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.”
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.