Category: The Arts

The symphony orchestra and the Industrial Revolution

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.

Washington, D.C. fact of the day

The National African Art Museum has a problem:

Attendance dropped to 159,000 last year from a high of 403,000 in 2009, when there was a special exhibition. Last year’s number is 43 percent below the 10-year average.

One of the under-reported stories about D.C. is how much the city’s art museums have faded as intellectual and cultural centers for the city.  This seems to be extreme for the African museum, perhaps because of urban gentrification, and perhaps because the African museum has an especially hard time mounting blockbuster exhibits famous to the public eye.  Prince Twins Seven Seven just isn’t as famous as he ought to be.

In the meantime, you all have the internet to keep you busy.

Software engineer and psychologist wanted

AI Grant (aigrant.org) is a distributed AI research lab. Their goal is to find and fund the modern day Einsteins: brilliant minds from untraditional backgrounds working on AI.

They need a software engineer. The qualifications are twofold: an intrinsic interest in the problem of identifying talented people across the world, and a demonstrated ability to ship software projects without much supervision. This doesn’t have to be through traditional means. It could just be side-projects on Github.

They’re also looking for a psychologist with experience in personality and IQ modeling.

Bay Area location is a big plus, but not a requirement. If you’re interested in learning more, email team@aigrant.org with information about yourself.

This is not a paid ad, but I am seeking to do a favor for the excellent and highly talented Daniel Gross (and perhaps for you), with whom you would get to work.  Do please mention MR if you decide to apply!

*Neruda: The Poet’s Calling*

That is the new and excellent biography by Mark Eisner, here is one good bit:

“The antagonism toward Borges may exist in an intellectual or cultural form because of our different orientation,” Neruda answered. “One can fight peacefully. But I have other enemies — not writers. For me the enemy is imperialism, and my enemies are the capitalists and those who drop napalm on Vietnam. But Borges is not my enemy…He understands nothing of what’s going on in the contemporary world; he thinks that I understand nothing either. Therefore, we are in agreement.”

And:

After [Juan Ramón] Jiménez’s “great bad poet remark, Neruda and his friends started to prank call Jiménez’s house, hanging up the phone as soon as he answered.

This book is remarkably well-constructed and easy to read, the best treatment of one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.

My advice for a Paris visit

This is for another friend, here are my pointers:

1. Find a very good food street/corner and take many of your meals there.  I’ve used Rue Daguerre and around Rue des Arts (Left Bank) for this purpose, but there are many others.  Spend most of your money in the cheese shop, asking them to choose for you, but supplement with bread, fruit, and of course chocolate.  This beats most restaurant meals, noting it won’t be cheap either.  And yes it is worth paying $8 for a bar of chocolate there.

2. Do track down medieval Paris, most of all the cathedrals.  This will bring you by other delights as well.

3. Especially on the Left Bank, Paris is one of the very best walking cities.  Avoid Champs-Élysées and environs, a broad-avenued, chain store-intense corruption of what Paris ought to be.  Avoid Jardin Luxembourg and the surrounding parts as well, they are urban deserts.

4. Get a peek of the major bridges over the Seine, if only by traversing them.

5. You don’t in fact have to stand in line to see the Mona Lisa.  It’s a lovely painting, but at this point in human civilization it is OK to skip it.  You don’t need to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” again either.  But you should go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  And in the Louvre, don’t neglect the Poussin room, the Michelangelo sculptures, or the Flemish and 17th century works.

6. The Louvre, d’Orsay, Cluny, and Branly (ethnographic) are the essential museums in town.  Check out Grand Palais and Petit Palais for possible exhibits.  When walking around, keep your eye out for posters (yes, posters) advertising exhibits and concerts.

7. If you want to spend forty euros for a very good but not revelatory lunch, find a “cool” area with lots of restaurants and poke your head in at their opening, at 12:30, to ask for a table.  By 12:45 it is too late and you are screwed and back to your favorite cheese shop.  By the way, I don’t think Paris is the best city in which to spend $200 on a meal.

8. In most of the parts of Paris you are likely to frequent, do not try to eat any Asian or “ethnic” foods.  The best restaurants of those kinds are in north Paris, on the way to the airport, but no one visits there.  Couscous in Paris is boring.

9. Belleville is the gentrifying Brooklyn of Paris, with relatively few tourists, if that is what you are looking for.  Avoid Montmartre.  For practical reasons, I’ve spent a lot of my Paris time near Unesco, in a neighborhood that is a bit sterile but very beautiful and it gives you a decent sense of well-to-do residential Paris life.  Develop your mini-Paris residential life somewhere, and make your time there more than just a tourist visit.  The site I should not enjoy but do is Le Dôme des Invalides, also the tomb of Napoleon.

10. The essential Paris movies are lots of Godard (Breathless, Band of Outsiders, others), Jules and Jim, and Triplets of Belleville.  Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 for those with an experimental bent.  Eric Rohmer for something light-hearted.  Amélie and Before Sunset are both rewarding, though at the margin Godard usually is what Americans are lacking.

11. Carry along Hugo and Balzac to read.  Flaubert and Proust are wonderful, but they are more “interior” authors and thus you can imbibe them anywhere.  Do not forget Houllebecq’s Submission.  I do not love most of the well-known non-fiction books on Paris; perhaps they become corrupted through the chance of being truly popular.  Do read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France and try to dig up a useful architectural guide to the city.  I’m also a big fan of Hazel Rowley’s Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

12. Don’t go expecting Parisians to be rude, I have never (well, once) found that to be the case in more than six months spent in the city.

13. My overall take is this: Paris today is fairly sterile in terms of overall creativity, or for that matter business dynamism.  But Parisians have perfected the art of taste along a number of notable dimensions, like nowhere else in the world.  If your trip allows you to free ride upon those efforts in a meaningful way, it will go very well.

The day job

ONCE UPON A time, artists had jobs. And not “advising the Library of Congress on its newest Verdi acquisition” jobs, but job jobs, the kind you hear about in stump speeches. Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring “The Waste Land” (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims. The avant-garde composer Philip Glass shocked at least one music lover when he materialized, smock-clad and brandishing plumber’s tools, in a home with a malfunctioning appliance. “While working,” Glass recounted to The Guardian in 2001, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

That is from Katy Waldman in the NYT.  You will find similar themes discussed in my earlier book In Praise of Commercial Culture.  In her article I also enjoyed this part:

Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, sometimes feels his hand doodling as he contemplates a political decision. The art pours out to center and steady him. In 1998, Rama left a promising career as an artist in Paris to become Albania’s minister of culture. Now the country’s leader, he shows his loose, improvisatory drawings and sculptures in galleries around the world. “I found myself drawing almost all my working time whilst interacting with people in my office or on the phone,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I began to understand that my subconscious was being helped … by my hand to stay calm while my conscious had to focus on demanding topics.”

Recommended.

From the new spending bill, arts funding is going up

ARTS FUNDING: It goes up despite Trump’s attempts to slash. NEA and NEH funding climbs $152.8M each. National Gallery of Art gets $165.9M; John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts receives $40.5 million. All increases over last year.

Here is a link.  In the meantime, here is some tech and Facebook advice from Twitter.

Why are antiques now so cheap?

Compared with the heyday of antiques collecting, prices for average pieces are now “80 percent off,” said Colin Stair, the owner of Stair Galleries auction house in Hudson, N.Y. “Your typical Georgian 18th century furniture, chests of drawers, tripod tables, Pembroke tables,” he noted, can all be had for a fraction of what they cost 15 to 20 years ago.

That is from Tim McKeough at the NYT, there is plenty more evidence in the article.  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. eBay and the internet have increased supply more than demand.  It is much easier to sell an estate, or the contents of your attic, than before.  But the upward potential for demand in the market isn’t nearly as significant.  Some people say “well, I would in fact buy and collect antiques if I could get the right 18th century pieces at 40% their current values,” but many more people just aren’t interested at all.

2. The article also demonstrates that many buyers are refocusing their demands on newer pieces.  Our attitude toward the past may have changed in some fundamental way, with items before a certain date just not existing in most people’s aesthetic universes.  It’s a bit like how people collect Elvis memorabilia, or even just treat Elvis as less iconic than they used to.

For many people today, “an English antique represents something that is kind of sad and tired,” said Thad Hayes, a New York interior designer who has recently been emptying antiques-filled homes and designing new rooms with contemporary pieces for wealthy clients both young and old.

Contemporary design, he said, “represents something that’s a lot more optimistic and positive.”

3. Homes have changed: “More homes have open-concept, casual living spaces rather than formal dining rooms and studies, which reduces the need for stately mahogany dining tables, chairs and cabinets.”

4. The aesthetic of the internet itself has pushed people away from “old and musty.”  Just look at the kind of images you see on Instagram.

What else?

My Conversation with Robin Hanson

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”

And:

COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

My Conversation with Matt Levine

Here is the transcript and audio, Matt was in great form.  We covered Uber, derivatives, crypto, Horace, Latin and the ancient world, neighborhoods of New York City, whether markets are volatile enough, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whether IPOs are mispriced, Nabokov and modernist literature, Achilles and Homer, and of course the Matt Levine production function (“panic”).

Here is one excerpt:

LEVINE:

…What I’d like the story to be is that financial markets have gotten smarter and they reacted less to news. So even though the news is noisier, they react less to that noisy news because it turns out not to affect asset prices in as noisy a way as you’d think by watching TV.

I think that there is something compelling to that because we actually have seen smart people build smart things that do a good job of making investing decisions. So you’d expect over time, as people build more rational investing tools, investing would become more rational.

The good counterargument to that is that investing is not a technological problem in the world that can be solved. It’s an interpersonal fight. Trading, in particular, is an attempt to be better than someone else. You can never make trading more rational because as you get better, someone else gets better. The residue will ultimately still be your human biases.

I’m biased towards the view that we have gotten smarter at decoupling our emotional reactions to the news from financial asset prices. Part of that is — whether or not that’s true globally — there’s a local sense in which the first day of Trump’s election everyone panicked. Then he said another crazy thing, and then he said another. Eventually you tune it out. That’s a form of this thing of financial assets reacting less to human reactions to the news.

Here is another:

COWEN: Do you have a single biggest worry [about asset markets], however tiny, tiny, tiny it may be?

LEVINE: I don’t think I do. I don’t think I do. The thing that I find weirdest is the lack of volatility in the face of a very strange and volatile world, but I’ve reconciled myself to that. This is my efficient markets optimism, where I assume that if something bad is happening, it would happen.

COWEN: But efficient markets is also a pessimism, right? It’s harder to make the world better than it already is because you can’t see past what others are seeing very easily.

LEVINE: Sure, it’s an efficient markets conservatism or something.

And finally:

LEVINE: I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.

Do read and listen to the whole thing

My favorite things Poland

No, I am not there now, but Adam D. emails me and requests this, so here goes:

1. Novel: Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, all about identity and erotic guilt.  Next in line would be any number of Isaac Singer novels, I don’t have a favorite offhand.  Soon I will try The Family Moskat.  Gombrowicz is probably wonderful, but I don’t find that it works for me in translation.  Quo Vadis left me cold.

2. Chopin works: The Preludes, there are many fine versions, and then the Ballades.  The Etudes excite me the most, the Mazurkas and piano sonatas #2 and #3 are most likely to surprise me at current margins of listening.  I find it remarkable how I never tire of Chopin, in spite of his relatively slight output.

3. Painter: This one isn’t as easy as it ought to be.

4. Architect: Daniel Libeskind was born in Poland.  But more generally one can cite Krakow, and I suspect the older versions of Gdansk.

The wooden churches and folk art of southern Poland also deserve mention.

5. Political thinker: Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, about the capitulations of artists to communism, though subtler than just an anti-state polemic.  He once stated: ” I have never been a political writer and I worked hard to destroy this image of myself.”  I do not feel I can judge his poetry, though last year’s biography of him was a good book.

6. Astronomer and originator of the quantity theory of money: Copernicus.

7. Television show: The Decalogue, perhaps #4 is my favorite.  Here is good NPR coverage.

8. Movie: Any of the Andrzej Wajda classics would do, maybe start with Kanal or Ashes and Diamonds.  More recently I would opt for Ida.  I like Kieślowski’s TV more than his films, and prefer Hollywood Polanski to Polish Polanski.

9. Classical pianist: There are many, but I will cite Kristian Zimerman over Artur Rubinstein.  The former plays the piano better.  Josef Hofmann deserves mention, but there are dozens of picks here.

10. Jazz musician: Trumpeter Tomasz Stańko.

11. Economists: There is Kalecki, Hurwicz, the now-underrated Oskar Lange (doesn’t Singaporean health care work fine?), and Victor Zarnowitz. I had thought Mises was born in Poland, but upon checking it turned out to be Ukraine.

Overall the big puzzle is why there isn’t more prominence in painting, given Poland’s centrality in European history.

*Off the Charts*

As I’ve already mentioned, the author is Ann Hulbert and the subtitle is The Hidden Lives and Lessons of America’s Child Prodigies.  This is an excellent book, and so far I am overwhelmed by the high quality and quantity of books coming out this January (in comparison to last year’s near drought).  You don”t have to care about prodigies per se, I would recommend this to anyone in Silicon Valley or finance who thinks about how to find and recruit talent, or anyone interested in the history of art, science, or technology.

I had not known that musician Henry Cowell was the protege of Thorstein Vebeln’s ex-wife, Ellen Veblen.  Here is just one bit about Henry:

He was in his element. As Clarissa noted, Henry was highly receptive without being unduly impressionable. “Always he has worked mostly alone,” she observed, “browsing for information, when he felt in need of it, whenever a door opened.”

As a child, he quickly outgrew his town’s public library, and was suspected of skimming the books he claimed to have read.  He could give a clear and detailed summary of each.  He was born in rural Menlo Park, formal schooling never really worked for him, and Irish music remained a touchstone of his composing, albeit supplemented with tone clusters, extreme dissonance, and a variety of rhythmic innovations.  To many people at the time, his music sounded like noise.

Here is a short YouTube clip of Cowell playing the piano.

It’s not a “this puts all the pieces together for you book,” but still I am finding it engrossing.  I take the overall message to be a) mentorship is very important for prodigies, and b) most mentors have no idea what they are doing.