She requires no introduction, this conversation involved a bit of slapstick, so unlike many of the others it is better heard than read. Here is the audio and transcript. Here is the opening:
COWEN: Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.
COWEN: How so?
ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.
ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.
COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”
COWEN: You think that’s still true?
ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.
The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —
COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.
ATWOOD: You think?
COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.
ATWOOD: Did it?
COWEN: Center of manufacturing.
ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?
COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —
And from her:
ATWOOD: Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as plausible under the circumstances.”
And a question from me:
COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the [Toronto] population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?
In addition to Canada, we talk about the Bible, Shakespeare, ghosts, her work habits, Afghanistan, academia, Peter the Great, writing for the future, H.G. Wells, her heretical feminism, and much much more.
Southern Ontario — the most populous part of Canada lying north of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie — displays a similar bottom to top quintile mobility as adjacent regions in Michigan, Ohio, and New York State, most regions being categorized in the 0.05 to 0.10 range. This said, some areas of Quebec adjacent to New York State, Vermont, and New Hampshire display a lower probability than their counterparts in Ontario and New England. Regions with rather high chances of escaping low income and rising to the very top quintile cover the American midwest, where in most Commuting Zones the probability is more than 20 percent, similar probabilities being experienced in the adjacent regions of western Canada.
That is from a new paper by Marie Connolly, Miles Corak, and Catherine Haeck. I take that to be fairly strong evidence for the “culture matters” view of mobility, rather than the “policy is everything” view.
To the extent the United States has lower mobility than Canada, it is largely because so many people here live in the low-mobility regions of the American South.
A phenomenal movie, by Chinese director Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin, 2013), large screen only. The reviews are very positive but mostly nonsense. Here are the two things you need to know to understand this movie:
1. Most of what is on the screen after the Three Gorges scene probably isn’t really happening. The woman is crazy and is dreaming or imagining it. There is plenty of absurd coincidences and contradictory information (the health and mind-state of the ex-boyfriend are various fantasy versions), but the real clincher is when the UFO appears. How can so many reviewers (NYT) be baffled by this?
2. The film is a stinging critique of the CCP, in Straussian fashion, and much of the action is a running commentary on a previous Chinese film, the wonderful The Chinese Mayor (maybe the best movie about how China works?). Both are set in Datong, a quite undistinguished Chinese city in Shanxi, and Ash is Purest White shows how the building of Datong, glorified in the earlier movie, is in fact based on corruption and mob rule. Also check out the surveillance and Xinjiang references for a full understanding of the politics of this movie.
Some cinema owners do not seem to think that movies without subtitles will have a future in Denmark, and have completely abandoned them, according to the country’s public broadcaster.
But they mean for movies in Danish:
Pedersen blames the necessity for subtitles on the evolution of the use of Danish in movies. Whereas in the past, actors were focused on articulating themselves in a way understandable for everyone, their main emphasis has now shifted to being as authentic as possible. Hence, many actors have chosen not to imitate more common dialects and have stuck to local versions of Danish. “It’s a small country, but there are big differences between the Danish dialects,” Pedersen explained.
But couldn’t Danish actors put at least a bit more emphasis on mumbling less to attract a bigger audience? Well, apparently not.
“It is difficult to ask actors to speak more clearly. … Sometimes, speaking the most common Danish accents would simply make the movies and the characters seem implausible,” Peter Frandsen Siggaard, a journalist for the country’s public broadcaster, explained.
Yes, there will be a public event at GMU Arlington on April 8, a Conversations with Tyler, you can register here. So what should I ask her?
Here is the transcript and audio, we covered so much, here is the CWT summary:
How much has the U.S. actually fixed the financial system? Does India have the best food in the world? Why does China struggle to maintain a strong relationship with allies? Why are people trading close-knit communities for isolating cities? And what types of institutions are we missing in our social structure? Listen to Rajan’s thorough conversation with Tyler to dive into these questions and much more.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: A lot of observers have suggested to me that the notion of a kind of Anglo-American liberalism as ascendant in India is now a dead idea, that ideologically, India has somehow shifted, and the main currents of thought, including on the so-called right, are just really not liberalism anymore. Do you have a take on that view?
RAJAN: I’m not sure I would agree. I would say that we’ve had a government over the last five years which has elements of the majoritarian, Hindu nationalist group in it. But I would argue the country, as a whole, is still firmly secular, liberal in the Nehruvian idea, which is that we need a country which is open to different religions, to different ethnicities, to different beliefs if we are to stay together.
And democracy plays an important role here because it allows some of the pressures which build up in each community to essentially get expressed and therefore diffuses some of the pressure. So I think India’s ideal is still a polyglot coming together in this country.
COWEN: But someone like Ramachandra Guha — what he symbolizes intellectually — do you think that would be a growing part of India’s future? Or that will dwindle as colonial ties become smaller, the United States less important in global affairs?
RAJAN: I think that an open, liberal, tolerant country is really what we need for the next stage of growth. We are now reaching middle income. We could go a little faster. We should go a little faster there.
Once we reach middle income, to grow further, I think we need an intellectual openness, which only the kind of democracy we have — the open dialogue, a respectful dialogue — will generate the kinds of innovative forces that will take us more to the frontier.
So I keep saying, and I say this in the book, we’re very well positioned for the next stage of growth, from middle to high income. But we first have to reach middle income.
COWEN: Will current payments companies end up as competitors to banks or complements to the banking system? Or are they free riders on the banking system?
RAJAN: I think they’re trying to figure out their space. As of now, sometimes they’re substituting for . . . Certainly, my daughter uses her payment system completely separate from her bank account. But longer term, we’ll find ways of meshing these in and reduce the costs of making payments. Those costs are really too high at this point, and reducing those costs makes a lot of sense.
COWEN: Will banks ever be truly excellent at doing software?
RAJAN: I think we will have a combination of the guys who are truly good at software — the fintech companies — merging with banks who know how to do the financial side. They’ll bring each of their talents together. I’ve seen a lot of fintech people who have no clue as to what finance is really about. And I’ve seen a lot of banks who have no clue as to what tech is about. I think some merger will happen over time.
There is much more at the link. And here is Raghu’s new book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave Community Behind.
That is a new and forthcoming book by Michael H. Kater, excerpt:
The book’s first contention is that in order for a new Nazi type of culture to take hold, the preceding forms first had to be wiped out. This mainly affected the artistic and intellectual achievements most hated by the Nazis, those of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic and political hallmark was Modernism. The police controls Hitler used to carry out purges in political and social contexts were also used against Modernist art forms and their creators…
However, as far as films were concerned, the most acute interest shown by Hitler was in the weekly newsreels. These embodied for him what film was all about: an ideal instrument for political control. He regularly commented on newsreels to Goebbels, and had some several cut or modified. More so than in the case of feature films, Hitler was liable to override any decisions Goebbels had already made on them. Even long before the war broke out Hitler was adamant that newsreels display the heroic…
Recommended, even if you feel you’ve had your fill of books on Nazi Germany.
Yes, the Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Open AI. We even got around to Harry Potter, James Bond (and Q), Spiderman, Antarctica, and Napoleon, what is wrong with San Francisco, in addition to venture capital and the hunt for talent. Here is the transcript and audio. Here is one excerpt:
ALTMAN: I think our greatest differentiator is not how we identify talent, although I will answer that question, but the fact that we treat our own business — we run Y Combinator in the way that we tell our startups to run as a successful startup, which almost no venture capital firm does.
Almost every venture capital firm gives advice they never follow themselves. They don’t build differentiated products. They are not network-affected businesses. They don’t try to build a brand and a community. And they don’t try to make something that gets better the bigger it gets and have the scale effects that anyone would tell you they want in a business.
We at Y Combinator always say we want to get a lot bigger because this is a network effect, this is a network that matters. Most venture capital firms will say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh no, smaller is better,” because they don’t want to work more. Then they’ll tell all their businesses, “The network effect is the only thing that matters.”
Many people are as smart as we are, think about the world in similar ways. But I think we have internalized that we run our firm the same way we tell our startups to operate, and we view the most important thing that we do is to build a network and a network effect.
COWEN: Let me play venture capital skeptic, and you can talk me back into optimism.
ALTMAN: I might not.
COWEN: Let’s say I say, tech has had a stream of big hits: personal computer, internet, cell phone, mobile. You’ve had a lot of rapidly scalable innovations become possible in a short period of time. We’re now in a slight lull. We’re not sure what the next big thing is or when it will come. Without that next big thing, won’t the current equilibrium require a higher rate of picking the right talent than venture capitalists are, in fact, able to do?
ALTMAN: I will talk you out of that one, happily. The most expensive investing mistake in the world to make is to be a pessimist, and it’s a common one. I think that’s actually the most common mistake to make in life. It is true that we are in a lull right now, but it is absolutely, categorically false that — unless the world gets destroyed in a very short term — that we will not have a bigger technological wave then we’ve ever had before.
COWEN: Why can’t I be an optimist but not an optimist about VC? I think new ideas will come through established companies. They’ll be funded by private equity. They’ll happen in China. But the exact formula where you can afford to make so many mistakes because the hits are so big — to what extent does VC rely on that kind of rapid scalability that may not come back?
COWEN: Young Napoleon shows up. What do you think after 5 minutes?
ALTMAN: How young? Like 18-year-old Napoleon or 5-year-old?
COWEN: Before he’s famous, 21-year-old Napoleon.
ALTMAN: From everything I’ve read that would be a definite yes. In fact, the best book I read last year is called The Mind of Napoleon, which is a book of quotes about his views on everything. Just that thick on Napoleon quotes. Obviously deeply flawed human, but man, impressive.
I can’t say this is a good movie. It has a nonsensical plot (you really can’t get that far from the sun…cold is not the only problem!), unmemorable characters, and mediocre dialog. Still, it is interesting. You see two hours of the Chinese building all sorts of big infrastructure, and imagining their future as world leader. They show Shanghai in ruins, for the first time ever in a Chinese movie. You see that even Chinese directors have been influenced by the 1969 Hollywood movie Marooned, a sign that Chinese world leadership is a bit further away than they may like to think. On the brighter side, it has many more striking visual shots than you would find in almost any Hollywood movie today. It is one of the biggest grossing films in Chinese history.
The movie is basically a retelling of some of the earlier parts of Genesis. The Chinese do in fact succeed in building the Tower of Babel, both physically and linguistically. They survive that which is analogous to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They thwart the Noah’s Ark plan, reject the notion of their own intrinsic sinfulness, and save the remainder of humanity. It is the Chinese Christ figure who sacrifices himself to achieve the happy ending, thereby overturning what might be understood to be the will of God. By the end of the movie the Chinese can indeed “do anything.”
How’s that for thinking big?
Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:
Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.
Here is one bit:
COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?
PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.
I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.
It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.
COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —
COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?
PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.
Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:
Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.
So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?
Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.
Yes this movie dates from 1943 but I don’t think it is (mainly) about the Nazi persecutions, and every review I have seen on-line seems to misunderstand the film rather badly. First, it is a #MeToo film. Anne is abused and in essence raped (repeatedly) by her much older husband Absalon, who is a powerful figure in the local community. He saved her mother from being burnt as a witch, and in return took her body and matrimonial hand, never asking if she wanted this. She ends up wishing for his death “hundreds of times,” and the movie focuses on how this marital experience hollows out her inner shell. Her illicit romance with Martin, Absalon’s son, was never emotionally real and was mainly intended as an escape from her servitude and perhaps also as a bit of revenge.
The second theme of the movie, related to the first, concerns the equilibria of belief in witchcraft. If some of the citizens believe in witches, some of the otherwise powerless women will pretend to be witches, to win some power. Anne does this, as she knows that powerlessness is the worst thing in this society. (The older Herlofs Marthe also left some uncertainty about her powers to reach demons and the like.) Of course this strategy has potential downsides, especially when some women are burnt as witches, but ex ante it can make sense to parade as a witch with some probability. For Anne, powerlessness is perceived as so bad she is even willing to be a witch ex post. Of course she killed Absalon by poisoning his beer, not by placing a hex on him. Even when facing death, she can’t give up the one source of perceived power she might aspire to have.
In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.
Here is one bit:
KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?
I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.
That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.
COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?
KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.
COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?
KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?
KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.
Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.
The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.
I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.
That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.
Here is another segment:
COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?
KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.
I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.
I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.
Here is the list of the second set of winners, in the order the grants were made, noting that the descriptions are mine not theirs:
Kelly Smith has a for-profit project to further extend a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” OER methods.
Andrew L. Roberts, Northwestern University, a small grant to further his work on how sports relates to politics.
Stefan de Villiers, high school student, to create podcasts on the decisions of other high school students and how/why they become successful.
Brian Burns is working (with Samo Burja) on the history of mathematics and career networks, with special attention to the blossoming of innovation in 18th century Göttingen: “The secret to producing flourishing mathematical and scientific traditions may lie in a careful study of institutions. I will undertake this investigation and in the process uncover lost mathematical knowledge.” Gauss, Riemann, and Hilbert!
Can Olcer is one of the two entrepreneurs behind Kosmos School, a K-12 school that exists only in virtual reality, a for-profit enterprise with an emphasis on science education.
Anonymous, working on a board game for ten years, aimed at teaching basic economics, including supply and demand and the core ideas of Ronald Coase. The grant is for marketing the game.
Sophie Sandor is a 23-year-old Scottish film-maker making films with “noticeable themes [of] rational optimism, ambition and a rejection of the victimhood notion that millennials are prone to.” She is also interested in making documentaries in the education space.
Nicholas Dunk has a for-profit to bring voice recognition/machine transcription to the daily tasks of doctors. The goal is to solve paperwork problems, free up doctor time, encourage better record-keeping, and improve accuracy, all toward the end of higher quality and less expensive health care.
In the order I saw them:
A Quiet Place
You will find my reviews behind those three links. Overall, you could take this year and multiply it by 2x, and still have the worst year for movies in my adult life. If anything special comes out between now and the end of the year, as it often does, I will be sure to let you know.
I also saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time on a large screen in a long time, review here, Barry Lyndon too, they are two of the best movies ever made though not on your TV.
He can — and this is rare — act mind, and may be the only actor alive who could play a genius convincingly: Donne, for instance, Milton, Pope, or even Shakespeare…would be comfortably within his grasp. But he is not, and never will be a star, in the sense that Coward and Olivier are stars. Olivier, one might say, ransacks the vaults of a part with blowlamp, crowbar, and gun-powder; Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination. He does everything by stealth. Whatever he may do in the future, eh will leave no theatrical descendants, as Gielgud will. He has illumined many a hitherto blind alley of subtlety, but blazed no trails. Irving, we read, was rapt, too: but it was a weird, thunderous raptness that shook its fist at the gods. Guinness waves away awe with a witty fingertip and deflects the impending holocaust with a shrug. His stage presence is quite without amplitude, and his face, bereft of its virtuosity of make-up, is a signless zero. His special gift is to imply the presence of little fixed ideas, gambolling about behind the deferential mask of normality. The characters he plays are injected hypodermically, not tattooed all over him; the latter is the star’s way and Guinness shrinks from it. Like Buckingham in Richard III he is “deep-resolving, witty”; the clay image on whom the witches work. An innocence, as of the womb, makes his face placid even when he plays murderers.
Whether he likes it or not (and I suspect he does), his true métier will continue to be eccentrics — men reserved, blinkered, shut off from their fellows, and obsessed. Within such minority men there is a hidden glee, an inward fanatical glow; and in their souls Guinness is at ease.
That is from Kenneth Tynan, Profiles, which is in fact a remarkable and remarkably good book.