Category: The Arts

My podcast with Darren Lipomi

He is a well-known chemist (and more) at UC San Diego. We started with classic Star Trek and then moved into textiles, chemistry, music vs. sound, nanobots against Covid, how to interview, traveling during a pandemic, art collecting and voodoo flags, the importance of materials science, and much more.  Mostly he interviewed me, though it went a bit both ways.

Almost 100% fresh material and topics, and here is the Spotify link.

San Diego on the mind

Arthur Johnston emails me:

Back in 2013 you wrote a post “What has San Diego Contributed to American Culture” I published an answer that I hope you find satisfactory.

Here is an excerpt from that interesting post:

In the Cities and Ambition model this means that San Diego ‘discourages’ you from producing cultural artifacts. Which means San Diego has fewer cultural artifacts that are legible to people not living here. Its contribution to the wider American culture is instead encouraging people to be more active and social.

A concrete example, a few weeks ago on a Monday I asked what everyone did over the weekend and the answers were:

  1. sailing lessons
  2. jumping from an airplane with a parachute I packed myself
  3. surfing
  4. brewing beer [to share with friends]
  5. “just” hiking [with family]

Some things to note, first that four of those five things involve interacting with other human beings for enjoyment, which is a fundamental part of what we define as culture. “surfing” the lone solitary activity was mine the person who created a cultural artifact you’re currently consuming.

Secondly those activities are all ephemeral.

For one thing, I would think this means well-being during the pandemic declined less in San Diego.

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

Keynes on what is required to make a great economist

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together.  He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

That is from Keynes’s 1924 essay on Marshall, reprinted in Essays in Biography. Most of all, it is Keynes describing himself!

*American Purpose*

…a new magazine, media project, and intellectual community called American Purpose is launching at www.americanpurpose.com, and can also be found on Twitter at @americanpurpose.

American Purpose, through digital publishing, conversation and convening, and podcasts, will offer a spirited examination of politics and culture. Our aim is to support the revitalization of liberal democracy at home, while addressing the authoritarian challenges to liberal democracy abroad. And we will offer lively and engrossing discussion of history and biography, arts and culture, science and technology.

“American Purpose is committed to building an intellectual community and a space for much-needed dialogue about the United States’ role as the vanguard of classically liberal ideas and institutions around the world,” said Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the American Purpose editorial board.

Thoughts on Peter Burke’s new book *The Polymath*

1. No one is really a polymath.

2. No one is really a unimath, for that matter.

3. Many supposed polymaths apply a relatively small number of learning techniques to many fields.  They remain specialized, although their modes of specialization happen not to line up with how the academic disciplines are divided.  Say you apply non-parametric statistics to five different fields — do you have one specialization or five?

4. What to make of the economist who can run experiments, use computational methods, build models, run regressions, find new data sources, has mastered machine learning, can speak fluently about macroeconomics, and popularize for a lay audience.  Is there any such person?  (No.)  Would he or she count as a polymath?

5. The medieval polymaths Albert the Great and Ramon Llull seem especially impressive to me, because they had to learn before printing presses or easy travel were available.

6. One of my views in talent search is that extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.  “I can tell exactly how much people weigh just by looking at them.”  That sort of thing.  What is your claim in this regard?  Polymaths also must encompass the trivial!

7. How many “polymaths” are great at say only seven very trivial tasks, and fail to excel at anything important.  Should the polymath concept be held hostage to Jeremy Bentham?

8. Is Leibniz — amazing philosopher, an inventor of the calculus, mastery of languages, theologian, diplomacy, legal reform, inventor, political theorist, and supposed expert on China — the most amazing polymath of all time?

9. Leonardo seems a little thin in actual achievement (though not imagination) once you get past the visual arts.  And there are fewer than fifteen paintings to his name.

10. I think of the 17th century as a peak time for polymaths.  Enough chances to learn and create things, and read lots, but not so much knowledge that you could stand on only one frontier.

11. John Stuart Mill is the most impressive polymath economist.

12. Alan Turing contributed to virtually every field, but in some sense he did only one thing.  Von Neumann did more than one thing, did he do two?  He too contributed to virtually every field.

13. I am very much a fan of Susan Sontag, but I think of her as having done, in essence, “only one thing.”

14. Here is a good piece Beware the Casual Polymath.

I am very happy to recommend this book, especially to MR readers, the full title is The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke.

My Conversation with Audrey Tang

For me one of the most fun episodes, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  And here is the longer than ever before summary, befitting the chat itself:

Audrey Tang began reading classical works like the Shūjīng and Tao Te Ching at the age of 5 and learned the programming language Perl at the age of 12. Now, the autodidact and self-described “conservative anarchist” is a software engineer and the first non-binary digital minister of Taiwan. Their work focuses on how social and digital technologies can foster empathy, democracy, and human progress.

Audrey joined Tyler to discuss how Taiwan approached regulating Chinese tech companies, the inherent extraterritoriality of data norms, how Finnegans Wake has influenced their approach to technology, the benefits of radical transparency in communication, why they appreciate the laziness of Perl, using “humor over rumor” to combat online disinformation, why Taiwan views democracy as a set of social technologies, how their politics have been influenced by Taiwan’s indigenous communities and their oral culture, what Chinese literature teaches about change, how they view Confucianism as a Daoist, how they would improve Taiwanese education, why they view mistakes in the American experiment as inevitable — but not insurmountable, the role of civic tech in Taiwan’s pandemic response, the most important remnants of Japanese influence remaining in Taiwan, why they love Magic: The Gathering, the transculturalism that makes Taiwan particularly open and accepting of LGBT lifestyles, growing up with parents who were journalists, how being transgender makes them more empathetic, the ways American values still underpin the internet, what he learned from previous Occupy movements, why translation, rotation, and scaling are important skills for becoming a better thinker, and more.

This bit could have come from GPT-3:

COWEN: How useful a way is it of conceptualizing your politics to think of it as a mix of some Taiwanese Aboriginal traditions mixed in with Daoism, experience in programming, and then your own theory of humor and fun? And if you put all of that together, the result is Audrey Tang’s politics. Correct or not?

TANG: Well as of now, of course. But of course, I’m also growing, like a distributed ledger.

And this:

COWEN: You’re working, of course, in Taiwanese government. What’s the biggest thing wrong with economists?

TANG: You mean the magazine?

COWEN: No, no, the people, economists as thinkers. What’s their biggest defect or flaw?

TANG: I don’t know. I haven’t met an economist that I didn’t like, so I don’t think there’s any particular personality flaws there.

Finally:

COWEN: Now, my country, the United States, has made many, many mistakes at an almost metaphysical level. What is it in the United States that those mistakes have come from? What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

COWEN: Have we started correcting them yet?

TANG: I’m sure that you have.

Definitely recommended.

Now is an interesting time to visit New York City

And yes, you can find a parking spot in most parts of Manhattan these days, another novelty. Did I mention that my hotel room cost less than a third of what I’ve normally paid?

I visited the Museum of Modern Art, operating under stringent visitor restrictions and with its tourist clientele mostly gone. I had just about every gallery to myself, and thus an unparalleled look at the museum’s masterpieces. If a room had even a few other visitors in it, I moved on and came back later.

The center of the city has moved downtown, to Greenwich Village and surrounding areas. Many streets are closed to cars, and restaurants have put their tables on the sidewalk or the street. Instead of choosing a place on the basis of the food, the menu now just has to be “good enough,” with the key variables being the quality of the seating and the degree of the spacing. I have never seen that part of town feel so alive. The most vibrant single street for both food and socializing was slightly further north in Koreatown, starting at 32nd and Broadway and spreading two blocks to the east.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column on that topic.  By no means is my entire assessment so positive, but that is the excerpt you are getting today.

European paintings show a rise in trustworthiness

Building on recent advances in social cognition, we design an algorithm to automatically generate trustworthiness evaluations for the facial action units (smile, eye brows, etc.) of European portraits in large historical databases. Our results show that trustworthiness in portraits increased over the period 1500–2000 paralleling the decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe. Further analyses suggest that this rise of trustworthiness displays is associated with increased living standards.

That is from a new paper by Lou Safra, et.al. in Nature.  Scroll down a few pages for some good photos, basically the people in the paintings look less pissed off over time.  Via Lionel Page.

Crypto art markets in everything

Christie’s is set to sell its first nonfungible token in an upcoming auction of what has been characterized as “the largest artwork” in the history of Bitcoin (BTC).

Art historian turned blockchain artist Robert Alice has created “Portrait of a Mind” — a monumental series of 40 paintings stretching over 50 meters in length.

Drawing on the history of 20th century conceptualism as well as the founding myth of Bitcoin’s creation, “Portrait of a Mind” is a complete hand-painted transcription of the 12.3 million digits of the code that launched the cryptocurrency.

By scattering the codebase into 40 globally distributed fragments, the project will “draw up a global network of 40 collectors where no one individual will hold all the code,” Alice said.

He explained: “In each work, an algorithm has found a set of hex digits that together are highlighted in gold. These read a set of coordinates that are unique to each painting. 40 locations across 40 paintings – each location is of particular significance to the history of Bitcoin.”

Speaking to Cointelegraph, Alice said he remains curious as to why much of the commemoration of Bitcoin emphasizes the publication of the whitepaper over and above the codebase itself, which, for him, is “the real historical document.”

Christie’s will sell one painting from the series, “Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E),” as part of its “Post-War and Contemporary Day Auction” on Oct. 7, at the end of a week-long exhibition of auctioned works in New York.

The piece includes a unique fungible token as an integral part of the work and will be offered at an estimated price of $12–18,000.

Here is the full story, via Shaffin Shariff.

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:

Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…

Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.

That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.

And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either.  It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

What should I ask Edwidge Danticat?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, she is the famed Haitian author.  Here is her extensive Wikipedia page.  Or here is part of a shorter bio:

Author Edwidge Danticat was born on January 19, 1969 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to André Danticat and Rose Danticat. In 1981, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she graduated from Clara Barton High School and received her B.A. degree in French literature from Barnard College in New York City in 1990; and her M.F.A. degree in creative writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1993.

In 1983, at age fourteen, Danticat published her first writing in English, “A Haitian-American Christmas,” in New Youth Connections, a citywide magazine written by teenagers. Her next publication, “A New World Full of Strangers,” was about her immigration experience and led to the writing of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994. In 1997, she was named one of the country’s best young authors by the literary journal Granta. Danticat’s other works include, Everything Inside, Claire of the Sea Light, Brother, I’m Dying, Krik? Krik!, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, and Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.

Danticat has also taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. She has worked with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme, on projects on Haitian art and documentaries about Haiti.

So what should I ask her?