Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Making History Available

49 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 August 2007 07:52PM

Followup toFailing to Learn from History

There is a habit of thought which I call the logical fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence, which deserves a blog post in its own right, one of these days.  Journalists who, for example, talk about the Terminator movies in a report on AI, do not usually treat Terminator as a prophecy or fixed truth.  But the movie is recalled—is available—as if it were an illustrative historical case.  As if the journalist had seen it happen on some other planet, so that it might well happen here.  More on this in Section 6 of this paper.

There is an inverse error to generalizing from fictional evidence: failing to be sufficiently moved by historical evidence.  The trouble with generalizing from fictional evidence is that it is fiction—it never actually happened.  It's not drawn from the same distribution as this, our real universe; fiction differs from reality in systematic ways.  But history has happened, and should be available.

In our ancestral environment, there were no movies; what you saw with your own eyes was true.  Is it any wonder that fictions we see in lifelike moving pictures have too great an impact on us?  Conversely, things that really happened, we encounter as ink on paper; they happened, but we never saw them happen.  We don't remember them happening to us.

The inverse error is to treat history as mere story, process it with the same part of your mind that handles the novels you read.  You may say with your lips that it is "truth", rather than "fiction", but that doesn't mean you are being moved as much as you should be.  Many biases involve being insufficiently moved by dry, abstract information.

Once upon a time, I gave a Mysterious Answer to a mysterious question, not realizing that I was making exactly the same mistake as astrologers devising mystical explanations for the stars, or alchemists devising magical properties of matter, or vitalists postulating an opaque "elan vital" to explain all of biology.

When I finally realized whose shoes I was standing in, there was a sudden shock of unexpected connection with the past.  I realized that the invention and destruction of vitalism—which I had only read about in books—had actually happened to real people, who experienced it much the same way I experienced the invention and destruction of my own mysterious answer.  And I also realized that if I had actually experienced the past—if I had lived through past scientific revolutions myself, rather than reading about them in history books—I probably would not have made the same mistake again.  I would not have come up with another mysterious answer; the first thousand lessons would have hammered home the moral.

So (I thought), to feel sufficiently the force of history, I should try to approximate the thoughts of an Eliezer who had lived through history—I should try to think as if everything I read about in history books, had actually happened to me.  (With appropriate reweighting for the availability bias of history books—I should remember being a thousand peasants for every ruler.)  I should immerse myself in history, imagine living through eras I only saw as ink on paper.

Why should I remember the Wright Brothers' first flight?  I was not there.  But as a rationalist, could I dare to not remember, when the event actually happened?  Is there so much difference between seeing an event through your eyes—which is actually a causal chain involving reflected photons, not a direct connection—and seeing an event through a history book?  Photons and history books both descend by causal chains from the event itself.

I had to overcome the false amnesia of being born at a particular time.  I had to recall—make availableall the memories, not just the memories which, by mere coincidence, belonged to myself and my own era.

The Earth became older, of a sudden.

To my former memory, the United States had always existed—there was never a time when there was no United States.  I had not remembered, until that time, how the Roman Empire rose, and brought peace and order, and lasted through so many centuries, until I forgot that things had ever been otherwise; and yet the Empire fell, and barbarians overran my city, and the learning that I had possessed was lost.  The modern world became more fragile to my eyes; it was not the first modern world.

So many mistakes, made over and over and over again, because I did not remember making them, in every era I never lived...

And to think, people sometimes wonder if overcoming bias is important.

Don't you remember how many times your biases have killed you?  You don't?  I've noticed that sudden amnesia often follows a fatal mistake.  But take it from me, it happened.  I remember; I wasn't there.

So the next time you doubt the strangeness of the future, remember how you were born in a hunter-gatherer tribe ten thousand years ago, when no one knew of Science at all.  Remember how you were shocked, to the depths of your being, when Science explained the great and terrible sacred mysteries that you once revered so highly.  Remember how you once believed that you could fly by eating the right mushrooms, and then you accepted with disappointment that you would never fly, and then you flew.  Remember how you had always thought that slavery was right and proper, and then you changed your mind.  Don't imagine how you could have predicted the change, for that is amnesia.  Remember that, in fact, you did not guess.  Remember how, century after century, the world changed in ways you did not guess.

Maybe then you will be less shocked by what happens next.

 

Part of the sequence Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

Next post: "Explain/Worship/Ignore?"

Previous post: "Failing to Learn from History"

Comments (81)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: Tom3 31 August 2007 09:45:55PM 2 points [-]

This is all very zen. Do you have buddhist sympathies, Eliezer?

Comment author: Multiheaded 12 November 2011 11:52:41AM 3 points [-]

What I first thought was: "Heh, a rationalist espousing the same rather moving sentiments that occasionally get to my head when I use psychoactive drugs". I will not bore you with the details of my lives as a Japanese noble and an SS officer (hallucinated/vividly imagined after reading Akutagawa and some WW2 history respectively), but I have indeed seen some of humanity's less savory moments that way.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 August 2007 10:05:57PM 25 points [-]

I have buddhist empathies, but not sympathies. The connection isn't a mystical one - I was not there and we are not all really the same person - and that, in my view, makes all the difference.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 31 August 2007 11:26:42PM 10 points [-]

That sense of "so strange yet true" is very hard to convey in fiction, exactly because it seems too strange to be believable. Which is exactly why we say "truth is stranger than fiction." I wonder if one could describe in enough detail a fictional story of an alternative reality, a reality that our ancestors could not distinguish from the truth, in order to make it very clear how surprising the truth turned out to be.

Comment author: logicnazi 01 September 2007 04:08:18AM 2 points [-]

To quibble just a bit I think that it is occasionally (tho probably not in the terminator examples the paper briefly mentioned) reasonable to use a very throughly fleshed out fictional account as evidence of plausibility. I mean by giving a detailed narrative you rule out the possibility the idea is internally incoherent or requires some really really implausible things to be true.

Still, I don't think this is a very strong effect and is overestimated all the time by people who think that literature gives more than entertainment/enjoyment but actually gives *insight*.

Comment author: Alan_Crowe 01 September 2007 09:40:28AM 19 points [-]

There is an awful lot of history. Preliminary to whether we imagine the past vividly enough for it to carry proper weight, we must select a cannon of ``important'' events to which we turn our attention.

In a recent thread on Reddit: http://reddit.com/info/2k77b/comments/c2k80o

I drew attention to Argentina because the story of Argentina's 20th century economic disappointments jars uncomfortably with the cultural tradition in which I swim. I swim in a cultural stream in which the misfortunes which may befall a country live in a hierarchy. At the top are the bad misfortunes, losing wars, and fighting wars. Somewhere near the bottom are petty misfortunes: many countries are under the thumb of absolute rulers and if the caudillo retains power by pursuing popular policies then his rule is not so bad.

I know little of Argentinian history and understand it even less. What little I know threatens my hierarchy of misfortune. It looks as though well meaning but economically unsophisticated absolute rulers are the top misfortune. They are much worse than wars, which are intense, but brief.

I want to overcome my bias by learning about Argentinian history. I find myself struggling. There is a standard way of looking at recent history with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Great War etc. I notice that I'm very dependent on social support and just get sucked into that looking at history from that point of view because it is the common one.

So there is a second sense in which History may or may not be available. Frist it is important to feel the force of history sufficiently strongly. But this could make things worse if we cultivate our feeling for a limited selection of history, chosen to support our standard narratives. The second requirement is for breadth, and this is very difficult if the people around you aren't interested.

Comment author: MarsColony_in10years 23 February 2015 07:42:04AM 0 points [-]

The second requirement is for breadth, and this is very difficult if the people around you aren't interested.

Perhaps it's a bit late, but the best source of breadth I've found so far is called Big History.

Comment author: Kyle 01 September 2007 05:47:02PM 2 points [-]

This is very reminiscent of a C.S. Lewis quote (I think from The Abolition of Man) about "chronological snobbery." Of course, I can't supply the quote. But it had to do with thinking that all cultures that existed before yours were inferior, that everything only gets better, and that, since your civilization was the most recent in history, your way of perceiving the world is inherently more accurate.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 September 2007 06:50:21PM 5 points [-]

I think I am a chronological snob, then, for I much agree with this comment:

"I occasionally come across an attitude of almost religious veneration for ancient civilizations, a sense that they know better than we do. However, is it not trivially true that we ourselves are the most aged civilization this planet has yet seen? Does not the present enjoy a longer history than the past?" -- Xiaoguang "Mike" Li

Comment author: Jeff_Gray 02 September 2007 03:50:55AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer-

Are you serious? Repudiating your usual earnest rationality for flippancy in this comment seems uncharacteristic. I didn't think Kyle was advocating 'religious veneration' and epistemological deference to ancient civs. However the quote continues into inanity

"...is it not trivially true that we ourselves are the most aged civilization?"

How will we reduce bias with words like these? Modern people who venerate ancient cultures should instead venerate their own because it happens to exist at a later point in time? In any case who can point to a specific place and time and say, 'Our civilization began Here.' It's not even good sophistry.

The more serious bias regards conflating collective and individual achievements and beliefs vis-a-vis 'civilization' coupled with a temporal bias. Kyle defines 'chronological snobbery' as the thought that:

"...since your civilization is the most recent in history, your way of perceiving the world is inherently more accurate"

The idea of Progress is that Knowledge compounds, we are the most recent, ergo we have the most Knowledge. (Western) Civilization's collective scientific progress has had a regrettably limited impact on the accuracy of the average individual's private perception of the world. Yes, there are tools now like Bayesian reasoning, particle accelerators and fMRI through which the physical world can be perceived more accurately than ever. But seeing the world accurately results from a process of discovery and reasoning that each must do for themselves. Temporal position does not change that. If our 'civilization' so accurately views the world, why are so many hostile to the theories of the scientific experts who use these incredible tools? Despite the progress of empirical science, each new human starts at 0 and as they mature, they must decide what they are willing to accept. Many seem unwilling to accept the radically unintuitive universe that is being rolled back (or are even unaware). Hell, religious fundamentalists think it is less accurate than the cosmology of near eastern cults' myths.

The point is our empirical science allows us to view the world more accurately, though the degree to which we all must become reductionists eventually is debatable and apart from science our civilization is no better than any other. The individuals in a society define it, and our society is pretty banal. The past still has value.

C.S. Lewis quotes that Kyle didn't look for..;) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronological_snobbery

Does not the present enjoy a longer history than the past?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 September 2007 05:03:26AM 8 points [-]

Repudiating your usual earnest rationality for flippancy in this comment seems uncharacteristic.

You realize you're saying this the same day I proposed that thievery should be punishable by spanking.

Despite the progress of empirical science, each new human starts at 0 and as they mature, they must decide what they are willing to accept.

Yes, but if you live in a society with a more mature science, which knows more because knowledge compounds, then you'll get a chance to accept more science. Especially if you happen to start out in the Traditional Rationality subculture. No matter how rationally minded you are in the 11th century, there won't be much sanity to absorb.

You can complain all you want about the glory and danger of individual choice, but this is still - even collectively, and even outside Rationalist subculture - the most ancient civilization the world has ever known, and the wisest.

Comment author: alyssavance 26 October 2009 08:20:55PM 9 points [-]

"I had not remembered, until that time, how the Roman Empire rose, and brought peace and order, and lasted through so many centuries, until I forgot that things had ever been otherwise; and yet the Empire fell, and barbarians overran my city, and the learning that I had possessed was lost. The modern world became more fragile to my eyes; it was not the first modern world."

I think the Romans, at least the more philosophical and intellectual ones, were perfectly well aware that this would happen to them eventually. After the fall of Carthage:

"Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately or the verses escaping him, he said:

A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,

And Priam and his people shall be slain.

And when Polybius speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all things human. Polybius actually heard him and recalls it in his history." - Appian, Punica

Comment author: MrHen 22 January 2010 07:19:33PM 2 points [-]

When I finally realized whose shoes I was standing in, there was a sudden shock of unexpected connection with the past. I realized that the invention and destruction of vitalism - which I had only read about in books - had actually happened to real people, who experienced it much the same way I experienced the invention and destruction of my own mysterious answer.

This behavior mirrors the behavior described in Correspondence Bias:

We tend to see far too direct a correspondence between others' actions and personalities. When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are "an angry person". But when you yourself kick the vending machine, it's because the bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the second day in a row. Surely, you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine, in that situation.

I think there is a key difference, however, in the former quote shows a case where correspondence bias is giving the other person an invalid benefit of the doubt. The correlating case would be incorrectly applying the principles described in Correspondence Bias to explain away an angry person kicking a vending machine because they are angry. Vending machines are not too important; domestic violence and abuse is very important. Saying that there is a scenario where anyone would beat their spouse is only valid when it is actually True.

In the case of your Evil Mysteriousness, the error is more hindsight bias, which you note and to which you have included a link. I thought the behavior pattern was interesting and comparing the two revealed a nugget I had missed.

Comment author: beoShaffer 05 June 2011 08:16:23PM 1 point [-]

I wonder if this means that recoding, historical events via more realistic mediums will, ceteris paribus, seem more real. For example WWII feels more real to me than say the revolutionary war. Obviously there are quite a few other factors to consider, but it seems likely that the fact that I've seen footage of WWII, lots of footage(I used to watch the History channel) rather than just reading about it and seeing some paintings/woodcuts is pretty significant as well.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 22 September 2011 10:58:20AM *  0 points [-]

The inverse error is to treat history as mere story, process it with the same part of your mind that handles the novels you read.

For good and bad, I think we're stuck with that error. We don't have separate imagining and experiencing systems for fictional and historical stories.

It has the potential to be liberating and empowering, by finding stories that empower and move you. But another way to describe such stories is historical porn, always more action packed, meaningful, and moving than real life, so that real life no longer motivates. I had recently been excited by the possibilities of fiction to change a life for the better, and now I'm seeing something of the other side of the pancake.

Comment author: lessdazed 22 September 2011 12:33:14PM 1 point [-]

always more action packed, meaningful, and moving than real life

It can try. Are you sure you're reading the right history?

Here is a sample about the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, it's just a page long, read it all.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 29 September 2011 04:07:34AM 0 points [-]

That was a good read, but I'm sure the fictionalized movie will be much more exciting. Art is about amplifying meaning and emotion.

Historical stories have an advantage in their association with real life, so that that story borrows meaning and significance from other stories and real consequences, but I don't know enough of the history to make a big difference here.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 12 November 2011 12:43:49PM *  0 points [-]

So (I thought), to feel sufficiently the force of history, I should try to approximate the thoughts of an Eliezer who had lived through history -

That's a start. The next step is that you have a good bit in common with other people, but also substantial differences. They lived through history as themselves.

As for "America always having existed", I heard somewhat from a book about the geological history of the English Channel. It took a number of sentences to explain that there was a time before there was an England or a France and I was getting impatient, and then I realized that the amount of repetition probably was needed to bring the point home.

A bit of free association.... did you know there was a nation of Burgundy which has been all but forgotten? I found this out from Mary Gentle, whose Ash novels have some intellectual horror so awful that I stopped reading.

N uvfgbevna/nepunrbybtvfg svaqf fbzr irel fgenatr fghss, naq fur'f orggvat ure erchgngvba ba vg.... naq gura nyy gur rivqrapr qvfnccrnef. V unira'g svavfurq ernqvat gur frevrf, ohg vg qvqa'g frrz yvxr n pbairagvbany zlfgrel, jvgu fbzrbar fgrnyvat gur rivqrapr-- zber yvxr ernyvgl fbsgravat naq erivfvat vgfrys.

Actually, sometimes people do make accurate predictions, but they also make a lot of false predictions. The accurate predictions are much more apt to be remembered than the false predictions.

If you want to see a major effort to view past people as being themselves rather than modern people, see Ta-Nahisi-Coate's writings on the Civil War.

I think that this era is the best in general for a lot of people, but there are specific things which were done better in the past. People in the middle ages and the Renaissance were better at dressing up. It's possible that Eastern European Jews before the Nazis were better at producing mathematical geniuses than we are. Was there something about the educational system? Europe before WWI produced classical music so good that no one has been able to compete with it (for classical music, not music in general) since then.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 November 2011 01:56:39PM 0 points [-]

Europe before WWI produced classical music so good that no one has been able to compete with it (for classical music, not music in general) since then.

Wait... Define “classical”.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 November 2011 02:00:14PM *  0 points [-]

Wait... Define “classical”.

Classical music is the art music produced in, or rooted in, the traditions of Western liturgical and secular music, encompassing a broad period from roughly the 11th century to present times.[1] The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 November 2011 02:53:18PM 0 points [-]

Then the fact that the best classical music was composed in the West before 1900 is not that surprising, is it? Likewise, I guess the best Irish folk music was composed by the Irish folk, the best African American work songs by African American workers, and so on.

Comment author: DoubleReed 12 November 2011 03:35:21PM 1 point [-]

Do we just ignore Neoclassical works? Or does that not count as 'classical'?

The real reason we don't produce classical music like that anymore is arguably because we produce way better music now.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 November 2011 04:09:59PM *  0 points [-]

Do we just ignore Neoclassical works? Or does that not count as 'classical'?

On the contrary the definition (from wikipedia) that you are responding to seems to go out if its way to ensure that they would be included (to the extent that the pieces did, in fact, conform to the same style.)

Comment author: DoubleReed 12 November 2011 07:15:56PM 0 points [-]

Oh well then NancyLebovitz's line:

Europe before WWI produced classical music so good that no one has been able to compete with it (for classical music, not music in general) since then.

is not correct.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 November 2011 07:36:20PM 4 points [-]

I don't have any particular opinion on the subject. Classical music is ok in moderation and I'll play it myself from time to time (trumpet). But I have absolutely no interest in identifying which pieces belong to which area and how they are ranked by those who consider themselves experts.

After all, anyone with decent taste will tell you that the best classical music has less aesthetic merit than the best Weird Al songs.

Comment author: MBlume 13 November 2011 01:15:28AM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure I know how to cash out "aesthetic merit", but seeing Al play Yoda live, and in particular seeing him and Jim West duet on accordian and guitar, is a moment of joy unsurpassed by any I've experienced at classical performances.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 November 2011 03:39:17AM 0 points [-]

I saw you advertising the live performance - almost certainly what primed him as the example. I was jealous! :)

Comment author: komponisto 12 November 2011 09:02:40PM *  1 point [-]

The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period

Disputed, FYI.

Also, "classical music" is a terrible term, due to collision with the Classical period in music. The proper (and insider-signaling) term is "Western art music".

Comment author: wedrifid 12 November 2011 10:08:23PM *  1 point [-]

and insider-signaling

This is actually something I want to take care to avoid in this particular context. I do, after all, openly rate Weird Al as aesthetically superior to the greatest classical masterpieces. Also: cheap wine is usually better wine, caviar tastes terrible, those hats look stupid, peacock's tails are largely pointless and I've never read Wittgenstein or that book with the whale in it.

(There are other groups that I would of course take efforts to signal insiderhood.)

Comment author: komponisto 12 November 2011 10:42:02PM 0 points [-]

Maybe instead of insiderhood, you should consider it merely as a signal of non-ignorance, specifically of the fact that "classical" is the name of a historical era.

I do, after all, openly rate Weird Al as aesthetically superior to the greatest classical masterpieces.

I didn't realize your aesthetic resources were so scarce as to put them in competition. Personally I think the world has plenty of room for both.

and I've never read...that book with the whale in it

I probably wouldn't care so much about it if it weren't the subject of an opera by the guy who wrote my favorite book.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 November 2011 04:02:27AM 0 points [-]

Maybe instead of insiderhood, you should consider it merely as a signal of non-ignorance,

I quoted the first sentence from wikipedia. That is the definition of classical music that matches what most people - most certainly including Nancy - mean when they say 'classical music'.

specifically of the fact that "classical" is the name of a historical era.

I am well aware of the historical era. Declaring that by relaying the common usage definition of 'classical music' I must be ignorant of the classical era is itself a strong signal of being unaware of how human language works.

One group in which I like to signal myself an insider is 'Science'. We still use the word atom for something that can be broken down into protons, neutrons and electrons - and even the latter is a simplification. The relevance should be obvious.

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 04:34:23AM 0 points [-]

Declaring that by relaying the common usage definition of 'classical music' I must be ignorant of the classical era

No, it's just that by going along with that common usage you thereby decline to give a strong signal of non-ignorance. "Weak evidence" of ignorance, if you like.

We still use the word atom

I doubt that the common usage of "classical" preceded the naming of the historical period. In fact I suspect that the former did not become widespread until after it was already (erroneously) perceived that that sort of music was "old" and "over".

Comment author: Prismattic 13 November 2011 12:40:02AM 0 points [-]

But, but the whale book is surely a classic!

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 02:53:18AM 0 points [-]

Do you really use the same model for judging Genius in France and judging the Waldstein Piano Sonata?

Comment author: wedrifid 13 November 2011 04:17:09AM *  1 point [-]

Do you really use the same model for judging Genius in France and judging the Waldstein Piano Sonata?

My model of the universe is kinda big but I don't actively try to compartmentalize it because it then I could not answer the question "Hey wedrifid, do you want me to play my Weird Al playlist or the my classical music playlist?". A model so crippled would be strictly inferior.

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 04:27:39AM -1 points [-]

My model of the universe is kinda big but I don't actively try to compartmentalize it because it then I could not answer the question "Hey wedrifid, do you want me to play my Weird Al playlist or the my classical music playlist?". That would be strictly inferior.

Not really. You can have different models and still be able to make strict decisions like that.

Especially with Weird Al, considering part of the aesthetic is the fact that it's hilarious. Do you use the same model with Weird Al and Queen? Iron Maiden? Elvis? Do you put those on a strict 1-Dimensional spectrum as well, or do you prefer different things for different times and different purposes? Practically speaking, do you prefer the same music you normally listen to the same music that is the soundtrack to a film?

I'm not convinced you only have one model, and I'm also not convinced that your model actually says that classical music is strictly inferior to weird al.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 November 2011 04:48:04AM *  2 points [-]

Not really. You can have different models and still be able to make strict decisions like that.

No, you can't. If you can make distinctions like that then they are in the same model! And your whole point was based around the fact that I was making such a distinction anyway!

Do you put those on a strict 1-Dimensional spectrum as well

That seems a tad disingenuous. That I consider one to have less aesthetic merit than the other does not in any way indicate that I would be unable to make other comparisons between them.

and I'm also not convinced that your model actually says that classical music is strictly inferior to weird al.

Wow. What can you say to someone if they make that sort of declaration? Maybe:

  • Oh, you caught me. Yes, I'm a dirty liar and I was only saying Weird Al is aesthetically superior to classical music.
  • I stand corrected. I trust your judgement of how I really rate music aesthetically based on blog comments over my own based on listening to it.
  • Oh yeah? Well your model says you like to eat dirt! So there.

Just tell me I am unsophisticated, naive, uncool, banal and tasteless or even that my claim about Weird Al superiority is outright offensive. Those are at least a mix of accurate (unsophisticated in this respect) and subjective. Trying to convince me (or even anyone else) that I don't really have the aesthetic ratings that I do is just absurd!

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 04:56:52AM *  -2 points [-]

No, you can't. If you can make distinctions like that then they are in the same model! And your whole point was based around the fact that I was making such a distinction anyway!

What? Of course you can. If model allows for time and purpose, then you can just say "Weird Al is superior for the current time and purpose to all of classical music." Bam. Done. Everything can be in multiple models but the comparison operator is different.

So in order for Weird Al to be strictly superior to classical music then it must be superior for all times and purposes. So when you watched Star Trek (2009), did you like Giacchino's score, or would you have preferred Weird Al? Do you watch figure skating? If you do, then according to yourself, you would prefer Weird Al over whatever they skate to.

Wow. What can you say to someone if they make that sort of declaration?

Well if I'm going to contradict you about yourself, I might as well just say it.

Do I have a choice of the different responses? Because I think I'll choose the first one :D

Just tell me I am unsophisticated, naive, uncool, banal and tasteless or even that my claim about Weird Al superiority is outright offensive. Those are at least a mix of accurate (unsophisticated in this respect) and subjective. Trying to convince me (or even anyone else) that I don't really have the aesthetic ratings that I do is just absurd!

But I'm not doing that. I'm saying you are stating incorrect things about your own tastes. If anything, I would be trying to claim that you are more sophisticated and intelligent than you yourself will admit.

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 05:07:26AM 0 points [-]

Just tell me...that my claim about Weird Al superiority is outright offensive

It is somewhat, because it suggests that some of us should have our status lowered for failing to meet an optimization target we weren't even aiming for.

"Not as good as Weird Al!" sounds a bit like "you fail!". Whereas you could instead have said: "with all due respect to the impressive achievements of art composers, my personal interests lead me to want to spend somewhat more of my time enjoying clever parodies of popular songs than exploring the complexities of 'classical masterpieces', however great the latter might be on their own terms."

Comment author: Jack 12 November 2011 03:15:28PM 0 points [-]

Europe before WWI produced classical music so good that no one has been able to compete with it (for classical music, not music in general) since then.

I'm pretty sure the resident music experts disagree with this.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 12 November 2011 04:05:52PM 2 points [-]

I should have been clearer that what I meant by good classical music is music which appeals to the general public.

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 03:18:06AM *  1 point [-]

Again, there are Neoclassical works that "the public" love just like "the public" love the old masters. Pulcinella Suite is a direct example that "competes," but really anything from that era of Stravinsky is a great example. Francis Poulenc's work is immensely popular (his clarinet duet and clarinet concerto are particularly good). In fact, directly after WWI is when all this stuff came out because europe couldn't afford large orchestras.

This idea that modern classical music can't be fun and entertaining is just plain strange! Serialism really gives modern music a bad name. People still compose tonal works, and tonal music is not considered "uninteresting."

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 03:42:35AM 1 point [-]

Serialism really gives modern music a bad name.

I beg your pardon...!

There's nothing "bad" about serial music. (Individual works may of course vary in quality.) Not all music needs to be "accessible". You're right to point out that some modern music is, but it's okay if also some isn't. One just cannot expect everyone to be able to keep up indefinitely with increasing musical complexity.

Not even Beethoven is accessible to everybody, it seems.

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 03:50:05AM *  0 points [-]

But not all modern music is inaccessible. In fact a lot of is more accessible than the old masters (I mean come on, The Firebird isn't hard to understand at all). People seem to act as if once serialism came around all composers immediately threw out all ideas of tonality and harmony and that's not true. Many people openly rejected ideas of atonality.

I don't really have anything against serial music. Some of it is pretty cool. But that's not what "modern music" is.

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 04:13:19AM 0 points [-]

One just cannot expect everyone to be able to keep up indefinitely with increasing musical complexity.

I like to point out this line in particular, and then point to minimalist (and post-minimalist) composers.

Music doesn't have to get necessarily more complex. Composers, like any large group of people, don't agree on anything.

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 04:39:20AM 0 points [-]

Well wait a minute: you were the one who pointed specifically to serialism as the culprit for the "inaccessible" reputation of "modern music". If you consider minimalists inaccessible also, why didn't you include them in the blame?

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 04:44:41AM -1 points [-]

No, I don't think minimalists are inaccessible. You suggested that there is "increasing musical complexity," and I was merely pointing out there doesn't necessarily have to be "increasing musical complexity."

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 04:55:07AM *  1 point [-]

I cited increasing musical complexity as the reason why serial music is considered "inaccessible". I didn't say anything about non-"inaccessible" music.

Comment author: gwern 12 November 2011 04:45:40PM 2 points [-]

Charles Murray, in Human Accomplishment, uses historiometry (toting up lists of who music experts consider worth mentioning and discussing) to try to rank various figures while accounting for the most obvious problems like recency bias.

In Western music there are 522 figures who make a certain cut (the bottom 5 of those 522: Thomas Simpson, John Hothby, Marbrianus Orto, Joannes Gallus, Mattheus le Maistre). The top figures in order: Beethoven & Mozart, Bach, Wager, Haydn, Handel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Liszt, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Schoenberg, Brahms, Chopin, Monteverdi, Verdi, Mendelssohn, Weber, and Gluck.

I'm not a music person, but the only name I recall here as belonging to the 21st or 20th centuries would be Schoenberg.

(Murray, incidentally, tried to rank Chinese music, but found too little survived - little but the names of whom contemporaries considered great musicians, but not their actual compositions etc.)

Comment author: DSimon 12 November 2011 04:52:36PM 0 points [-]

(Murray, incidentally, tried to rank Chinese music, but found too little survived - little but the names of whom contemporaries considered great musicians, but not their actual compositions etc.)

Hm, could this be due to a difference in composition writing and publishing practices? That is, did older European compositions survive longer because they were copied more frequently, or (somewhat equivalently) were easier to copy for some reason?

Comment author: gwern 12 November 2011 05:25:20PM *  5 points [-]

I think much of it may just be relative age combined with poorly developed notation. The golden age of Chinese music was much further back than the golden age of European music - easier to survive 500 years than 2000.

(I don't think Murray draws the connection, but he discusses problems with ranking Greek music: the surviving music tends to simplistic melodies by a single instrument, distinctly unimpressive - yet writers like Plato describe music as one of the most powerful forces in society. Either Plato et al had very low musical standards or what has survived is extremely incomplete/unrepresentative.)

Comment author: arundelo 12 November 2011 05:54:18PM 1 point [-]
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
Richard Wagner 1813-1883
Joseph Haydn 1732-1809
George Frideric Handel 1685-1759
Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Franz Liszt 1811-1886
Franz Schubert 1797-1828
Robert Schumann 1810-1856
Hector Berlioz 1803-1869
Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Frédéric Chopin 1810-1849
Claudio Monteverdi 1567-1643
Giuseppe Verdi 1813-1901
Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847
Carl Maria von Weber 1786-1826
Christoph Willibald Gluck 1714-1787
---
Thomas Simpson 1710-1761
John Hothby 1410-1487
Marbrianus de Orto 1460-1529
Joannes Gallus fl. 15xx
Mattheus le Maistre 1505-1577
Comment author: arundelo 12 November 2011 06:14:30PM 6 points [-]

Here are the decades during which three or more top-20 composers lived. The number of hash marks shows how many top-20 composers were alive at some point in that decade.

171x ###
172x ###
173x ####
174x ####
175x #####
176x ###
177x ####
178x #####
179x #####
180x ######
181x ##########
182x ##########
183x ########
184x ########
185x ######
186x ######
187x ######
188x #######
189x #####
190x ####
191x ###
Comment author: NihilCredo 12 November 2011 08:33:35PM *  2 points [-]

Is there a relatively simple explanation for the predominance of Germans and Austrians in this period? Obviously you couldn't expect many great Norwegian or Mongolian composers, because of demographical or logistical reasons, but for example I see no Britons and few Frenchmen in the list. Which differences in musical education and culture could have brought relatively similar countries to have such vastly dissimilar results?

Comment author: arundelo 12 November 2011 08:54:36PM *  4 points [-]

My guess is clustering caused by positive feedback, a.k.a, the Milanese Leonardo effect:

Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed's Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.

Edited to add: Maybe there were specific things about Germany and Austria that caused them to have clusters of heavy hitters, but maybe there are alternate timelines where Great Britain or France lucked into being home to such a cluster.

Comment author: NihilCredo 13 November 2011 12:55:06AM *  2 points [-]

Right - my question was about what exactly those specific things were. For example, one reason Florence became a greater centre of art than Milan was that it was ruled by a family of socialite bankers (the Medici) whose power came from wealth and prestige, rather than upjumped warlords (the Sforza) who acquired it through skill at arms and dynastic marriages. Another is that Florence had much better access to the marble mines of Carrara, and so on.

Now Mozart, Bach and Beethoven all had two generations of musicians behind them, but consider, say, Haydn. He was the son of villagers who never played an instrument in their lives - yet they recognised his talent so early that at the age of six years they managed to have him apprenticed with the choirmaster. Had he been switched as an infant with a random Marseillais or Londoner boy, his chances of receiving such an early training would have probably dropped like a rock. Was that because France and England had fewer choirs and choirmasters, both to beget little Mozarts and spot little Haydns? Because violins and spinets were more expensive? Because music was considered more of a discipline for older boys, or for girls?

Comment author: komponisto 12 November 2011 09:19:44PM 0 points [-]

Is there a relatively simple explanation for the predominance of Germans and Austrians in this period?

Yes. The period itself is essentially defined that way. That is, Germans and Austrians (and those influenced by them) wrote the history of music, and defined the "core period" as precisely that period when they happened to dominate the scene.

Comment author: gwern 12 November 2011 09:40:59PM 1 point [-]

That is, Germans and Austrians (and those influenced by them) wrote the history of music

This is, of course, a fully general counter-argument: any time someone points to a cluster, you can say 'well those and those influenced by them wrote the history so of course we see a cluster'.

For those who don't accept this fully general counter-argument, Murray considered precisely this national/linguistic argument about bias and examined sources written in a foreign language - eg. what did the Japanese textbooks have to say about German music? He found that this corrective did change rankings and scores... for literature. pg 486:

Histories and biographical dictionaries of Western literature are much more affected by the language of the author than are sources for Western music art and visual art, and for an obvious reason. To repeat the point made in Chapter 5: A German can listen to a work by Vivaldi as easily as he can listen to one by Bach, and an Englishman can look at a painting by Monet as easily as one by Constable. The same cannot be said of literature, because of the language barrier. German historians of literature give markedly more attention to German authors than others, English historians to English authors, and so on. It is not just a matter of national chauvinism. Spanish historians of literature give more attention to New World literature written in Spanish than do historians of other nationalities.

To quote his longer discussion in chapter 5:

National chauvinism within the West remains a problem. Works purporting to cover all of the Western world are skewed toward the nationality of the author. For example, British art historians tend to give more space to Constable and Turner than Italian art historians do, and French historians of philosophy tend to include French thinkers that hardly anyone else mentions.

An examination of these tendencies reveals that the effect of chauvinistic tendencies is minor to begin with and eliminated if the sources come from a mix of nations. Therefore the inventories for the West (visual arts, music, literature, and philosophy) employ sources that have been balanced among the major European nations (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) plus the United States and a scattering of other nations ( Japan, Argentina, Denmark). A number of the compilations are also the product of multinational teams. Examination revealed that the effect of chauvinistic tendencies for most of the inventories were minor to begin with and eliminated by using sources from a mix of nations. The exception was literature. A German can listen to a work byVivaldi as easily as he can listen to one by Bach, and an Englishman can look at a painting by Monet as easily as one by Constable. The same cannot be said of literature, because of the language barrier. German historians of literature give disproportionate attention to German and Austrian authors, English historians to English and American authors, and so on. The selection of significant figures and computation of their index scores were therefore based exclusively on sources not written in the language of the author in question (e.g., Thackeray’s selection as a significant figure and his index score are based exclusively on sources not written in English).

Comment author: komponisto 12 November 2011 09:58:02PM *  1 point [-]

To be clear, my argument wasn't directed against Murray, but at his sources. I don't doubt that Murray more or less correctly measured what he was trying to measure (whether or not that measurement has whatever significance he attributes to it, I don't know; I haven't read his book).

My real interest is in "debunking" the notion of the "common-practice period"; I would instead prefer to call the period in question the "Germanic period" or something similar. It isn't really a question of quality: personally, I happen to agree that there is something special about Viennese classicism (i.e. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) but I wouldn't assign a similar specialness to Pachelbel and Reger while leaving out Gesualdo and Boulez.

ETA: Also, to be clear, my claim isn't that German-and-Austrian-influenced historians unfairly leave out or devalue other composers from the period 1600-1900; it's that they elevate that particular period itself to an unjustifiably high status relative to other periods (which in my view has hindered the development of music theory).

Comment author: NihilCredo 13 November 2011 12:57:45AM 2 points [-]

Well, why did non-German historians go along with it, then?

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 04:08:05AM *  0 points [-]

I would agree partially with komponisto.

Except that there were a lot French and Western Europe composers at this time. They were using a different model entirely however (Schenkerian Analysis only covers the German model). It didn't put as much emphasis on the bass as german music does. The German model just seems better (from my standpoint, it seems to actually focus on what the ear naturally focuses on), which made their music better, so they lasted the test of time. The German model then spread to the Western Europe and subsumed everything because their stuff was better.

Comment author: komponisto 12 November 2011 08:49:27PM 0 points [-]

Europe before WWI produced classical music so good that no one has been able to compete with it (for classical music, not music in general) since then.

We've had this discussion before.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 November 2011 02:11:35AM 0 points [-]

People seem to be turning up a little more detail.

There's one new thing I'm very interested in-- a composing prodigy named Jay Greenberg. His Fifth Symphony is available online, and while it's not the best thing ever, I'd say it's a real pleasure and he published it when he was only 14. I see some hope both for the music he's going to write, and for the idea that new classical music can legitimately be accessible and enjoyable for the general public.

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 03:07:24AM 1 point [-]

This is exactly what I was talking about here. There are (and long have been) tons of composers just like Greenberg. But they never seem to acquire the prestige of the pre-WWI masters.

And I suspect that's because they're not significantly advancing the art beyond what those folks did (and as those folks were doing in their own time). Greenberg's Fifth Symphony is a perfectly nice piece, but there's nothing adventurous about it; it would have been conservative even if it had been written 100 years ago.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 November 2011 03:51:59AM 2 points [-]

Were those tons of composers like Greenberg doing that sort of work at age 14?

Greenberg on the lack of anything really new in classical music. I think this is publicly available--let me know if it isn't.

Tentative hypothesis: people mostly get hooked by melody and rhythm, but classical has been exploring timbre (to the extent that it's exploring anything) for quite a while.

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 04:01:23AM 0 points [-]

Were those tons of composers like Greenberg doing that sort of work at age 14?

That's not necessarily fair. As I was taught, "nobody composes in a vacuum." Art and Science constantly evolve so you need to learn what came before, which means it will take longer and longer for prodigies to flourish.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 November 2011 07:28:08AM *  0 points [-]

As I was taught, "nobody composes in a vacuum."

Nobody performs in a vacuum either, for obvious reasons. Unless they are performing Mister Holland's Opus.

Comment author: komponisto 13 November 2011 04:26:15AM 0 points [-]

Were those tons of composers like Greenberg doing that sort of work at age 14?

Some were, of course (even I wrote symphonies at 14, though never published or performed). But what does it matter what age they were, unless you're talking about the ability to generate publicity? If someone's music is considered interesting only because of their age, does that really count?

Unless you mean that the fact that Greenberg wrote such pieces at 14 means that he has great potential for the future; sure, I'll grant that. But then something like the Fifth Symphony should be considered a student exercise, like the inventions and fugues he's probably been required to write in music school. (Who knows, maybe that's exactly how he thinks of it.)

Tentative hypothesis: people mostly get hooked by melody and rhythm, but classical has been exploring timbre (to the extent that it's exploring anything) for quite a while.

It's been exploring everything, melody and rhythm perhaps above all.

Comment author: DoubleReed 13 November 2011 03:14:21PM 1 point [-]

Re-reading Greenberg's article makes me want to compose some classical dubstep.

Comment author: komponisto 14 November 2011 01:45:35AM 3 points [-]

Greenberg on the lack of anything really new in classical music.

If he can't find the avant-garde, then that means that either (a) he has completely absorbed the musical contributions of the most advanced composers of today into his subconscious, and thus he himself is the avant-garde, or (b) the level on which he is listening to things is so superficial that only novel surface gimmicks and "effects" qualify as "revolutionary" (in which case, yes, the 20th century probably exhausted that).

His available music indicates that he is not the avant-garde. On the other hand, (b) is an exceedingly common syndrome.

Comment author: Rixie 25 July 2013 11:19:05AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, I love how you can write passionately and poetically about a topic that many people consider stone cold. It really shows how important this all is to you, and it's much more fun to read.

I'm so glad that you lived your life the way you did and made the mistakes you did and became the person that you are, because if you didn't have your background and your skill set I might never have learned about rationality or Bayes' theorem, or read the best fan fiction there is.

Thank you so much for being you, it makes being us just that much better.