Top Ten

March 13, 2015

Somewhere, I got the idea to list the ten albums that have meant the most to me. So, here they are, in approximate order of appearance (to me):

KeepTheFaithBon Jovi – Keep the Faith (1992). A little bit embarrasing, perhaps, and it have not stood the test of time too well, but I still enjoyed much of it when I gave it a spin last week. Bon Jovi was my first proper favorite artist. Keep the Faith was the first album that really meant something to me and with it I discovered that an album can have more to offer than what one discovers during the first twenty listens. Keep the Faith was the soundtrack of my life for years and made me curious to explore new music. It made me take a deep-dive (to the degree that a fourteen-year-old can take a deep-dive) into the solo career of Richie Sambora.

Motorpsycho-Timothy’s-MonsterMotorpsycho – Timothy’s Monster (1994). Five of the albums on this list could have been Motorpsycho albums, but I will settle for only one and then Timothy’s Monster is the one. It was the first Motorpsycho record I went really deep into and it swept me off my feet. It contains so much, is so varied, and moves from snappy singer-songwriter stuff to pure noise within the first four tracks.  That I discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman around the same time adds to the legend this album is to me. And I still love it, I don’t know why I don’t listen to it more.

rock-actionMogwai – Rock Action (2001). I didn’t really get post rock before Rock Action. Post rock has later given me so much great listening. Mogwai has continued to amaze me and is still a favorite in the post rock genre.

 

 

 

Tonight's the NightNeil Young – Tonight’s the Night (1975). I’ve listened a lot to Neil Young and his presence on this list is obvious. For this list, I am divided between Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Tonight’s the NightTonight’s is so profound, in rock history and in the life of Neil Young. Neil had won everything and lost everything. Then he made Tonight’s the Night. It moves me.
More on Tonight’s here.

KidARadiohead – Kid A (2000). While I never understood what was so great with OK ComputerKid A made me understand what a great band Radiohead is and that they are devoted to their music in a very profound way. And it made me realize that electronic music can be really great and provided a piece to the puzzle it was to understand that great music, or art for that matter, has nothing really to do with genre or form but with heart and soul and having something to tell.

AADAPMotorpsycho – Angles and Daemons at Play (1997). Ok, I had to put two Motorpsycho records on my list. Last week, I thought I would put Blissard, but then I realized that AADAP means much more to me. Motorpsycho made this record in relief after trying to adhere to certain ideas on Blissard (failing gloriously, I might add). AADAP has everything — it is full of life and creativity — and is a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated tracks (was first released in secrecy as three EP’s and only later appeared as an album). With the Neil Youngish idea to put different versions of the same track on the same album (Sideway Spiral), the noise wall Heartattack Mac back-to-back with the pop tune Pills, Powders + Passion Plays, a part played on saw(!), a piano ballad (Stalemate), the mythical Un Chien d’espace, and the wild closer Timothy’s Monster, which nods both to Sun Ra, as does the album title, and their own master piece and namesake album, it has everything. Oddly enough, my impression of it is that it is a relatively hard and heavy album, but when I listen to it I realize that mellow parts abound and may well make up the lion’s share of it. In addition, I got it’s texture mixed up with the texture of Erik Fosnes Hansen’s novel Beretninger om Beskyttelse, and this mix makes both more vivid.

EliteFireside – Elite (2000). The reviews on Firesideometer [which seems to be down, I hope it gets back up, great site] says everything I have to say about this record, and says it better. The title track is just epic,  as is the closer. But what makes the album legendary are not it’s tracks but everything inbetween (if that makes little sense, check it out, discover and understand). Fireside was hard core punk that turned psycho and I bet their fans had a hard time getting to grips with Elite. So did the band, I guess, they poured everything they had into it and ran dry. They never return to the same heights later.

TakkSigur Rós – Takk… (2005). My favorite Sigur Rós album and post rock at it’s best. A mind saver. Cannot be explained, needs to be experienced.

 

 

 

ShapeOfJazzOrnette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). I have listened a lot to jazz music in my life, but few jazz-albums makes it to this list. Shape, however, finally made me appreciate and understand free jazz, both as an idea and as a mean of expression. Miles’s In a Silent Way would have been the next jazz record if I could make ten last longer.

 


frances-the-muteThe Mars Volta – Frances the Mute (2005). 
Frances was, and is, my gateway into, and is perhaps also the crown jewel of, the world of the Mars Volta. The way leads further to At the Drive-In, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Life Coach, and the full force of progressive and experimental music at it’s best.

Harvesting in a Fishery with Stochastic Growth and a Mean-Reverting Price

February 14, 2015

EREAt the end of last year, my research team got a study accepted in Environmental & Resource Economics. Our long and unsexy title — Harvesting in a Fishery with Stochastic Growth and a Mean-Reverting Price — tells only part of the story (but as much as we could fit!): We study a fish harvest model in two stochastic state variables (stock and price), where the price further is mean-reverting. Perhaps the most important finding is our demonstration of the complexity that arises in relatively simple models. The complex behavior of the optimal solution that we observe is difficult to understand intuitively, something which gave us a hard time in the peer-review process. As it should be, I guess. Anyway, our abstract reads as follows:

We analyze a continuous, nonlinear bioeconomic model to demonstrate how stochasticity in the growth of fish stocks affects the optimal exploitation policy when prices are stochastic, mean-reverting and possibly harvest dependent. Optimal exploitation has nonlinear responses to the price signal and should be conservative at low levels of biological stochasticity and aggressive at high levels. Price stochasticity induces conservative exploitation with little or no biological uncertainty, but has no strong effect when the biological uncertainty is larger. We further observe that resource exploitation should be conservative when the price reverts slowly to the mean. Simulations show that, in the long run, both the stock level and the exploitation rate are lower than in the deterministic solution. With a harvest-dependent price, the long-run price is higher in the stochastic system. The price mean reversion rate has no influence on the long-run solutions.

Economics of Climate Change: A Problem from Hell

February 13, 2015

The economics demigod Martin Weitzman recently published a review of William Nordhaus’ The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World, where he provides the following characterization of the climate change economics problem:

The economics of climate change is a problem from hell. Trying to do a benefit-cost analysis […] of climate change policies bends and stretches the capability of our standard economist’s toolkit up to, and perhaps beyond, the breaking point. First and foremost, disconcertingly large uncertainties are everywhere, including the most challenging kinds of deep structural uncertainties. The climate change problem unfolds over centuries and millennia, a long intergenerational human time frame that most people are entirely unaccustomed to thinking about. With such long time frames, discounting becomes ultra-decisive for [benefit-cost analysis], and there is much debate and confusion about which long-run discount rate should be chosen. Irreversibilities abound, including the very long residence lifetime of atmospheric CO2. To add to the challenge, costs of new carbon-free technologies are uncertain. More importantly, for global mean temperature changes much above about 2 [degrees] C, estimating damages is mostly educated guesswork with a distressingly wide error cone. The evaluation and aggregation of such damages add yet another significant layer of uncertainty; we are even unsure even about what form the “damages function” should take. Climate change due to high [greenhouse gas] levels involves nonnegligible tail risks of low-probability catastrophic outcomes, ranging from “known unknown” tipping points to the “unknown unknowns” of black-swan bad-feedback events that we cannot even imagine today.

Striking. The review was published in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy.

Quote of the Day

February 5, 2015

JaynesQuote

Describing Something in 27 Ways

January 24, 2015

I was put onto Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje after Nick Hornby’s ecstatic discussion. Great book indeed, crazy but great. The main character is based on the legendary originator of jazz, Buddy Bolden, and Slaughter could perhaps be perceived as a literary biography. Or perhaps a dramatization of his life. As Hornby pointed out, Ondaatje writes about jazz like no other.

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot — see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number.

But jazz wasn’t like that in the early 1900’s, I refuse to believe that. But it became like that, and Ondaatje got it down on paper!

We Are Going to Die

December 18, 2014

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potentail people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here [Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow].

I read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. The first chapter is organized around four excerpts that Pinker uses to illustrate good writing; the one above from Richard Dawkins is the first one.

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

November 25, 2014

I’ve read the dry and comprehensive, but interesting and important The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. The Mismeasure of Man discusses problems with mental tests and their interpretation as measures of something innate. The argument about innateness stems from the more general theory called biological determinism. Gould discusses problems with biological determinism in several essays in the collection An Urchin in the Storm (his discussion there has a more general flavour, if I remember correctly; a few comments on Gould’s critique of E.O. Wilson here); in Mismeasure, the discussion centers around mental faculties. Gould’s general message:

TheMismeasureOfMan[T]hat determinist arguments for ranking people according to a single scale of intelligence, no matter how numerically sophisticated, have recorded little more than social prejudice—and that we learn something hopeful about the nature of science in pursuing such an analysis [p. 60*].

I admire Gould as writer and thinker. His honest , clear, and profound thoughts on the objective scientist, for example, align with my own, admittedly somewhat more muddled, ideas:

Scholars are often wary of citing [personal] commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice–cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non [indispensable or essential] of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences—and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.
Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence—so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained!  No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. […] The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded [pp. 36-37].

I criticize the myth that science itself is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view of the world as it really is. […] I believe that science must be understood as a social phenomenon, a gutsy, human enterprise […] I also present this view as an upbeat for science, not as a gloomy epitaph for a noble hope sacrified on the altar of human limitations [p. 53].

And, all glory ideas about scientific progress through breakthroughs aside, much scientific progress happens through criticism:

Working scientists are generally good at analyzing data. We are trained to spot fallacies of argument and, especially, to be hypercritical of supporting data. We scrutinize charts and look at every dot on a graph. Science moves forward as much by critiquing the conclusions of others as by making novel discoveries [p. 25].

Gould eventually enters a discussion of the feedback between scientific change and scientists:

An old tradition in science proclaims that changes in theory must be driven by observation. Since most scientists believe this simplistic formula, they assume that their own shifts in interpretation only record their better understanding of newly discovered facts. Scientists therefore tend to be unaware of their own mental impositions upon the world’s messy and ambiguous factuality. Such mental impositions arise from a variety of sources, including psychological  predispositions and social context. […] When scientists adopt the myth that theories arise solely from observation, and do not scrutinize the personal and social influences emerging from their own psyches, they not only miss the causes of their changed opinions, but may also fail to comprehend the deep and pervasive mental shift encoded by their own new theory [p. 406].

As a scientist myself, I realize how hard it is to fully understand and embrace Gould’s insight; but I also find that the insight should be superficially obvious in that scientists are inherent to scientific change.

The Mismeasure of Man, then, is a critique of the idea that mental tests, IQ–tests in particular, are measures of some physical phenomenon in the brain. The idea has roots back to the days of craniometry, the ‘measurement of the skull and its content’, and Gould shows how the old masters did little more than interpreting their precious numbers as confirmations of their prejudices:

Science is rooted in creative interpretation. Numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they  do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories. Theories are built upon the interpretation of numbers, and interpreters are often trapped by their own rhetoric. They believe in their own objectivity, and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many consistent with their numbers. Paul Broca [an old champion of craniometry] is now distant enough. We can stand back and show that he used numbers not to generate new theories but to illustrate a priori conclusions. Shall we believe that science is different today simply because we share the cultural context of most practicing scientists and mistake its influence for objective truth? Broca was an exemplary scientist; no one has ever surpassed him in meticulous care and accuracy of measurement. By what right, other than our own biases, can we identify his prejudice and hold that science now operates independently of culture and class? [p. 106.]

The allure of numbers and even words is captured in a great quote by John Stuart Mill that Gould actually quotes twice in Mismeasure (the second time in an essay that was added to the revised edition). The quote captures the problem with reification (reifyto convert into or regard as a concrete thing):

The temptation to reify is powerful. The idea that we have detected something “underlying” the externalities of a large set of correlation coefficients [the basic, statistical idea in assessing mental tests], something perhaps more real than the superficial measurements themselves, can be intoxicating. It is Plato’s essence [note Gould’s deep scope], the abstract, eternal reality underlying superficial appearances. But it is a temptation that we must resist, for it reflects an ancient prejudice of thought, not a truth of nature [p. 282].

Gould’s reason for going into the details of and problems with mental tests is, among other things, their use in arguments of innate differences between human races and social groups. The common racial prejudice about different mental capabilities makes little sense:

[A]ll non–African racial diversity—whites, yellows, reds, everyone from the Hopi to the Norwegians, to the Fijians—may not be much older than one hundred thousand years. By contrast, Homo sapiens has lived in Africa for a longer time. Consequently, since genetic diversity roughly correlates with time available for evolutionary change, genetic variety among Africans alone exceeds the sum total of genetic diversity for everyone else in the rest of the world combined! […] Africa is most of humanity by any proper genealogical definition; all the rest of us occupy a branch within the African tree. This non-African branch has surely flourished, but can never be topologically more than a subsection within an African structure. […] I suggest that we finally abandon such senseless statements as “African blacks have more rhythm, less intelligence, greater athleticism.” Such claims, apart from their social perniciousness, have no meaning if Africans cannot be construed as a coherent group because they represent more diversity than all the rest of the world put together [p. 399].

The Mismeasure of Man is a dissection of an entire field, it seems, and one cannot help but be impressed by Gould’s comprehensive knowledge and insight into something that largely must be regarded as secondary to his primary field of paleontology. Gould reveals scientific fraud, both conscious and, with the benefit of doubt, unconscious, in the science behind mental tests. In Gould’s eyes, the unconscious cases result mostly from ignorance of or lack of interest in the workings of science, in that objectivity is only an Utopian dream, and in the necessity of the difficult exercise to honestly examine one’s own prejudices. And ideas do matter, and scientists and thinkers more generally (that includes all of us, I gather) need to be aware and respect that.

Scholars often suppose that academic ideas must remain, at worst harmless and, at best, mildly amusing or even instructive. But ideas do not reside in the ivory tower of our usual metaphor about academic irrelevancy. People are, as Pascal said, thinking reeds, and ideas motivate human history. Where would Hitler have been without racism, Jefferson without liberty? [p. 412.]

* Page references to the 1996-edition [W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London]

UPDATE: Irony has it that Gould himself is accused of fudging numbers to make his conclusions align with his preconceived notions: Stephen Jay Gould accused of fudging numbers. Gould proves his own point, and demonstrates how hard the necessary introspection is. Now, I did not read the article describing Gould’s misconduct, but understood that among his errors was to exclude small samples (four observations or less). To exclude small samples seems reasonable to me, but there are perhaps better ways to retain the information in the observations and acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in the small sample size. I need to look further into the debate, but for now I am willing to give Gould the benefit of doubt. And the accusations regarded one of a number of cases Gould looked into, and does not bring down the overall argument in Mismeasure, which also relies on methodological problems with IQ–measures, for example. I sense that I will return to this topic in the near future.

UPDATE 2: After a closer look on the article mentioned in the previous update (here), I am fairly convinced that Gould was unable to keep it straight when he started to move figures around and they ended up supporting his beliefs. But, I am frustrated by the focus on means, for example in the table of measurements, where ranges or a notion of distributions would have been appropriate. Why didn’t the authors, that went through all that trouble to take new measurements, carry out some simple t–tests? I, for one, would be more at peace if it was made clear whether there was any statistical differences to talk about. [Disclaimer: I did not read the article in full and statistical tests may be reported, but it is not brought clearly out into the open and I do not understand why.]

Political Geometry

November 25, 2014

Interesting stories often lie encoded in names that seem either capricious or misconstrued. Why, for example, are political radicals called “left” and their conservative counterparts “right”? In most European legislatures, maximally distinguished members sat at the chairman’s right, following a custom of courtesy as old as all our prejudices for favoring the dominant hand of most people. (These biases run deep, extending well beyond can openers and writing desks to language itself, where “dextrous” [sic] comes from the Latin for “right” and “sinister” for “left.”) Since these distinguished nobles and moguls tended to espouse conservative views, the right and left wings of the legislature came to define a geometry of political views.

–Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man [1996, p. 401]

Quote of the Day

November 14, 2014

The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own. And if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.

–John Stuart Mill

Møster!

September 20, 2014

Møster! at Bergen Jazzforum

Å gå på konsert med Møster! kan minne litt om ekstremsport; det innvolverer adrenalin, det går stort sett bra, men ein viss risiko er der. No skal ikkje eg skryte av å ha vore på allverdens mange Møster!-konsertar, men eg har sett Møster i diverse konstellasjonar, og på årets Vossa Jazz såg eg kanskje 20 minutt av konserten der. Konserten på Bergen Jazzforum i går var sleppfest for plata Inner Earth, og det var kanskje ikkje heilt uventa at dei via mesteparten av konserten til denne.

Åpningslåten Descending into this crater åpner nokså roleg, der det verkar som om bandet i fyrste omgang sonderer terrenget. Til tider verker det som om dei går litt vill og ikkje heilt veit kvar dei er og kva dei vil. Men dei finn ut av det, dei finn i alle fall kvarandre i det musikalske landskapet, og etterkvart lyfter liksom musikken seg frå terrenget som ein sandstorm i ørkenen. Som sandstormen er det kaotisk og brutalt, men ein sandstorm kan visst vera vakker på avstand, og det er òg musikken.

Eit stykke ut i andrelåten Tearatorn verker det som Snah og Kapstad (kompisar frå Motorpsycho) krangler om rytmen i musikken; Snah herjer i veg på noko som minner om ein ukjent Deep Purple-låt frå syttitalet mens Kapstad, ja, det er ikkje alltid greit å vite kva han driv med, men det er i alle fall noko anna. Eilertsen på bass speler frenetisk for å halde tritt med begge. Møster sjølv reagerer på det heile med å ta luren ut av kjeften og sette seg ned. Det er som om resten av bandet har heime-aleine-fest mens Møster kviler, og som slike festar flest er det moro, men det går vel ikkje akkurat bra. Men på reint magisk vis får dei orden på sakene før far er tilbake, Kapstad lar den hersens hi-hat’en kvile ei stund og Møster trer inn att i musikken til eit øyredøvande cresendo.

Etter å ha avslutta med ein drivande Underworld Risk, vert dei klappa tilbake for å spele det Møster kallar hit’en frå forrige plate, låten Ransom Bird. Det er noko med denne låten som, særleg i går kanskje, minner meg om åpningssporet på The Shape of Jazz to Come av Ornette Coleman. Møster sjølv har vel sagt at Coltrane har vore viktig for han, men eg vil tru han òg har vore innom Coleman.

Tidlegare var Storløkken ein del av Møster!, men vart i fjor erstatta av Snah. I eit intervju sa Møster at med Snah i bandet vart det heile meir prog. Det vesle eg såg på Voss før i år og det eg har høyrt på den forrige plata har definetivt vore veldig prog, men i går kveld synes eg Snah var mindre dominerande og uttrykket bar mindre preg av prog’en. Konserten i går var likevel ein fartsfyllt og adrenaline-aktiv affære, litt som ekstremsport. Veldig bra, men ikkje utan risiko.

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer

September 17, 2014

I got inspired to read Eric Hoffer’s Working and Thinking on the Waterfront after a couple of quotes from it in Jacques Barzun’s Simple & DirectWorking and Thinking is Hoffer’s journal that he kept from June 1958 to May 1959, a period that was critical in Hoffer’s thinking (according to the dust cover). One way or the other, it makes for rather interesting reading. The entries are a combination of tidbits from Hoffer’s life as a San Francisco longshoreman, his social life, and his observations and thinking about little things and large things. Mostly large things.

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric HofferHoffer thinks about a great deal of things, many related to how societies functions, now and earlier, far and near. While the journal entries naturally are fragmented and rather brief, they offer many interesting perspectives and ideas. Here are some of the better:

Eventually, national churches came into being […] in the West, and nations crystallized around these churces. This is a significant point: The compact churchly organization of Christianity promoted nation formation, while Islam, being without a churchly organization, could not supply a nucleus for national crystallization [pp. 13-14*].

While nation forming is a rather slow process that began eons ago, Hoffer’s observation still seem oddly relevant against the backdrop of the current situation in the Middle East. Now, nation forming is decidedly a large thing. Hoffer also thinks of maintenance, certainly a smaller thing, and how it plays a role over the centuries.

It is the capacity for maintenance which is the best test for the vigor and stamina of a society. Any society can be galvanized for a while to build something, but the will and the skill to keep things in good repair day in, day out are fairly rare. […] I read somewhere that in ancient Rome a man was disqualified as a candidate for office because his garden showed neglect [p. 21].

Nietzsche’s description of the idealist:

A creature who has reasons for remaining in the dark about himsellf, and who is also clever enough to remain in the dark concerning these reasons [p. 49].

On creativity, and I think he is right:

We somehow assume that inner contradictions, if severe enough, may bring about the breakdown of a society or a system [or an individual, my remark]. Actually, vigor and creative flow have their source in internal strains and tensions. It is the pull of opposite poles that streches souls. And only stretched souls make music [p. 56].

Let me add that the metaphor of stretching reaches far; something stretched is in a dynamic condition, and only when exploiting ones inherent dynamics can one reach ones full potential. Hoffer has further thoughts on creativity:

How explain the primacy of painting, music, and dancing; the primacy of the non-utilitarian and the extravagant? Here are probably the roots of the uniqueness of man. Man’s inventiveness is to be sought in his impracticalness and extravagance. All other forms of life are tremendously practical and serious. Man’s creativeness has its source in his playfulness and his penchant for the superfluous. It is significant that to both children and artists luxuries are more necessary than necessities. We dare more, and are more inventive, when striving for superfluities than for necessities. Our utilitarian devices are mostly an application of insights and skills gained in the pursuit of the non-utilitarian [p. 74].

Children and artists! I am a child! And Hoffer has more:

Our originality shows itself most strikingly not in what we wholly originate but in what we do with that which we borrow from others. If this be true it is obvious that second-rate writers or artists may stimulate our originality more than first-rate ones, since we borrow more readily from the former [p. 89].

Ultimately, Hoffer is able to connect his observations about creativity to ideas from Nietzsche and to ancient developments:

I compared the stretched soul to the stretched string of a musical instrument when I said that only a stretched soul makes music. Nietzsche likened the stretched soul to a tensely-strained bow with which one can aim at the furthest goals. The bow is said to have been a musical instrument before it became a weapon [p. 173].

Hoffer also reflect on writing:

My brevity is partly the result of a reluctance or inability to write. Delight in the act of writing breeds expansiveness. One shudders at the thought of the innumerable thick volumes which come into existence as the result of the sheer habit of writing. How many people with nothing to say keep writing so many pages a day in order that their body, particularly in old age, should perform its functions [p. 131].

Writing as (bodily) exercise! I think, by the way, that the above quote was referred by Barzun and thus convinced me that Hoffer was able to make sense.

The scribe’s role in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was not unlike that of a lawyer in present-day America. He was a multipurpose human type. He could fit into any field of human endeavor—economic, political, diplomatic, military, religious, and so on. The American lawyer is a potential recruit for corporations, universities, government, unions, banks and whatnot.

In every society there is a multipurpose type. In America it is the lawyer, in Russia the commissar, in Britain the politician, in France the writer, in Germany the professor, in Japan the Samurai [pp. 158-159].

How do Hoffer know all these things about all these different societies? Perhaps because he takes an intrinsic interest in civilization:

To be civilized is perhaps to rise above passion; to be able to observe and report without giving way to anger or enthusiasm [p. 169].

In his journal, Hoffer also reports on his reading, and he reads alot. Working and Thinking is a goldmine of great book suggestions and several of the books Hoffer reports on reading are now on my mental to-read list.

Ultimately, the book inspired me to put Hoffer’s Ordeal of Change on my to-read list because Hoffer is obviously a profound thinker. Hoffer also seem to have an uncanny ability to make deep observations that are on the verge of tautologies when they first have been suggested: ‘We die alone’ (p. 91). ‘It is […] clear how vital it is not to take oneself seriously’ (p. 95).

* Page numbers refer to the 1969-edition.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

September 11, 2014

A while back, I read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips. Hemingway was obviously superstitious and thought it was bad luck to talk HemingwayOnWritingabout writing. He did, however, write about it. Not in a systematic manner, but here and there, now and then, in letters, articles, and books. Phillips have collected many fragments on writing from Hemingway’s hand and put them together in a somewhat orderly fashion. While the result is not all that impressive, in particular given that it comes from one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century, there are several interesting points, ideas, and moments contained in the collection. The book would be much more interesting and valuable, I think, if Phillips, being an accomplished writer himself, rather than just collecting and ordering all these fragments from Hemingway, would take the best ideas and fragments and provide us with his own thoughts about them; why he chose them, what they mean to him and his writing, and whether he agrees or whatever with them. [Long sentence, sorry, I won’t go back and rewrite it.]

Some of my favorite passages, interesting, revealing, or both:

My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. […] You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements [pp. 37-38*].

Punctuation should be rather straightforward, but it can be tricky sometimes, in particular if you are not writing in your mother tounge. But I agree that you need to master the conventions before moving beyond.

Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write [p. 38].

I wholeheartedly disagree! Perhaps it could be discussed for certain types of writers, but I don’t think so.

Hemingway counted how many words he wrote each day, to measure his productivity I guess (see p. 56). I find productivity measurement interesting (probably in more ways than you can imagine). It took 320 words to make Hemingway happy. Modern word processors have made word counting very easy, but I forget to keep tally. But I guess I would be pretty satisfied with 320 words if I could keep at such a rate. My problems is that my writing (as an academic economist) comes in bursts; when I have something to write about (which is more seldom than I like to admit). Perhaps the problem is that writing depends on what I do otherwise, and not upon the mere inspiration to write. Taking a year off just to write, that would have been an interesting experience. (Note to self: This piece currently runs up towards 500 words, put down within less than an hour, and fewer than I feared when I sat down belong to Hemingway. I am a talkative person when I get started, perhaps I am a writative person as well. But how to get started on something interesting?)

Writers should work alone [p. 63].

Hemingway’s point is that too much interaction with other writers is destructive. My favorite band (Motorpsycho) said something similar in a recent interview, that they could never have become what they became if they were not in a small town where little happened; in a place where they could focus without being afraid of missing anything.

Chapter eleven contain fragments on other writers and has a bunch of great passages, perhaps more for what they reveal than what they say about writing. I feel this post is more about writing than, well, bullshit, so I’ll try to stick to the topic. On page 92, however, is a list of books that Hemingway seemingly think are important to have read for a, I presume creative, writer. Among them, War and PeaceMadam BovaryUlyssesThe Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, and a bunch more.

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since [p. 93].

[Gertrud Stein’s] Making of Americans is one of the very greatest books I’ve ever read [p. 96].

The chapter goes on discussing literature that Hemingway admired, among them Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde, which happen to be one of the best books I’ve read).

So, what did I learn from Hemingway? Worry about productivity. Be careful with punctuation and words. Read alot, the list is long.

Phillips has also edited a volume of Fitzgerald’s fragments on writing. Hemingway corresponded regularly with Fitzgerald, it seems, and many of the fragments in the book are taken from letters to Fitzgerald. While I was somewhat disappointed by what Ernest Hemingway on Writing provided, I am somewhat tempted to check out the Fitzgerald book (which usually means reading it).

* Page numbers refer to the First Scribner trade paperback edition of 2004.

Relevant post:

On Tonight’s the Night

August 1, 2014

Tonight, I will go and see Neil Young & Crazy Horse in Bergen. It is the first, and probably last, time I see Neil Young together with Crazy Horse. A strange horse that has been limping its entire life but somehow still is around. But the cowboy riding it is no less strange.

Anyway, to celebrate the event (Neil Young is one of my absolute favorite artists), I thought I pull out one of my favorite passages from Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography Shakey. The passage concerns the album Tonight’s the Night, ironically enough not a Crazy Horse record, but in my view, Neil Young is Neil Young, no matter who he plays with.

The music recorded at [Studio Instrument Rentals, LA] is some of the top-drawer, big-time, hot-shit greatest rock and roll ever made. You could write a book on the bit of piano that opens Tonight’s the Night. Just an offhand, uncertain tinkling of the ivories, but so ominous, so full of dread. It sets the tone for the onslaught to come—out-of-tune singing, bum notes, mike hits and some of the best, most beautiful noise ever.

These are dispatches from the other side—sublime, stream-of-consciousness poetryset to drunken Jimmy Reed rhythms; “Speakin’ Out” is half Kahlil Gibran, half Fats Domino. “Oh tell me where the answer lies / Is it in the notebook behind you eyes?” croons Young, propelled by his chunky honky tonk piano and Lofgren’s quicksilver blues guitar. “All right, Nils, play it!”—one of the only times Young will ever invite a musician to solo on record.

The unearthly “World on a String” sports lyrics that evoke all sorts of thoughts on success, purpose and mortality, and one couplet in particular could be tattooed on Young’s heart: “It’s just a game you see me play / Only real in the way that I feel from day to day.” The doomed, resigned opening rumble of guitar tells you no happy face came up with this riff.

In the sly, soulful “Roll Another Number”—written on the spot in the studio—a well-oiled Young fumbled with the key to his ignition, then tells us he’s “a million miles away from that helicopter day” of Woodstock and goes on to mourn those who didn’t go the distance (“Though my feet aren’t on the ground / I been standin’ on the sound / Of some openhearted people goin’ down”). At once funny and profound, the music is exquisite—loose, liquid and just short of falling apart.

Perhaps the most luminous playing is by Ben Keith, whose otherworldy steel lends just the right lonesome-prairie feel to songs like “Albuquerque.” “I couldn’t belive all that weird slide in Tonight’s the Night,” said Lofgren. “All those shades of melancholy that were in us…it’s almost Middle-Eastern, like ‘Ben Keith Goes to East Cairo.’ ”

“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn,” Charlie Parker once proclaimed. Young was in the thick of it. Surrounded by friends, his subconscious unhinged, he had tuned in to the cosmos. Halfway through “Mellow My Mind,” Young’s ravaged voice cracks with emotion. “I still get chills when it gets to that fuckin’ note,” said Molina. “It’s so real. I’ll tell ya, man, Neil was right there with us. He was wide open.” [Pp. 416-417, First Anchor Books ed. 2003].

Tonight's the Night

Neil Young himself:

See, Tonight’s the Night was the closest to art that I’ve come. But you really have to be detached. The whole thing was just me and it. You can’t struggle to get there. It’s just gotta happen—a set of circumstances that make those things take place, and if the circumstances ever come together for me again to do something like that, I’ll do it [p. 433].

McDonough describes the feeling:

You know how it is when you’ve been up too long, the apartment’s trashed, everything is silent, the sun’s about to come up and you’re feeling like some germ stuck to a big cold rock hurtling through space—and somehow you don’t mind? Here is a record that induces that state automatically [pp. 433-434].

Estimating Endangered Species Interaction Risk with the Kalman Filter

March 22, 2014

Crossposting from the Reconhub:

AJAETogether with my co-author Stephen Stohs, I recently published an article in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. The main gist is that with rare events like endangered species interactions, the statistical information in yearly data sets is limited, and that data from several years provide better information for decision making. We provide a method that is based on the Kalman filter and that allow for observations unequally spaced  in time. The method also takes account of spatiotemporal effects. We discuss the particular case of leatherback turtle bycatch in a gillnet fishery in California and Oregon. The leatherback is an endangered species, and in order to reduce bycatch, extensive spatiotemporal closures was imposed on the fishery in 2000. Our analysis shows that the interaction risk likely was smaller than in the scenarios that motivated the closures. To discuss whether the closures were and are warranted, require further analysis, however. As we discuss in the concluding section, closures in California may lead to trade leakages such that the total effect on the leatherback turtle stock is unknown. And the value of the leatherback in the ecosystem, and the value of its mere existence, is unknown.

The abstract:

To address the tradeoff between biodiversity conservation in marine ecosystems and fishing opportunity, it is important to quantify the risk of endangered species interactions in commercial fisheries. We propose a Kalman filter suitable for rare events to estimate the endangered leatherback turtle take risk in the California drift gillnet fishery in the years 1990–2010, conditional on spatiotemporal factors that affect take rates. Results suggest interaction risk has remained stable, but with substantial variation over the spatiotemporal distribution of effort. Our methods might also apply to recreation demand analysis with rare event risk, or to applications involving irregularly spaced observations, like trade-level stock market data.

On Writing by Stephen King

September 1, 2013

Natalie Reid made me aware of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in her academic writing class. I was reminded of it when Cal Newport reported that he re-reads On Writing every few years in order to reorient himself to the reality of becoming better at creative endavours.

KingOnWritingI force myself to take an interest in writing as writing is ultimately what I do for a living (I do a lot of other things, like programming, reading, and thinking, but in the end I always have to write it down). I hoped reading On Writing would be a useful investment.

In the introduction, King reiterates one of Strunk and White‘s rules for good writing: Omit needless words. Unfortunately, I find a lot of needless words in King’s book. But he should get the benefit of the doubt; he never set out to write a book about writing in general, useful for all writers (I presume). He writes a memoir of his life as a writer, what shaped him in the early years, and how he goes about it now (or then: On Writing was published in 2000). If I were to put the blame anywhere, it would rest with Natalie Reid, who mentioned it in her class. By doing that, she effectively suggested it for those in the audience who want to push further than suffering through her lectures (I usually suffer in lectures). Perhaps I read too much into her mentioning the book, but she emphsized again and again that she could only cover so much in her lectures and that her book containted so much more. When she then, after obviously leaving out a lot of valuable material, still chose to mention King, one can only take it as a strong suggestion to read King’s book. The problem is, I find King’s book of almost no value as an academic writer (and Reid’s class was aimed at academic writing). If I were a King fan, I would certainly enjoy the biographic material and all the references to his own work, how it came to him, and how he worked with it. Also, if I had aspirations to write fiction I could perhaps benefit from King’s book. Alas, I am only an academic writer (and an amateur blogger in the dark corners of my spare time), and, again, King has little to offer.

It is strange though. After King finishes his autobiographical part about how he grew up and all that, he pretends to write a textbook about fiction writing, at least a textbook about King-fiction-writing. He is very serious (apart from the somewhat informal language), discusses one issue at the time, and, I imagine, presentes a comprehensive treatment of King-fiction-writing. But, he fails to make his part-autobiography-part-textbook usable. The book is divided into separate parts. The first part is autobiographical and consists of 38 numbered sections dispersed over approximately 100 pages. (How he conceives or puts into the thirty seven breaks is illusive to me, but not really important.) Then follows a part called What Writing Is, which is an interesting section where King discusses what he thinks writing really is (he thinks of writing as telepathy). What Writing Is consist of only one part and is only a few pages long. Next is a section called Toolbox that again consists of several numbered parts. And here is where the logic of the part-textbook breaks down. For a textbook to be useful, it should be possible to re-locate a particular section one remembers reading but cannot fully recall. But unless one writes down a content list upon the first reading, it is impossible to relocate any section without risking to skim much of the book. There isn’t even an index (nor a crude content list) in King’s book. Now, while I disagree with a lot of what King writes about writing, I find it almost provoking to read his textbookish prose when I know his book does not function as a textbook.

Cal Newport emphasizes how King went through a lot of deliberate practice; he wrote a lot, before his eventual breakthrough.  Deliberate practice is part of Newport’s recipe for success. While not directly in conflict with Newport, I find King’s metaphor for how he comes up with his stories somewhat at odds with Newport’s ideas. King considers his stories as fossils buried in the (metaphorical) ground, which he excavates and liberates through his writing. King uses the metaphor repeatedly and it seems to be fixed and clear in his mind. I forgot to mark off where (turns out I didn’t: on page 163 he writes “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.”), but I am sure King suggests somewhere that the story (the fossil) exists outside and independent of himself, like a real fossil in an unreal world. King at least hints towards the idea here:

When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it […] is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around [p. 159*].

While I think it an odd metaphor, I also find it difficult to reconcile with the Newport-idea of deliberate practice. Perhaps you can train at metaphorical excavation; not sure how. The excavation of stories metaphor reminds me of a book by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad. The book, hardly called a novel, is called Armand V.  Footnotes to an unexcavated novel (my translation). It contains footnotes to an unwritten novel. The format of it certainly makes it a disturbing read. One of the footnotes are over fifty pages long, if memory serves me right. Whether Solstad has ever read King’s On Writing, I don’t know, but he certainly could have; Armand V. was published in 2006.

My review is already overly long, but I’d like to discuss some of King’s writing advice. On vocabulary, he writes:

[T]he basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to you mind, if it is appropriate and colorful [p. 118, his italics].

But what if it is not appropriate or, most likely, not colorful? King says little on it.

While Newport entertains the idea that practice is really what counts and that talent has relatively little to do about success, King seems to disagree, and this is part of why I find Newport’s endorsement puzzling. King puts writers into four categories (I think), from bad, through competent and good to great, and the classification is seemingly well-defined and mostly outside our control:

[M]y basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great … [forget about it] [p. 144].

Further:

Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate-four to six hours a day, every day-will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them [p. 150, his italics].

Newport would not agree, and neither to I. To become a virtuoso, for example, one has to go through hundreds if not thousands of hours of technical and repetitive training that I doubt is particularly fun before you really master it; perhaps years down the road.

Another thing I do not like about King’s textbook approach is lack of clarity. After a section where he discusses usage of different tools, symbolism in particular, he starts the next section in the following way: “The same things are true of theme” (p. 200). What things? All the things he went over in the previous section? The things he went over in the last paragraph? What if the reader had a break in the reading between the two sections such that the things discussed in the previous section are unclear in the reader’s mind? This example is but one out of many cases where King, who ought to advocate clear writing, fails to deliver the necessary clarity of a textbook.

Another example of where King fails to be clear, where he lets his creativity get the better of him, is when he discusses when you are ready to re-read the first draft of a novel:

When you come to the correct evening […], take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready [p. 212].

But what if it doesn’t look like an alien relic? What if it looks like a pile of paper? What if it doesn’t really look like anything because it is kept in electronic form? This particular advice on when to re-read the first draft is nothing but useless. Useless. (UPDATE: I know it is just a metaphor for foreign and perhaps the advice is not completely useless, but what about omitting those needless words, King?)

Well, shame is on me. King almost died when he wrote On Writing, and to criticize him is, I am sure, next to blasphemy. He was run over by a car and wrote the second half of the book while recovering. King goes on about the accident and his recovery at length after he finishes his textbook-part of the book. I am sure no one had the heart to tell King the truth about his book after what happened, and I probably shouldn’t either. But, I am a useless and heartless you-know-what, I’m sorry.

* Page numbers refer to the 2010 paperback edition.

UPDATE 2: It struck me that the stories as fossils metaphor suggests that inspiration happens by divine intervention and has little to do with practice. Either the fossil is there or it isn’t. King writes nothing to suggest otherwise, at least. King does emphasize practice through extensive reading and writing, but more in order to command the technical part of writing; controlling the language, tone, perspective vocabulary–stuff covered in the textbook part of King’s book. How Newport embraces King’s book when inspiration depends on divine intervention is another thing I find difficult to understand.


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