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.”
I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript. Here is the opening summary:
Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.
Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:
COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?
BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —
COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.
BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.
BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.
There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.
And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.
In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.
COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.
BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —
COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.
BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —
And this on music:
BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.
In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.
It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.
And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.
COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?
Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.
Via Bloomberg, here is one bit:
Consider the 10 best-selling books of the decade. All have female protagonists, and the top seven are authored by women. (“Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels take the top three spots, with three others having the word “Girl” in the title.)
The feminization of our culture is for me trend number one. Next in line is screens:
They simply convey more interesting narratives than most of the other spaces in our lives.
There is much more at the link.
Eric and his team describe it as follows:
In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.
Self-recommending if there ever was such a thing, here is the audio and transcript. In addition to all of the expected topics, including gender in the economics profession, we even got around to Indian classical music and Bach cantatas (she prefers the latter). Excerpt:
COWEN: Do you worry much that the RCT method — it centralizes authority in too few institutions? You need a certain amount of money. You need some managerial ability. You need connections abroad. It’s not like running regressions — everyone can do it on their PC. Is that, in some way, going to slow down science? You get more reliable results, but there’s much less competition of ideas, it seems.
DUFLO: I think it would be the case if we had not been mindful of this problem from the beginning. And it might still be the case to some extent. But I actually think that we’ve put a lot of effort in avoiding it to be the case.
When you take an organization like J-PAL, just in India we have 200 staff members. And we have, at any given time, 1,000 people running surveys. I say we, but these people are not running my project. These people are running the projects of dozens and dozens of researchers. When I started, I couldn’t have started without having the backing of my team because it was such a risky proposition that you needed to be able to easy risk capital kind of things.
But at this point, because of the infrastructure, it’s much more normal sense. People can get in with no funding of their own, in part because one of the things we are doing as a network is raising a lot of money to redistribute to other people widely. J-PAL has 400 researchers that are affiliated to it, or invited researchers, many of them quite, quite junior.
So that sort of mixture — it was very important to us, and I think we’ve been quite successful at making the tool marginally available. It’s never going to be like running a regression from your computer. But my philosophy is that if you have the drive and you’re willing to put in your own sweat equity, you can do it. And our students and many other students who are not at top institutions are doing it.
COWEN: On the internet, there’s a photo of a teenage Esther Duflo — at least it looks like you — protesting against fascism in Russia on top of a tank, is it?
DUFLO: That was a bus, and it was me. It was me. So that was in 1991. This was not when I lived for one year there. I lived one year in ’93–’94. But this was in ’91. I had gone to Russia about every year since I was a teen to learn Russian. I happened to be there the summer where there was this putsch against Gorbachev. That summer…
And someone gave me that fashizm ne poletit placard and asked me to hold it. And I’m like, “Sure, I’m going to hold it.” So I’m holding my placard. We stayed there for a long time when things were happening. Next time I saw in the evening, my parents called me, “What are you doing?” Because it turned out that that image was on all the TVs in the world. [laughs] And that’s how I very briefly became the face of this revolution.
COWEN: Does child-rearing in France strike you as more sensible than child-rearing in the United States?
DUFLO: Oh very much so, very much so.
COWEN: And why?
DUFLO: You know that book, Bringing Up Bébé?
DUFLO: I think she picked up on something which rings so true to me, which maybe is a marginal point about the US versus France. In France people are reasonably content to just go with the flow and do what everybody does. Every kid eats the same thing at 4:30, has dinner at the same time, has gone through the same experiences, learned the same songs, and everybody thinks they are totally free. But in fact, they are all on this pretty sensible railroad. And also, they don’t agonize about it.
In the US, child-rearing is one more occasion to make a statement about your identity. You’re the kind of mother that carries the baby, or you’re the kind of mother that puts the baby in a stroller. And somehow it almost can predict what you’re going to think about Donald Trump. That’s crazy. Some people are so concerned about what they do. Not only they feel that they have to invest a ton in their children, and they feel inadequate if they are not able to, but also, exactly what they do creates them as people.
In France that’s not there, and I think that makes everybody so much more laid back, children and adults.
It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:
I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06. After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.
The Holberg people put on a great event.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
Focus on whether the merchandise contributes to further understanding, one way or another, rather than whether it might embody evil.
This principle runs counter to how the world of social media works, I realize. “Cancel culture” tends to issue decisions based on the worst aspects of a product, writer or public figure, because that is what is endlessly circulated and condemned. But there is another way of thinking about the problem — namely, by focusing on the positive.
It is still possible, for example, to buy Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” on Amazon, either through third-party merchants or Amazon itself. That book is more offensive than an Auschwitz bottle opener, as it directly calls for the extermination of the Jews and the conquest of Europe, and it probably still inspires neo-Nazis today. Nonetheless, I hope “Mein Kampf” continues to be for sale.
For all of its evil, “Mein Kampf” is an essential document for understanding the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As such, it should be allowed in spite of its potential downside. There is both intrinsic and utilitarian value in maximizing public access to as much knowledge as possible.
In contrast, it is hard to argue that an Auschwitz-themed mouse pad has anything positive to offer, whether to our historical knowledge or otherwise. At best, it is an act of obnoxious trolling and thus it was appropriate for Amazon to take it down.
It is fine to watch Leni Riefenstahl and listen to Richard Strauss, for instance. But most private platforms — if they can — should ban sheer trolls.
I was 11 years old when I asked my mum for piano lessons, in 2010. We were in the fallout of the recession and she’d recently been made redundant. She said a polite “no”.
That didn’t deter me. I Googled the dimensions of a keyboard, drew the keys on to a piece of paper and stuck it on my desk. I would click notes on an online keyboard and “play” them back on my paper one – keeping the sound they made on the computer in my head. After a while I could hear the notes in my head while pressing the keys on the paper. I spent six months playing scales and chord sequences without touching a real piano. Once my mum saw it wasn’t a fad, she borrowed some money from family and friends, and bought me 10 lessons.
I still remember the first one. I was struck by how organic the sound of the piano was, as I had become familiar with the artificial electronic sound. The teacher tried to explain where middle C was but I could already play all the major and minor scales, as well as tonic and dominant functions, and the circle of fifths.
Here is the full story by Andrew Garrido. Via Ian Leslie.
There have been two clear favorites:
Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, with “You should see me in a crown” as the favorite song.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer. At first I thought this was a good pop album, but it kept getting better and better.
My favorite rap album this year was Tyler the Creator, IGOR.
I see the last few years of popular music as supporting my basic take that there are more good songs in a year than ever before, but fewer breakthrough new concept albums or musical styles than in say 1963-1992 or so.
What do you all recommend?
This year I also enjoyed:
Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, The Other Side of Air.
Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings.
Two out of three picks being women is unusual for jazz, but for the better. I will note that I do not select on the basis of “quotas,” so what I list is truly what I am recommending.
I’ll also stick by my view that current times are the very best for jazz, ever, even though jazz is no longer culturally central and Miles Davis is dead. Your ability to see an amazing jazz concert for less than $50 — often much less — and from top-quality seats has never been greater. Jazz music represents an amazing arbitrage opportunity (unlike paying through the nose to see either Taylor Swift or Boomer classic rock groups), at least if you know what you are doing and you have access to the proper cities, most of all NYC but by no means only.
Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of the “most different” Conversations with Tyler and also one of the most interesting. Here is part of the summary introduction:
Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more.
Here is one excerpt:
SENGHOR: Early, when I first went to prison, you can get all types of books. As I got deeper into my prison sentence, they started banning a lot of those books. Malcolm’s book is probably one of the most popular books in prison because it’s, to me, the one book about personal transformation that just permeates that environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Native American, whatever. It’s something about his redemptive story that just resonates with people who are incarcerated.
Oftentimes, we exchanged books with each other, and we would buy books. I would order books from different outlets that sold books to men and women in prison. The prison library — it varies from prison to prison. Some are better than others.
Back in the day, you used to get books donated by people. They will have estates, and they would just say, “Hey, let’s donate these to the local prison.” But now it’s becoming more and more restrictive in terms of what you can read, specifically around books that reflect black culture, which was really something that was shocking to me.
A lot of those books I read in the early stages of my incarceration are now banned. You can’t get Donald Goines books the way that you used to. Their excuse is that it talks about crime and things like that. But I’m like, “You can’t get that, but you can get Stephen King, which is murder and mayhem.”
COWEN: Can you get Shakespeare? That’s also murder and mayhem.
SENGHOR: Yeah, murder and mayhem. Yeah, you can definitely get all the Shakespearean classics and things like that. This just reflects the contradictions in larger society.
COWEN: I think you were seven years total in solitary, in one period of four years running. Toward the end of that four-year period, did you feel like you were going crazy? Or did you have some greater, stoic sense of calm?
COWEN: The individuals who are incarcerated — what are their senses of humor like? Is it different on the inside or just the same? Are they funnier?
SENGHOR: It is probably one of the most fascinating, quick-witted spaces you can imagine. I did an interview some years back with Trevor Noah, and I remember telling him like, “Prison is hilarious.” And he was like, “No, no, no. That doesn’t seem like quite a good narrative.” [laughs] But what I would always explain to people is that you can’t survive that environment without the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it, the ability to laugh at the craziness of it, the creativity of it.
And you have some brilliant, brilliant comedians in that environment. There’s actually a comedian who’s free now, Ali Siddiq, who’s just an incredible storyteller, and he’s a great comedian. And that talent is abundant in that environment. Guys crack jokes all the time. The officers crack jokes. It’s one of the things that is universal — laughter — and you need that in order to survive hardship.
My favorite part of the dialogue starts with this:
COWEN: It seems to me, from my great distance, that a lot of men in prison have women on the outside who are very strongly attracted to them. How do you think about that? Why do you think there’s a special attraction to men in prison?
His answer was excellent, but too long to reproduce here.
We are approaching the year-end “best of” lists, so why not start with the one you care about least? I had a very good year for classical music listening, with the following as new discoveries:
John Cage, Two2, by Mark Knoop and Philip Thomas, now perhaps my favorite Cage work?
Alvin Curran, Endangered Species, two CDs of jazz and popular song classics but done with piano distortion, plenty of spills and turns, a genuinely successful hybrid product.
James Tenney, Changes: 64 Studies for Two Harps, more listenable than you might think.
As for old classics, the Marek Janowski recording of Bruckner’s 4th is my favorite in a crowded (and impressive) field, recommended as a Bruckner introduction too.
This year I also started to enjoy Szymanowski for the first time, though that remains a work in progress.
I usually do a Fanfare meta-list, namely the recordings recommended the most by the critics of this outlet for classical music reviews. This year there were three clear winners represented on the lists of multiple reviewers:
Poul Ruders, The Thirteenth Child (Danish opera, sung in English).
Feodor Chaliapin, The Complete Recordings, 13 CDs (not my thing).
Wilhelm Furtwängler, The Radio Recordings, 1939-1945 [sic]. James Altena writes: “…layers of aural varnish have been stripped away to uncover the true glories of one incandescent performance after another, from the conductor’s most inspired period of music-making during the horrors of the Nazi regime and World War II.” Other critics concur, so political correctness has not yet come to classical music reviewing. If you are reluctant to spend so much money, you can always try the Furtwängler 1942 “Hitler’s birthday” recording of Beethoven’s 9th and see how offended you feel. So far I can’t bring myself to buy this one. (By the way, even the Nazis still played Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza to the Beethoven violin concerto…Kreisler was Jewish).
I’ll turn to other musical genres soon.