Online reviews promise to provide people with immediate access to the wisdom of the crowds. Yet, half of all reviews on Amazon and Yelp provide the most positive rating possible, despite human behaviour being substantially more varied in nature. We term the challenge of discerning success within this sea of positive ratings the ‘positivity problem’. Positivity, however, is only one facet of individuals’ opinions. We propose that one solution to the positivity problem lies with the emotionality of people’s opinions. Using computational linguistics, we predict the box office revenue of nearly 2,400 movies, sales of 1.6 million books, new brand followers across two years of Super Bowl commercials, and real-world reservations at over 1,000 restaurants. Whereas star ratings are an unreliable predictor of success, emotionality from the very same reviews offers a consistent diagnostic signal. More emotional language was associated with more subsequent success.
Here is more from Matthew D. Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, and Loran F. Nordgren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.
Here is the audio, transcript, and video. As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions. Here is part of the summary:
Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.
And here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?
GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.
COWEN: How could you not expect that?
GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.
GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First Men. Odd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.
Definitely recommended. And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.
Here’s a great video on FastGrants, the fast funding-institution started by Tyler and Patrick Collison to fund COVID research at a speed that could make a difference on the ground. And it did.
Lots of other people stepped in with funding including Arnold Ventures, The Audacious Project, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, John Collison, Crankstart, Jack Dorsey, Kim and Scott Farquhar, Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, Fiona McKean and Tobias Lütke, Yuri and Julia Milner, Elon Musk, Chris and Crystal Sacca, Schmidt Futures, and others.
The list of funded people and projects is long and impressive and while the grants were fast, the payoff is going to last well beyond the pandemic.
Thanks, Tyler and Patrick!
In Florida, even when Godzilla attacks, the schools stay open. It seems the intransitivity of sovereignty is underrated. There is a case for UBI for very large creatures. If your country depopulates too much, they no longer feature your cities being destroyed. The best and most interesting Godzilla movies focus on the Japanese bureaucracy, not the special effects. Hollywood movie-making continues to become worse, soundtracks all the more so.
In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin. They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin. “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses. On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”
That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.
Here is the summary:
On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.
Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:
I think the downside of state capacity libertarianism is simply realizing there are some very nice features to not being surveilled all the time, as they do in China. When I said a moment ago that the United States is not very good at trace, though it’s good at innovating — if you had stronger state capacity, presumably you should worry more about state surveillance, and I do. That, to me, is the best case against state capacity libertarianism as I envision it.
Even though having a good trace regime would have been fine in this instance, I’m not sure it would have been a good precedent.
I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads. Self-recommended.
And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year. Thank you!
Oddly, I had never seen this 1973 movie before, and found a number of points noteworthy. It is a more effective critique of the “white male patriarchy” than today’s performative yelpings, and makes the latter look, if anything, both hysterical and understudied. And imagine a two hour movie which consists of little more than having two major stars — Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford — talk to each other. I miss this in more recent Hollywood cinema. And remember when movies generated hit songs? By today’s standards, the sexual relationship between the two starts with her raping him while he is drunk (with implicit commentary on the famous bedroom scene from “It Happened One Night.”) Circa 1973, the main sympathetic character (Streisand) could be shown as a fan of Lenin and Stalin (and Roosevelt) without anyone being too offended. Nor does anyone mind that she smokes, drinks (more than a sip), and gets into scuffles while pregnant. The core substantive takeaway from the plot seems to be “Jewish people should marry their own,” which is not the brand of segregationism that has remained popular today.
As stated, this movie for me was a first-time watch rather than a rewatch, but still it felt like a rewatch, as the most interesting elements were all a look into the past. The more our world moves away from its previous moorings, the more “what to rewatch” will become an important skill. Or what to reread, or what to listen to again. This topic and this skill is underdiscussed. When it comes to the past, increasingly “the uncensored” is more interesting than “high quality” per se.
I categorize them on the basis of when I watch them, so there is always some slippage at the beginning and the end of the year, all the more for foreign films, which can come to the U.S. as much as a year or two later than their original release dates. Of course this year was very different and there was hardly anything wonderful from Hollywood. Here is the list, as usual in the order I saw them:
Monos, Spanish-language, Lord of the Flies-type elements.
The Guilty, Danish police story, mainly talk, limited settings, really good.
Just 6.5, Iranian war on drugs movie, brutal at times, culturally fascinating.
The Wedding Plan, a few years older, a Rama Burshtein movie, imagine an Israeli woman setting out to get married by a particular date no matter what.
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy. I think you need to have a preexisting connection to Mexico and Mexican food to enjoy it. I do.
Graduation, 2016 Romanian movie about trying to cheat on your kid’s exam. Excellent.
An American Pickle, Straussian critique of the Woke.
Tenet, if only to see a blockbuster again.
Cuties, yes it was really good, even if sometimes uncomfortably exploitative in its treatment of the source material, namely dancing young teen girls.
My Octopus Teacher, god-awful sentimental and storified, but everyone loved it.
The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, set in Cameroon, about cross-cultural differences.
Chez Jolie Coiffure, set in a Brussels hair salon, women from Cameroon and DRC talk to each other, from the same director as Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, they make a nice set piece and are both quite short.
The Wild Goose Lake, set in Wuhan, a kind of Chinese noir, you have to already like Chinese cinema for this one.
Talking About Trees, Sudanese movie about the reopening of cinema.
Lovers Rock, Small Axe, Jamaican emigres in 1980 London.
Usually I put this list out later in the year, but what is the point of waiting?
We discuss Iranian cinema, most of all Farhadi films, focusing on the two best, namely A Separation and About Elly. At the end I hit Abe with a dose of underrated vs. overrated, mostly movies again. The host is Russell Hogg. Here is Abe on Twitter, here is Abe doing short films. Abe is the son of Agnes.
Here is the audio, video, and transcript. Here is the CWT summary:
She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Now, in all of these conversations, there’s a segment where I present to the guest my favorite Haitian proverbs, and he or she reacts. Are you ready for a few?
DANTICAT: All right. You’ve been sharing Haitian proverbs with your guests?
COWEN: Here’s one. “After the dance, the drum is heavy.”
DANTICAT: Oh my god.
COWEN: What does that mean to you?
DANTICAT: Aprè dans, tanbou lou. I actually have a book called After the Dance. It’s on Carnival. Yes, for me, it means that there are consequences to everything, even the most joyful thing. You have to be prepared for the consequences of things that you’ve done.
It’s something that my mom used to say quite a bit, too. If you have just had a really big celebration, or if you waited too late to do your homework because you’re having a good time watching a program you like, she was like, “Aprè dans, tanbou lou.” After the dance, the drum is heavy. It’s like the morning-after, hangover situation and the most joyful outcome, but really, that there are consequences to everything.
COWEN: Here’s another one. “It is the owner of the body who looks out for the body.”
DANTICAT: Oh, this one. You will not believe how much we hear that these days. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. It’s something that we say a lot now in the coronavirus era. You hear it on the radio. You hear people say it when they talk to their neighbors. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. That means that, really, you are the best person to take care of yourself.
If you’re saying, “Wear your mask when you go out during the coronavirus era.” “Wash your hands.” It’s like the best, the most qualified person to take care of you is you. It’s not the doctor. It’s not your loved one. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. It’s the owner of the body who takes care of the body. It’s like, “Watch out for yourself.” It’s very good advice these days.
COWEN: “When they want to kill a dog, they say it’s crazy.”
DANTICAT: Yes, that’s the dehumanization. I guess that’s fake news. [laughs] It’s connected to the fake news. If you want to diminish or slight someone, you call them names. So that’s also a timely one, I think.
COWEN: How about this one? “The constitution is paper; the bayonet is steel.”
DANTICAT: Yes. Again, back to our conversation about dictatorship, in a way. I believe that one was often cited by one of the generals, actually, during the ’90s, during the coup d’état, or it might have been even before. I think it speaks to the fragility of documents like the constitution. Yesterday was Constitution Day in the US, so that might also apply here.
It’s that whole thing with freedom. Freedom is something that we have to always keep watching out it doesn’t slip away because, sometimes, we think these documents or these rules are set in stone. I think this general who kept saying this was saying, “Well, I have the weapons.” It’s kind of paper, rock scissors. Which is stronger?
COWEN: “When the mapou tree dies, goats would eat its leaves.”
DANTICAT: Yes. This one, I think, is about humility because we have this expression that we say when someone has died who has contributed a great deal to our culture: we say that a mapou has fallen. A mapou is a soft cotton tree, it’s a kind of sacred tree, and it’s also a big tree that lasts forever. It’s a regal institution, a mapou.
What this one is saying, actually, the goat is a meager creature compared to a mapou, and there’s no way a goat would actually be able to access the leaves of a mapou, but when it dies, it falls. I’ve always heard that proverb as a way of encouraging humility, that all our leaves are vulnerable to the goat, if you will. [laughs]
COWEN: One more proverb, “Beyond the mountain is another mountain.”
DANTICAT: Yes. Dèyè mòn gen mòn.
COWEN: That’s a very famous one.
DANTICAT: Yes. I actually use that a lot myself. One of my neighbors just passed away, and she used to use that proverb a lot. I think it means that no matter what, we can see there is more. I think it’s about there’s more to everything than what we see.
It also speaks to the physical layout of Haiti because it’s a very mountainous place. Ayiti. The Arawak called it Ayiti. It actually means land of the mountains, and it’s physically true. If you’re traveling across Haiti, literally, there’s always a mountain physically behind a mountain, but in a spiritual sense, it also means that there’s always more.
Recommended. And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.
Here is the video, audio, and transcript. Of course Alex has a new book out Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which explores the complicated legacy of Wagner and music more generally. We learn Alex’s nomination for the greatest pop album ever made, but many of my questions focused on progress in music and musical performance, the nature of talent, the power of culture, and also cancel culture, Wagner of course having been a frequent target for a long time. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: One theme of your book, as I understand it, is that Wagnerism historically is more diverse than many people realize. There was a branch of Zionism that loved Wagner. There’s an African American tradition that’s quite interested in Wagner. Maybe you can talk me out of some of the worries I have when I listen to Wagner. When I listen, I feel better if I’m listening to Von Klemperer, who is Jewish, and he was a refugee, and he left Europe to come to America. I feel I’m offsetting something in Wagner that disturbs me.
And if you think about what Wagner has become, it seems the problematic element in Wagner — it does somehow match up to the music in a way which is hard to escape. No one listens to Wagner and comes away saying, “Well dull, bourgeois life, as you find under democratic capitalism, is underrated.” No one comes away from Wagner saying, “I now have a greater appreciation for methodological individualism.” Right?
ROSS: [laughs] No.
COWEN: There’s something ominous about the music. How should we, as listeners, come to terms with that? Should we feel guilty when listening to Wagner, given the association with anti-Semitism, Nazis, and much more?
ROSS: I think you should always be wary, let’s say, to Wagner. My whole history with Wagner was, actually, I started out really averse to the entire sound world. When I was a kid growing up with classical music, I tried listening to Lohengrin. I checked records of Lohengrin out of the public library, and I put them on, and I only could stand it for 10 minutes or so.
Of course, I knew nothing about anti-Semitism and Nazism and the connection with Hitler. It was just purely a question of the sound. I found the sound disturbing and this seasick feeling of bobbing from one chord to another without clear demarcations. I just had this instinctual revulsion to it…
ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.
ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .
Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.
But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.
I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”
Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.
And I start with this:
COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?
Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:
Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…
Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.
That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.
And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either. It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.
Although liquid securities markets play no role in the plot, this is nonetheless a movie where the value of information is repeatedly very high.
You can think of the movie as constructing a world so that a high value for information is ruling all of the time. And how strange such a world would have to look.
Most plots are about effort, character, moral fortitude, luck, or preexisting conditions (“are they really meant for each other?”). It is about time we had a film about information, even though the final world that is built is stranger than you might have expected.
“We must go now.”
But in fact, in the real world, you hardly ever need to “go now.” You can go just a little bit later, and it won’t matter much.
But this is not the speed premium, rather the game-theoretic concept is that of last mover advantage, the opposite of Schelling’s first mover advantage. Few of us are intuitively ready to take that concept literally and to order our understanding of a movie around it.
If you have studied Steven Bram’s book Biblical Games (and his other writings), this film will flow naturally for you — otherwise not!
Unlike most slacker films, this movie takes a decided stance on Newcomb’s Paradox, though to reveal that would be a total spoiler.
The movie also has genuine innovations in its chase and fight scenes, a rarity and indeed near-impossibility these days.
The soundtrack is excellent, and might at least some of the music be palindromic?
As for inspirations, you might consider Raiders of the Lost Ark, most other Nolan movies, the Book of Exodus, the Sator Square, James Bond, Frank Tipler and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and most of all Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.
To be clear, I don’t love most of Nolan’s films, and Inception bored me, so I wasn’t expecting much from Tenet. I walked away happy.
Should I now be rooting for a sequel? Or would that be a prequel?
Kudos to Alex for renting out the theater, he is the real Protagonist is this one.