Category: The Arts

I, Pencil Revisited

Leonard Read’s essay I, Pencil showed how even simple objects like a pencil were produced only through the cooperation and coordination of many thousands of people all over the world who often knew neither one another nor even what their actions ultimately produced. Milton Friedman made the pencil metaphor famous in Free To Choose when he said that “There’s not a single person in the world who could make this pencil.” Tyler and I illustrate the same idea with a romantic twist in our I, Rose video.

The NYTimes doesn’t seem aware of the history but, as if guided by an invisible hand, has a lovingly produced series of photos from a pencil factory showing that even the proximate steps are charmingly esoteric.

“Queen’s bra fitter Rigby & Peller loses royal warrant”

A company which supplied lingerie to the Queen has lost its royal warrant over a book which revealed details of royal bra fittings.

Rigby & Peller, a luxury underwear firm founded in London, had held the royal warrant since 1960.

It was withdrawn after June Kenton, who fitted bras for the Queen, released a book called ‘Storm in a D-Cup’.

Mrs Kenton said there was “nothing” in the book to “be upset about”, adding that it was an “unbelievable” decision.

Buckingham Palace said it did not “comment on individual companies”.

A statement from Rigby & Peller said it was “deeply saddened” by the decision, adding it was “not able to elaborate further on the cancellation out of respect for her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Warrant Holders Association”.

The Royal Warrants Association says 20 to 40 Royal Warrants are cancelled every year – and a similar number granted.

File under “elsewhere in the cosmos.”  And for the pointer I thank M.

*The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life*

The authors are Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and now it is out!

Robin reports:

On press coverage, back in July Publishers Weekly had a paragraph on it, the Boston Globe did an interview of me back then that they just released, Vice interviewed me recently so I expect that out soon, and I’m told that a Wall Street Journal review is forthcoming. Amazon now has 5 reviews, Goodreads has 7, and 2 reviews have appeared on blogs.

I am pleased to be doing a Conversation with Robin about the book, and other matters too.  But don’t forget — conversations aren’t about talking!

What explains the formation and decay of clusters of creativity?

Michel Serafinelli and Guido Tabellini have a new paper on that question, here is the abstract:

Creativity is often highly concentrated in time and space, and across different domains. What explains the formation and decay of clusters of creativity? In this paper we match data on thousands of notable individuals born in Europe between the XIth and the XIXth century with historical data on city institutions and population. After documenting several stylized facts, we show that the formation of creative clusters is not preceded by increases in city size. Instead, the emergence of city institutions protecting economic and political freedoms facilitates the attraction and production of creative talent.

Recommended.

My Law and Literature reading list 2018

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition [not all of it]

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, used or Kindle edition is recommended

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1, also on-line.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Reputations

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

Shakespeare, The Tempest, Folger edition

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

Curtis Dawkins, The Graybar Hotel

Movies: To be determined.

Further points on how to understand modern India (from the comments)

Good post.

There are a few other topics that can serve as useful handles to “understand” India.

1. Study the folk history of the popular Indian pilgrimage sites –

For a lot of people, Hinduism is associated with abstruse metaphysics, mysticism, Vedanta, and Yoga. And this obsession with the high falutin theoretical stuff, means that many students of Hinduism don’t pay as much attention to the pop-religion on the ground. And this religion is best understood by actually understanding the few hundred important pilgrimage sites scattered across the country. Each of these sites is ancient and has a “legend” associated with it. (the so-called Sthala Purana). The civilizational unity of India is largely accomplished because of the pan Indian reverence for these pilgrimage sites. Be it Benaras in the North, Kolhapur in the west, Srirangam in the south, or Puri in the East. A nice way to get started on this is Diana Eck’s book – “India – A Sacred Geography” where she makes a strong case for the theory that the idea of one India is one that is primarily stemming out of the pilgrimage experience of Hindus.

This study of pop religion will be messy and frustrating for people from an Abrahamic monotheistic background. But there is no better way to understand what makes Indians tick spiritually, and why every Indian is a millionaire when it comes to Religion.

2. Study of the history of Indian mathematics –

This may seem like an odd handle to understand India. But in my view it is useful, because Indian mathematical tradition that goes back to roughly 700 BCE, is one that is highly empirical, algebraic, and averse to theorizing and rigorous proofs. So it tells you a lot about the Indian mind. Which is very different from the Greek mind, in that it places a very very low premium on “neatness”, and a high premium on “improvisation”.

Unlike the Greeks, Indian mathematics is not that big on geometry. And also not that big on “visualization”. While someone like Euclid leveraged diagrams to make his point, Indian mathematicians like Brahmagupta and Bhaskara I/II, just stated results in 2-line or 4-line verses.

The Indian mathematical tradition is arguably the greatest Indian contribution to human civilization. Particularly the decimal number system, infinite series, and the algebraic orientation in general (markedly different from the Greek emphasis on geometry). The tradition includes Sulba Sutras (700BCE), Aryabhata (400CE), Varahamihira (400CE), Brahmagupta (500-600CE), Bhaskara I (600CE), Bhaskara II (1100-1200 CE), and ofcourse the famed Kerala school of mathematics (14th century). Madhava from the Kerala school approximated Pi to 13 decimal places. In more recent times, the most distinguished mathematical mind is ofcourse Srinivasa Ramanujan, very much a man in the Indian tradition, who disdained proofs and conventional rigor, and instead relied on intuition and heuristics.

3. Study of Indian poetry and music and its emphasis on meter

This is something that is again uniquely Indian – the very very high emphasis on meter. Which is a consequence of the Indian oral tradition and cultural aversion to writing. Which continues to this day. The emphasis on meter and rhyming was partly an aid to memorization and rote learning. And this emphasis begins with the Vedas (the earliest religious literature, preserved orally for some 1500 years before they were written down in the common era) And you see this in Indian poetry and even Indian film music to this day! Bollywood songs are characterized by their metrical style and perfect rhyming, which you don’t always see in western popular music. In that sense, the metrical legacy of the Vedas is still alive in popular culture.

That is from Shrikanthk.

Binge-Worthy and Not Binge-Worthy

Top of my list for binge-worthy over the holiday season is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime. It’s written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino and like her previous show, The Gilmore Girls, it features whip-smart women spouting fast-paced dialogue but here decidedly more ribald and foul-mouthed. The show, set in 1958 New York, features Rachel Brosnahan as the eponymous Midge Maisel who, when her husband leaves her for a shiksa, finds unexpected release by explosively ripping into the situation in a public monologue that gets her arrested for indecency alongside comedian Lenny Bruce. Midge is at the center of three New York City Jewish cultures, the intellectual, represented by her father the mathematician Abe Weissman (in an excellent performance by Tony Shalhoub), the Yiddish business culture as represented by her father-in-law, Moishe Maisel played by Kevin Pollak, and the cultural critic represented by Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby). I especially liked the show as a portrait of the young artist, drawing on and combining all three cultures, honing her material, working it out, mastering the process. Brosnahan as Midge is the very definition of winning. Alex Borstein as aspiring agent Susie Myerson gets some of the best lines. The children are mute and faceless, an interesting choice.

Bright, the $90 million “epic” on Netflix is watchable but ho-hum. The premise seems straight out of Hollywood mad libs: orcs+elves+buddy cop movie in modern LA. Let’s get Will Smith! The undertones of “orcs are like gang-banger blacks” was off-putting.

Godless on Netflix was a near miss. It’s a Western and has a great performance by Jeff Daniels as a spiritual, psychopath gang leader. In fact, I liked everyone in it including Michelle Dockery and Scoot McNairy (Gordon Clark from Halt and Catch Fire) but the show has no center. Is it about Dockery’s character, the single mom with an Indian son, trying to make it on the farm? Is it about the town of women who all instantly lost their husbands in a terrifying mining accident? It is about the going-blind Sheriff trying to track down the killer-gang in one last attempt to win the woman he loves? Or is it about the buffalo cowboys trying to make their way in a white man’s land after the civil war? Any of these stories could have been, indeed would have been, interesting but they are all touched upon and then dropped. Focus goes instead to the “hero,” the bad-guy orphan turned (for reasons we never learn) good. Boring. Oh, and what the hell is going on with the ghost Indian?

Speaking of Halt and Catch Fire it’s on AMC and Netflix and also makes my binge-worthy list. It’s about the rise of the personal computer and the internet. The first season was very good. The second season flagged with a bunch of unnecessary and diverting plots about sex, including a bizarre AIDS subplot. It got back on track in the third season, however, and finishes with the wonderful fourth season and the transcendent Goodwill episode.

The Punisher on Netflix. Binge-worthy! Be forewarned, however, this is the most violent of the Marvel superhero shows. Lots of homage here to Dirty Harry, Goodfellas the infamous eye-ball scene from Casino (NSFW and maybe NSFH). The surface plot, guess who the bad guy is?, was boring and predictable but there’s also lots of interesting commentary on war, the bonding of men (hints of fraternal polyandry) and the pull of amoral familism when society seems to be breaking down.

How to understand modern India

I could just rewrite my post How to understand modern China, but change the examples.  But you can do that mental exercise yourself, and besides it is easier to access information about India in the English language.  So let me try a very specific recommendation for India:

Study Indian textiles and their history

I  found this the single most useful way to get a handle on Indian history, a bit less on contemporary India.  Here’s why:

1. The artistic side of textile history gives you a clear sense of regional differences, and also Islamic influence, or lack thereof.

2.. It focuses your attention rather immediately on the role of women and women’s work, and also how this interacted with industrialization.

3. In the early 18th century, India was a world leader at cloth production, but it lost this position by the early 19th century.  Studying textiles and cloth production offers an excellent window on their major story of economic decline, and how British import penetration, backed by colonialism, contributed to Indian deindustrialization.

4. Relatively poor and neglected regions of India, such as Bihar and Orissa, have a strong presence in Indian folk textile traditions, and you will learn plenty about them.

5. Books on textiles will explain the accompanying information about Indian history in a clearer way than will actual history books about India.

6. People who write books on textiles tend to be both clear and careful I have found, perhaps because they love and collect something delicate.

7. Studying textiles and cloth also brings you right to Gandhi’s “Swadeshi’ movement.

8. Unless your income is really quite modest, you can afford to buy and regularly view some pretty high-quality Indian textiles.  In India I’ve found some excellent pieces for as cheap as $200-$250.

9. Studying textiles also will bring to your attention India’s tribes and indigenous peoples.  And it ties in readily to India’s broader cultural influence throughout Southeast Asia.

10. Textile books have many pretty pictures.

My favorite books on Indian textiles are cited in my discussion of that topic in Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures.  But it’s more a question of reading a bunch of them, rather than picking out a select few.  Simple, direct searches will get you to where you need to go.

My favorite collection of Indian textiles is in the Victoria & Albert museum in London.  Sadly, I’ve yet to get to the Calico textiles museum in Ahmedabad, though it is very highly regarded.

Is there a glass ceiling for female artists?

Using a unique data set consisting of the population of fine art auctions from 2000 to 2017 for Western artists, we provide strong empirical evidence for a glass ceiling for female artists. First, we show that female artists are less likely to transition from the primary (gallery) into the secondary (auction) market. This glass ceiling results in a selection mechanism which is manifested in an average premium of 6% for artworks by female artists. Second, this premium is driven by a small number of women located at the top of the market and turns into a discount when we account for the number of artworks sold. The superstar effect, where a small number of individuals absorbs the majority of industry revenues, is amplified for the group of female artists. Third, at the top 0.1% of the market artworks by female artists are traded at a discount of 9%. Moreover, the very top 0.03% of the market, where 41% of the revenues are concentrated, are still entirely off limits for women. Overall, we find two glass ceilings for women pursuing an artistic career. While the first one is located at the starting point of a female artist’s career, the second one can be found at the transition into the superstar league of the market and remains yet impermeable. Our study has wide-reaching implications for industries characterized by a superstar effect and a strong concentration of men relative to women.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Fabian Y.R.P. Bocart, Marina Gertsberg, and Rachel A. J. Pownal, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Recently I’ve been enjoying @womensart1, a good way to see interesting artworks that otherwise don’t get so much attention.  And here is my older essay “Why Women Succeed, and Fail, in the Arts.”

*Between Quran & Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities*

That is another truly splendid book by Navid Kermani.  Imagine deep and thoughtful essays on Goethe and Islam, Kleist and love, Shiite passion plays, Wagner and empathy, and why he doesn’t so much sympathize with King Lear, all from a George Steiner brand of polymath.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kermani is ethnically Persian but was born and grew up in Germany.  Imagine a devout Muslim absorbing and internalizing the best of German classical literary culture, including Lessing, Zweig, Benjamin, Mann, and much more.  He recreates a version of that tradition that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.  And might he now be Germany’s best and most important public intellectual?

I’d like to put forward a simple hypothesis.  Tune down the yappers.  Read and study Kermani, Michel Houllebecq, Bruno Maçães, Ross Douthat, and assorted others.  Once I wrote: “Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.”  This is what I meant, and I don’t even know if the second and third writers on my list believe in God.

Here is my previous post on Kermani.

*A Life of My Own*, by Claire Tomalin

This new memoir is one of my very favorite books of the year, and perhaps you recall Tomalin’s famous biographies of Hardy, Pepys, Dickens, Nelly Ternan, and Jane Austen.  This time it is her life.  The story is hard to excerpt, but here is one bit:

The day [for our lunch] came, and I realized I was feeling wobbly.  I resolved to take no notice and things started well.  We chatted and surveyed our menus.  I chose fish, and even as I ordered it I knew it was a mistake.  We talked on; I felt my stomach heave.  I knew Vidia [Naipaul] to be the most fastidious of men.  What should I do?  I rose carefully to my feet, excused myself in a calm voice and said I would be back in a moment.  I managed to make my way through it I ran as fast as my feet would carry me along the corridor to the Ladies, where I threw up with great violence.  I washed my face in cold water, combed my hair, powdered my nose, gave myself a shake and returned.

Vidia looked at me and said, “You did that very well.”

Strongly recommended.

*Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity*

Imagine a German-born, ethnically Iranian (Sunni?) Muslim — Navid Kermani — wandering around the religious art of Western Europe and telling you what he really thinks, in fairly analytical terms.  I am very much enjoying this book, here is one excerpt:

One reason why the zest that Catholic art has for Jesus’s suffering leaves such a bad taste in my mouth is no doubt because I am familiar wit it, and unfamiliar with it, from Shia.  I am familiar with it because the celebration of martyrdom in Shia is just as excessive, bordering on the pornographic, and I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing, precisely this aspect of Shia played no part, indeed was rejected as folk belief and superstitition, a dissuasion from making the world a better place instead of just lamenting its condition.  [Guido] Reni does not glorify pain; he doesn’t show it at all.  He accomplishes what other crucifixion scenes only suggest: he transposes suffering from the physical to the metaphysical.

And this:

If the Greatest Master of Sufism claims that the contemplation of God is most perfect in women, the Christians’ images confirm it.

Definitely recommended (for some of you), and I have ordered many more of Kermani’s books.

The new Chetty, et.al. paper on innovation and inventors

The authors are Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, and John Van Reenen, here is the abstract:

We characterize the factors that determine who becomes an inventor in America by using deidentified data on 1.2 million inventors from patent records linked to tax records. We establish three sets of results. First, children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. There are similarly large gaps by race and gender. Differences in innate ability, as measured by test scores in early childhood, explain relatively little of these gaps. Second, exposure to innovation during childhood has significant causal effects on children’s propensities to become inventors. Growing up in a neighborhood or family with a high innovation rate in a specific technology class leads to a higher probability of patenting in exactly the same technology class. These exposure effects are gender-specific: girls are more likely to become inventors in a particular technology class if they grow up in an area with more female inventors in that technology class. Third, the financial returns to inventions are extremely skewed and highly correlated with their scientific impact, as measured by citations. Consistent with the importance of exposure effects and contrary to standard models of career selection, women and disadvantaged youth are as under-represented among high-impact inventors as they are among inventors as a whole. We develop a simple model of inventors’ careers that matches these empirical results. The model implies that increasing exposure to innovation in childhood may have larger impacts on innovation than increasing the financial incentives to innovate, for instance by cutting tax rates. In particular, there are many “lost Einsteins” – individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation.

Here is the paper, here are the slides (best place to start), here is a David Leonhardt column on it.

Florence!  Motown!  Kuna molas!  David Hume knew this!  The work looks very interesting, though I doubt if the main effect is actually channeled through absolute income, as evidenced by the immediately afore-mentioned examples.  Also, I don’t think their tax analysis quite holds up once you see intermediaries as needing to cover fixed costs for the innovators.  Taxing profits from innovation then lowers the number of potential innovators quite a bit, by discouraging investment from the intermediaries.