I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event, here is from his home page:
Ben Westhoff is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes about culture, drugs, and poverty. His books are taught around the country and have been translated into languages all over the world.
His new book Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic releases September 3, 2019 in the U.S. (Grove Atlantic) and October 10, 2019 in the UK, Austrailia, and New Zealand (Scribe). Here’s more information.
His previous book Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap has received raves from Rolling Stone and People, a starred review in Kirkus, a five-star Amazon rating, and made numerous year-end best lists. More info can be found here.
…his 2011 book on southern hip-hop, Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop was a Library Journal best seller.
Here is my review of his excellent forthcoming Fentanyl, Inc. He also has a well-acclaimed book on New York City bars and dives. All of his work is fascinating.
So what should I ask him?
1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.
2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice. Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.
3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording). Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.
4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition. I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”
5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.” But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”
Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists. However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.
6. Painting: Ah! Where to start? I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works. And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo. Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here. Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.
8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.
10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.
11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie. What might that be?
11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”
All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.
I’ll be there in a few days time.
Richard Brody’s New Yorker review is titled: “Quentin Tarantino’s Obscenely Regressive Vision of the Sixties in “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”“.
I didn’t love the film, and with each work of his I see, the more I like the others (and him?) less. My main takeaway was to be reminded of an enormous and unprecedented historical shift. In the 1960s, in part because of the birth control pill, the sexual opportunities of high status heterosexual men, or even medium status men, increased enormously, in terms of both quantity and quality. And indeed the men in this movie take advantage of that, to various extremes (wife murder, the Manson cult) and it is not entirely clear how much Tarantino disapproves.
Whatever your normative view of this change, keep it in mind the next time you encounter the “Puritan excesses” of today’s PC movement. Very rapid historical shifts in norms do in fact bring various forms of reaction and sometimes overreaction, and pushing back against the overreaction is not always the wisest thing to do.
If you want to see southern California on the big screen, you might enjoy Echo in the Canyon more, while its bookend cinematic partner David Crosby: Remember My Name will fill in the Joni Mitchell blank and also show you how deeply unpopular and unlikeable people talk and think about themselves.
Poughkeepsie Journal: “Woodstock 50 festival has been canceled. Set for Aug. 16-18, Woodstock 50 was to memorialize the iconic event many consider to be the top achievement of the 60s counterculture. But there was a failure to secure permits or a venue.”
That is from John Fund on Twitter.
I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event. Here is part of her Wikipedia page:
Robbins is a noted expert in the field of nineteenth-century African American literature and recently co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. an anthology of African American women’s writing. Robbins’ work focuses primarily on nineteenth and early twentieth century black print culture; she is affiliated with the Black Press Research Collective and serves as an advisor to the Black Periodical Literature Project at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.
…Previously, Robbins edited several other books with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., including The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006) and In Search of Hannah Crafts: Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2003). She also co-edited The Works of William Wells Brown (2006) with Paula Garrett and an edition of Frances E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy.
In addition to now being Dean at Sonoma State University, she also has written on film music, the history of post offices, the gold rush, higher education, African-American sonnets, and numerous other topics. So what should I ask her?
A recent paper in Rural Sociology, an academic journal, examined how men talk about themselves in mainstream country music. Its author, Braden Leap of Mississippi State University, analysed the lyrics of the top songs on the weekly Billboard country-music charts from the 1980s until the 2010s and found that the near-routine depiction of men as breadwinners and stand-up guys has changed.
Over the past decade, more songs objectify women and are about hooking up. Mr Leap’s examination of lyrics also found that masculinity and whiteness had become more closely linked. References to blue eyes and blond hair, for example, were almost completely absent in the 1980s. In the 2000s, they featured in 15% of the chart-topping songs…
Jada Watson, of the University of Ottawa, recently found that in 2000 a third of country songs on country radio were sung by women. In 2018 the share was only 11%. Even the top female stars get fewer spins. Carrie Underwood had 3m plays between 2000 and 2018; Kenny Chesney received twice as many. A report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 16% of all artists were female across 500 of the top country songs from 2014 to 2018.
Here is more from The Economist.
Du Bois was born in 1868, the year that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg had its debut: he died in 1963, when “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was on the charts. His longevity gives us, I think, a sense that he is more modern than he really was. It can be startling to realize, for example, that when Khruschev gave him the Lenin Prize in 1959, Du Bois was being honored in the name of a man two years his junior.
That is from Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.
Ahead of the second summit in Hanoi, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un requested as part of the agreement between the countries moving forward that the U.S. send “famous basketball players” to normalize relations between the two countries, according to two U.S. officials.
The request was made in writing, officials said, as part of the cultural exchange between the two countries, and at one point the North Koreans insisted that it be included in the joint statement on denuclearization. The North Koreans also made a request for the exchange of orchestras between the two countries.
And even though [David] Crosby underwent a liver transplant in 1994, all four are active today. Does this mean we’ll see them together onstage again? [Graham] Nash stated in an interview not long ago that the band was offered $100 million to go on tour. But that’s not going to happen, he said, for one simple reason: “We don’t like each other.”
Audiences only really like two parts of a show — the beginning and the end. You should prolong the former by rolling directly through your first three numbers without pausing. Then make sure you end suddenly and unexpectedly. Audiences rewards who stop early and punish those who stay late…
Finally, there’s nothing an audience enjoys more than hearing something familiar. If you think your songwriting and all-round musical excellence are enough to entertain a bunch of strangers for an hour with songs they have never heard before, bully for you. The Beatles didn’t, but what the hell do they know?
That is from the entertaining and insightful David Hepworth book Nothing is Real: The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop. He lists the following as the ten best blues songs ever:
Memphis Jug Band: K.C. Moan
B.B. King: You Upset me Baby
Blind Willie Johnson: Dark Was the Night
Mississippi Fred McDowell: Shake ‘Em On Down
Lightnin’ Slim: Rooster Blues
Muddy Waters: Too Young to Know
Elmore James: I Can’t Hold Out
Otis Rush: All Your Love
Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown: James Alley Blues
Blind Blake: Too Tight
By the way, Paul and the Beatles really did record both “I’m Down” and “Yesterday” in the same day.
The technology behind these posthumous encores is complex; the truth is that holograms as many imagine them – exact 3-D digital replicas of humans, constructed from video footage – do not exist. Instead, as Martin Tudor of Base Hologram explains of their own process, “We start with a body double who works closely with our director to choreograph the performances and then we take the results of that and go to work on it digitally.” So while Mitch Winehouse insists that the tour will be a chance for audiences to see the “real” her, what they’ll actually be presented with is footage of a lookalike actress with a CGI 3-D mask on. Unlike Winehouse, who appeared to dislike touring, this digital spectre will be controlled and compliant. Recordings of the voice may belong to the original singer, but the physicality of the performance will be wholly manufactured.
I don’t (yet?) agree with what is to follow, but it is a model of the world I have been trying to flesh out, if only for the sake of curiosity. Here are the main premises:
1. For a big breakthrough in some area to come, many different favorable inputs had to come together. So the Florentine Renaissance required the discovery of the right artistic materials at the right time (e.g., good tempera, then oil paint), prosperity in Florence, guilds and nobles interested in competing for status with artistic commissions, relative freedom of expression, and so on.
2. To some extent, but not completely, the arrival of those varied inputs is random. Big breakthroughs are thus hard to predict and also hard to control.
3. A breakthrough in one area increases the likelihood that further breakthroughs will come in closely related areas. So if the coming together of the symphony orchestra leads to the work of Mozart and Haydn, that in turn becomes an inspiration and eases the path for later breakthroughs in music, not just Mahler but also The Beatles, compared to say how much it might ease future breakthroughs for painting.
4. Some breakthroughs are very very good for economic growth, such as the Industrial Revolution. But most breakthroughs do not in any direct way boost gdp very much. The Axial age led to the creation of significant religions and intellectual traditions, but the (complex) effects on gdp are mostly lagged and were certainly hard to see at the time.
5. Even if Robert Gordon is right that we will never have a new period of material progress comparable to the early 20th century for improving living standards, the next breakthrough eras still might be very important.
6. One possibility is that the next breakthrough will be some form of brain engineering. People might be much happier and better adjusted, but arguably that could lower measured gdp by boosting “household production” in lieu of market activity. At the very least, gdp figures may not reflect the value of those gains.
7. Another candidate for the next breakthrough would be institutional changes that make ongoing international peace much more likely. That would have some positive effects on gdp in the short run, but its major effects would be in the much longer run, namely the prevention of a very destructive war.
8. Judged by the standards of the last breakthrough, the current/next breakthrough is typically hard to see and understand. It almost always feels like we are failing at progress.
9. When a breakthrough comes, you need to ride it for all it is worth. Arguably you also should embrace the excesses of that breakthrough, not seek to limit them. It is perhaps your only real chance to mine that mother lode of inspiration. So let us hope that Baroque music was “overproduced” in the early to mid 18th century, because after that production opportunities go away. For that reason, “overuse” of the internet and social media today may not be such a bad thing. It is our primary way of exploring all of the potential of that cultural mode, and that mode will at some point be tamed and neutered, just as Baroque music composition is now dormant.
10. Progress in (many forms of) science may be more like progress in Baroque music composition than we comfortably like to think. But I hope not.
As I continue to do Conversations with Tyler, more people ask me about “the Tyler Cowen production function.” Well, here is one piece of it I don’t think I’ve written about or talked about before. I’m going to bring you there in slightly long-winded fashion, long-winded for a blog post that is.
I’ve long been convinced that “matters of culture” are central for understanding economic growth, but I’m also painfully aware these theories tend to lack rigor and even trying to define culture can waste people’s time for hours, with no satisfactory resolution.
So I thought I would tackle this problem sideways. I figured the best way to understand culture was to try to understand or “crack” as many cultural codes as possible. As many styles of art. As many kinds of music. As many complex novels, and complex classic books, and of course as many economic models as well. Religions, and religious books. Anthropological understandings. I also learned two languages in my adult years, German and Spanish (the former better than the latter). A bit later I realized that figuring out how an economic sector works — if only partially — was really not so different from cracking these other cultural codes. For instance, once I spent three days on a boat (as keynote speaker), exclusively with people from a particular segment of the shipping trade. It was like entering a whole new world and every moment of it was fascinating.
Eventually it seemed to me that problems of management were themselves a kind of cultural code, each one different of course.
And travel was the most potent form of this challenge, every new place a new culture to be unraveled and partially understood, and how much time was there to do that anyway?
It is very time-consuming — years-consuming — to invest in this skill of culture code cracking. But I have found it highly useful, most of all for various practical ventures and also for dealing with people, and for trying to understand diverse points of view and also for trying to pass intellectual Turing tests.
I am not recommending this you at any particular margin, or at the margin I have invested in. But if you ask me about the Tyler Cowen production function, every now and then I will tell you.
Addendum: It occurs to me that the number and diversity of cultural codes is increasing much faster than the ability of any individual to track them, much less master them. In this regard, an understanding of matters cultural is always receding from us.
A peckish parrot has been caught ordering strawberries, a watermelon and even a water boiler through his foster owner’s electronic personal assistant.
Rocco, an African Grey, requested the items through an Alexa device while his minder was out of the home. Luckily, due to a parental lock, none of his attempted purchases went through.
Rocco, who lives with Marion Wischnewski in Berkshire, U.K., has attempted to order everything from kites and lightbulbs through Alexa since moving to her home. He also gets the device to tell him jokes and play his favorite tunes.
“I’ve come home before and he has romantic music playing,” Wischnewski told The Times of London. “He loves to dance and has the sweetest personality.”
Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh. I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals. I was struck by the following:
1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day. He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness. It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed. Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left. (Shades of Eric Weinstein!) He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era. In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).
2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.
3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate. Might that be the central theme in his thought?
4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.” He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.
5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher. His audience seems to take this interest in stride. This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.
6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original. And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics. I still enjoy hearing them as music. And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?
7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”). He once said: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”
It would be hard to pull this off today. Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended. Plus he is flat-out funny. He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.
8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.
9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent. He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.
10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements. Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.
11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA. He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.