Annie Get Your Prior

I was reading Sharon McGrayne’s wonderful popular (no, really!) book on the history of Bayesian statistics. At one point it is mentioned that George Box wrote a song for a departmental Christmas party

There’s no theorem like Bayes’ Theorem
Like no theorem I know…

A bit later we read of Howard Raiffa and Robert Schlaifer singing

Anything frequentists can do, Bayesians do better

(More or less… the exact text is not reproduced.) So it seems the underappreciated role of Irving Berlin in the development of Bayesian thought has yet to be adumbrated. Perhaps researchers will some day uncover such hits manqués as “How High is the Bayes Factor?”, “I’m Dreaming of a Conjugate Prior”, or even “Bayes Bless America”.

Leonard the Priest

I’m just listening to the newest Leonard Cohen album, Popular Problems. I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic Jewish imagery that runs through his career, but increasing in recent years. For instance, in this new song “Almost Like the Blues”:

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen.
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their stories
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring.
It was almost like the blues.

One thing that immediately stood out for me was this (I think) entirely original poetic trick of using “the Gypsies and the Jews” to signify the Holocaust. It works, because what else do Gypsies and Jews have in common, but it’s also an intriguingly oblique way of referencing it. And that leads into what feels like an allusion to the function of Holocaust stories to arouse feelings of pathos and high seriousness, but fundamentally serving as a kind of perverse entertainment. (To get the full impact you need to hear the leer that creeps into his voice on “It was good”; a good example of how performed poetry can go beyond the written word. And given the limited range of Cohen’s voice, never very flexible even in his salad days, this really is performed poetry more than singing.)

Bert and the Duke

I just read Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington. The most prominent theme of the book — beyond Teachout’s efforts at a clear-eyed appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of Ellington’s music — is an elucidation of Ellington’s, to put it charitably, magpie tendencies. Throughout his career, Ellington compensated for his own deficiencies — little talent for melody, inability to write for strings, extreme procrastination — by poaching the inventions of his sidemen, often with minimal compensation and little or no credit. This tendency reached its acme in Ellington’s wholesale subordination of Billy Strayhorn, who was almost completely subsumed into the Ellington persona.

This reminded me of another fascinating biography that I read many years ago, John Fuegi’s Brecht & Co.  That book portrayed Bertolt Brecht as a kind of literary parasite, who seduced brilliant women and enslaved them to write plays for him. Just to mention one of the most egregious examples, Elisabeth Hauptmann appeared on the original publication as co-author of The Threepenny Opera — even there, only as the “translator” of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with “German treatment by Bertolt Brecht” — though almost certainly a substantial majority of the text is by her. Brecht later sold off the international rights entirely on his own, under his own name. Similarly, Mother Courage and The Life of Galileo  were cowritten with Margarete Steffin — and again, her contribution is not minimal, the same not being entirely clear for Brecht himself — but are invariably described as works of Brecht.

These sound like clear cases of abuse, they seem to undermine the stature of the great artist — perhaps worse in Brecht’s case, where erotic seduction was being abused as well, and the weak social position of women vis-à-vis intellectual property. And yet… it’s clear that both Ellington and and Brecht produced brilliant, world-changing work with a variety of collaborators, while none of the collaborators produced great work apart from the master. (Billy Strayhorn is an interesting possible counterexample, in part because Ellington’s thefts from him were so extensive — some of the “collaborations” were entirely Strayhorn’s work, or almost so — and in part because the collaboration with Ellington subsumed almost his entire career.) Elisabeth Hauptmann, at least, always denied that she had been ill-used by Brecht.

Part of the problem may be with the romantic image we have of the lone genius. As Fuegi’s title suggests (perhaps ironically), the image of the “workshop” may be more appropriate to some — perhaps most? — artistic creation. There is a special skill required to recognise the flashes of creativity in others and shape them to a whole — as Ellington did (Strayhorn excepted) — or to provide a framework to which creative artists can contribute their own genius wholeheartedly. This was the job of the master of a Renaissance workshop, and it’s not clear that we should think less of “Brecht” or “Ellington” as creative artists, to know that these names are, at least in part, fronts for a collective. While they were alive it would have been good to redirect some of the material rewards — though Ellington, at least, directed everything he had to maintaining his orchestra — but now all that remains is esteem for the work and its creator, however the latter is defined.

Liverpool accent

One of the things most migrants to Britain suffer from — regardless of whether English (of some flavour) is their native language — is a sort of dialect-colourblindness, the inability to recognise regional and class distinctions of accent and dialect. I can now more or less identify “northern” speakers, London working class, urban midlands dialects, and the accent that people refer to as “posh”, as distinct from the fairly neutral accent of BBC announcers, and I already knew the Scottish and Northern Irish accents before I came. I had to learn for my permanent residency “Life in the UK” test that the Liverpool dialect is called Scouse, while the Newcastle speech is Geordie, but I can’t recognise the difference between those and Manchester or Yorkshire speech respectively. And the important thing is, even if you can pick the right one out of a lineup, you don’t have the proper associations with them. Thus, I was completely unaware that northern accents are scorned, and many northerners are defensive about the way they are perceived. I’ve learned to recognise these accents, but the associations that British people bring to them are purely abstract facts to me. Similarly the various lower-class urban (see e.g. Scouse, above) and rural dialects.

All of this is prelude to an extraordinary comment that I came across in reading Mark Lewinsohn’s The Beatles: Tune In, the first volume of a projected 3-volume biography of The Beatles. Continue reading “Liverpool accent”

The long arm of the gay mafia

I was amused by the intimations that cropped up in reports on Brendan Eich’s dismissal as CEO of Mozilla that he had been (in the words of one comedian) “whacked by the gay mafia”. Now, the “X mafia” is a standard lazy joke, and the more nonviolent the image of the group whose mafia this is supposed to be the better the appeal to those whose livelihood depends on a steady stream of cheap laughs. But my first reaction was that for gay people to be accused of mafia tactics must be a marker of progress — people don’t like the mafia, but they respect its power! Surely the notion that gay people are too powerful would have been a difficult concept to formulate until very recently.

I was wrong, at least as regards the entertainment industry. In Terry Teachout’s fascinating new biography of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington is quoted as saying that his father was unconcerned about Billy Strayhorn’s homosexuality.

But Mercer also reports that Ellington believed in the existence of “a Faggot Mafia… He went on to recount how homosexuals hired their own kind whenever they could, and how, when they had achieved executive status, they maneuvred to keep straight guys out of the influential positions.”

Demographic fallacies and classical music

I was just reading an article in Slate with the title “Classical Music in America is Dead”. The argument boils down to two points:

  1. Classical music listeners are a small portion of the population.
  2. Relatively few young people in the audience.

With regard to (1), I thought it interesting that he writes

Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

What’s interesting is that, while jazz is certainly a minority taste, and its trajectory in American culture has closely paralleled that of classical music in the 20th century, I don’t think anyone would claim that jazz is dead.

He quotes the critic Richard Sandow, who makes a demographic argument that

And the aging audience is also a shrinking one. The NEA, ever since 1982, has reported a smaller and smaller percentage of American adults going to classical music performances. And, as time goes on, those who do go are increasingly concentrated in the older age groups (so that by now, the only group going as often as it did in the past are those over 65).

Which means that the audience is most definitely shrinking. Younger people aren’t coming into it. In the 1980s, the NEA reported, the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience fell in half. And older people also aren’t coming into the classical audience. If they were, we’d see a steady percentage of people in their 40s and 50s going to classical events, but we don’t. That percentage is falling.

Of course, this is vastly overstated. “Younger people” are “coming into it”… in smaller numbers than before. It’s an absurd fallacy (not uncommon, and addressed first (to my knowledge) in theoretical ageing research by Yashin et al. in the 1980s) that you can determine the longitudinal dynamics for individuals by looking at the cross-sectional age distribution.

Consider a model where individuals are recruited into classical music at a constant rate over their lifetimes, ending with 10% of the 80-year-olds. (We’ll leave the older population out of it.) Then about 11% of the adult audience would be under 30. Suppose there were now a change, just so that children under 15 were no longer being recruited into classical music, but after that age they continued to be enter at the same rate as before. Then the fraction of the adult audience under 30 would be halved, to about 5.5%. The number of people in their 40s and 50s going to concerts would decline by about 15%.

I’m not arguing that this is what is going on. A lot of the story is probably the general splintering of the music audience, and the fact that people increasingly prefer to stay home for their entertainment. (This is one reason why I have argued that the classical music establishment’s reliance on enormously expensive orchestras and opera companies is a mistake.) Just that you can’t make inferences about individual trajectories over time without data about individual trajectories.

On learning to play an instrument

I was intrigued by Mark Oppenheimer’s article in The New Republic “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument” when it appeared in September, and a reread it now that it has been reposted. Obviously, the “forcing” alluded to in the headline sounds pretty bad, and few people would advocate it. But the article is not about forcing; more like “strongly encouraging”. Oppenheimer is willing to continue financing his daughter’s violin and ballet lessons, but he won’t encourage it. And he does not believe that it is worthwhile, unlike the weekly Hebrew lessons, or more valuable than watching comedies on television. I can accept his feelings on this point, and I wonder myself sometimes what motivates some parents to push their children into certain activities, given attitudes that are little different from Oppenheimer’s.

But if this were merely confessional breastbeating it would have been a 50-word blog post, rather than an article in TNR that helps pay for those useless violin lessons. So Oppenheimer provides a few hundred words of explanation, and chaos ensues. The arguments are so badly tangled that they come out almost as an advocacy of music lessons once you’ve unknotted them. I find it hard to escape the impression that it irks him that his daughter is enjoying something that he doesn’t understand or appreciate.

He has two main arguments:

  1. To they extent that playing an instrument is a useful skill, it is not classical music that children should be learning.
  2. Learning to play an instrument has no value beyond itself. (Ditto for learning to dance.) The claims commonly put forward are spurious.

Let’s look at argument 2 first. Oppenheimer writes

Why are so many children taking ballet, violin, piano? Lately, I have been asking my fellow middle-class urbanite parents that question. About dance, they say things like, “Ballet teaches them poise,” or, “Ballet helps them be graceful.” And about violin or piano they say, “It will give them a lifelong skill,” or, “They’ll always enjoy listening to music more.”

It does not take a rocket scientist, or a Juilliard-trained cellist, to see the flaws in these assertions. First, as to ballet, I propose a test. Imagine we took ten girls (or boys) who had studied ballet from the ages of five to twelve, and then quit, and mixed them in with ten girls (or boys) who had never taken dance. Let’s say that we watched these twenty tweens move around their schools for a day… Does anyone really believe we could spot the ones who had spent seven years in weekly or biweekly ballet class?

Interesting thought experiment. Does anyone really believe…? Obviously the parents who told him this believe that, or something similar. (Maybe “poise” and “grace” aren’t quite so conspicuous, so they wouldn’t quite know what to predict.) Are they right? I don’t know. But it’s weird to present as proof that these other parents are wrong the results of a made-up experiment that no one actually did. Continue reading “On learning to play an instrument”

Why are classical music supporters obsessed with symphonies?

I was just reading this New Republic article about the financial crisis in US symphony orchestras, and it reminded me of a question that I’ve had for a very long time: Why do people who enjoy  classical music lavish so much attention on gigantic symphony orchestras? Symphony orchestras have gotten polished to an extraordinary perfection, and suck up vast amounts of public and private subsidy, but chamber music performances are few and far between. There’s nothing in the nature of this musical tradition that requires emphasising the repertoire for huge ensembles. To put it differently, rock music would also be in crisis if it depended on putting together ensembles of around 100 musicians that would play to audiences of several thousand. Of course, there are a few bands that play to stadium crowds, but most of the professional activity in the most popular music genres is in small venues, with a handful of musicians and little or no support staff.

The same might be said of music in the schools. Most high schools manage to organise a school orchestra, but there’s rarely much effort put into chamber music. There, at least, the economics make sense, since dozens of children can be supervised by a single orchestra leader. On the other hand, the learning value is greatly reduced as well.

How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives

I was struck by a comment in Kalefa Sanneh’s fascinating review of several new books on the economics of the entertainment industry. Discussing Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, and the argument that the obsession with finding isolated major hits rather than the profits to be made in the “Long Tail”,  Sanneh writes

In the seventies and eighties the hit men worried mainly about each other, but the rise of digital delivery means that their modern-day successors must also contend with a more existential threat… Betting on blockbusters might be a defensive strategy: a way for established entertainment companies to stall the larger forces eroding their “channel power”, at least for a while. Unlike the old hit men, Elberse’s executives can’t assume that their industries will be around forever.

This got me to marvelling, once again, at how short a time forever is, in human experience. (This was a major theme of one of my small excursuses into academic literary criticism, the essay Kafka’s Geometry.) The “old hit men” are only 30 years or so in the past. I suppose “around forever” could mean here “around until the end of their careers”, and this would just about be right. But it seems logically inevitable that if workers toiling in the modern entertainment industry have reason to doubt that it will be around forever, then those of 30 years ago were simply deluded to think that their industry’s future was assured. It’s the same future. It makes as much sense as it would to explain ones teenage behaviour by saying, “Back then I was going to live forever.” You might say this, but only as a joke, or as an expression of amazement at your earlier delusion. (Speaking for myself, I was never immortal, and I doubt that anyone was. It looks to me as though teenagers may not care about the consequences of their actions, for reasons good and bad, and they may have difficulty inhibiting their impulses if they do care, but the research I am aware of does not suggest that they actually feel invulnerable.) Continue reading “How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives”

More scary maths

I was just working through the sheet music for “As Time Goes By”. I don’t remember ever having heard the intro — it was left out when the song appeared in Casablanca, and seems never to have been performed since. It begins with the lines

This day and age we’re living in gives cause for apprehension,

With speed and new invention, and things like the third dimension.

Yet, we grow a trifle weary with Mister Einstein’s theory,

So we must get down to earth, at times relax, relieve the tension.

“Third dimension” — pretty scary! (Those interested in the influence of geometric ideas on early 20th century literature, in particular the work of Franz Kafka, could look at this paper. Though typically the anxiety about dimensions started at four.)

I’ve commented earlier on suggestions that math education should be confined to the rudiments to spare children from math anxiety, and the use of math anxiety by unscrupulous politicians to distract attention from their policies.