Category: The Arts

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?

COWEN: Yes.

KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

Sister Wendy has passed away

Here are some notices.  In addition to her duties for the Church, she was an art historian “for the people.”  I thought she had a remarkably good eye, and was especially strong in explaining the virtues of late medieval/early Renaissance art, most of all works “from a school” or attributed to a pseudonym.  She was “a thing” in the 90s, so if you don’t know her work I would recommend all of her books, they are full of life and love for art and yes love for the reader too.  Here is the NYT obituary.

Life at the margin?

With Seamus Heaney:

Poetry isn’t important in one sense — it’s more important to live your life and be a good person. Who cares about poetry, there’s plenty already around. Life is more important than art.

Under what conditions is that true?  Under what conditions is it actually believed by Heaney?  Here is the rest of the interview, interesting throughout.  I enjoyed this bit:

MB: What do you like to discuss in terms of literature in your classes?
SH: I’m radical about this, but it seems strange to have discussions with people who don’t know anything and who overreact. They usually don’t have much to say. Maybe discuss literature with them the following year — after the class — when they’ve had time to have the material enter their memory. Until it’s entered their personality they can’t say much.

Via Anecdotal.

The Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.

“I love bringing my kids here,” I heard from my Eritrean Uber driver, the first person I’ve met who admits to going.  The lavishly funded museum is indeed a world unto itself.  Here is what struck me on a recent visit:

1. The interior and the staff feel like nowhere else in D.C., like a cross between the Midwest and a Mormon temple perhaps.  There is much more wood paneling than one sees around town.

2. It is unabashedly the most universalistic and cosmopolitan interior in the area.  There is a large room with circular shelves, containing all the Bibles in different languages they could find.  Long columns list the languages of those Bibles, and a flashing sign indicates that 977,977 different Bible chapters would need to be translated before every chapter of the Bible is available in all of the world’s languages.

3. You can see plenty of old Bibles from the centuries, and while they are attractive, none are quite good enough for an art museum like say The Walters in Baltimore.

4. There is a station playing references to the Bible from popular music.  As I stopped by it was serving up “Four Horsemen” by The Clash, and then it segued into “Hard Headed Woman” by Elvis Presley.

5. Entrance costs $25.99, plus premia for special exhibits.

 

6. The museum bends over backwards to be non-denominational, that said the intended neutrality imposes biases of its own.  The big losers are the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, because this is indeed a museum about a book, not about a church community.  The connection between this book, and the communities it has spawned, is precisely the murky angle here and it seems almost deliberately obscured.  The Amish also are not prominent in the displays.  Imagine if people really just read and worshiped the book.  This truly is a museum about a book.

7. The museum tries not to refer to “the Christian Bible” or “the Hebrew Bible,” but that intended neutrality breaks down when you encounter the two sections for “the Old Testament” and “the New Testament.”  The Jews lose.

8. There is a section — entirely respectful — where a Jewish scribe writes out biblical text for viewers.  There is another exhibit of ancient Biblical life where you can walk among stone houses, read panels about biblical references to water, read about the Second Temple, and employees are paid to dress in (supposed) clothing from that period and say “Shalom” to you.

9. The museum is extraordinarily literal, and if you wanted to explain to space aliens what the Bible was, you could take them here.  That said, they would end up understanding the Bible far better than Christianity.

10. There is a very interesting section on bibles for slaves, and which sections of the original Bible they omitted.  On a wall display, visitors are asked to write out whether they consider these “slave bibles” to be proper Bibles or not.  Most say no.

11. There is a questionnaire, a bit like a Twitter quiz.  It first notes that Elizabeth Cady Stanton reinterpreted the Bible in the late 19th century, so as to make it more sympathetic to the rights of women.  It then asks the visitors whether reinterpretations of the Bible should be allowed today.  So far 61 percent have answered “no.”

12. The gift shop is lavish.  The museum restaurant Manna serves kosher food.  Here is the Wikipedia page for the museum.

13. The google headline for the museum has the subtitle “One of the Ten Best Museums in DC.”  It is odd they do not think it is the best.

Deconstructing cultural codes

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.

Tom Lehrer, man ahead of his time

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.

 

Kenneth Tynan on Alec Guinness, circa 1952

He can — and this is rare — act mind, and may be the only actor alive who could play a genius convincingly: Donne, for instance, Milton, Pope, or even Shakespeare…would be comfortably within his grasp.  But he is not, and never will be a star, in the sense that Coward and Olivier are stars.  Olivier, one might say, ransacks the vaults of a part with blowlamp, crowbar, and gun-powder; Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination.  He does everything by stealth.  Whatever he may do in the future, eh will leave no theatrical descendants, as Gielgud will.  He has illumined many a hitherto blind alley of subtlety, but blazed no trails.  Irving, we read, was rapt, too: but it was a weird, thunderous raptness that shook its fist at the gods.  Guinness waves away awe with a witty fingertip and deflects the impending holocaust with a shrug.  His stage presence is quite without amplitude, and his face, bereft of its virtuosity of make-up, is a signless zero.  His special gift is to imply the presence of little fixed ideas, gambolling about behind the deferential mask of normality.  The characters he plays are injected hypodermically, not tattooed all over him; the latter is the star’s way and Guinness shrinks from it.  Like Buckingham in Richard III he is “deep-resolving, witty”; the clay image on whom the witches work.  An innocence, as of the womb, makes his face placid even when he plays murderers.

Whether he likes it or not (and I suspect he does), his true métier will continue to be eccentrics — men reserved, blinkered, shut off from their fellows, and obsessed.  Within such minority men there is a hidden glee, an inward fanatical glow; and in their souls Guinness is at ease.

That is from Kenneth Tynan, Profiles, which is in fact a remarkable and remarkably good book.

Tariff Man

Some good economics in Tariff Man, sung to the tune of Piano Man (with apologies to Billy Joel) by Art Carden:

Now Paul is a real estate contractor
He’d like to buy things for his wife
But he canceled a deal because structural steel’s
More expensive—it’s doubled in price!
And the firms are all practicing politics
As their businessmen fly to DC!
Yes, they’re spreading a problem called poverty,
And calling it prosperity!

Jack up that tax, you’re a Tariff Man!
Let’s make Americans pay
For the right to buy stuff from those foreigners–
We should make it here, anyway!
These policies concentrate benefits
And they spread costs to you and to me
These costs are concealed, but see, they are still real—
They are there, though they’re harder to see.
Some goods are expensive that shouldn’t be
Because tariffs have made them cost more!
And we’d have more for bars, and put bread in their jars
But we’re stopping goods at our shores!

La la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Jack up that tax, you’re a Tariff Man!

What I’ve Been Watching

Image result for bohemian rhapsody filmBohemian Rhapsody—you already know the plot and it’s a tad long but the music is great and Rami Malek is fabulous as Freddie Mercury. The movie culminates with a virtually shot-by-shot recreation of the legendary Queen performance at Live Aid, considered by many to the greatest live performance in all of rock and roll. A little puzzling why they didn’t use the original. Worth seeing in the theater, if you don’t have a home theater.

Crazy Rich Asians – the all Asian cast made it notable and the shots of Singapore are great but it’s only average as a romantic comedy. The leads lack chemistry.

The Last Kingdom (Netflix)—I’ve watched all three Seasons and enjoyed them. Season 3, however, is beginning to lose its legs. The on-again, off-again love affair between King Alfred and Uhtred has worn its course and I swear I’ve seen the jump in the boats and row away under falling arrow scene more than once before. Still, it’s not boring.

Bodyguard (Netflix) —taut British thriller. I enjoyed it and at 6 episodes it’s less of an investment than some series.

Homecoming (Amazon Prime)—sold as a Julia Roberts endeavor. She’s fine but the real star is the mysterious atmospherics and unusual shots and edits. I didn’t realize till the end of the first episode that this was a Sam Esmail show. Ah, now it all makes sense. If you liked Mr. Robot, give it a shot. I haven’t finished the first season and I may not, so I can’t say for certain whether the investment is worthwhile.

Daredevil (Netflix) I have already mentioned. Now cancelled, despite a great third season.

The Man Who Would be King (Amazon Prime) – a John Huston classic featuring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. One of my favorites. Based on a story of Rudyard Kipling which was based on the true story of Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor.

Image result for aT ETERNITY'S GATEAt Eternity’s Gate: A stirring and powerful performance by Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh. Directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a noted artist. The camera work–meant to convey a “you are there” point of view and also the sometime madness of Van Gogh–was disconcertingly jumpy at times. Schnabel would have done better stepping back and placing more trust on Dafoe’s performance and also the cinematography of Benoît Delhomme. Oddly, Schnabel insists Van Gogh was murdered when suicide is the accepted account and one that rings true, even to the film itself.

Machines (Amazon Prime)–an excellent documentary illustrating a day in the life of a textile factory in Gujurat, India. The pictures do the work, very little commentary. Dickensian. Especially striking to an economist , how inefficiently the factory is being run. Quality control, inventory management and maintenance are clearly atrocious. I am reluctant to claim something is inefficient but we have strong experimental evidence that management quality in these firms is very low and that better management could more than pay for itself.

If you love prediction markets you should love the art world

Think of art markets, and art collecting, as an ongoing debate over what is beautiful and also what is culturally important.  But unlike most debates, you have a very direct chance to “put your money where your mouth is,” namely by buying art (it is very difficult to sell art short, however).  In this regard, debates over artistic value may be among the most efficient debates in the world.  At least if you are persuaded by the basic virtues of prediction markets.  The prices of various art works really do aggregate information about their perceived values.

I have, however, noted a correlation, how necessary or contingent I am not sure.  The “white male nerd types” who are enamored of prediction markets tend to be especially skeptical of the market judgments of particular art works, most of all for conceptual and contemporary art.

In my view, discussions about the value of art, as they occur in the off-the-record, proprietary sphere, are indeed of high value and they deserve to be studied more closely.  Imagine a bunch of people competing to make “objects that are interesting but not interesting for reasons related to their practical value.”  And then we debate who has succeeded, or not.  And those debates reflect many broader social, political, and economic issues.  And it is all done with very real money on the line.  The money concerns not just the value of individual art works, but also the prestige and social capital value that arises from having assembled a prestigious and insightful collection.

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

The Republican Club — why is this painting interesting?

It hangs in the White House, and Trump seems to like the picture.  What about the image is striking?  I can think of a few things:

1. There are no Founding Fathers in the painting, or other references to the more distant past, and so “Republicans” are presented as a distinct club of their own, above and beyond the broader American tradition.  (On the far right, is that Theodore Roosevelt, Vernon Smith, or somebody else?)

2. The first George Bush (upper left), and Gerald Ford, are both denied a “seat at the proverbial table.”  Bush seems to look on with admiration.  The second George Bush, on the left side of the table seated, appears run down and haggard, defeated by the job.  He looks a wee bit like a paler Obama.

3. Nixon, who had to resign, drinks alcohol while Trump seems to have Coca-Cola.

4. Reagan is shown as Trump’s only peer, while Eisenhower is the one “closest” to Trump, and the one most appreciative.  Of course many of Trump’s policy preferences seem aimed at returning us to the Eisenhower era in some way (higher tariffs, lower immigration, less regulation, etc.)

5. Trump is the only one with a tie, except for TR, and it is a striking red tie.

6. Hoover, Harding, and Coolidge are in the distant back right.

7. It reminds me of a variety of “Last Supper” paintings, though not Leonardo’s.  There are twelve of them.

8. The background, with its column and twinklings lights, is reminiscent of late 19th century French impressionism.

9. Who is the bearded figure in the foreground, with his back to us?  At first I thought it was Mephistopheles, but it turns out to be Lincoln.  He is a passive onlooker with weak shoulders, and with no commanding or influential presence of his own.

10. Andy Thomas, the artist, also painted the very different The Democratic Club.  You could write a short book on the contrasts between the two paintings, for instance notice the Democrats are drinking beer and have a much wider and open background, with fewer columns.

Here is a related interview about the painting.  Via Anecdotal.