I’ve noticed that you tend to have pretty wide ranging tastes in music, and your recommendation on introduction to classical music was pretty spot-on. I’m wondering what training/expertise you have in music theory/aural skills?…As someone who is obviously very intelligent but not a musician (that I know of), I wonder how you interact with Bach or other master composers – what criteria do you listen for? What makes great works stand out from the merely good?
My history is this:
1. I learned how to play the guitar when I was twelve or so, and also figured out how a piano works.
2. I spent about six years studying jazz chords, American popular song, some classic rock, early acoustic blues and ragtime, Fahey/Kottke, and Bach. I also learned how to listen with a score, at least for guitar and piano pieces.
3. Later in life, I focused on trying to make sense of early to mid 20th century classical music and Indian classical music, both excellent entry points for many of the other difficult musical genres and styles. I tried to learn at least something about micro-tonal musics and ragas.
4. Starting in my thirties, I tried to develop a basic familiarity with world musics, not so much the European folkie stuff as those based on different conceptual principles, such as some of the Arab musics, Chinese music, and African musics including the Pygmies.
5. I cultivated “music mentors” to help me understand these musics. Overall this is not a very book-intensive endeavor, though you will enjoy reading accompanying biographies.
I am not saying that is the right path for everyone, but I found it very rewarding, including for my broader understanding of history.
To address one of the specific questions, I think of Bach-Stravinsky, classic rock, and Indian classical music (live only) as covering some of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements, with only cinema in the running for possible parity. Most of all just listen plenty, noting that the canonical opinions about what is best are actually pretty much on the mark.
I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript. Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:
Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.
He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.
He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated. Here is one exchange of relevance:
COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.
Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .
POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.
One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.
One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.
The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.
Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.
COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?
For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.
If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?
POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.
But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”
COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?
POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.
But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.
I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.
In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.
COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?
POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?
COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.
W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer. Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:
COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?
POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.
When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.
Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.
Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
I am arrived in Baku! Here goes:
1. Chess player: Garry Kasparov. Maybe the greatest player of all time? He is not ethnic Azerbaijani, but grew up in Baku.
Teimour Radjabov. It is amazing for how long he has gotten away with playing the King’s Indian Defense at the highest levels of chess competition.
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Over the last year, he has had the best results of anyone in the chess world, including Carlsen. His forcing style resembles that of Kasparov.
Vugar Gashimov. He was pretty good too, passed away prematurely in 2014.
Cellist and conductor: Mstislav Rostropovich, born in Baku. His Bach Cello Suites are perhaps my favorite of all extant recordings. Here is one (different) YouTube version. As a conductor he was uneven, but capable of spectacular live performances of Shostakovich.
Philosopher: Max Black, also born in Baku. He edited Frege and worked on problems from Leibniz, such as the identity of indiscernibles.
Note that numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 on this list were Jews who emigrated to America.
Silicon Valley has created a model for identifying and nurturing high-potential young companies…Pioneer… hopes to do much the same thing for high-potential people.
The group, which is being announced on Thursday, plans to use the internet-era tools of global communication and crowdsourcing to solicit and help select promising candidates in a variety of fields, along with evaluations by experts. Its goal is to put more science and less happenstance into the process of talent discovery — and reach more people, wherever they are in the world.
“We’re trying to build a kind of search engine for finding great people with talent, ambition and potential,” said Daniel Gross, 27, the group’s founder…
Selecting “pioneers” will begin with a monthlong online tournament. Candidates will submit their project ideas. Each week, the projects will be updated. The candidates will vote on each other’s projects, points will be awarded and there will be leader board. Subject experts will also vote, with their votes counting somewhat more than the candidates’.
I am just arriving, and for the first time Here are my favorites:
1. Pianist: Emil Gilels, most of all for Beethoven and Chopin. Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, he was often best in unusual pieces, such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, and John Philip Sousa. But there is also Cherkassy, Pachmann, Moiseiwitsch, Lhevinne, and others. Simon Barere was one of the greatest Liszt pianists. So we are into A++ territory here. But wait…Richter was born in Ukraine! My head is exploding now.
1b. Violinists: You’ve got Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, the Oistrakhs, among others, with Milstein’s Bach recordings as my favorite.
2. Composer: Prokofiev was born in eastern Ukraine (or is it now Russia again?), but somehow I don’t feel he counts. Valentin Sylvestrov would be an alternative.
3. Novelist: One choice would be Nikolai Gogol, then Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kiev but ethnically Russian. But I can’t say I love Master and Margarita; it is probably much better and funnier in the original Russian. His The White Guard is a more directly Ukrainian novel, and it should be better known. A Country Doctor’s Notebook is perhaps my favorite by him. For short stories there is Isaac Babel. Joseph Conrad was born in modern-day Ukraine, though I don’t feel he counts as Ukrainian, same with Stanislaw Lem. Vassily Grossman is a toss-up in terms of origin. The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, now very much in fashion, was born in Ukraine.
4. Movie: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a 1930 take on agricultural collectivization. With Dovshenko as my favorite director.
5. Movie, set in: Man With a Movie Camera. It is remarkable how fresh and innovative this 1929 silent film still is.
6. Painter: David Burliuk, leader of the Ukrainian avant-garde and later member of the Blue Rider group. Ilya Repin was born in modern-day Ukraine, though he feels “Russian” to me in the historical sense.
7. Sculptor: Alexander Archipenko was born in Ukraine, though he ended up in America.
8. Economist: Ludwig von Mises. He was born on territory near current-day Lviv, part of Ukraine.
9. Actress: Milla Jovovich is pretty good in The Fifth Element and Resident Evil.
10. Tech entrepreneur: Max Levchin.
11. Israeli: There is Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.
Other: Wilhelm Reich deserves mention, though I’m not really a fan. The region produced a few good chess players too.
Overall, this is a stunningly impressive list, though there are legitimate questions as to who and what exactly counts as Ukrainian. They’re still trying to sort that one out, which is part of the problem.
A NEW GENERATION of celebrities is selling out concerts, starring in commercials, and amassing huge Instagramfollowings. But none of them exist—corporeally, anyway. In recent years, and starting in Japan, technology and social media have spawned a digital demimonde of computer-generated stars, ranging from fake musicians and models to company mascots who appear as holograms (like Betty Crocker, with AI). When they’re not entertaining you, they’re trying to convince you of their humanity, and even the more cartoonish among them have fleshed-out personalities. In a way, it’s the purest expression of celebrity, which has always been an elaborate illusion. CGI starlets, though, “are much easier to control,” says Ryan Detert, CEO of the branding firm Influential. Except when they misbehave.
Shane emails me:
What have you found to be the best books on small, innovative, productive groups?
These could be in-depth looks at specific groups – such as The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs – or they could be larger studies of institutions, guilds, etc.
I suggest reading about musical groups and sports teams and revolutions in the visual arts, as I have mentioned before, taking care you are familiar with and indeed care passionately about the underlying area in question. Navy Seals are another possible option for a topic area. In sociology there is network theory, but…I don’t know. In any case, the key is to pick an area you care about, and read in clusters, rather than hoping to find “the very best book.” The very theory of small groups predicts this is how you should read about small groups!
But if you must start somewhere, Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies is probably the most intensive and detailed place to start, too much for some in fact and arguably the book strains too hard at its target.
I have a few observations on what I call “small group theory”:
1. If you are seeking to understand a person you meet, or might be hiring, ask what was the dominant small group that shaped the thinking and ideas of that person, typically (but not always) at a young age. Step #1 is often “what kind of regional thinker is he/she?” and step #2 is this.
2. If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.
3. Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.
4. The bizarre and the offensive have a chance to flourish in small groups. In a sense, the logic behind an “in joke” resembles the logic behind social change through small groups. The “in joke” creates something new, and the small group can create something additionally new and in a broader and socially more significant context, but based on the same logic as what is standing behind the in joke.
5. How large is a small group anyway? (How many people can “get” an inside joke?) Has the internet made “small groups” larger? Or possibly smaller? (If there are more common memes shared by a few thousand people, perhaps the small group needs to be organized around something truly exclusive and thus somewhat narrower than in times past?)
6. Can a spousal or spouse-like couple be such a small group? A family (Bach, Euler)?
7. What are the negative social externalities of such small groups, compared to alternative ways of generating and evaluating ideas? And how often in life should you attempt to switch your small groups?
8. What else should we be asking about small groups and the small groups theory of social change?
9. What does your small group have to say about this?
I thank an anonymous correspondent — who adheres to the small group theory — for contributions to this post.
David was in top form, and I feel this exchange reflected his core style very well, here is the audio and transcript.
We covered why people stay so lonely, whether the Amish are happy, life in Italy, the Whig tradition, the secularization thesis, the importance of covenants, whether Judaism or Christianity has a deeper reading of The Book of Exodus, whether Americans undervalue privacy, Bruce Springsteen vs. Bob Dylan, whether our next president will be a boring manager, and last but not least the David Brooks production function.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Walt Whitman, not only as a poet, but as a foundational thinker for America. Overrated or underrated?
BROOKS: I’d have to say slightly overrated.
COWEN: Tell us why.
BROOKS: I think his spirit and his energy sort of define America. His essay “Democratic Vistas” is one of my favorite essays. It captures both the vulgarity of America, but the energy and especially the business energy of America. But if we think the rise of narcissism is a problem in our society, Walt Whitman is sort of the holy spring there.
COWEN: Socrates, overrated or underrated?
BROOKS: [laughs] This is so absurd.
BROOKS: With everybody else it’s like Breaking Bad, overrated or underrated? I got Socrates.
BROOKS: I will say Socrates is overrated for this reason. We call them dialogues. But really, if you read them, they’re like Socrates making a long speech and some other schmo saying, “Oh yes. It must surely be so, Socrates.”
BROOKS: So it’s not really a dialogue, it’s just him speaking with somebody else affirming.
COWEN: And it’s Plato reporting Socrates. So it’s Plato’s monologue about a supposed dialogue, which may itself be a monologue.
BROOKS: Yeah. It was all probably the writers.
And on Milton Friedman:
BROOKS: I was a student at the University of Chicago, and they did an audition, and I was socialist back then. It was a TV show PBS put on, called Tyranny of the Status Quo, which was “Milton talks to the young.” So I studied up on my left-wing economics, and I went out there to Stanford. I would make my argument, and then he would destroy it in six seconds or so. And then the camera would linger on my face for 19 or 20 seconds, as I tried to think of what to say.
And it was like, he was the best arguer in human history, and I was a 22-year-old. It was my TV debut — you can go on YouTube. I have a lot of hair and big glasses. But I will say, I had never met a libertarian before. And every night — we taped for five days — every night he took me and my colleagues out to dinner in San Francisco and really taught us about economics.
Later, he stayed close to me. I called him a mentor. I didn’t become a libertarian, never quite like him, but a truly great teacher and a truly important influence on my life and so many others. He was a model of what an academic economist should be like.
Recommended. (And I actually thought David did just fine in that early exchange with Friedman.)
A DENTIST who bought John Lennon’s tooth is looking for potential love children of the late-Beatle in a bid to stake a claim to his £400million estate.
Dr Michael Zuk, 45, from Alberta, Canada, purchased the legendary songwriter’s decayed molar at auction in 2011 for around £20,000…
Speaking with The Sun Online, the dentist has sensationally revealed that he plans to stake a claim to the music icon’s vast estate using DNA from the body part.
He said: “I am looking for people who believe they are John Lennon’s child and have a claim to his estate and hopefully I can legitimise their claim.
“John was a very popular guy who was having sex with lots of women and I doubt birth control was on his mind.
…“I would ask anyone who is participating to sign a commission agreement which would mean if they were related they would pay my company a percentage of their inheritance.
“Like a finder’s fee.”
Here is the story, via Michael J.
P.s. Solve for the equilibrium.
I have many collections of gospel music, but might this be the best one? The subtitle is Small Group Black Gospel 1951-1965.
Beginning today (May 10), Spotify users will no longer be able to find R. Kelly‘s music on any of the streaming service’s editorial or algorithmic playlists. Under the terms of a new public hate content and hateful conduct policy Spotify is putting into effect, the company will no longer promote the R&B singer’s music in any way, removing his songs from flagship playlists like RapCaviar, Discover Weekly or New Music Friday, for example, as well as its other genre- or mood-based playlists.
“We are removing R. Kelly’s music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly,” Spotify told Billboardin a statement. “His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it. We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
Over the past several years, Kelly has been accused by multiple women of sexual violence, coercion and running a “sex cult,” including two additional women who came forward to Buzzfeed this week. Though he has never been convicted of a crime, he has come under increasing scrutiny over the past several weeks, particularly with the launch of the #MuteRKelly movement at the end of April. Kelly has vociferously defended himself, saying those accusing him are an “attempt to distort my character and to destroy my legacy.” And while RCA Records has thus far not dropped Kelly from his recording contract, Spotify has distanced itself from promoting his music.
Here is the full article. Chuck Berry? John Lennon? Michael Jackson?
In 1974, near the peak of his fame, Paul Simon started taking music lessons.
The melody of “American Tune,” my favorite Paul Simon song, is taken from a Bach chorale from St. Matthew’s Passion.
Paul Simon originally was to have played guitar on “Rock Island Line” for the Nilsson/Lennon Pussy Cats album, but Lennon and Simon could not get along with each other and Lennon kept on putting his hand on Simon’s guitar strings to stop him from playing, eventually causing Simon to leave.
Art Garfunkel originally was slated to be dual vocalist on the Hearts and Bones album (TC’s favorite Paul Simon creation by the way), though Simon cut out the vocal tracks that Garfunkel had recorded.
Around 2012 Simon developed a strong interest in the music of American “hobo composer” Harry Partch.
Those are from the new Paul Simon biography by Robert Hilburn.
Bryan was in top form, I can’t recall hearing him being more interesting or persuasive. Here is the audio and text. We talked about whether any single paper is good enough, the autodidact’s curse, the philosopher who most influenced Bryan, the case against education, the Straussian reading of Bryan, effective altruism, Socrates, Larry David, where to live in 527 A.D., the charm of Richard Wagner, and much more. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: You love Tolstoy, right?
CAPLAN: Yeah. You love Tolstoy because here’s a guy who not only has this encyclopedic knowledge of human beings — you say he knows human nature. Tolstoy knows human natures. He realizes that there are hundreds of kinds of people, and like an entomologist, he has the patience to study each kind on its own terms.
Tolstoy, you read it: “There are 17 kinds of little old ladies. This was the 13th kind. This was the kind that’s very interested in what you’re eating but doesn’t wish to hear about your romance, which will be contrasted with the seventh kind which has exactly the opposite preferences.” That’s what’s to me so great about Tolstoy.
Here is one of my questions:
What’s the fundamental feature in Bryan Caplan–think that has made you, unlike most other nerds, so much more interested in Stalin than science fiction?
Here is another exchange:
COWEN: You think, in our society in general, this action bias infests everything? Or is there some reason why it’s drawn like a magnet to education?
CAPLAN: Action bias primarily drives government. For individuals, I think even there there’s some action bias. But nevertheless, for the individual, there is the cost of just going and trying something that’s not very likely to succeed, and the connection with the failure and disappointment, and a lot of things don’t work out.
There’s a lot of people who would like to start their own business, but they don’t try because they have some sense that it’s really hard.
What I see in government is, there isn’t the same kind of filter, which is a big part of my work in general in politics. You don’t have the same kind of personal disincentives against doing things that sound good but actually don’t work out very well in practice.
Probably even bigger than action bias is actually what psychologists call social desirability bias: just doing things that sound good whether or not they actually work very well and not really asking hard questions about whether things that sound good will work out very well in practice.
I also present what I think are the three strongest arguments against Bryan’s “education is mostly signaling” argument — decide for yourself how good his answers are.
COWEN: …Parenting and schooling in your take don’t matter so much. Something is changing these [norms] that is mostly not parenting and not schooling. And they are changing quite a bit, right?
COWEN: Is it like all technology? Is the secret reading of Bryan Caplan that you’re a technological determinist?
CAPLAN: I don’t think so. In general, not a determinist of any kind.
COWEN: I was teasing about that.
And last but not least:
CAPLAN: …When someone gets angry at Robin, this is what actually outrages me. I just want to say, “Look, to get angry at Robin is like getting angry at baby Jesus.” He’s just a symbol and embodiment of innocence and decency. For someone to get angry at someone who just wants to learn . . .
COWEN: And when they get mad at me?
CAPLAN: Eh, I understand that.
I heard Mozart’s 39th symphony in concert last night, and it occurred to me (once again) that I also was witnessing one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements. Think about what went into the activity: each instrument, developed eventually to perfection and coordinated with the other instruments. The system of tuning and the underlying principles of the music. The acoustics of the music hall. The sheet music on paper and the musical notation. All of those features extremely well coordinated with the kind of compositional talent being produced in Central and Western Europe from say 1710 to 1920. And by the mid-18th century most of the key features of this system were in place and by the early 19th century they were more or less perfected.
Sometimes I think of the Industrial Revolution as fundamentally a Cultural Revolution. The first instantiation of this Cultural Revolution maybe was the rise of early Renaissance Art in Italy and in the Low Countries. That too was based on a series of technological developments, including improved quality tempera paint, the development of oil painting, the resumption of bronze and marble techniques for sculpture, and the reintroduction of paper into Europe, which enabled artists’ sketches and drawings.
As with classical music, this unfolding of quality production was all based on extreme experimentation, a kind of scientific method, urbanization, and competing city-states. There was also the rediscovery of knowledge from antiquity, and the importation or reimportation of science from China and the Arabic world, including the afore-mentioned knowledge of paper-making.
The creation of a book culture, and a culture of experimental science, could be cited as well.
Perhaps the only [sic] difference with the Industrial Revolution proper is that it came to sectors — energy, transport, and textiles — that boosted living standards immensely. But arguably it was just another of a series of Cultural Revolutions that had their roots in late medieval times, with even classical music deriving ultimately from Franco-Flemish polyphony. One of these Cultural Revolutions just happened to be Industrial.
Of course the earliest parts of Revolutions are often the best, as we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but Mozart and Leonardo are still with us.