Here is the short talk I gave for the Center for Cultural Affairs, for their recent conference:
That is Haitian and Russian art in the background, Biguad and Bilibin, respectively.
Tired of lockdown, pandemic, and rioting? Here is a podcast on some of their polar opposites, conducted by “a bridge and tunnel guy” with an accomplished sociologist. Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:
Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.
Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.
Here is one excerpt especially dear to my heart:
COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?
MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.
COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?
MEARS: Who benefits?
COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?
MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.
Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.
COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?
MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.
…in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.
The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.
Definitely recommended, a unique and fascinating episode. And again, I strongly recommend Ashley’s new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, one of my favorite books of the year.
See the sign? “Thou shall not kill anymore”.
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.
Ali Akbar was two years younger than Robu [later named Ravi Shankar], but a couple of years ahead in his musical training. He has been through a brutal regime: Baba had even tied him to a tree and beaten him when his progress was unsatisfactory. Although Baba had arranged for Ali Akbar to marry at the age of fifteen, he still expected him to remain celibate — married to music. Twice Ali Akbar ran away. Ultimately the harsh discipline brought out his talent and made him into a master of the sarod, although one wonders about the emotional cost.
That is from Oliver Craske’s Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, which I am quite enjoying.
Pop music has become less popular during the pandemic.
With millions stuck at home due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders and searching for entertainment, data suggest that new releases by major pop artists are drawing fewer listeners than normal. Instead, streaming metrics show, listeners are tuning in to old favorites from the likes of Bob Marley, Dixie Chicks and Bill Withers—the singer of “Lean On Me,” who died last month.
Several factors are denting pop-music listening. Major artists are delaying album releases, and workers ordered to stay home aren’t commuting, cutting into time spent listening to radio, analysts say, adding that news is drawing more interest for those who do tune in. And without live concerts or performances on talk shows, music labels’ promotional machines are less powerful…
On Spotify, the largest streaming service by subscriptions, cumulative streams of the top 200 U.S. songs have fallen in recent weeks—tumbling 28% from the week ending March 12 to the week ending April 16 to the low point for the year so far. The drop-off is especially pronounced, given that those weeks saw new album releases from major streaming artists including J Balvin, the Weeknd, Childish Gambino and Dua Lipa. Meanwhile, catalog music—songs more than 18 months old—has been on the rise and hit a high for the year in the week ended April 9, accounting for 63% of total audio streams, up from 60% the week ended March 12, according to Nielsen/MRC.
“We are seeing something of a shift towards comfort music,” says Midia Research analyst Mark Mulligan.
This one was done with an associated public event, ah the good ol’ days! Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:
Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.
John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.
COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?
MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?
COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.
MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.
COWEN: You think it’s just as good?
MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?
COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?
MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”
But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric.
COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?
MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.
The line in the men’s room was to wash hands, not to use the other facilities. During the concert, there was remarkably little coughing compared to usual times. Is this because?:
1. The coughers were self-quarantining at home (there were more empty seats than usual).
2. Potential coughers didn’t want their seat neighbors to think of them as infecting pariahs.
3. Potential coughers abstained for fear of having to think, if they are coughing, that they might have coronavirus.
In any case, the elasticity of coughing with respect to self-reputation is higher than I had thought.
Yana and I were pleased to have watched from a private box (to be clear, we had a private box because the other people did not show up).
AEON: English-language popular songs have become more negative. The use of words related to negative emotions has increased by more than one third. Let’s take the example of the Billboard dataset. If we assume an average of 300 words per song, every year there are 30,000 words in the lyrics of the top-100 hits. In 1965, around 450 of these words were associated with negative emotions, whereas in 2015 their number was above 700. Meanwhile, words associated with positive emotions decreased in the same time period. There were more than 1,750 positive-emotion words in the songs of 1965, and only around 1,150 in 2015. Notice that, in absolute number, there are always more words associated with positive emotions than there are words associated with negative ones. This is a universal feature of human language, also known as the Pollyanna principle (from the flawlessly optimistic protagonist of the eponymous novel), and we would hardly expect this to reverse: what does matter, though, is the direction of the trends.
The tempo and the tonality of the top-100 Billboard songs was also examined: Billboard hits have become slower, and minor tonalities have become more frequent. Minor tonalities are perceived as gloomier with respect to major tonalities.
The authors, Acerbi and Brand, have some speculation about why the change has occurred–negative emotions transmit more easily, random drift, changes in preferences, a change in music distribution but nothing definitive. Could rap explain the differences? The study looks at the production of new music but what about the consumption? Are we listening to sadder songs or brightening things up by listening to more songs from the past? It would be interesting to know whether this is true in other languages as well.
Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.
Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:
Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.
Here is one bit near the opening:
COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?
HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.
COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?
HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.
And another segment:
HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”
COWEN: A hat, perhaps.
HARFORD: A hat?
COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.
HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.
COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?
The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form. I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.
In 2016, Politico reported that the total number of trombone, trumpet, keyboard and other instrument players [in the U.S. military] stands at about 6,500.
That’s a lot of Souza marches, but the State Department fields a bigger squad of diplomats. There are 8,106 Foreign Service officers, according to a State Department report. (The State Department has about another 5,700 people to support the diplomats, but they don’t do direct diplomatic work.) Still, there are a good 1,600 more diplomats than musicians.
I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event. Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:
John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.
So what should I ask him?
And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.
Overall I do not regard this as good news:
We examine the educational backgrounds of more than 2,900 members of the U.S. cultural elite and compare these backgrounds to a sample of nearly 4,000 business and political leaders. We find that the leading U.S. educational institutions are substantially more important for preparing future members of the cultural elite than they are for preparing future members of the business or political elite. In addition, members of the cultural elite who are recognized for outstanding achievements by peers and experts are much more likely to have obtained degrees from the leading educational institutions than are those who achieve acclaim from popular audiences.
A sad day for me. He was a big influence on my life growing up in Toronto and I’d always hope to meet “the professor.” Here is Red Barchetta one of Rush’s great liberty songs.
Addendum: Rolling Stone on Peart.
There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:
This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.
COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.
ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?
COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.
I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”