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Helpless Individuals

40 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 March 2009 11:10AM

Previously in seriesRationality: Common Interest of Many Causes

When you consider that our grouping instincts are optimized for 50-person hunter-gatherer bands where everyone knows everyone else, it begins to seem miraculous that modern-day large institutions survive at all.

Well—there are governments with specialized militaries and police, which can extract taxes.  That's a non-ancestral idiom which dates back to the invention of sedentary agriculture and extractible surpluses; humanity is still struggling to deal with it.

There are corporations in which the flow of money is controlled by centralized management, a non-ancestral idiom dating back to the invention of large-scale trade and professional specialization.

And in a world with large populations and close contact, memes evolve far more virulent than the average case of the ancestral environment; memes that wield threats of damnation, promises of heaven, and professional priest classes to transmit them.

But by and large, the answer to the question "How do large institutions survive?" is "They don't!"  The vast majority of large modern-day institutions—some of them extremely vital to the functioning of our complex civilization—simply fail to exist in the first place.

I first realized this as a result of grasping how Science gets funded: namely, not by individual donations.

Science traditionally gets funded by governments, corporations, and large foundations.  I've had the opportunity to discover firsthand that it's amazingly difficult to raise money for Science from individuals.  Not unless it's science about a disease with gruesome victims, and maybe not even then.

Why?  People are, in fact, prosocial; they give money to, say, puppy pounds.  Science is one of the great social interests, and people are even widely aware of this—why not Science, then?

Any particular science project—say, studying the genetics of trypanotolerance in cattle—is not a good emotional fit for individual charity.  Science has a long time horizon that requires continual support.  The interim or even final press releases may not sound all that emotionally arousing.  You can't volunteer; it's a job for specialists.  Being shown a picture of the scientist you're supporting at or somewhat below the market price for their salary, lacks the impact of being shown the wide-eyed puppy that you helped usher to a new home.  You don't get the immediate feedback and the sense of immediate accomplishment that's required to keep an individual spending their own money.

Ironically, I finally realized this, not from my own work, but from thinking "Why don't Seth Roberts's readers come together to support experimental tests of Roberts's hypothesis about obesity?  Why aren't individual philanthropists paying to test Bussard's polywell fusor?"  These are examples of obviously ridiculously underfunded science, with applications (if true) that would be relevant to many, many individuals.  That was when it occurred to me that, in full generality, Science is not a good emotional fit for people spending their own money.

In fact very few things are, with the individuals we have now.  It seems to me that this is key to understanding how the world works the way it does—why so many individual interests are poorly protected—why 200 million adult Americans have such tremendous trouble supervising the 535 members of Congress, for example.

So how does Science actually get funded?  By governments that think they ought to spend some amount of money on Science, with legislatures or executives deciding to do so—it's not quite their own money they're spending.  Sufficiently large corporations decide to throw some amount of money at blue-sky R&D.  Large grassroots organizations built around affective death spirals may look at science that suits their ideals.  Large private foundations, based on money block-allocated by wealthy individuals to their reputations, spend money on Science which promises to sound very charitable, sort of like allocating money to orchestras or modern art.  And then the individual scientists (or individual scientific task-forces) fight it out for control of that pre-allocated money supply, given into the hands of grant committee members who seem like the sort of people who ought to be judging scientists.

You rarely see a scientific project making a direct bid for some portion of society's resource flow; rather, it first gets allocated to Science, and then scientists fight over who actually gets it.  Even the exceptions to this rule are more likely to be driven by politicians (moonshot) or military purposes (Manhattan project) than by the appeal of scientists to the public.

Now I'm sure that if the general public were in the habit of funding particular science by individual donations, a whole lotta money would be wasted on e.g. quantum gibberish—assuming that the general public somehow acquired the habit of funding science without changing any other facts about the people or the society.

But it's still an interesting point that Science manages to survive not because it is in our collective individual interest to see Science get done, but rather, because Science has fastened itself as a parasite onto the few forms of large organization that can exist in our world.  There are plenty of other projects that simply fail to exist in the first place.

It seems to me that modern humanity manages to put forth very little in the way of coordinated effort to serve collective individual interests.  It's just too non-ancestral a problem when you scale to more than 50 people.  There are only big taxers, big traders, supermemes, occasional individuals of great power; and a few other organizations, like Science, that can fasten parasitically onto them.

 

Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

Next post: "Money: The Unit of Caring"

Previous post: "Rationality: Common Interest of Many Causes"

Comments (233)

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 31 March 2009 11:42:07AM *  15 points [-]

I'd like to see some examples of types of large institutions that you believe should exist, but don't due to lack of coordination.

Comment author: Grant 31 March 2009 06:02:33AM 12 points [-]

I'm not sure I'm following the logic here. The failure of science to raise money via voluntary means is evidence that it is too much of a non-ancestral problem?

Well, I'll agree that if we somehow had science as it exists now for a few hundred generations, we'd probably be better at funding it. But thats true of anything. Standard economics predicts that funding large-scale public goods is difficult via voluntary means, and public choice explains why its difficult for governments too. If you believe Coase this difficulty is a feature, not a bug, because it takes transaction (i.e., organizational) costs into account.

Of course, it shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone that a scientist is complaining that people don't fund enough science ;) To be honest, I don't know where I could donate money to science to make a difference. Its very hard for non-scientists to judge the feasibility of scientific projects. So much of science seems to be a complete and utter waste of smart people and resources.

One thing we can do is promote the use of prizes over normal funding.

Comment author: hegemonicon 30 March 2009 05:36:22PM 10 points [-]

As has been already mentioned, science of old was largely funded by individuals; scientists (or 'natural philosophers') were largely patrons of wealthy individuals. Presumably, this was because supporting an individual provides a good emotional fit (and thus serves as a good signal of status) in a way that funding pure research does not.

Comment author: conchis 31 March 2009 11:56:59AM *  8 points [-]

But individuals do fund science (at least in the US): individuals give pretty substantial amounts to universities, even if it's less overall than what's provided by governments.

As you sort of allude to later, the issue may be less that individuals don't fund science, as that they don't fund particular science. I would speculate that this is in no small part because we generally realize that we wouldn't be very good at picking particular science to fund, so we give general, and let other people decide exactly what projects to pursue. This opens the process up to lots of problems, but it's not obvious that it's worse than the feasible alternatives.

(In the same way, lots of people choose to give to generalist charities like Oxfam, rather than trying to evaluate specific projects for themselves, though (a) I suspect it's easier to tug people's heartstrings for charitable projects; and (b) people probably overestimate their knowledge of what works in charity more than in science.)

Comment author: scientism 31 March 2009 01:09:44PM 4 points [-]

I recall reading somewhere that one of the reasons Harvard has so much money is that the majority of donations they receive are earmarked for a narrow range of projects and they receive more money than they can spend in those areas (while other areas remain underfunded). I can't find the article but maybe someone else remembers it. Regardless I wouldn't be so quick to assume that many people are funding universities without restrictions on how the funds must be used.

Comment author: conchis 31 March 2009 01:23:38PM *  4 points [-]

I'm not sure I buy the Harvard story (even if it had some truth to it, there are lots of ways to get around this sort of thing, and if it were ever a serious constraint I'd imagine Harvard would be pretty good at finding those ways by now). But your broader point is valid; it would be good to have actual data about this.

Comment author: AnthonyC 08 July 2012 07:05:13PM 3 points [-]

The Harvard story is actually true, and yes, they have found the ways around it.

Basically, one main strategy is that you invest the original donation in such a way that the dividends and capital gains go into the general endowment. Within a generation or two the problem is solved. You can do that when you're immortal.

Comment author: Cyan 30 March 2009 03:28:11PM *  4 points [-]

The concept of a large modern-day institution that fails to exist strikes me as bizarre and incoherent. Is the idea a large institution that could exist if we were somehow able to twiddle causal factor X Judea-Pearl-style? (If so, it immediately poses the question of what causal factor X is for any specific proposed non-existent institution.)

Comment author: gwern 31 March 2009 01:00:05AM *  1 point [-]

I'm not really following your comment. When Robin advocates large prediction markets on all sorts of topics, or specifically markets on CEOs & whether they should resign, is he saying bizarre incoherent nonsense?

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with Pearl; would a Pearl-style explanation be 'if a wealthy influential person believes my writings about prediction markets and creates something that meets my specifications, the results will be good (with high probability)'?

Comment author: Cyan 31 March 2009 02:55:10AM *  2 points [-]

I think it's simply a choice of phrasing that happened to cause an incongruous mental image for me; hence my attempt to work it around to a description I could encompass. I think of "to fail" as an active verb -- futarchy doesn't exist because we fail to enact it. In my brain, something that doesn't exist can't do anything, including fail to exist. As for the Pearl reference, I think I'll just point you to the source.

Comment author: AlexU 31 March 2009 05:08:53AM *  9 points [-]

"But it's still an interesting point that Science manages to survive not because it is in our collective individual interest to see Science get done, but rather, because Science has fastened itself as a parasite onto the few forms of large organization that can exist in our world."

Can't it be both? It's not as if the government's support of science is completely unrelated to its being in our collective interest. It's awfully cynical simply to presume, without comment, that governments don't ultimately work for our collective interest (even if they can at times be very misguided).

More generally, this post seems full of lots of lines, like the above, that sort of seem true at first glance, but upon closer inspection are either quite banal, vacuous, or only questionably correct. How about some supporting evidence or arguments?

Comment author: Yosarian2 29 December 2012 08:17:37PM 3 points [-]

This kind of thing is often considered one of the main roles of government: funding important projects on a constant basis over a long period of time. It's hard to fund those with charity; charity funding tends to be inconsistent over time, and people who do give to charity are likely to give to whatever cause is "popular" that year. I wouldn't want to try to fund "maintenance of one specific bridge every year over the next 50 years" with just charitable contributions from people who use that bridge and benefit from it, because some years they might donate more then enough to maintain the bridge, but some years they might not. Taxation and a constant revenue stream are just a more efficient and consistent solution to the problem. That's likely true in funding long-term science as well.

In fact, this is a historical theory for how the first large governments formed. In both ancient Egypt and ancient China, the large central governments were able to build massive canal systems that dramatically improved farming and therefore the quality of life of everyone. It would have been pretty unlikely to create those through just the voluntary contribution (either in money or in labor) of people; too many people would have defected to make that a practical solution, at least over the long term.

That being said, if you're relying on governments for that, there's always the risk that the government will decide to take your tax money and spend it on something useless (in the case of Egypt, that would be the pyramids), so some kind of auditing of the government's spending and feedback to improve it is fairly important.

Comment author: Pierre-Andre 30 March 2009 02:01:20PM 12 points [-]

In conservation biology, flagship species play the role of cute puppies:

These species are chosen for their vulnerability, attractiveness or distinctiveness in order to best engender support and acknowledgment from the public at large. Thus, the concept of a flagship species holds that by giving publicity to a few key species, the support given to those species will successfully leverage conservation of entire ecosystems and all species contained therein.

This is fighting a bias with a bias: people do not care as much as they should about conservation while they care too much of cute puppies. Science in general could adapt this technique: use "popular" subjects to attract funds to "good but unpopular" subjects.

If this is too much of the "dark side" for you, umbrella species might be more appropriate.

Comment author: matt 04 April 2009 10:53:17PM 2 points [-]

This is fighting a bias with a bias: people do not care as much as they should about conservation while they care too much of cute puppies.

Surely this is fighting your preference with a bias. How robust do you think your argument is, not that conservation is important, but that it's more important that the other things people invest in?

Comment author: ciphergoth 30 March 2009 12:29:53PM 5 points [-]

As I understand it, this is supposed to be one of the things government is for - to coordinate spending when trying to do these things privately would suffer from a free rider problem. I try not to talk about politics on here - mind-killer and all that - but one way to address this would be to try to improve the rationality of voters. I increasingly believe that preparing people to be participants in a democracy should be the primary function of schools.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 30 March 2009 07:10:34PM 5 points [-]

Couldn't you greatly increase voter rationality much faster and cheaper by limiting the franchise or encouraging less rational people not to vote?

Comment author: taw 30 March 2009 07:29:43PM 6 points [-]

Does a concept of "less rational people" even have any sense

And most likely it would be highly damaging, I don't have any evidence with me but I'm willing to bet real money on prediction market for that, that in cases where some class of people are excluded from voting (vote rarely like young people, or don't matter much due to the way votes are counted), their interests are seriously underrepresented in government decisions, relative to interests of classes of people who are voting a lot, in a way that matters (old people, regional interests in first past the post systems).

Comment author: JulianMorrison 31 March 2009 06:55:44AM 1 point [-]

There aren't enough of them. Obvious problems would result.

Comment author: Ford 20 February 2013 09:12:17PM 2 points [-]

In addition to the emotional issues you raise, there's the question of thresholds and scalability. If the puppy program already exists, giving $10 will help more puppies. But, for many scientific research projects, there's no point in even starting with less than $100K in hand. That could be $10 each from 10,000 people. An easy decision, perhaps, for the 9999th person, but who wants to give the first $10?

Elsewhere I've suggested "Social Escrow" as a solution. You pledge a certain amount, contingent on enough other people doing so and perhaps on other objective criteria. "Send us two checks. We'll tear up both if not enough other people send checks. We'll tear up the second if the research doesn't meet kilometerstone X by date Y."

Kickstarter has some of these features, but doesn't seem to fund science.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 30 March 2009 12:16:40PM 5 points [-]

Just the weekend before last I was hearing a scientist say "we have 30 projects we know, know, will give good results. That's not even counting the worthy speculative work. We can fund: maybe five."

Science as an institution is absolutely poverty-bound. Find a way of getting it a bigger bite of GDP, and the speedup could be immense.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 March 2009 05:59:02PM 16 points [-]

Find a way to give it a bigger bite of GDP, and new bureaucrats will arise to seize the money for worthless projects, generating more noise in the journals? We could be in a situation analogous to the situation in some countries where giving money to beggars just reallocates more of the economy to begging without increasing the income of the average beggar.

Comment author: Zvi 31 March 2009 09:41:35PM 8 points [-]

No doubt some of the marginal money would be wasted, but that's always true and is true now. Science is and would be worth it even if the haircut was immense, and I don't see a reason that the additional spending would be that much more wasted.

Also, the begging scenario you describe isn't particuarly scary. If giving more money to scientists meant there were more scientists each with the same funding levels we have now, that seems like a perfectly fine outcome. If it meant there were more fundraisers seeking money for science and each raised the same quantity of funds, that also seems like a fine outcome.

Comment author: MichaelGR 30 March 2009 08:00:56PM 2 points [-]

Could you elaborate here?

Are you saying you think the impact of a higher portion of GDP spent on "science" would be negative, more or less neutral, or positive (but with diminishing returns)?

Comment author: JulianMorrison 30 March 2009 08:25:24PM 2 points [-]

I'm confused a bit. You see existing science funding as being mostly/entirely wasted on worthless projects?

Comment author: faul_sname 17 September 2012 05:23:46PM 0 points [-]

Do you think that a marginal dollar that is allocated to research on, for example, the synthesis of conductive plastics increases or decreases the signal:noise ratio? What fields do you think would have a marginal output of less than $1 of value generated per dollar you invest?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 September 2012 06:31:48PM 4 points [-]

Mostly fields which are producing lots of "statistically significant" results and no universal generalizations (where "This happens to everyone with gene X" is a universal generalization even if not everyone has gene X). Conductive plastics doesn't sound too bad because you can tell whether or not a plastic conducts pretty clearly.

Comment author: taw 30 March 2009 12:55:09PM 10 points [-]

You're only looking at funds for "Science" that get used for something useful. How much of the funds are used suboptimally or completely wasted? Pretty much every funding (science, charities, government etc.) except for capitalist free market (and even that only in case where there's little potential for abuse) is extremely inefficiently spent, as there's no optimization mechanism based on results, so it's optimized for some very indirect proxies (number of publications, emotional appeal, political interest). Basic research almost by definition doesn't have anything to directly optimize on. So no - just giving "Science" more money wouldn't necessarily improve everyone's well-being.

I cannot think of any plausible mechanism how basic research can be funded in a self-optimizing manner. Prediction markets on its long term impact? That's the best I can think of, but considering how unproven real world prediction markets are even in far easier cases I wouldn't really have high hopes for that.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 30 March 2009 01:25:50PM 4 points [-]

There are optimization pressures from peer review and academic jostling for position. My point above was that things which passed all the quality checks were being stopped for no reason except lack of money. If you expect any good from the existing research, you should expect those unfunded efforts would have been at least as good, giving a linear speedup per added money.

The market optimizes for the aggregate desires of the buying public and for the ability to produce something valued more by the public than its raw materials - if it achieves scientific usefulness, that's a byproduct.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 April 2011 02:10:39AM 0 points [-]

And I suspect a great deal of scientific research is done at companies which then keep it secret. That work isn't wasted, but it isn't doing the kind of good that shared information can.

Comment author: Annoyance 30 March 2009 04:21:53PM 5 points [-]

"But by and large the answer to the question "How do people maintain the functioning of their bodies" is "They don't!" The vast majority of people - some of them extremely skilled in medicine and physiology - simply fail to exist in the first place."

Managing to misunderstand a question you yourself ask is a pretty impressive feat.

Comment author: igoresque 31 March 2009 07:57:19PM 3 points [-]

I appreciated the post, but can't deny Annoyance has a point here...

Comment author: CannibalSmith 30 March 2009 09:22:25PM 3 points [-]

"How do large institutions survive?" is "They don't!"

No, seriously! How can Eliezer say that when they obviously do? For example, many countries are more than a hundred years old.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 30 March 2009 11:32:54PM *  6 points [-]

I think you are being too literal. I interpreted Eliezer as saying that the obstacles to good large institutions are so great, that most of them never get off the ground. The rest of the post mentions some of the explanations for and implications of this fact. (Completely rewritten comment to be more polite and helpful)

Comment author: gwern 07 April 2013 05:29:01PM 2 points [-]

How many is 'many'? And are countries now "institutions"? I agree that 'Germany' survives, but not that, say, the Second Reich / Third Reich / GDR survive.

How many governments in Africa maintain continuity back to 1913? Asia? (Hm, maybe India - whups, no, independence and the partition; China - but the government fell to warlords and Communists; perhaps wealthy industrializing Japan - no, conquered by America; Vietnam or Korea - actually maybe we'd better go somewhere else.) How many governments in South America? (No, that's not too good either given how many coups and revolutions there always are there.) Well, there's always Europe (wait, no, WWI, WWII, the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Warsaw Pact, all took out a ton of governments).

Well. There's always North America. Three governments counts as 'many countries', doesn't it?

(But wasn't there some sort of unpleasantness in Mexico 1910-1920... I'd better be quiet about that so as to not spoil a beautiful theory.)

Comment author: DanielLC 07 April 2013 07:01:36AM 0 points [-]

My interpretation is that most of the things we desperately need large institutions to do are simply not being done.

Comment author: cousin_it 30 March 2009 01:29:18PM *  2 points [-]

In the old days science was done by independently wealthy people, and how successful it was. Can today's scientists create profitable enterprises to fund their work? FHI is supposedly full of good programmers. Say, everyone works on a joint project half a week and does science the other half. Sounds like a real world application for the community's rationality and cooperation abilities, what do you say Eliezer?

Comment author: taw 30 March 2009 01:57:43PM 5 points [-]

Do we have any data about effectiveness of old science? Even if it was more productive per scientist (I'd love to see any evidence for that) it also had very low scale and there was plenty of low hanging fruit around, so it's not directly comparable. Maybe compare productivity adjusted for discipline maturity?

Comment author: gwern 03 December 2010 07:06:41PM 2 points [-]

Do we have any data about effectiveness of old science?

My usual link is to Human Accomplishment; Murray thinks that post 1890s or so there seems to be a downwards trend in how many figures of eminence there are per capita. This is masked by the simultaneous massive increase in world population and scientists. (He only calculates data up to the 1950s using reference books from the 1990s, which, along with his statistical techniques that escape my memory, hopefully attenuates or eliminates entirely questions about recency effects.)

(If you're interested, I have Human Accomplishment as an ebook.)

Independently of Murray, I believe I have seen mainstream articles to the effect that science over the 20th century has seen a striking increase in average number of authors per paper and similar metrics.

I'm not really sure I buy the low-hanging fruits argument. The 20th century has seen all sorts of new fields with tremendous low-hanging fruit. Look at computer science - it seems like everything in it was invented or thought about in the 50s and 60s and we are only just getting around to really implementing it all. And there seems to be similar problems in artistic fields (why would low-hanging fruits be exhausted simultaneously?). A quote-provoking quote for consideration from Tyler Cowen's Creative Destruction:

"The population of Renaissance Florence did not typically exceed 80,000 and at times fell well below that figure. To put the Florentine achievement in proper perspective with regard to population, consider that in 1984 approximately 35,000 painters, sculptors, potters, and art historians graduated from American art schools."

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 07:27:54PM 0 points [-]

This is masked by the simultaneous massive increase in world population and scientists.

This makes it extremely difficult to compare such numbers pre-20th Century (indeed, pre-1945) and after.

Comment author: gwern 03 December 2010 07:44:07PM 2 points [-]

Perhaps I wasn't clear. You may not see any absolute decline if you simply count milestones or # of papers or something. You see the decline if you count milestones/breakthroughs per scientist, or something. Which is the question - are we seeing diminishing marginal returns? The data suggests yes. Then we can discuss why the diminishing returns. (Government poisoning academia? Low-hanging fruit exhausted?)

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 07:47:54PM *  1 point [-]

Or just a lot more people going into science than would have before, thus getting a lot of the less-brilliant in the job? That's the obvious one that springs to mind. Particularly post-1945, when the demonstration of the power of technical superiority in World War II and fighting the Cold War really opened the gushers of science funding.

Comment author: gwern 03 December 2010 08:11:45PM 1 point [-]

That would be a variant on 'government poisoning academia', I suppose. Counter-arguments would be the Flynn effect (more brilliant people), increase in prestige of sciences versus humanities (bigger share of brilliant people), and existence of a decline prior to 1945.

Comment author: cousin_it 30 March 2009 02:29:07PM *  3 points [-]

While old science seems to have had greater total, bulk impact on the world than new science, I have polemically overblown the independence factor. "Gentleman scientists" were few, most scholars had patrons of some kind.

It was more of an invitation to consider non-donation-based funding models. We have evidence that part-time scientists can do great work. Wouldn't it be better if researchers spent their non-scientific hours together producing short-range value rather than fight each other over grants and tenure?

Comment author: igoresque 31 March 2009 07:55:20PM *  1 point [-]

I think part-time science is a cool idea. I would like that, rather than a full-time corporate job (as I have now) or a full-time science job. There are disadvantages of course - science requires an awful lot of time investment - but it might get scientists out of their ivory tower (without corrupting them or killing their time with fund-raising).

Comment author: [deleted] 03 December 2010 01:55:38PM 0 points [-]

I've seen (I forget where) an organization where people can make charitable donations directly to science. This sounds like it ought to be the third component of how science gets funding (the first two being government and technology companies.) If enough people are passionate about space exploration, for instance, but government and industry are dragging their feet, then enthusiastic laymen should be able to pool money to fund research.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 31 March 2009 11:36:57PM 3 points [-]

Was the low hanging fruit depleted in music too? Any musicians at the level of Beethoven lately? Patronage just worked better?

Comment author: David_Gerard 24 November 2010 07:55:43PM *  7 points [-]

The answer is, of course, that there was just as much shallow and awful music then as now. The difference is that what people think of as "classical" is the best of the past few hundred years. Those who compare hundreds of years of "classical" (which wasn't a single genre in any case) to fiftyish years of rock are comparing the best of one to the mediocre of the other. And these days, record labels are (tending to "were") a patronage system.

Comment author: Vaniver 24 November 2010 08:50:31PM 4 points [-]

Any musicians at the level of Beethoven lately?

Sure. Do you think The Beatles will be any less memorable than Beethoven?

First mover advantage is huge, but it only works for one field. It is strongly unlikely that there will ever be a classical composer comparable to Beethoven, simply because of Beethoven's name recognition and his impact on the field. But whenever a new field is invented, that's opening the gate on a new orchard with a bunch of low-hanging fruit. In 100 years, the early chipmusic composers will probably be comparable in name recognition to jazz greats today.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 25 November 2010 07:44:46AM 0 points [-]

How well do you know Beethoven's work?

Comment author: Vaniver 25 November 2010 09:30:58AM 1 point [-]

Not very? I know about 6 pieces (and have heard probably 20-30), and comparable amounts from ~6 other classical composers from his time plus/minus a century.

Since I'm not terribly into music, my sense of "Beethoven's level" is cultural impact + name recognition + durability; I understand that someone whose interest in music stems from technical appreciation may have very different standards. But it seems hard to compare, say, Beyonce's work with Beethoven's work at the same age without personal preference coming into play.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 26 November 2010 03:37:32AM 1 point [-]

Not very? I know about 6 pieces (and have heard probably 20-30), and comparable amounts from ~6 other classical composers from his time plus/minus a century.

Did you enjoy what you heard? If so, consider trying out more. My own experience has been that his best known works make less of an impression than his lesser known works (on account of the fact that the best known ones have been repeated and imitated to the point of becoming cliched). I listened to most of Beethoven's works many times back in college and found doing so very worthwhile - an eye opening experience.

Would be happy to give a list of my favorite recordings and pieces but only if solicited.

Since I'm not terribly into music, my sense of "Beethoven's level" is cultural impact + name recognition + durability; I understand that someone whose interest in music stems from technical appreciation may have very different standards.

I think that while aesthetic preferences do vary from person to person, there is a notion of aesthetic quality that emerges across large numbers of people (partially picked up in the "durability" variable) which is much less subjective than one might initially suppose. Of course, it would take a lot to detail and support my position. I'll think about making some top level posts about aesthetics.

But it seems hard to compare, say, Beyonce's work with Beethoven's work at the same age without personal preference coming into play.

Some quick points:

  1. To put a positivist spin on the question, one could pick a randomly chosen collection of 100 college students, have half of them listen to Beyonce for three months and then listen to Beethoven's early works for three months and the other half listen to the two artists in the reverse order and have them record their preferences between the two.

  2. I find Beethoven's early quartets among the least compelling of his works (favoring his early piano sonatas over his quartets).

  3. The comparison of Beyonce with Beethoven at the same age is misleading as an indicator of the relative stature of the two artists. Many people who know classical music well have the impression that Beethoven's quality improved considerably with time whereas as far as I know, few fans of contemporary popular music have a similar impression of their favorite contemporary popular artists.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 24 November 2010 08:07:06PM 3 points [-]

How would you know if there was a composer comparable to Beethoven today? Afaik, it's hard to tell which art will have staying power.

Comment author: David_Gerard 24 November 2010 09:34:37PM 3 points [-]

That would be the Beatles, for one.

For another, "eternal" legends go in and out of fashion. The Bach family had a lot of musicians and composers in it, and for a long time C.P.E. Bach was considered way cooler than J.S. Bach. The former is still respected, but the latter is now considered way above. The tides of fashion are in all sorts of places.

Comment author: komponisto 24 November 2010 08:31:42PM *  1 point [-]

Any musicians at the level of Beethoven lately?

Yes, but you haven't heard of them, because they're obscure academics.

(And their music wouldn't necessarily be intelligible to you either, due to the musical analogue of inferential distance.)

Nowadays universities play the role that aristocratic patrons did in the past.

Comment author: David_Gerard 24 November 2010 09:25:49PM *  5 points [-]

This is incorrect. Major record companies played the role of patron in pop music from the 1960s to the present.

Music made by academics that literally no-one listens to - seriously, a lot of this stuff is never played in public - is culturally irrelevant and only exists because of a small space not subject to feedback effects.

(I used to be a music journalist. This is a specialist subject of mine.)

Edit: By "culturally irrelevant" I mean that it has very little in terms of ripple effect or influence on things outside its small space. This is not to say it's bad music, or worthless - but that there's no promotion and little or no feedback unless the composer goes to particular effort.

Comment author: komponisto 24 November 2010 09:36:44PM *  3 points [-]

Major record companies played the role of patron in pop music

Not what we're talking about. Vassar mentioned Beethoven.

(I used to be a music journalist. This is a specialist subject of mine.)

I'm a composer (that's what "komponisto" means). Of the type you just called "culturally irrelevant". It won't suprise you to learn that I have approximately the same high regard for music journalists as you do for composers like me, and your "specialist" opinion carries little weight in influencing my view of these matters.

Comment author: David_Gerard 24 November 2010 09:39:32PM *  5 points [-]

This is as it should be ;-) However, Beethoven did not labour unheard in academia.

And it's all music. "Classical" isn't one genre, not even a bit.

Anyway, poetry tops the recorded sound charts these days. It's very popular. Children popularly aspire to be poets.

Comment author: komponisto 24 November 2010 09:46:36PM 4 points [-]

"Classical" isn't one genre, not even a bit.

It sure isn't. "Genres" are things like the symphony, the string quartet, and the piano sonata. "Classical" is a period in history.

Comment author: David_Gerard 26 November 2010 02:13:04PM *  1 point [-]

Ah, I should clarify again - I'm speaking of "genre" as "marketing term used by people as if it carves art at the joints" - what you see on the cards if you walk into a record shop. All the jargon in this space is overloaded. See clarification above re: term "culturally irrelevant".

(And off-topic: got links to your music please? I'm interested now. dgerard at gmail dot com.)

Comment author: Jack 03 December 2010 10:05:47PM 3 points [-]

Have you composed a Bayesian inspired opera about the Amanda Knox trial? Because you should.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 05:14:53AM *  11 points [-]

Don't think I haven't thought about it....

Obvious title: Night Is To Be Loved (in Latin: amanda nox).

Edit: Another piece I've contemplated writing: Paperclip Maximizer for contrabass clarinet.

Comment author: David_Gerard 05 December 2010 03:41:43PM 1 point [-]

And, y'know, I thought "that picture reminds me of MS Office Clippy" before I got to the word they used for it and laughed loudly and embarrassingly.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 10:42:44PM 0 points [-]

I'll render it as '80s synth pop. (LMMS! Cheaper than a red sports car or a trophy girlfriend!) Lloyd Webber's days are numbered.

Next: THE SEQUENCES CYCLE.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 December 2010 01:29:59AM 2 points [-]

Yes, but you haven't heard of them, because they're obscure academics.

Who are they?

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 02:02:09AM 1 point [-]

See here.

Comment author: Jack 03 December 2010 10:04:30PM 2 points [-]

You may have to correct my history but weren't modern composition techniques pretty unpopular right away. It isn't like academic composers have been building off each other for decades with few listening and so now their music isn't intelligible. Rather the introduction of atonality, the 'liberation of dissonance' and moving off the diatonic scale were very rapid changes to music which were very alienating. This prompted Adorno to say things like

The dissonances which horrify the public testify to their own condition and it is for this reason alone that they are unbearable for them.

I'm curious what you think of his position, actually.

So I'm not sure inferential distance is the right metaphor. It seems to me that while the uninstructed listener may not understand the works of modern academics, they likely didn't understand the works of Beethoven either but were still able to enjoy them for emotions they evoked. Contemporary music evokes emotion and while I don't know a lot about it I can enjoy it (partly, I think, because I've learned to enjoy the more avant garde end of pop music) but the emotions contemporary evoke tend to be more complex, and darker or at least bittersweet. I don't feel at home listened to contemporary music and I think thats the experience created by dissonance and what a lot of people recoil from.

Where does like, John Adams fit into this? He seems fairly accessible to the uninstructed.

Comment author: komponisto 03 December 2010 11:34:20PM *  2 points [-]

You may have to correct my history but weren't modern composition techniques pretty unpopular right away. It isn't like academic composers have been building off each other for decades with few listening and so now their music isn't intelligible. Rather the introduction of atonality, the 'liberation of dissonance' and moving off the diatonic scale were very rapid changes to music which were very alienating.

This is the way it is presented in drama-maximizing popular histories of music, but the reality is -- from a purely musical perspective, not taking into account the socio-political conflicts of the time which often played themselves out in artistic battles -- that the development was quite natural and gradual.

Schoenberg was a controversial composer from the beginning, well before he finally decided to stop writing key signatures in his scores. Works such as Verklärte Nacht that are now considered audience-pleasers were initially received with a great deal of hostility. (My own theory on the reason why the meme of Schoenberg's "inaccessiblity" still persists with respect to his compositions of the latter part of the decade 1900-1910 but not with respect to the earlier part is that the political conflict between the pro- and anti-Schoenberg factions that was in existence in Vienna around 1910 was frozen in time by the World Wars, and so Schoenberg comes down to us in history as "the guy who was stirring up all that trouble in Vienna right before WWI". This affects the way people listen to the music: if they're expecting it to be "inaccessible", they'll have a tendency to find it that way.)

This prompted Adorno to say things like

The dissonances which horrify the public testify to their own condition and it is for this reason alone that they are unbearable for them.

I'm curious what you think of his position, actually.

Continental intellectuals like Adorno tend to engage in a sort of commentary on these things that really is basically a form of poetic literature, and is not really to be taken as rigorous analysis, I don't think. That having been said, I think it can be read basically as agreeing with your point

the emotions contemporary [music] evoke[s] tend to be more complex, and darker or at least bittersweet.

i.e., that the new music was tapping into regions of thought-space that folks weren't used to having music go into. I think this is fair. The Schoenberg school can legitimately be considered a manifestation of the wider "expressionist" movement across the arts, which highlighted the darker sides of human psychology.

However, this isn't necessarily the case for post-Schoenberg music. Come to think of it, it isn't even the case for Schoenberg's later works (his twelve-tone period), which are better described as neoclassical. Though darkness returns in Moses und Aron, there isn't much of it in pieces like the Violin Concerto or Piano Concerto.

So I'm not sure inferential distance is the right metaphor. It seems to me that while the uninstructed listener may not understand the works of modern academics, they likely didn't understand the works of Beethoven either but were still able to enjoy them for emotions they evoked.

As you note in your own case, they can do likewise with contemporary music, if they're open-minded and musical enough.

However, we do have to eventually face the fact that contemporary music is simply of higher bandwidth than earlier music: more information is conveyed per unit time (on average), with less redundancy and reinforcement. One has to get used to this high level of information flow, and the speed and ease with which one gets used to it will depend on one's intelligence and musical background.

Where does like, John Adams fit into this? He seems fairly accessible to the uninstructed.

He was the second president of the United States. :-) Kidding, of course.

I'd put him in a similar category to Williams and Glass (i.e. toward the showbiz side of the continuum), but with perhaps slightly higher artistic aspirations. Maybe like John Harbison or Christopher Rouse, who are also said to be accessible to the uninstructed.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 10:32:02PM *  1 point [-]

weren't modern composition techniques pretty unpopular right away. It isn't like academic composers have been building off each other for decades with few listening and so now their music isn't intelligible. Rather the introduction of atonality, the 'liberation of dissonance' and moving off the diatonic scale were very rapid changes to music which were very alienating.

Pretty much. You have to be at least a bit of a mutant, or train to be one, to like that sort of thing. I think it's worth it, but I like it for its jarring qualities.

I think the key phrase here is: Your Mileage May Vary.

This prompted Adorno to say things like

The dissonances which horrify the public testify to their own condition and it is for this reason alone that they are unbearable for them.

I'm curious what you think of his position, actually.

That he was talking like an arrogant prat. But arrogance is hardly unknown amongst artists, and doesn't make his art bad.

Such clues as to the inside of the artist's head are often useful in reducing inferential distance - though, of course, what artists think they're doing and what they're actually doing can be widely disparate.

Comment author: Kevin 03 December 2010 09:58:22AM 2 points [-]

Link me to some obscure Beethoven-like academics? I'll give it a try.

http://eceserv0.ece.wisc.edu/~sethares/ttss.html is some random fun obscure academic music I came across on Hacker News the other day.

Comment author: komponisto 03 December 2010 07:08:10PM *  7 points [-]

Link me to some obscure Beethoven-like academics? I'll give it a try.

An ad-hoc (more-or-less-)top-of-my-head sampler, if you're really curious (sorted alphabetically by composer and chronologically by work):

Babbitt: 1948, 1954, 1964, 1984 1992, 2003

Carter: 1955, 1980, 1971, rehearsal of a 1995 work

Crumb: 1970

Dillon: 1992

Ferneyhough: 1980, 1997, 2006, 2007

First: 1999

Murail: 1983

Ran: 1991

Westergaard: 1958, 2006

Wuorinen: 1971 1984, 1998

Folks like these are the intellectual (if not "cultural") heirs of the "standard canon". Some of them are as good as the three B's (most of them are at least at the level of say, Schumann or Mendelssohn), and all of them are currently living academics (or former academics).

(Then, in addition, there are the European non-academics like Boulez, etc.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 December 2010 09:01:14PM 1 point [-]

For what it's worth, I tried listening to Ferneyhough 2007, and the first few minutes were fascinating. It was as though the music was playing something in the back of my mind. And then I ran out of attention.

Is the sort of music you listed especially dependent on good reproduction, or is youtube enough for a fair sampling?

Comment author: komponisto 07 December 2010 10:14:08PM *  0 points [-]

Is the sort of music you listed especially dependent on good reproduction, or is youtube enough for a fair sampling?

It's especially dependent on good performance, but I don't think recording quality is necessarily much more important than for works of earlier periods, at least above a certain minimum threshold. Certainly not for the works I listed, which I think are fairly represented by the linked recordings. (Excepting perhaps Carter's Variations for Orchestra, for which the audio is too soft.)

Comment author: Manfred 04 December 2010 06:15:11AM *  1 point [-]

Thank you for the list, it was interesting to listen to.

Not gonna lie, though, I got to Wuorinen's piano concerto and thought (roughly) "thank god! Something I can tap my foot to!"

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 December 2010 09:19:24PM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure how you could tap your foot to the Wuorinen concerto, but I listened to it and his Lepton, and enjoyed the energy level and variety of texture. I wonder if some of that could be brought into more accessible music.

Comment author: Manfred 08 December 2010 07:03:43PM 0 points [-]

It is possible that it was due to an ephemeral state brought on by listening to an hour of the other stuff. But:

I could tap my foot because the first beat of many measures was emphasized, and notes tended to have only a few lengths, which were integer multiples or divisions of one typical length, which in turn was an integer division of a measure. And I did tap my foot because the piano is more forgiving to "let's mess with octaves" moments, and the piece involved things like harmony and phrasing. There may even have been a cadence in there somewhere.

Comment author: SilasBarta 03 December 2010 07:16:58PM *  0 points [-]

And their music wouldn't necessarily be intelligible to you either, due to the musical analogue of inferential distance.

Wait, what's musical inference like? Is it anything like how you wouldn't truly appreciate the latest, top theologians because the theological analogue of inferential distance?

Edit: Looks like you gave an answer to this in the sibling thread, but I think the point still stands.

(You already know what I think about "You need years of study to appreciate this.")

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 07:26:15PM 2 points [-]

Inferential distance comes in because art is designed to push the buttons of people, firstly the artist, in a given time, place and culture. As distance and shared cultural vocabulary increase, inferential distance increases.

Comment author: SilasBarta 03 December 2010 07:30:25PM 1 point [-]

Inferential distance, or cliquishness? Is there a way to distinguish whether they're hitting some objective target, or are just agreeing to pat each other on the back?

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 07:36:49PM *  1 point [-]

Not really. But "are you really enjoying this or just pretending to enjoy this?" may be a technically meaningful question, but I doubt it's actually much of a useful one.

In any case, "Thank you, but no sir, I don't like it" is always a valid response. Since creating a subjective experience is THE WHOLE OF THE POINT of art.

(There's little more miserable as an actual fan of music than to find oneself listening to music that is merely objectively well constructed, particularly in a smoky pub, notepad in hand, charged with writing something about it.)

Though it can be entertaining in itself to nerd about the lines of memetic descent of the cultural vocabulary used and so on. One can justifiably feel quite clever about being able to do so. But that isn't the point. Unless, of course, for that person it is.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 09:14:49PM *  0 points [-]

(You already know what I think about "You need years of study to appreciate this.")

Are you claiming there are no such fields?

Even in music, it can take years before you figure out what's up with something. And programmes of training exist to get you there quicker.

(Whether you want to is an entirely separate matter. I find myself wondering what to do with 400kg of vinyl records. Stuff is a curse.)

Comment author: SilasBarta 03 December 2010 09:25:30PM *  4 points [-]

People appreciate air travel without study of aerospace engineering.

People appreciate being able to conduct secure transactions without study of cryptography.

People appreciate cell phones without study of EM physics and information theory.

And in case you think I'm limiting it to science/engineering:

People appreciate acrobats without study of acrobatics.

And the Beatles without study of musical history.

In all of these cases, the field, in a sense, forces you to care about it. You may not be able to understand its details, but you can't deny that there is a genuine achievement behind it that can't be faked.

In contrast, there are fields where the best thing you can say is that, well, the people who already invested a huge portion of their lives in it think it sure is swell... . What should I make of those?

Comment author: shokwave 04 December 2010 03:42:44AM 7 points [-]

People appreciate air travel without study of aerospace engineering.

But much less rarely do people appreciate a good plane without study of aerospace engineering. Exceptions would be people who think "a good plane" is a plane with reclining seats and champagne, and the stealth bomber.

In this sense, people can and do appreciate the Beatles without study of musical theory, but rarely can they appreciate 'classical masters' without it. (Of course, this is blurred by cultural and social forces requiring you to signal enjoyment and admiration for the names Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc)

I think the key point is

you can't deny that there is a genuine achievement behind it that can't be faked.

and that in some cases (classical master), it requires understanding of the specific field to recognise the achievement, and in other cases (Beatles) it doesn't. Or rather, it relies on something that's already present in the vast majority of humans, and so isn't considered a specific field. The Beatles were playing on understandings that were already present; current masters are playing on understandings that require training.

I think people without the specific understandings conflate "appeals to pre-existing understandings" with "good" and "doesn't appeal to (my) understandings" with "bad" - and that people with specific understandings conflate "appeals to pre-existing understandings" with "pandering to the unwashed masses" and "appeals to a specific understanding (which I value highly because I have sunk effort into)" with "good".

Comment author: SilasBarta 07 December 2010 12:44:17AM *  0 points [-]

But much less rarely do people appreciate a good plane without study of aerospace engineering.

Sure they do, by virtue of the fact that they appreciate that the (purported) good plane affords them opportunities that they like, and which can't be faked. They don't have to know all the details about the structure and engine to know that, "wow, this plane sure holds a lot of people, moves them a long way, very quickly, and does so in a way that I can afford".

The Beatles were playing on understandings that were already present; current masters are playing on understandings that require training.

But is that training in objective achievement, or in how well you know a clique's inside jokes? I claim that for academic art, it's the latter -- that there's no sense in which it's great other than "this group has decreed it so", just as it is with theology.

Comment author: shokwave 07 December 2010 06:30:44AM 2 points [-]

They don't have to know all the details about the structure and engine to know that, "wow, this plane sure holds a lot of people, moves them a long way, very quickly, and does so in a way that I can afford".

But could they look at a plane, without seeing it in action, and predict that it would very quickly move a lot of people a long distance in an affordable way? It doesn't seem like this metric could appreciate the differences between any of the main passenger planes in use.

But is that training in objective achievement, or in how well you know a clique's inside jokes?

I contend the former - the sense in which it's great (other than "approved by elites") is that it takes large amounts of effort and very refined skill.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 09:57:21PM *  4 points [-]

We're talking about aesthetics here, in which the end product is a subjective feeling in the listener's brain.

As such, a useful analogy would be you refusing to believe that a novel in a language you don't speak (say, The Brothers Karamazov in the original Russian) could possibly be better than Red vs Blue fanfic, because if it was you'd be able to read it, c.f. your list of analogies above.

That is: the key point your analogies above miss is the concept of inferential distance. Even if the inferential distance is huge (e.g. learning Russian), that doesn't make claims of the art's quality fraudulent.

What's annoying you, I suspect, is komponisto's apparent assertion that his chosen favourite music is not only good, but objectively the best music there is, and that the qualia one experiences from this music are the best available from music. This is ridiculous to me too. However, that there is inferential distance between you and the music does not make the music a fraud. This apparent assertion of yours is also ridiculous. The purpose of all forms of art appreciation course - degrees in music, a newspaper article, a record review - is to lessen the inferential distance to a given piece of art.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 02:18:30AM 4 points [-]

What's annoying you, I suspect, is komponisto's apparent assertion that his chosen favourite music is not only good, but objectively the best music there is, and that the qualia one experiences from this music are the best available from music.

I'd like to know which specific statements of mine give this impression, because that isn't what I see myself asserting.

From my perspective -- of having to endure a constant stream of casual remarks to the effect that contemporary music sucks, often coming from people who aren't particularly familiar with contemporary music, but think themselves sufficiently informed because they enjoy listening to Mozart to show off their own status -- I'm basically just defending the existence of the music I like. In the process, of course, I expressed enthusiasm for this music, and what I'm seeing here appears to be pushback from violating the social taboo against expressing high levels of enthusiasm (for pretty much anything).

Comment author: David_Gerard 07 December 2010 08:57:02AM *  0 points [-]

What's annoying you, I suspect, is komponisto's apparent assertion that his chosen favourite music is not only good, but objectively the best music there is, and that the qualia one experiences from this music are the best available from music.

I'd like to know which specific statements of mine give this impression, because that isn't what I see myself asserting.

I was looking through your posts, but this one appears to say precisely that.

No, it does not make you smarter than everyone else. Some people have more capacity than others, but you haven't magically hit the sweet spot for all of human music. That is the bit I'm seeing and going "that's ridiculous".

Art works by pressing buttons in someone's head and generating a subjective experience. The artist first, then others because humans in a particular time, place and (sub)culture will have similar enough buttons to be able to talk about them. Inferential distance kicks in when you take the art out of its time, place and (sub)culture, and at that point it may in fact take a degree's worth of bridging to get there (and to a huge number of other places as well).

Art is great for effect in general, not just for your carefully defined personal category of "interestingness" (and I can't find the post right now, but I recall you saying you were using your own personal definition of "IQ" as well). That presses your personal buttons very effectively, but it's not a universal button and - and this is the key point - it's not the greatest of all buttons.

Can simple art be effective? Can there be simple art that is more effective than complicated art? Here I include "simplicity on the far side of complexity" as "simple", though arguably one may not.

But hey - tell me I'm wrong.

Comment author: SilasBarta 07 December 2010 12:38:21AM 1 point [-]

That is: the key point your analogies above miss is the concept of inferential distance. Even if the inferential distance is huge (e.g. learning Russian), that doesn't make claims of the art's quality fraudulent.

I don't see how this comparison holds, since I can read a translation of TBK, and nothing I've said implies that not knowing the language it's written in suffices for any kind of dismissal. Certainly, you can enjoy it more if you learn Russian and read it in the original, but it probably wouldn't be worth the effort to do so just to enjoy this book (plus some other set) -- yet that's basically what's claimed of the top academic music/theology, and I hope you can see how that position is in error.

What's annoying you, I suspect, is komponisto's apparent assertion that his chosen favourite music is not only good, but objectively the best music there is, and that the qualia one experiences from this music are the best available from music.

I don't know if komponisto asserts this, but by selecting one clique's favored music (which cannot show its superiority in unfakeable tests), academia is saying something like this, and it is that position that I reject.

Comment author: David_Gerard 07 December 2010 12:46:25AM *  3 points [-]

I don't see how this comparison holds, since I can read a translation of TBK

OK then, you don't get that analogy. Do you believe it is possible to learn about a piece of art and understand much better what it's about where you didn't before, thus increasing the quality of your subjective experience of it?

(which cannot show its superiority in unfakeable tests)

This phrase reads like a mindboggling category error on the level of this Robin Hanson post. Could you detail what sort of tests you are thinking of, and preferably any past examples? I cannot imagine what you could possibly be thinking of which would actually usefully answer any question about art as far as someone interested in having a superior artistic experience is concerned.

Comment author: komponisto 03 December 2010 09:44:12PM 4 points [-]

In contrast, there are fields where the best thing you can say is that, well, the people who already invested a huge portion of their lives in it think it sure is swell... . What should I make of those?

Presumably, it depends what drove them to invest time in it in the first place.

If someone ended up as a advanced composer because they really liked Beethoven etc. when they were young, and subsequently followed their nose, up through Schoenberg, until they finally became Milton Babbitt, that should suggest that something may be going on other than a cynical pursuit of status.

Now, whether you would want to bother following a path to appreciation of contemporary music will depend quite simply on how much enjoyment you think you can get out of music in the first place.

And it should be noted that this is somewhat hypothetical anyway, because it's already been pointed out that non-specialists can and do enjoy advanced music.

The stigma against small groups of people experiencing large amounts of enjoyment -- as opposed to large groups of people experiencing small amounts of enjoyment -- ought to be abolished.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 06 December 2010 07:51:39PM 3 points [-]

This is a very credible short version of the argument you are making as I understand it.

Comment author: SilasBarta 07 December 2010 12:23:26AM 0 points [-]

So you think in that comment, komponisto has sufficiently broken the similarities I have cited to theology as an academic field? If so, please elaborate further about how you came to this conclusion.

Comment author: SilasBarta 07 December 2010 12:33:33AM *  2 points [-]

Okay, this clarifies our dispute greatly. Let me say, then, that my position here is not based on disliking "small groups that get large amounts of enjoyment". What distinguishes music as an academic field is this purported enjoyment plus the cultural capture -- the belief, which you keep repeating, that not enjoying the elite-designated music is a failing of the listener, and academia is the one that gets to make this call.

If there were a real accomplishment here, rather than a mere agreement to applaud other members of the clique, academic-produced music should outperform in blind tests, but it does not, and this is (mistakenly) dismissed as a failing on the listeners' part. But if you're going to permit yourself that standard, you can call absolutely anything great, and rook society into respecting it, as I have shown with the theology comparisons.

If you can hype up me the way Joshua Bell gets hyped up for his performances, then sure, I could command big fees for apparances. But this would say very little about what I have to offer.

So this has nothing to do with a stigma against small groups that have found a way to amuse themselves. No other group gets the academic respectability in the absence of objective results that art does -- except perhaps other lost academic fields. And all the answers you've given me could work just as well to "prove" anything good and excuse why it can't pass any objective test.

Comment author: komponisto 07 December 2010 07:38:23AM *  1 point [-]

What distinguishes music as an academic field is this purported enjoyment plus the cultural capture -- the belief, which you keep repeating, that not enjoying the elite-designated music is a failing of the listener, and academia is the one that gets to make this call.

I think we need to taboo the highlighted term.

There are, in fact, cognitive/intellectual prerequisites to being able to enjoy music. This shouldn't be surprising: chimpanzees presumably don't get human-level enjoyment out of the Beatles, much less Beethoven. (And even if they do, mice still don't, etc.) I doubt the infant Beethoven would have appreciated the works of his adult self. And so likewise, some humans (like my current self) are better equipped to appreciate Ferneyhough than others (like my 12-year-old-self).

It occurs to me that what this argument is really about is status. I read you as resisting the idea that the kind of abilities involved in being able to enjoy academic music are something that one should be awarded status for possessing. I think this may be because you misunderstand the nature of those abilities.

(It's very important, by the way, to understand that we're not talking about aesthetic evaluation, at this point. We're talking about the ability to hear the music as music, as opposed to incoherent nonsense. Only after you can actually perceive the musical structure of a piece can you begin to talk about the extent to which that structure suits your own personal tastes. But most people who say they "don't like" contemporary art music aren't at that stage; what they are expressing is the fact that contemporary music sounds like nonsense to them, and they are mistaking their non-enjoyment of nonsense for aesthetic disagreement, evidently not quite realizing that the music actually sounds different to people who "get" it.)

If there were a real accomplishment here, rather than a mere agreement to applaud other members of the clique, academic-produced music should outperform in blind tests

Outperform what, in what kind of test? What test does a piece of music have to pass for you to consider it a "real accomplishment"?

Meanwhile, I have some empirical predictions for you. If any of these were able to be decisively falsified, I would be confused and would have to reevaluate my model:

  • The average IQ of the population of Beethoven enthusiasts should be higher than the average IQ of Beatles enthusiasts, and lower than the average IQ of Schoenberg enthusiasts.

  • Among professional musicians, enthusiasm for the music of Schoenberg should be positively correlated with IQ to an even greater extent than among the general population. (High-IQ should be greater evidence of Schoenberg enthusiasm conditioning on the person being a professional musician.)

  • People who enjoy Beethoven should perform better on aural skills tests (sight-singing and musical dictation) than people who don't. This should be true to a lesser extent if "Beethoven" is replaced by "the Beatles", and to a greater extent if "Beethoven" is replaced by "Schoenberg".

Comment author: wedrifid 03 December 2010 09:58:22PM 1 point [-]

Now, whether you would want to bother following a path to appreciation of contemporary music will depend quite simply on how much enjoyment you think you can get out of music in the first place.

Quite simply seems simply mistaken, even if you are mentioning one important factor.

If someone ended up as a advanced composer because they really liked Beethoven etc. when they were young, and subsequently followed their nose, up through Schoenberg, until they finally became Milton Babbitt, that should suggest that something may be going on other than a cynical pursuit of status.

Yes, the pursuit of status without cynicism.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 10:45:52PM 1 point [-]

In my experience of this sort of thing, it's motivated by the pursuit of a personal obsession. I've watched this in the rabid variety of record collector, back in the '80s and '90s when this sort of thing could be difficult and expensive. I've been that record collector. It involves turning into an obsessive crank, at a penalty to status.

Comment author: komponisto 03 December 2010 09:00:41PM 0 points [-]

(You already know what I think about "You need years of study to appreciate this.")

If you can do it in less time, so much the better.

Comment author: SilasBarta 03 December 2010 09:05:57PM -2 points [-]

That's just compounding the error -- for comparison: "If you can appreciate the current top theological innovations without having gone to seminary, hey, all the better -- that's proof of your worth, rather than our own cliquishness!"

Comment author: multifoliaterose 26 November 2010 04:21:25AM 0 points [-]

(And their music wouldn't necessarily be intelligible to you either, due to the musical analogue of inferential distance.)

Any recommendations for those familiar with Baroque/Classical/Romantic music and interested in bridging the musical analogue of inferential distance here?

Comment author: komponisto 26 November 2010 07:01:14AM *  1 point [-]

Proceed chronologically, and gradually. Start with the latest/most advanced period or school that you can currently comprehend, and increase to the next one above. After you've "mastered" the next one, iterate. (Of course, there isn't exactly a total ordering, but it's close enough for this to work.)

For example, if you can "handle" late Mahler, you should be able to handle early Schoenberg (which actually came before late Mahler, as it happens). In which case you should try your hand at middle Schoenberg.

After you've mastered late Schoenberg (and Webern and Berg, etc), you're ready for postwar music. When you get to the point where the most advanced pieces of the 1950s and 60s, say, are comprehensible to the point where you can sing them to yourself from memory without having heard them in a while, then you will probably find the advanced music of our own time to be reasonably accessible.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 November 2010 06:10:46PM 0 points [-]

Thanks; I'll try listening to Schoenberg's works chronologically.

Comment author: komponisto 29 November 2010 08:50:27PM 0 points [-]

For that project, you may find the Arnold Schoenberg Center's website very useful. (It offers free online streaming of essentially all his works, though the recordings used aren't always the best; I'd recommend supplementing with other recordings.)

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 November 2010 11:09:04PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for the recommendation. This looks like it might be useful.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 25 November 2010 07:55:09AM 0 points [-]

What do you mean by "at the same level of Beethoven?"

I can easily imagine that there are composers who you personally appreciate as much as Beethoven, but in line with Nancy Lebovitz's comment I think that one should hesitate to have too much confidence in the general "subjectively objective" appeal of one's personal favorites among contemporary artists.

Comment author: komponisto 25 November 2010 02:49:30PM *  1 point [-]

What do you mean by "at the same level of Beethoven?"

"Of a level of sophistication relative to their peers and predecessors comparable to Beethoven's level relative to his."

I can easily imagine that there are composers who you personally appreciate as much as Beethoven

Ironically, this isn't true. Because Beethoven happens to be a personal favorite, I didn't take Vassar's question literally, but instead interpreted it to mean "are there any contemporary composers at the level of {Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.}?"

I think that one should hesitate to have too much confidence in the general "subjectively objective" appeal of one's personal favorites among contemporary artists

My confidence lies not in the "general appeal" of any particular favorite composer of mine, but rather in the proposition that there currently exist people who are doing the-thing-that-Beethoven-was-doing.

Another way to put it would be that if a genetic twin of Beethoven were born in this era, he would with high probability grow up to be a member of the set of people I'm referring to.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 02 December 2010 07:17:53AM 3 points [-]

Huh? You go on telling us how skilled you are at appreciating music with lines about inferential distance etc and then you put Brahms at Beethoven's and Bach's level?

I'm totally convinced that visual artists became less accessible with time as their 'inferential distance' increased, and ditto authors, but in both cases its commonplace for the good moderns to demonstrate their ability to do work of the sort that older artists did.

In contemporary symphonic music, John Williams and Phillip Glass dominate the field and far more people still listen to the older composers. If you and your academic friends are much better, why don't any of you prove it by out-competing them? It would obviously be lucrative to do so if you could be as popular as they once were. I'd really like to listen to some modern operas with the musical quality of older operas but better plotting and characterization. I can't be alone in that respect.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 December 2010 01:35:27AM 2 points [-]

It's remarkable that classical music is the only field where people have to be tempted to listen to new work by having old music in the program.

It's as though publishers couldn't get an audience for Rowling unless a few chapters of Dickens were thrown in.

I'm not sure it's possible to improve operas with better plotting and characterization. If I understand the purpose of opera, it's to have rapidly changing highly intense emotions, and this may be inconsistent with more realism than is already typical.

Comment author: komponisto 02 December 2010 06:37:08PM *  0 points [-]

Huh? You go on telling us how skilled you are at appreciating music with lines about inferential distance etc and then you put Brahms at Beethoven's and Bach's level?

No; the whole point was that I was "modding out" by levels of "greatness" that I didn't perceive as relevant to the fundamental intent of your question. In other words, I was ignoring the difference between Bach and Brahms. Just as most people who take your point of view do -- they express skepticism that there is anybody at the level of Brahms around today.

I'm totally convinced that visual artists became less accessible with time as their 'inferential distance' increased, and ditto authors, but in both cases its commonplace for the good moderns to demonstrate their ability to do work of the sort that older artists did.

Musicians do this too! It's a standard part of one's training as a composer to learn to write imitations of older styles, such as Baroque fugues, Classical minuets, etc, etc.

And, given the situation in other arts, which you acknowledge, why would you expect otherwise in music? What would account for the difference?

In contemporary symphonic music, John Williams and Phillip Glass dominate the field and far more people still listen to the older composers. If you and your academic friends are much better, why don't any of you prove it by out-competing them?

I don't say that "we" are better than they are at what they do, and I don't claim that what they do is necessarily easy. But what they do isn't the same thing as what we do. They're optimizing for different criteria.

They don't "dominate the field". They've achieved high cultural status while doing something that looks sort-of similar to "the field".

In the old days (i.e. the 19th century), there wasn't as much difference; you could get lots more status by doing what we do, because at that time you could effectively do both things simultaneously. That just isn't possible nowadays; while e.g. Brahms could write the most advanced music of the day (and yes, it was; see Schoenberg's essay "Brahms the Progressive"), and also achieve high status in contemporary culture, if you try to do the former today, you won't do the latter, and vice-versa.

This is exactly what you would expect if you understand the notion of inferential distance. Frankly, I have hardly ever come across serious arguments for the contrary position, i.e. a detailed theory explaining why no modern composers are "as good" as Brahms. (*) Most people claiming this simply take it for granted that popular reknown is the optimization target.

(*) A huge exception would be e.g. the work of Heinrich Schenker -- an extreme anti-populist whose disdain for Williams and Glass would have easily rivaled his contempt for Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 03 December 2010 04:23:10AM 7 points [-]

Is it your contention that modern musicians write Clasical minuets and Baroque fugues which are in some cases better than the best of the older works that are still listened to, but that no-one cares because much of the value of those works is in their role in a canon?

I could easily believe that in those cases, but I simply don't believe it in the case of Opera. The Opera cannon is just not very large. Some people have heard the whole thing and only like a few dozen operas. It doesn't seem likely that there isn't demand among such people for higher quality new material in old styles, so if no new material is becoming popular then the un-met demand makes me think that contemporary music students are failing to produce work that this audience actually values due to now knowing how to replicate the merits of older compositions.

It should really be pretty easy to do a controlled experiment with a naive population to see how common it is for modern artists to be able to impress an audience as much as their 18th and 19th century precursors did.

I'm seriously interested in someone performing some experiments on this subject. It seems to me that it would provide an extremely practically important measurement of the quality of university education in fields inaccessible to outsiders, but I don't expect to be able to attract funding for such research because it sounds impractical at the face of it.

I guess that my major reason for holding the contrary position was largely because modern musicians and composers, more than painters and authors, are the results of university education and I fairly strongly suspect university education of destorying artistic ability and distracting artists with intellectual games that simply lack the merits of the fields that the academic subjects are derived from. I suspect this in math as much as in music, and I think Von Neumann agreed with me, as this quote suggests.

"As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source, or still more, if it is a second or third generation only indirectly inspired by ideas coming from ‘reality’, it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing, more and more purely l’art pour l’art. This need not be bad, if the field is surrounded by correlated subjects, which still have closer empirical connections, or if the discipline is under the influence of men with an exceptionally well-developed taste. But there is a grave danger that the subject will develop along the line of least resistance, that the stream, so far from its source, will separate into a multitude of insignificant branches, and that the discipline will become a disorganized mass of details and complexities. In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much ‘abstract’ inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration."

Comment author: multifoliaterose 03 December 2010 10:11:17AM *  3 points [-]

Is it your contention that modern musicians write Clasical minuets and Baroque fugues which are in some cases better than the best of the older works that are still listened to, but that no-one cares because much of the value of those works is in their role in a canon?

I myself would guess that none of the works produced over the past hundred years would be judged by the majority of an impartial audience to be significantly more compelling than (for example) Bach's Chaconne.

It should really be pretty easy to do a controlled experiment with a naive population to see how common it is for modern artists to be able to impress an audience as much as their 18th and 19th century precursors did.

I'm seriously interested in someone performing some experiments on this subject.

Same here.

I guess that my major reason for holding the contrary position was largely because modern musicians and composers, more than painters and authors, are the results of university education and I fairly strongly suspect university education of destorying artistic ability and distracting artists with intellectual games that simply lack the merits of the fields that the academic subjects are derived from. I suspect this in math as much as in music, and I think Von Neumann agreed with me, as this quote suggests.

I'm impressed that you're familiar with the Von Neumann quote (which is sadly little known in the mathematical community but which my friend Laurens is fond of); but on the face of things it doesn't seem to directly support your paragraph above. Explain further if you'd like?

Several points here:

  1. My impression is that there are issues of bad social/cultural institutions destroying artistic ability outside of academia. I have some friends artistically genuine who have spent some time as painters and become disillusioned with the signaling games and hypocrisy present within the communities of painters that they've come across. Note that fledging painters and authors face greater financial pressures than academics and that this can lead to perverse incentives (to appeal to the lowest common denominator or to current fashions for greater marketability). See Minhyong Kim's comment here.

  2. The absence of new empirical sources for mathematics seems to me more a consequence of the stagnation of theoretical physics than the social structure of the mathematical community.

  3. In my own view insufficient emphasis on exposition has played a significant role in whatever stagnation has occurred within the mathematical community since, e.g. the 1800's. The barrier to entry has gotten progressively higher as mathematics has developed and in such a setting, in absence of strong efforts to to cast background material in an accessible and readily digestible form, the pressures toward specialization and fragmentation get progressively stronger. There aren't career-based incentives for expository work so mathematicians who are interested in exposition either conform to the research-based publish or perish norms or leave.

  4. I'd be happy to compile an annotated list of relatively accessible survey papers if you'd be interested and find it useful for getting a sense for the state of some of contemporary mathematical research.

Comment author: SilasBarta 03 December 2010 07:44:35PM 2 points [-]

I'm seriously interested in someone performing some experiments on this subject.

Is the Joshua Bell experiment the kind of thing you had in mind? If so, it pretty conclusively confirms your suspicions.

Fame feeds on fame, status on status. Which is why it's all the more important to constantly check that a field hasn't lost its moorings.

Comment author: komponisto 03 December 2010 07:52:02AM *  1 point [-]

Is it your contention that modern musicians write Clasical minuets and Baroque fugues which are in some cases better than the best of the older works that are still listened to, but that no-one cares because much of the value of those works is in their role in a canon?

Depending on who you're considering to be doing the caring and not-caring, this may very well be an apt description of the situation. But the main point I would make is that these are student exercises. Writing works in older styles is a skill that one learns in school; it's very much like how math students are asked to re-prove theorems of Euler or Cauchy. You may be seen as a genius if you rediscover the proof of the fundamental theorem of algebra, but nobody's going to give you the same kind of credit they give Gauss. Likewise writing a really great fugue in your counterpoint class isn't going to make you Bach. Part of the reason is that Bach already did this stuff (so you're not in the "canon"), but also when Bach was doing it it was at the frontier of musical thought, which it isn't today, as evidenced by the fact that it is taught to undergraduates. Whereas Bach's challenge was to be as inventive as possible, today's students have to be as inventive as possible while still sounding like eighteenth-century music, which is a challenge of a different kind, and will tend to produce different musical results.

I could easily believe that in those cases, but I simply don't believe it in the case of Opera. The Opera cannon is just not very large. Some people have heard the whole thing and only like a few dozen operas.

First of all, the total number of operas written since the form was invented (something like 40,000, if I recall correctly) is much larger than any single human could plausibly have heard. You must be talking about the active repertory of famous opera houses, which is indeed probably something like a few dozen. However, there are good reasons apart from artistic merit to expect that the number of operas in regular production would be small: namely, staging an opera is typically a very costly and laborious undertaking. (So is composing one, by the way, which is why doing so is not a typical student exercise the same way writing a fugue is.) This will push toward conservatism in repertory selection, with companies sticking to the pieces they already know "work". There are all kinds of obscure operas by great composers (such as Handel) that have only recently begun to see the light of day for this reason, and being by such composers, their artistic quality is quite high. If folks want more old operas, there's plenty of digging to be done (and it's being done).

It should really be pretty easy to do a controlled experiment with a naive population to see how common it is for modern artists to be able to impress an audience as much as their 18th and 19th century precursors did.

It would be very hard to find a truly naive audience with enough musical ability to make the results of interest. Best you could do would probably be musically gifted children who had been deliberately kept uneducated in music history. (Then you'd have to ask what the appropriate age is, etc.)

That said, if it could be done, I'd be all in favor of doing it. My prediction would be that there wouldn't be much of a difference between the perceived "impressiveness" of actual Baroque fugues and the best imitations of Baroque fugues from today.

I guess that my major reason for holding the contrary position was largely because modern musicians and composers, more than painters and authors, are the results of university education and I fairly strongly suspect university education of destorying artistic ability and distracting artists with intellectual games that simply lack the merits of the fields that the academic subjects are derived from

Let me be clear: this absolutely does go on, no question. But it probably goes on in all fields that have university departments -- including (as you note), math, and yes, the empirical sciences. And my suspicion is that while it may give mediocre practitioners of a field the illusion that they're doing better and more important work than they are, it doesn't actually stop the best folks from doing genuinely high quality work. (At least not all of them.)

However, if that's your theory, what then do you think of European "modernist" composers, who are similarly "inaccessible" but have less association with universities?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 December 2010 08:04:18PM 0 points [-]

A slightly different point, but when I brought up the possibility of current composers writing in the old styles and thus creating attractive music, several people told me that it's simply too hard to write music in an old style.

There seemed to be a strong consensus there, but perhaps the problem is that they were applying too high a standard of authenticity. I'd be content with music which supplied many of the pleasures of baroque or classical-- it doesn't have to pass for period music to a well-informed listener.


I have a notion that you can tell which sf artists have been to art school. The composition, anatomy, and perspective are all excellent, but there's no sense of motion.

When I say it's a notion, I mean that I haven't checked it in any way, it just seems like a plausible way of explaining paintings with those characteristics.


So far as mathematics is concerned, aren't there two streams-- empirical and for the pleasure of the mathematicians? Neither of these are the same as working on whatever math is publishable, though.

Comment author: Vaniver 02 December 2010 07:10:24PM 3 points [-]

They don't "dominate the field". They've achieved high cultural status while doing something that looks sort-of similar to "the field".

As an example, I'm more familiar with the work of Jeremy Soule than I am with the work of Stravinsky. That's not at all a statement about their relative quality as composers, just a statement that one of them makes soundtracks for video games. And while they're very nice, I can't help but imagine that a lot of my affection for his pieces comes from the emotional attachment to the games they were in.

But I've also got to point out that in aesthetic fields, when you get to the point where inferential distance makes laymen unable to appreciate what you're doing, you've gone from creation to masturbation.

I go to art museums from time to time and am struck by the difference in captions as you move from medieval art to contemporary art: the captions for the medieval art tell you who everyone in the picture is (because you're unlikely to recognize St. Augustine by looking at him or his symbols), but the art speaks for itself. The captions for the contemporary art have to tell you not just the symbolism but also the subject. Many of them were essentially performance art, which disgusted me pretty deeply. That may actually be a better way to put it- if your work is best understood as performance art, you should change fields.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 December 2010 01:49:17PM 7 points [-]

I went to a few lectures on mathematical music theory once. I've forgotten most of it, but I recall learning that most of the music I can enjoy (pre-1900 Western classical, 20th century pop and rock) is, structurally, confined to a very special case among all the possible scales that a music system could be built on. Someone like Schoenberg is to all the other music I listen to, as Mars is to all the different continents of the earth.

(Aside: remember the scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where the aliens communicate in music? I saw it again recently, and it cracked me up, because it was obviously trying to sound "alien" but it really wasn't. It sounded like the tricky part of a Leonard Bernstein piece. There's much more "alien" music right here on this planet!)

So I think Beethoven really might have been more accessible to the listeners of his day than contemporary classical music is to us. Beethoven, at least, wrote his symphonies in the same key as an ordinary folk ditty. (Sometimes he even kept the ditty!)

I'm not sure how possible it is to adapt one's ear so that a totally new scale sounds pleasant. I can't listen to much classical music past Stravinsky and get any pleasure out of it. But then again, I first listened to Indian classical music in adolescence, and that has a completely different structure than Western music, and it sounded good to me instantly, no inferential distance at all.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 December 2010 01:39:44AM 4 points [-]

But I've also got to point out that in aesthetic fields, when you get to the point where inferential distance makes laymen unable to appreciate what you're doing, you've gone from creation to masturbation.

That's a little much-- there's plenty of art which appeals to specialist audiences (hard science fiction, for example-- most people aren't going to have much fun with Diaspora), but which is still a meaningful effort by the artist.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 02 December 2010 07:35:59PM 2 points [-]

But I've also got to point out that in aesthetic fields, when you get to the point where inferential distance makes laymen unable to appreciate what you're doing, you've gone from creation to masturbation.

What you've done is go from creating art for a lay audience to creating art for a specialized audience.

I agree that the extreme form of this is creating art for the enjoyment of nobody but you (aka masturbation), but there are interim stages along the way that are meaningfully distinct.

Comment author: komponisto 02 December 2010 07:34:05PM *  1 point [-]

But I've also got to point out that in aesthetic fields, when you get to the point where inferential distance makes laymen unable to appreciate what you're doing, you've gone from creation to masturbation.

That's an unnecessarily loaded, rhetorical way to state your point of view. So if you don't meet a certain "laymen appreciation" quota, then you're literally not creating anymore? That's silly, of course.

And of course I hardly need mention the negative connotations of "masturbation".

But the point is substantively wrong, also -- or, at any rate, you're assuming the conclusion you need to prove: that the value of art depends only on the ability of laymen (large numbers of them, presumably, since I doubt it would suffice for me to exhibit particular examples) to directly appreciate it.

My fifth-grade classmates used to make a similar argument with respect to Beethoven: since I was the only one in the class who liked his work, he was clearly a failure as a composer.

Likewise, I suspect you (and others who say things like this) are probably just insufficiently aware of the community of people who appreciate contemporary art music. It's unfortunate that there's currently so little intersection between that community and this one; but that community exists nonetheless.

Comment author: David_Gerard 07 December 2010 09:20:09AM 1 point [-]

On the other hand, I saw Artist's shit at the Tate Modern and literally spent five minutes laughing. IT IS PERFECT AND BRILLIANT. If you want the simplicity on the far side of complexity, that's it. (... in a can.)

Comment author: multifoliaterose 26 November 2010 04:20:09AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for your response.

"Of a level of sophistication relative to their peers and predecessors comparable to Beethoven's level relative to his."

"Sophistication" can be read in several ways. Do you mean something like "technical intricacy"?

The relevant variable for me personally is subjective aesthetic response. Have you found contemporary composers to whom you've had as strong a positive aesthetic response as Bach or Brahms? From what you've written elsewhere I would guess that the answer is "yes" but asking to make sure that I understand.

My confidence lies not in the "general appeal" of any particular favorite composer of mine, but rather in the proposition that there currently exist people who are doing the-thing-that-Beethoven-was-doing.

How do you characterize the-thing-that-Beethoven was doing?

Another way to put it would be that if a genetic twin of Beethoven were born in this era, he would with high probability grow up to be a member of the set of people I'm referring to.

At present I believe otherwise, but you have more subject matter knowledge than I do. I would be interested in seeing you flesh out your thoughts here.

Comment author: komponisto 26 November 2010 06:19:38AM *  1 point [-]

"Sophistication" can be read in several ways. Do you mean something like "technical intricacy"?

Well, I suppose your use of the phrase "something like" would allow me to get by with a simple "yes". However, I reserve the right to ADBOC if necessary.

My choice of synonym would be "interestingness". Basically, music that, whatever its particular rhetorical, programmatic, or "emotive" features, sounds like it was written by somebody in the 140+ IQ range.

The relevant variable for me personally is subjective aesthetic response.

Surely you realize that that's just a fancy way of saying "what I care about is how much I like it." This is a step in the wrong direction: a de-reduction rather than a reduction of the concept we're trying to explicate.

I mean, obviously the same is true for me also.

Have you found contemporary composers to whom you've had as strong a positive aesthetic response as Bach or Brahms?

Yes, of course!

How do you characterize the-thing-that-Beethoven was doing?

Writing maximally interesting music.

Another way to put it would be that if a genetic twin of Beethoven were born in this era, he would with high probability grow up to be a member of the set of people I'm referring to.

At present I believe otherwise,

My curiosity is roused. What kind of musician would you predict that a modern genetic twin of Beethoven would most likely become? What predictions does your model make about the music that a modern composer would have written if he or she had been born in 1770?

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 November 2010 06:09:15PM 0 points [-]

Well, I suppose your use of the phrase "something like" would allow me to get by with a simple "yes". However, I reserve the right to ADBOC if necessary.

This is fair.

My choice of synonym would be "interestingness". Basically, music that, whatever its particular rhetorical, programmatic, or "emotive" features, sounds like it was written by somebody in the 140+ IQ range.

Is IQ really the factor that you want to highlight here? I would guess that 90+% of people with 140+ IQ are incapable of writing music that I find compelling.

Surely you realize that that's just a fancy way of saying "what I care about is how much I like it." This is a step in the wrong direction: a de-reduction rather than a reduction of the concept we're trying to explicate.

I mean, obviously the same is true for me also.

My statement was nonvacuous; as far as I can tell there are people who judge works of art based on criteria other than subjective aesthetic response. Thanks for clarifying. I used "subjective aesthetic response" rather than "how much one likes it" for the connotations.

Have you found contemporary composers to whom you've had as strong a positive aesthetic response as Bach or Brahms?

Yes, of course!

Here too, my question was not vacuous; there are people who I know who would answer in the negative. I myself would answer in the negative though this should be understood in the context of me having spent relatively little time with contemporary composers.

My curiosity is roused. What kind of musician would you predict that a modern genetic twin of Beethoven would most likely become? What predictions does your model make about the music that a modern composer would have written if he or she had been born in 1770?

Will respond when I have some more time.

Comment author: komponisto 29 November 2010 08:10:44PM *  1 point [-]

Is IQ really the factor that you want to highlight here? I would guess that 90+% of people with 140+ IQ are incapable of writing music that I find compelling.

As you know, P(A|B) != P(B|A). It's not that most high-IQ folks are capable of writing interesting music, but rather that almost no non-high-IQ folks are. (It may be useful to recall what I mean by IQ, which isn't necessarily what people immediately think of when they hear the term, but is what I believe they should think of.)

This should make sense when you consider that music is ultimately generated from the composer's stream-of-consciousness; and the higher one's IQ, the more interesting one's stream-of-consciousness tends to be. (This is almost tautological given my conception of IQ.)

My statement was nonvacuous; as far as I can tell there are people who judge works of art based on criteria other than subjective aesthetic response.

To a large degree, this impression probably exists due to communication difficulties, in particular a vocabulary far too impoverished to adequately reflect the complexity of aesthetic value.

Many (not all, but a nontrivial subset) of the people you're talking about, I would venture, will have conceded more than necessary when they agree that they're using criteria other than "subjective aesthetic response" to judge the value of a work.

(EDIT: I am led to suspect this because you contrasted "subjective aesthetic response" not with, say, the number of people who say they like it, but rather with "technical intricacy".)

[Have you found contemporary composers to whom you've had as strong a positive aesthetic response as Bach or Brahms?] Yes, of course!

Here too, my question was not vacuous; there are people who I know who would answer in the negative.

The "of course" here was meant to suggest not that your question was vacuous, but rather that you were perhaps a bit overly timid in inferring my answer previously. :-)

Will respond when I have some more time.

Looking forward to it.

Comment author: David_Gerard 26 November 2010 02:18:56PM 0 points [-]

I suspect they'd do the best they could in the situation they found themselves in. e.g. A genetic copy of Shakespeare might well become a writer, and an excellent one, but I don't see that he'd necessarily find himself working in theatre. (It's almost a cliche to assert that these days Shakespeare would be in Hollywood.)

Comment author: andrewc 04 April 2009 12:27:54AM 2 points [-]

More part-time and/or amateur scientists would be a good thing. This is more difficult today because there are fewer projects that one person, or even a handful of people can do on their own.

The canonical examples of 'big science' are the humane genome project, particle physics and atmospheric prediction. All three rely on massive international investment in infrastructure, the coordinated contributions of many specialists, and research programs with very long timelines, and where progress is mostly incremental (another bug sequenced, another 0.1 improvement in anomaly correlation, another dB of evidence in favour of some micro-theory).

That's not to say there are no problems left that a genius in a garage can't attack, just that it seems to me they are fewer than back in Lord Kelvin's day, and that the big problems that most of agree we want to solve require massive cooperation: the only effective system we have yet devised for this is via national science agencies.

Comment author: soreff 07 December 2010 03:23:04AM 0 points [-]

The canonical examples of 'big science' are the humane genome project, particle physics and atmospheric prediction.

Also controlled fusion (both ICF and most magnetic bottle approaches)

Comment author: MichaelVassar 31 March 2009 11:35:56PM 1 point [-]

Much more so than today not just per scientist but even compared to world population. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18625066.500-entering-a-dark-age-of-innovation.html

Comment author: CannibalSmith 30 March 2009 01:05:41PM *  1 point [-]

But by and large, the answer to the question "How do large institutions survive?" is "They don't!"

What???

Comment author: nescius 31 March 2009 04:22:30AM 2 points [-]

I also found this confusing. The interpretation that I came up with which made sense was that "They don't!" is meant to mean "mu" (being an interjection to say that the premise of the question is false) and that "large institutions" is a stylistically unqualified reference to public-benefit institutions directly supported by individuals. The false premise is that large (individually-supported, public-benefit) institutions exist, from which we could ask how.

The double whammy was momentarily confounding and a bit fun, but resulted in some forum heat loss and annoyance.

Comment author: Strange7 07 December 2010 04:57:18AM 1 point [-]

You can't volunteer; it's a job for specialists.

In some Greek myth there's a fleet heading off to war - an important endeavor, involving a group of more than 50 people - but they get held up by some bad weather. After exhausting all the usual remedies, the fleet's leadership determines that the gods have to be appeased by some extreme measure, so he summons his daughter from home and sacrifices her. It's all very sad, but it works; the storm abates and the war can proceed.

Have we considered encouraging people to donate to science in a similar way? Not ritual murder, of course. Sacrificing a child in a more figurative sense. Produce more children than you otherwise planned to, send the spares off to be trained (from a very young age, making best use of that precious neural plasticity) as specialists in whatever field will be most needful 20 years down the road.

Comment author: denisbider 11 May 2011 12:33:45AM *  2 points [-]

I don't think the lack of scientists is the issue. The issue is others providing all the engineering and support that scientists need - to survive in the first place, and then to get science done.

If you want to continue your example of sacrificing a child, a more effective proposal would be to have extra children and bond them into near-slavery, taxing them at some high amount so as to support those who do science.

But that would be a real sacrifice, and most would not find the idea pleasing.

Comment author: Nornagest 11 May 2011 12:58:07AM *  1 point [-]

I think the myth you're thinking of is of Agamemnon and Iphigenia. It might not bear all that much on your broader point, but one possibly relevant difference is that Agamemnon was told to sacrifice Iphigenia by a prophet of the goddess holding up his fleet; he wasn't doing it on spec, but in response to a specific one-time demand, and perhaps more importantly to absolve himself of a personal mistake.

The medieval European approach to producing clergymen (roughly: make more heirs than you need and send the spares to the Church, preferably with generous donations to smooth over any difficulties) might make a better analogy.

Comment author: soreff 07 December 2010 03:38:17AM *  1 point [-]

There are only big taxers, big traders, supermemes, occasional individuals of great power; and a few other organizations, like Science, that can fasten parasitically onto them.

I agree with your general point about funding Science. I agree with your general point about there being more potentially beneficial large scale institutions than actually exist.

I think that there are a small handful of additional types of large organizations which do manage to exist in addition to the types you've listed:

  • coordinated buying clubs (not quite the same as big traders)
  • member-supported testing labs (consumer reports and underwriters' laboratories)
  • unions
  • universities
  • armies
  • (religious organizations are perhaps the same as supermemes - yet they also have organizational structures that are somewhat separate from the memes themselves)

Each of these is beyond the 50 person ancestral limit.