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.
2. China thread. How China does and does not want to change the rules.
3. How and why Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are becoming less violent (The Economist).
5. Does adult guardianship differ from slavery? (NYT) Currently the number of Americans under guardianship may range between one and three million. And: ““It’s worse than incarceration,” she said. “At least in prison you have rights.””
6. “Researchers disagree on whether loneliness is on the rise, in part due to the difficulty in identifying who is lonely and who is socially isolated…” And here: “Why, then, all the assertions that loneliness has increased and now constitutes an epidemic?“
Stephen Rose of the Urban Institute (not exactly a right-wing or libertarian think tank) compares recent studies measuring changes in inequality and finds that although inequality has increased the Piketty and Saez (2003) results, which generated a tremendous amount of discussion and research, are very likely over-stated.
The results from at least four studies were compared for three measures of income change: change in median incomes, share of growth captured by the top 10 percent, and the changing income share of the top 1 percent. In all cases, Piketty and Saez (2003) were the outlier, showing the most increased inequality. And in all three measures of income change , Piketty, Saez, and Zucman (2018) found much less growth in income inequality than Piketty and Saez (2003).
This brief does a meta-analysis of different findings to estimate a “consensus” level of change…I find that instead of stagnating, real median incomes grew by just over 40 percent (1 percent a year) from 1979 to 2014; the top 10 percent of the income ladder captured 45 percent of income growth from 1979 to 2014; and the share of the top 1 percent grew 3.5 percentage points.
All studies find that income inequality rose after 1979, but common perceptions that all income gain went to the top 10 percent and middle class incomes stagnated (or even declined) are wrong.
Russ Roberts also has several good videos showing how the numbers can be cut in various ways.
A splendid book, why can’t the rest of you ****ers write books this good? Here is one bit:
…the dynamics of clan works in a significantly different way in Somaliland from the way it does in south-central Somalia. A single clan-family, the Isaaq, occupy the central areas of the territory, and account for by far the greater part of its population. Though the Isaaq clans, inevitably, are divided both between and within themselves, they provide a reasonably solid ethnic core, that contrasts with the far more mixed and complex composition of southern Somalia, with its two major clan-families, Darood and Hawiye, and the further problems created by the presence of the Digil-Mirifle and other minority groups. Somaliland is by no means entirely Isaaq…but its demographic structure means that other clans must either accept Isaaq hegemony and work within it, or else reject the Somaliland state altogether. They cannot expect to control it. At the same time, the fact that the Isaaq clans — characteristically of Somali clan politics — do not form a single united bloc provides other clans with the opportunity to build alliances with one or another group of the Isaaq.
Have you ever wanted to read about how ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti fit into this same broad picture? Just exactly how Somalian and Ethiopian history intersect, from the 1970s onwards? This here is your book. I’m running to Amazon right now to buy more from this wonderful author. You can buy it here.
The two CDs I enjoyed the most this year were both sound worlds, and silences, from the distant past:
Brian Eno, Another Green World, and
van Morrison, Astral Weeks, fifty year anniversary for that one, and I hadn’t realized how closely the lyrics were tied to details of Belfast. Next up will be the quieter cuts on Electric Ladyland.
The Beatles’s White Album tapes were a revelation, but it is enough to hear them once or twice. I learned that the album was remarkably well-produced, no less than Sgt. Pepper, to get that under-produced sound. “I Will” came directly from “Blue Moon” (!), and “Blackbird” came from Bach’s Bourree (less surprising). Classic Beatle songs such as “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” and many others were basically written by 1968, making 1966-68 a truly remarkable period in their songwriting output. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was better in its early acoustic version. Some of my best Beatles listening was to track down their most Cage-Stockhausen-influenced passages, such as Paul’s acoustic fade-out at the end of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” or the instrumental close of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Paul’s new album Egypt Station does not have much ear candy, but it does reveal his longstanding status as a very horny dude; listen to his much earlier Temporary Secretary for something unacceptably obscene (and creative). Then go back and re-listen to his early Beatle lyrics through this lens. The best argument for LSD I’ve heard is simply that it got Paul to stop singing about girls for a few years, so it must be pretty powerful.
I got sick of hip-hop this year, so of the new releases I’ve been most intrigued by:
Lush, Snail Mail (at least three excellent songs)
Low, Double Negative
Mitski, Be the Cowboy
But it is too early to judge their staying power. Sitting in the “I still haven’t listened to this yet pile” is:
Aphex Twin, Collapse EP (too many other CDs piled on top of the record player!)
Autechre, NTS Sessions, an 8-CD set.
Self-recommending is Desmond Dekker: Action!/Intensified
What do you all recommend?
Here is part of the abstract:
Weighted quantile regressions show evidence of consumer discrimination in that black players with high audience visibility (role and star players) experience a larger racial wage gap. The size of the share of the white population is shown to be positively correlated with the racial wage gap. No employee nor employer discrimination is found.
Black players receive on average 20.5% less than their counterparts, all else equal.
2. What will a Chinese world order look like? (Bruno M.)
3. A remarkably good (video) debate about smart phone use and teen well-being (Jean Twenge and Nir Eyal).
4. Why angels hide.
6. Claims about dollar stores, probably not all correct.
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.
A syndicated article published in the September 5, 1988, edition of the Press and Sun-Bulletin newspaper in New York talked with a number of experts about what the jobs of tomorrow would look like. The article first quotes S. Norman Feingold, a clinical psychologist and career counselor who died in 2005.
From the 1988 article:
Feingold envisions a range of exotic careers: Ocean hotel manager, wellness consultant, sports law specialist, lunar astronomer and even robot trainer.
The piece also quotes the George Tech engineering professor Alan Porter who gave his opinion on the future of fast food.
He predicts such innovations as “the Autoburger,” a fast-food dispensary something like McDonald’s, but without human workers.
And the article ends with a mixed bag of good and bad predictions:
Marvin Cetron, a technological forecaster, looks at the year 2000 and predicts a 32-hour work week. “The only job a woman won’t be holding is Catholic priest,” he said.
Cetron said college students of the future will study enzyme research and genetic and robot engineering.
Here is the piece, via Tim Harford. The broad lesson I think is that bets on computers were basically right, and will be for some time to come, and other bets are either obvious or stupid, in retrospect.
Given further data on the stunning performances of AlphaZero, Charles Murray asked me that on Twitter. And for now the answer surely seems to be yes: just let AlphaZero rip, and keep the human at bay. It’s a bit like the joke about the factory: “The dog is there to keep the man away from the machines, and the man is there to guard the dog.” (Or is it the other way around?)
But here’s the thing: right now there is only one AlphaZero, and AlphaZero does not play like God (I think). At some point there will be more projects of this kind, and they will not always agree as to what is the best chess move. Re-enter the human! Imagine a human turning on AlphaZero and five other such programs, seeing where they disagree, and then querying the programs further to find a better answer. It is at least possible (though not necessary) that a human will be better at doing this than will a machine.
Keep in mind, the original role in the human in Advanced [man-machine] Chess was not to substitute human chess judgment for machine chess judgment in any kind of discretionary fashion. It was to adjudicate disagreements across programs: “Rybka has a slightly better opening book. Fritz is better in closed endgames. Houdini is tops at defense.” And so on. The human then sided with one engine over the others, or simply spent more engine time investigating some options rather than others.
It could possibly run the same way for neural net methods, once we have a general sense of the strengths and weaknesses of different projects. So yes, man-machine cooperation in chess is a loser right now, but it may well come back. And there is a broader economic lesson in that, namely that automation may eliminate jobs, but it does not necessarily eliminate them permanently.
In an NBER paper, Blair and Chung find that occupational licensing reduces labor supply significantly. I had expected that occupational licensing would be worse for blacks than for whites because it imposes an additional locus of discrimination but that effect seems to be opposed by a certification effect (the license helps black workers to overcome statistical discrimination) so the net effect is not as bad for blacks as for whites:
We exploit state variation in licensing laws to study the effect of licensing on occupational choice using a boundary discontinuity design. We find that licensing reduces equilibrium labor supply by an average of 17%-27%. The negative labor supply effects of licensing appear to be strongest for white workers and comparatively weaker for black workers.
An Institute for Justice report by Morris M. Kleiner, the dean of occupational licensing studies, and Evgeny S. Vorotnikov attemps to calculate the net loss to the US economy from occupational licensing and concludes that when all costs are considered it is on the order of $200 billion annually.
In preventing people from working in the occupations for which they are best suited, licensing misallocates people’s human capital. In forcing people to fulfill burdensome licensing requirements that do not raise quality, licensing misallocates people’s human capital, money and time. And with its promise of economic returns over and above what can be had absent licensing, licensing encourages occupational practitioners and their occupational associations to invest resources in rent-seeking instead of more productive activity. Taking these misallocated resources into account, we find potential costs to the economy that far exceed those from deadweight losses and that likely provide a more complete picture of the extent to which licensing reduces economic activity.
…we find licensing costs the American economy $197.3 billion in misallocated resources.
…the business world has been increasingly aware of the genre’s potential. In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm that advises 440 of the Fortune 500 companies, published a blueprint for using science fiction to explore business innovation. The same year, the Harvard Business Review argued that “business leaders need to read more science fiction” in order to stay ahead of the curve…
A number of companies, along with a loose constellation of designers, marketers, and consultants, have formed to expedite the messy creative visualization process that used to take decades. For a fee, they’ll prototype a possible future for a [corporate] client, replete with characters who live in it, at as deep a level as a company can afford. They aim to do what science fiction has always done — build rich speculative worlds, describe that world’s bounty and perils, and, finally, envision how that future might fall to pieces.
Alternatively referred to as sci-fi prototyping, futurecasting, or worldbuilding, the goal of these companies is generally the same: help clients create forward-looking fiction to generate ideas and IP for progress or profit. Each of the biggest practitioners believe they have their own formulas for helping clients negotiate the future. And corporations like Ford, Nike, Intel, and Hershey’s, it turns out, are willing to pay hefty sums for their own in-house Minority Reports.
That is from Brian Merchant on Medium.
This is a concordance of responses she received on Twitter, I am not sure she endorses all of these ideas, the rest is her I won’t double indent:
Interpersonal and Mindfulness
- Wake up early.
- Spend time in prayer and/or meditation first thing in the morning. Or, if you can’t fit it in then, find time later in the day. I love using Headspace. If you’re Catholic, pray the Rosary daily.
- Practice gratitude, and be specific when thanking someone.
- Keep a personal calendar.
- Write something, anything, everyday.
- Study a foreign language for 5, 15, or 25 minutes a day. Here’s a list of 10 great options.
- Eat meals with people you love.
- Keep in touch with close friends.
- Read to your children, and take pictures of them frequently.
- Read for at least 15 minutes daily.
- Read or watch something new daily. Ideally something you’re curious about.
- Ask questions often.
- Don’t slouch.
- Learn to dance.
- Call your parents and grandparents.
- Go on lots of first dates. Law of large numbers.
- Introduce yourself to new people.
- Before dinner, write down tomorrow’s priority list.
- Restrict your tv time. Or substitute tv time for your most potent distraction. For me that’s Twitter. Here are some practical ways to reduce screen time.
- For young people, ask people you admire in your area for coffee once, twice, or a few times a month. Email is another option. The likelihood of a positive response in both scenarios is probably higher than you expect.
- Negotiate your salary.
- Practice making money online. For a fun place to start, try PredictIt.
- Contribute early and often to your IRA/401(k).
- Invest as you’re able to. (Would welcome reading suggestions in the comments).
- Save a predetermined percentage from each paycheck.
- Pay off your credit cards monthly.
- Sleep 8 hours or more each night. Limiting your blue light exposure after sunset can also improve your sleep quality.
- Try not to use your cell phone in bed. You can also go even further, and put away your phone 30 minutes, an hour, or even two hours before bedtime.
- Increase your water consumption, and whenever possible, drink it to the exclusion of everything else.
- Reduce your sugar, carb, and processed food intake.
- One way you can do this is by bringing your lunch from home to work rather than ordering take out. Added bonus: saving money.
- When you do eat out, choose the healthier options.
- When grocery shopping, check the ingredients of what you’re buying. Try to avoid processed foods with numerous and complicated ingredients.
- Take the stairs if and when you can. If you live in a fairly walkable area, walk everywhere within a mile.
- Don’t overeat — stop just before you’re full.
- If you can, try intermittent fasting at least once a week.
- Exercise daily. Try exercises that you enjoy, otherwise it’s unlikely that you’ll stick with them.
- Incorporate resistance weight-training into your routine.
TC again: Here is the full Medium essay.
Philosophers are accustomed to discussions about how to value lives distant from our own in time and place; economists are not. But in a new book, “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals”, Tyler Cowen of George Mason University argues that the moral status of human lives ought not to be traded off over time in the same way that a bond portfolio might be. He puts the results of discounting in evocative terms: given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future? The lives of humans born decades from now might be difficult for us to imagine, or to treat as of equal worth to our own. But our own lives were once similarly distant from those taking their turn on Earth; the future, when it comes, will feel as real to those living in it as the present does to us. Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own.