfuls of russian misinformation as news for over 3 years. no?

But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality? Did Euclid have one? Euler?

Well, Euclid did write a textbook that was used for thousands of years. And Euler was a full time, professional mathematician with Royal patronage.

If you were dividing the world up into "PhD-like" and "non PhD-like", Euler and Euclid would be smack dab in the middle of the "PhD-like" camp. Saying anything else seems utterly ahistorical to me.

Great post.
For ballerinas who straddled the Soviet/ post Soviet, I'll name Uliana Lopatkina and Svetlana Zakharova. Love watching those videos. Just for the artistry of course, so you can get your mind out of the gutter.

Without question those Russian ballet teachers are just as shrewd, tough and competent as Bill Belichick and Coach K, as the following doc shows.

And wasn't Keynes married to a ballerina? That's enough to make me believe in the 'printing press'. Yes, yes I know "Solve for the equilibrium while standing on a deflating beach ball at the margin of a salt water..."
Just kidding. Don't want to make Shark Lasers angrier than he normally is.

I've come to admire Jerry Seinfeld. His doc helped. Looking forward to the release of his book about comedy. Hopefully it'll be as good as Steve Martin's book, which is a classic. Even with his funny/corny humour I suspect Seinfeld is tougher than Chapelle. I don't think JS would run away to another continent because a stage-hand laughed the wrong way or what ever. In his personal life Seinfeld might be that rare thing - a true stoic. And great craftsman (if not quite a great artist).

Plus Seinfeld's wife has wonderful NYC restaurant recommendations for when we get to visit that great/crazy city again.

In the 1960s, Chomsky was a god among younger linguistics professors, even if the old guard puzzled over his work. If the general public can name one linguist, it's Chomsky. They won't be able to explain what exactly he's famous for, but that's true of the public's knowledge of almost any academic field.

These great achievements, which I admire with some (amateur) knowledge of the subject, don't stop him from being a horse's ass. I would say the same about Paul Krugman.

We are finding out that, in this age of hyperspecialization, knowing a great deal about one topic doesn't make you an expert in another.

Interesting post, Tyler. Beyond a comment above on math PhDs, I shall comment on two others of these, given I have a comparative advantage. I shall start on the second one and drag in my wife, only since you dragged in Dostoevsky, I shall expand it to Russians and not just Soviets. Regarding Dostoevsky, we have an ongoing debate: she prefers Dostoevsky to Tolstoy, while I go the other way. In terms of Soviet era novelists, I would go with Grossman. As for poets, Marina likes quite a few that have been named, but I kind of like Mayakovsky, although I have only read him in English, but that may be partly because he wrote a poem about Staunton, Virginia, which he visited once. Really. But then, of course, the real great, certainly in Marina's view is the Shakespeare of Russia, non-Soviet Pushkin.

On composers, well, we also have a debate where I tend to go with you, Tyler, and like Shostokovich, while Marina strongly prefers Prokofiev, probably her absolutely top favorite composer period (at least she says so sometimes). This curiously parallels a similar disagreement over Mahler versus Richard Strauss, where I favor the former while she favors the latter, with them mapping to some extent onto Shostakovivh and Prokofiev to some extent. However, and Marina disagrees with me on this, I prefer Stravinsky to all of them, and even Tchaikovsky whom Marina also loves, although he is arguably not Soviet, although Russian.

On the melancholy academics question, I shall get personal, although probably irrelevantly so as my case is very peculiar and probably not repeatable by almost anybody. In general I am worried about the future of academia and have a daughter who quit a PhD program after becoming depressed, and I have not encouraged her to return. I accept the many things said both by you, Tyler, and many others about all the problems of becoming an academic now.

That said, I shall report that still working at 72 as an econ prof, I am not personally melancholy. I edit a journal; I am writing a book, I am blogging, and writing papers and doing a lot of other stuff, and finding most of it interesting and challenging. But then I am one of those rare birds who went way outside of the box early on, looking like a failure frankly from the perspective of my former professors at Wisconsin (I mean, James Madison University does not have a PhD program and is essentially a mid-tier state uni, what a loser I have been, 43 years here).

But in grad school I was into strange things that my profs did not understand, who basically thought I was crazy (that is not totally incorrect). We are talking stuff like catastrophe theory and chaos theory, not to mention "ecological economics," a term I independently coined without any credit in the mid-70s long before it appeared in print in the late 80s. But I was also all over the place, so when I faced a choice of being in the PhD-granting Urban and Regional Planning Dept at UVa versus the strictly undergrad econ one at then Madison College, I chose the latter. A major reason for this was my view that in a PhD granting institution there is lots of pressure to establish oneself in a narrow niche so one can produce and sell grad students in that niche. But I knew I wanted to do a whole lot of different things, and at JMU they do not care what I do as long as I publish a minimal amount, and I did lots of those things all over the place.

So, in fact it has worked out, and my crazy interests became respectable. My first book, From Catastrophe to Chaos: A General Theory of Economic Discontinuities, was initially rejected by 13 publishers before Kluwer took it up in 1991. But then it went into three printings and was widely praised, and came to be viewed as a "reference volume," and I became well known and a journal editor, etc. So, it worked out, but I realize few current grad students can hope to follow the weird path I did.

Hayao Miyazaki

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