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This is an interesting article, albeit breathless and probably completely deluded, about acquired savantism:  people suffering traumatic brain injury and as a result developing a talent that they did not have before.  Here’s at least one bit that sounds legit:

Last spring, Snyder published what many consider to be his most substantive work. He and his colleagues gave 28 volunteers a geometric puzzle that has stumped laboratory subjects for more than 50 years. The challenge: Connect nine dots, arrayed in three rows of three, using four straight lines without retracing a line or lifting the pen. None of the subjects could solve the problem. Then Snyder and his colleagues used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to temporarily immobilize the same area of the brain destroyed by dementia in Miller’s acquired savants. The noninvasive technique, which is commonly used to evaluate brain damage in stroke patients, delivers a weak electrical current to the scalp through electrodes, depolarizing or hyperpolarizing neural circuits until they have slowed to a crawl. After tDCS, more than 40 percent of the participants in Snyder’s experiment solved the problem. (None of those in a control group given placebo tDCS identified the solution.)

(I know this problem because it was presented to us as a brain teaser when I was in 2nd grade.  Nobody got it. The solution while quite simple is “difficult” to see because you instinctively self-impose the unstated rule that your pencil cannot leave the square.)

The suggestion is that with some drugs or surgery we could all unlock some hidden sensitivity or creativity that is latent within us. Forget about whether any of the anecdotes in the article are true examples of the phenomenon (the piano guy almost certainly is not.  Watch the video, he’s doing what anyone with some concentrated practice can do.  There is no evidence that he has acquired a natural, untrained facility at the piano.  And anyway even if we accept the hypothesis about brain damage and perception/concentration why should we believe that a blow to the head can give you a physical ability that normally takes months or years of exercise to acquire?)

The examples aside, there is reason to believe that something like this could be possible.  At least the natural counterargument is wrong:  our brains should already be using whatever talents they have to their fullest.  It would be an evolutionary waste to build the structure to do something useful and not actually use it.  This argument is wrong but not because playing the piano and sculpting bronze bulls are not valuable survival skills.  Neither is Soduku but we have that skill because its one way to apply a deeper, portable skill that can also be usefully applied.  No, the argument is wrong because it ignores the second-best nature of the evolutionary optimum.

It could be that we have a system that takes in tons of sensory information all of which is potentially available to us at a conscious level but in practice is finely filtered for just the most relevant details.  While the optimal level of detail might vary with the circumstances the fineness of the filter could have been selected for the average case.  That’s the second best optimum if it is too complex a problem to vary the level of detail according to circumstances.  If so, then artificial intervention could improve on the second-best by suppressing the filter at chosen times.

This is sublime writing.  It will make your week, go and read it.  Thanks to The Browser for the pointer.

Lee Childs gets asked that question a lot.

But it’s a bad question. Its very form misleads writers and pushes them onto an unhelpful and overcomplicated track.

Because “How do you create suspense?” has the same interrogatory shape as “How do you bake a cake?” And we all know — in theory or practice — how to bake a cake. We need ingredients, and we infer that the better quality those ingredients are, the better quality the cake will be. We know that we have to mix and stir those ingredients, and we’re led to believe that the more thoroughly and conscientiously we combine them, the better the cake will taste. We know we have to cook the cake in an oven, and we figure that the more exact the temperature and timing, the better the cake will look.

So writers are taught to focus on ingredients and their combination. They’re told they should create attractive, sympathetic characters, so that readers will care about them deeply, and then to plunge those characters into situations of continuing peril, the descent into which is the mixing and stirring, and the duration and horrors of which are the timing and temperature.

But it’s really much simpler than that. “How do you bake a cake?” has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?”

And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.

As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer. (Which is what I did here, and you’re still reading, right?)

It’s a great article but I agree with Emir Kamenica (deerstalker doff) who says that there’s one thing in there the author gets completely wrong.

Cheap Talk has turned 4 years old.  In honor of that, I could tell you about how many of you read us, how many of you subscribe to us, which were the greatest among all the great articles we wrote last year, etc. but instead I’ll take this opportunity to do something I have been wanting to do for a while.

A very interesting side benefit of having a blog is seeing the search terms that lead people to us.  Its a fun game trying to figure out which post Google sent them to when they searched for terms like  “students can lie to teachers very easily” but more than that, as the range of topics we have covered gets wider and wider just reading down the list of search terms each day starts to look like pure poetry.

So I decided to compose a poem entirely out of search phrases and as my fourth birthday present to myself I am going to make you read it. It is a testament to the power of the Internet that for each and every line below there was someone who, in a quest for knowledge, typed it into Google and Google dutifully led them to our blog.

For the best effect I recommend reading this poem in your best mental Christopher Walken voice.

Feral Dogs in Tampa

I like bareback sex with hookers
Explaining infinity to children,
The god in heaven
Serving Guinness

Statistically birthdays increase your age
What is there to do?
Remember abstract things
Courtney Conklin Knapp

Low hanging balls
Kink on demand,
Pile driver sex
I am tired of cohabitation

You are nothing
Empty plate with crumbs,
Playing with yourself in public
When will the Devil talk to you?

Novel figure skates,
Who invented sarcasm,
Orthogonally-minded,
Try to arrange a meeting

Fuyuh.

Classic Tyler:

I say the deadweight loss here is not so large.  Most art exhibitions are not self-financing from the side of the viewers, which suggests that the demand to see the pictures is not higher than the costs of mounting the exhibit.  Arguably you can throw in philanthropic support as another part of “market demand,” but I consider that a separate valuation issue.  Maybe our current artistic institutions are under-providing marketing opportunities for businesses and foundations, but that still won’t get you a major pent-up demand to view the pictures, again not relative to cost.  The very popular pictures, such as the good works by the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, are shown quite frequently, including in traveling exhibitions.

Context matters a great deal in this setting.  Currently most of the Louvre is not being viewed at any point in time, as the crowds tend to cluster in a few very well-known areas.  Many people would want to go see anything they are told they ought to go see.  What is underfunded is some kind of “demand for participation in a public event,” not the viewing of art per se.  If only they could create more hullaballoo around the more obscure Flemish painters.

Almost all museums have large stretches of empty walls.  I would put up many more pictures there, as indeed I do in my own home.  That museums do not do this I find striking and indicative.  Nor do I see viewers and visitors demanding this, if anything the unspoken feeling might be to wish for a bit less on the walls, so that one may have the feeling of having seen everything without exhaustion.

The costs of storing art are high.  Perhaps the Louvre should sell some of its lower-tier works to private collectors.  But the general public just doesn’t want so much more art to see, not if they have to pay for it and maybe even if they don’t.

Nice.

But I can’t help but ask what was the deadweight loss of all of Tyler’s ideas lost to the world pre-blogosphere? Is MR self-financing? How good a measure is the price (free) of the consumers’ surplus it generates now?

I just hope this doesn’t make me a Flemish painter.

“Improvisational theater” always means comedy.  There doesn’t seem to exist any improvisational tragedy/drama.  Why?  I don’t think its because improvised drama would not be as interesting or entertaining as improvised comedy.

  1. Its just selection.  People become comedians because they are funny in real life.  To be funny in real life you have to know how to create humor out of the random events that happen around you.  People become dramatic actors if they are good at understanding and reflecting dramatic themes in text.
  2. Its just training.  Improvisation is what you practice if you want to do comedy.  Its not a useful skill for dramatic actors (absent an already existing market for improvising tragedians.)
  3. Improvisation is by its nature funny.  Seeing something you don’t expect is usually going to be funny even if it is nominally tragic.  Like slipping on a banana peel.  So improvised tragedy is just a contradiction in terms.
  4. To make drama work the players must have a high degree of coordination in terms of the development of the story and that is too hard to achieve through improvisation.  By contrast, absurd plotlines add to the comedic effect of improvisation.
  5. Improvised drama would indeed be no worse than improvised comedy but that’s not the relevant comparison.  It would be much worse than scripted drama.  In other words drama has a larger range of quality than comedy and to hit the highs you need a script.
  6. Improvisation inevitably breaks the fourth wall.  The audience is wondering “can they do it?” and the actors are self-consciously playing on that tension.  Breaking the fourth wall tends to heighten comedy but cheapen drama.

(Plundered from a conversation I had with Chris Romeo.)

He has a new book of aphorisms.

What’s the difference between a tweet and an aphorism?

A line like “what if hot dogs were the cut off horns of meat unicorns” can be interesting on Twitter because in Twitter it will burst into your feed like a surprise, it’ll be free, and there won’t by any high-minded literary expectation waiting for it in you. But copied & pasted into the literary form of the book and it becomes much more boring (at least to me) especially if it’s a book I’ve paid for, because while briefly interesting, its central juxtaposition doesn’t target anything I more than superficially care about.

The process:

I’d overhear someone use the verb ‘carom’ or something… and the little sweatshop in my head would get to work thinking, okay, that’s a strange-yet-familiar verb… what could carom?… death caroms… life caroms… time caroms… okay… off what… time caroms off life… off death… poetry caroms off death… no… more sound… character caroms off time…. okay a context… when does it do this… in death our character caroms off… grief… wait… what does that even mean… I can’t see it… start over… more visceral… laughter caroms off… laughter cannons off… laughter is a cannon fired by…” and so on. Often I would get to something that look and sounded right but wasn’t actually true. Or was true and wasn’t interesting. Basically cycling through until I gave up or found something that pleased all the gods. Sometimes it would be that clinical. Other times it would just come out. I would be writing something else or talking about a movie and an aphorism would erupt like a turd or Minerva in perfect form.

Comedy verus tragedy:

I tend to find more meaning in narrative and monologue, in broader emotional or psychological arcs, than in individual words, or the ephemeral joke-arc of a non sequitur. I think humor depends on depth of tension. There is just so little tension in randomness. Or in a pattern that is only available to the speaker. The first random thing that happens — pig-ponies! — can be funny for a second. But the next time it happens, it’s less funny because you’re ready for it. The listener has less anxiety about the end of the poem because the listener knows anything can happen. But if the joke is stripped of all non sequitur and pushed, relentlessly, along a path of logic which is blatantly available to both listener and speaker, both can have anxiety about where it will end up, and what it will ultimately mean. Maximizing this anxiety and then, at the last second, shattering it, is a key trope of humor. Part of keeping on that path is not breaking. It’s like how if someone told you that The Matrix was the best movie in the world, and then winked, that’s lame comedy. That to me parallels the flat effect of jokey poetry. But if they told you The Matrix was the best movie in the world and just stared into your eyes without blinking… until you blinked, that’s a tragedy so unbearable you have to laugh. You have to say that’s absurd. But this buffoon thinks it’s real? That’s impossible. Because that buffoon is a human like me. The irreconcilability of that wedges into us and leaves a giant triangle of anxiety. We survive by laughing. Otherwise we would simply kill that person. It feels good to laugh. Laughter is the orgasm of fear.

Some of these things are coincidences, some not:

  1. The Bad Plus premeired their arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Duke University on March 26, 2011.
  2. I happened to be at Duke University that day because the day before I presented “Torture” at the Economics Department.
  3. Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Bahar Leventoglu are my two favorite people in the whole world.
  4. After the show we met the band at a bar and had many drinks and fine conversation.
  5. Columbia B-School economist Maria Guadalupe was also there.
  6. Along with Philip Sadowski that brought the total number of economists enjoying free drinks on The Bad Plus to five.
  7. Maria’s sister is Cristina Guadalupe who collaborated on the visual arts aspect of the performance.
  8. Along with Philip’s wife that brought the total number of Spanish visual artists to two.
  9. Cristina is also married to the bass player Reid Anderson.
  10. And that is partly because Columbia B-school economist Bocachan Celen brought Maria to a Bad Plus performance and somehow this led to Reid meeting Cristina.
  11. Ethan Iverson does not want a MacArthur Fellowship.
  12. You can hear a recording of that night’s performance of The Rite of Spring here.

If I had to describe my feeling about the performance that night then I would probably procrastinate by doing something else because that’s how I tend to respond when I have to do something.  If I didn’t have to then I would say that it was a night I will never forget.

Drawing:  Spring from www.f1me.net

Wendy:  There’s chard on your face.

Ray: Chard?

Wendy:  The greens.  It’s chard right?  I think the server said it was chard.  I think he said something like “embellished with pearls of chard.”

Ray: Better than shards of pearls.

Wendy:  Anyway there’s a pearl on your chin, you might want to wipe it off.  Oh hey, how was that new exhibition you went to?

Ray:  Ah yes, the Alpha-Beam Installation.

Wendy:  What was that?

Ray:  You’ve heard of I-beams right?  Well, this guy built massive steel beams with cross-sections for every letter of the alphabet.

Wendy:  Q-beams.

Ray:  And P-beams, and Z-beams, etc.  And punctuation beams.  The semi-colon beam was an engineering feat in itself.

Wendy:  Cool.

Ray:  Yeah right, and he wrote poetry with his beams. Gargantuan, industrial poetry.  A single haiku took up the space of football stadium.

Wendy:  I love it.

Ray:  I guess, but come on how is that art?

Wendy:  Oh, don’t be such a douchebag.

Ray:  Listen, it may sound cliche, but really anybody could have done that.  Even I could have done that.  I’m no artist, and if I could have done that, it’s not art.

Wendy:  But you didn’t do it.  On the other hand, he did.  Because it’s art and because you are not an artist.

Ray:  Ok, I’ve heard that one before, but I’m telling you that argument just doesn’t work.  Sure I didn’t make alphanumeric pillars and arrange them into rhymes and sure I never would have dreamed of doing something like that but that doesn’t make him any more of an artist than me.  Think of the thousands of other self-styled artists working in obscurity picking completely random things and not using them for their intended purpose.  One of these guys gets plucked out of his basement and placed in an art museum handing out free cheese and wine to 7 of his friends from high school.  It’s not enough to point out that he did it and not us.  Because there’s a thousand things we did and he didn’t.  Your argument gives me no way of distinguishing between a world where this guy has some innate ability to sense which particular non-functional scrap of architecture has the power to move people and a world where everybody is repeating pre-school art projects and one gets picked at random to fill up a vacant wharehouse.

Wendy: You would be such a bore if it weren’t for the hilarious food on your face.

Groovy Action At A Distance

Isaac Washington was so cool
That when he left his stateroom
He would set the door in motion
With the precise velocity
That in the time it would take
For the deceleration
To bring the locking mechanism
To a halt
An infinitessimal measure short
Of fully shut
He has walked
No, drifted,
Just far enough across the deck
At which distance
The radiant force of his
Cool
Was just enough to induce
The final click.

You may have noticed the line drawings I have been putting at the top of some posts recently.  These are the work of Stephanie Yee and I found them on her blog f1me. I started noticing them in my Google Woody Buzz and something about them just clicked with me. When I started seeing connections with my blogging topics I had to ask her if I could use them on Cheap Talk and she graciously agreed. I think they are a great addition to the blog so let’s all cheer for Stephanie Yee’s playful artwork.

(Chickles:  my word, don’t blame her. It rhymes with tickles, they are way more than doodles, and because she is not a dood.)

Which type of artist debuts with obscure experimental work, the genius or the fraud? Kim-Sau Chung and Peter Eso have a new paper which answers the question:  it’s both of these types.

Suppose that a new composer is choosing a debut project and he can try a composition in a conventional style or he can write 4’33″, the infamous John Cage composition consisting of three movements of total silence. Critics understand the conventional style well enough to assess the talent of a composer who goes that route. Nobody understands 4’33″ and so the experimental composer generates no public information about his talent.

There are three types of composer.  Those that know they are talented enough to have a long career, those that know they are not talented enough and will soon drop out, and then the middle type:  those that don’t know yet whether they are talented enough and will learn more from the success of their debut.  In the Chung-Eso model, the first two types go the experimental route and only the middle type debuts with a conventional work.

The reason is intuitive.  First, the average talent of experimental artists must be higher than conventional artists. Because if it were the other way around, i.e. conventional debuts signaled talent then all types would choose a conventional debut, making it not a signal at all.  The middle types would because they want that positive signal and they want the more informative project.  The high and low types would because the positive signal is all they care about.

Then, once we see that the experimental project signals higher than average talent, we can infer that it’s the high types and the low types that go experimental.  Both of these types are willing to take the positive signal from the style of work in exchange for generating less information by the actual composition.  The middle types on the other hand are willing to forego the buzz they would generate by going experimental in return for the chance to learn about their talent.  So they debut conventionally.

Now, as the economics PhD job market approaches, which fields in economics are the experimental ones (generates buzz but nobody understands it, populated by the geniuses as well as the frauds) and which ones are conventional (easy to assess, but generally dull and signals a middling type) ?

It’s actually a really great article, you should check it out.  It has this:

The fashion modeling market also has a formal mechanism in place, known as the “option,” to ensure all tastemakers get in on the action. An option is an agreement between client and agent that enables the client to place a hold on the model’s future availability. Like options trading in finance markets, an option gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to make a purchase. In the modeling market, it enables clients to place a hold on the model’s time, but unlike finance options trading, model options come free of cost; they are a professional courtesy to clients, and also a way for agents to manage models’ hectic schedules.

And it even has this:

In behavioral economics, Coco Rocha’s success is a case of an information cascade. Faced with imperfect information, individuals make a binary choice to act (to choose or not to choose Coco) by observing the actions of their predecessors without regard to their own information. In such situations, a few early key individuals end up having a disproportionately large effect, such that small differences in initial conditions create large differences later in the cascade.

A hot day in Boston.  What could be better than a trip to the leafy sculpture garden at the DeCordova Museum?   Try to help the red man climb out of the Earth.  Build dams in the stream in the Rain Gates.  Tap on the Two Black Hearts to see if they hollow.  Try to take out the stovetop espresso maker embedded in one of the hearts.There is a lot more to see and do in the garden.  The Museum itself is in a lovely building. You can see the faux château roofs as you walk around the garden.  It has interesting exhibits and a little café that serves pre-made sandwiches and salads.  But the Museum is not the reason to go to the DeCordova.  It is the sculpture garden that makes it worth the trip.

What explains Jamiroquai?  How can an artist be talented enough to have a big hit but not be talented enough to stay on the map?  You can tell stories about market structure, contracts, fads, etc, but there is a statistical property that comes into play before all of that.

Suppose that only the top .0001% of all output gets our attention. These are the hits.  And suppose that artists are ordered by their talent, call it τ.  Talent measures the average quality of an artist’s output, but the quality of an individual piece is a draw from some distribution with mean τ.

Suppose that talent itself has a normal distribution within the population of artists.  Let’s consider the talent level τ which is at the top .001 percentile.  That is, only .001% of the population are more talented than τ.  A striking property of the normal distribution is the following.  Among all people who are more talented than τ, a huge percentage of them are just barely more talented than τ.  Only a very small percentage, say 1% of the top .001% are significantly more talented than τ, they are the superstars. (See the footnote below for a precise statement of this fact.)

These superstars will consistently produce output in the top .0001%.  They will have many hits.  But they make up only 1% of the top .001% and so they make up only .00001% of the population.  They can therefore contribute at most 10% of the hits.

The remaining 90% of the hits will be produced by artists who are not much more talented than τ.  The most talented of these consist of the remaining 99% of the top .001%, i.e. close to .001% of the population.  With all of these artists who are almost equal in terms of talent competing to perform in the top .0001%, each of these has at most a 1 in 10 chance of doing it once.  A 1 in 100 chance of doing it twice, etc.

_____________________

(*A more precise version of this statement is something like the following.  For any e>0 as small as you wish and y<100% as large as you wish, if you pick x big enough and you ask what is the conditional probability that someone more talented than x is not more talented than x+e, you can make that probability larger than y.  This feature of the normal distribution is referred to as a thin tail property.)

The sound of Fiona Ritchie’s voice has the flavor of grapefruit and/or cranberry.  (Updated:  I couldn’t get the direct link to work.  So you will have to manually start one of the audio links on the page.  Any one will do.)

Here’s my measure of creativity. Try it before reading on. Time yourself. Let’s say 30 seconds. You are going to think of 5 words. Your goal is to come up with 5 words that are as unrelated to one another as possible. Go.

Via Jonah Lehrer, I found this article that would give some backstory to my test. I will paraphrase, but it’s worth reading the article. First of all, our memory is understood to work by passive association (as opposed to conscious recollection.) You have a thought or an experience, and memory conjures up a bunch of potentially relevant stuff. Then, subconsciously, a filter is applied which sorts through these passive recollections and finds the ones that are most relevant and allows only these to bubble up into conscious processing.

Now, there are patients with damage to areas of their brain that effectively shuts off this filter. When you ask these patients a question, they will respond with information that is no more likely to be true as it is to be completely fabricated from related memories, or even previously imagined scenarios. These people are called confabulators.

The article discusses how especially creative people with perfectly healthy brains achieve their heights of creativity by reducing activity in that area of the brain associated with the filter. The suggestion is that creativity is the result of allowing into consciousness those ideas that less creative people would inhibit on the grounds of irrelevance. And this makes sense when you realize that thought does not “create” anything that wasn’t already buried in there somewhere. Observationally, what distinguishes a creative person from the rest of us is that the creative person says and does the unexpected, “outside the box,” “out of left-field” etc.

It reinforces the view that creative work doesn’t come from active “research.” At best you can facilitate its arrival.

The full title of the Dylan tune is “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”  When you have listened to that song as much as I have you start to notice the patterns.  Check out the lyrics.

  1. Two four-line verses with xAyA rhyme scheme, followed by the chorus “Oh Mama, can this really be the end?…”
  2. The first verse in the pair introduces a character and a scene and there is some hint of strangeness about it.  As with a lot of Dylan tunes the character is often a vague literary reference or some generic symbol of authority.  Sometimes both.
  3. The narrator usually first appears in the second verse of the pair, possibly alongside a new character.
  4. In the second half the narrator has some sense of disconnection with the scene/character and
  5. It resolves in the last line with the narrator being tricked and we are left with a feeling of hopelessness or isolation. (the notable exception to this is the 6th verse were the narrator turns the tables on the character, the preacher. still this somehow makes for even more hopelessness.)

For example, the last verse in the song:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb. (#2a)
They all fall there so perfectly,
It all seems so well timed. (#2b)
An’ here I sit so patiently (#3) (#4)
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice. (#5)

You can almost use this as a recipe and write verse after verse of your own.  I have some kind of strange disease that makes me like to do stuff like that, so here goes.  My very own Memphis Blues verse:

Well the barrister wrote to Ahab
Pleading for his vote
And offering to serenade
At the launching of his boat

And the rickshaw driver said to me
Speeding to the dock
“They’ll tempt you with blue oysters
But serve you Brighton Rock.”

Oh, Mama…

That’s the question taken up at Wired’s GeekDad blog.  My third-grader gets weekly “homework” which is supposed to teach her cursive writing.  I am sure that a lot of time is being wasted.  But I am not sure that it’s cursive that should go.  Handwritten text is losing its practical purpose, so if we are going to retire something, perhaps the fancy stuff should surive.

“Tell the guys on Death Row that I’m not wearing a diaper.”

R. Crumb is illustrating The Book of Genesis.  An excerpt appears in this week’s New Yorker.  Here is a copyright-violating scan.  (via BoingBoing)

By the time he came to the story of Noah, though, he was annoyed. He had begun to realize, he says, that “the whole thing is a piece of patriarchal propoganda, engineered to consciously and deliberately suppress matriarchy.”

One of the best movies I have ever seen is Crumb, a documentary about R. Crumb and his two brothers.  If you have seen that film you have some context for the quote above.  I am pre-ordering my Book of Genesis now.

One theory: Broadway is vulnerable to boors because it is under pressure. More new shows opened this past season than at any point in the past 25 years, which means more seats to fill in a recession. In response, shows have been offering steep discounts on tickets, which can normally cost upwards of $100 apiece. BroadwayWorld.com, an entertainment site, is promoting a “Lucky Sevens” discount that offers a “Guys and Dolls” ticket for $7.77 with the purchase of a full-price seat.

That’s the theory.  Here are the data:

The litany of misdemeanors is long. During a Saturday matinee of the Holocaust drama “Irena’s Vow,” a man walked in late and called up to actress Tovah Feldshuh to halt her monologue until he got settled. “He shouted, ‘Can you please wait a second?’ and then continued on toward his seat,” recalls Nick Ahlers, a science teacher from Newark, N.J., who was in the audience. He says the actress complied.

During a recent matinee of “God of Carnage,” which explores the lives of two couples, a woman in the mezzanine screamed, “How ’bout those Yankees!” — filling one of the play’s intense silences. At “The Norman Conquests,” an elderly man familiar with the British comedy script recited his favorite lines as the actors read them, prompting audience members to confront him at intermission. Steve Loucks, a theater blogger from Minneapolis who was sitting near the man, was stunned. “What is with people who think they’re in their own living rooms?”

Via kottke.org, here is the first installment of an Errol Morris essay on Han van Meegeren, the Dutch artist who duped the art world into thinking that his paintings were the work of Vermeer.  Morris concludes with the following

To be sure, the Van Meegeren story raises many, many questions. Among them: what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it? Whether it is the work of an acclaimed master like Vermeer or a duplicitous forger like Van Meegeren — we want to know more.

The economics version of this question is why the price of a painting would fall just because it has been discovered to be a forgery by technical means and not because the painting was considered of lesser quality.  And a corollary question.  If you own a painting which is thought by all to be a genuine Vermeer, why would you or anyone invest to find out whether it was a forgery.  There is probably a good answer to this that doesn’t require resorting to the assumption that buyers value the name more than the painting.

The value of a painting is the flow value of having it hang on your wall plus the eventual resale value.  For the truly immortal works of art the flow value is negligible relative to the resale value.  The resale value is linked to the flow value to the person to whom it will be sold to, the person she will sell it to, etc.  Ultimately this means that the price is determined by the sequence of people who have the greatest appreciation for art, since they will be willing to pay the most for the flow value. The existence of just one person in that sequence who is sensitive enough to distinguish a true Vermeer from a Van Meegeren implies a large difference in the prices, even if that person is not alive today and will not be for many generations.

What do you get when you combine GPS and GSR (Galvanic Skin Response:  a measure of emotional arousal) and an artist‘s inspiration?  You get emotional maps, that’s what.  Think of a topographical map where the vertical dimension at a location measures the emotional excitement of the people passing through there.  Here’s San Francisco.  Here’s more information. (via MindHacks)

This video would be identical if played backwards.  That by itself is not so impressive (just make a video and play it first forwards and then backwards) but the way it was done here is clever and funny (via BoingBoing.)

That’s a line from a crucial moment in the play Art by Yazmina Reza.  I saw the play at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago last week.  This was one of the best plays I have seen there in my 10 years as a subscriber (putting aside August: Osage County which is in another category altogether.)  Highly recommended.

But it is not for everybody.  Sandeep wouldn’t like it for example (then again as documented previously on this blog Sandeep has bad taste.)  I wanted to write a review to give a sense of who might like the play and I spent some time thinking about how to convey that, but a conventional review failed to materialize.  After a while I realized that the right way to review it is in the form of a dialog between the characters in the play.

There are three characters:  Serge, a dilettante who has created some buzz with a painting he just bought, Marc, a friend who is having a difficult time articulating his reaction to said painting, and Yvan who is helplessly caught in the middle.  Hit the link below for the review.

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Why did we decide to do this blog?  I’m not really sure.  A creative outlet?  A way to throw out random ideas? A vague hope that something fun might come out of it?  A replacement for endless websurfing?

Well, the “vague hope” rationale has already worked out.  Jeff and I had a wonderful time at our appearance on the Interview Show at the Hideout.  There are a lot of dimensions to why we enjoyed it and I’m sure we’ll both blog about it.  The thing I want to talk about now is the club itself and its owners.  It is a little west of the big Home Depot on North Av.  There is weird industrial stuff all around and a large filling station for trucks.  And slap bang in the middle of all of it is a little house which has been turned into this club.  I thought it would be full of truckers and instead it is weirdly middle class.  I had a Bell’s Oberon, definitely in the microbrew category. I could have been ironically postmodern and had a Hamm’s but I did not spot it in time.  I love the crappy end of American beer!

Jeff and I are too old to know about clubs but the Hideout gets rave reviews among the cognoscenti.  The owners, Tim and Katie Tuten, are very interesting.  You might expect some ex rockstar to own it.  Maybe,  Tim and Katie have this history in their deep, dark past.  Now, they have regular day jobs – Tim works in the Chicago Public Schools and Katie for a charity.  They’re also a little older than you might expect. (I hope they do not mind me saying this! ) They more than make up for it by having the extroversion and energy of twentysomethings.  Tim did a little stand-up before Mark Bazer came on. They also have incredible taste in music – that night’s act Anni Rossi was transporting.  Tim worked for Arne Duncan in Chicago and will join him in DC doing special events.  As we left, Katie  ran to the door and said all economist number-crunchers were welcome, except those from the University of Chicago.  I’m sure if she met Phil Reny, Roger Myerson etc she would welcome them too.

And I’d never have met them if it weren’t for this blog!  I also got to hang out with Jeff on his own, a rare thing as we’re so busy nowadays.  I enjoyed his humor while he dealt with my depression with grace.

I should think about some clever econ thing to blog about and see if it leads anywhere.

I have been enjoying reading the blog of Seth Godin.  In a recent post he wrote the following.

It’s quite possible that the era of the professional reviewer is over. No longer can a single individual (except maybe Oprah) make a movie, a restaurant or a book into a hit or a dud.

Not only can an influential blogger sell thousands of books, she can spread an idea that reaches others, influencing not just the reader, but the people who read that person’s blog or tweets. And so it spreads.

The post goes in another direction after that, but I started thinking about this conventional view that the web reduces concentration in the market for professional opinions.  No doubt blogs, discussion boards, web 2.0 make it easier for people with opinions to express them and people looking for opinions to find those that suit their taste.

But does this necessarily decrease concentration?  If everybody had similar tastes in movies, say, the effect of lowering barriers to entry would be to allow the market to coordinate on the one guy in the world who can best judge movies according to that standard and articulate his opinion.  Of course people have different tastes and the conventional view is based on the idea that the web allows segmentation according to taste.  But what if talent in evaluating movies means the ability to judge how people with different tastes would react to different movies?  A review would be a contingent recommendation like “if you like this kind of movie, this is for you.  if you like that kind of movie, then stay away from this one but you might like that one instead.”

In fact, a third effect of the web is to make it easy for experts to find out what different tastes there are out there and how they react to movies.  This tends to increase centralization because it creates a natural monopoly in cataloging tastes and matching tastes to recommendations.  Indeed, Netflix’s marketing strategy is based on this idea and I am lead to hold out Netflix as a counterexample to the conventional view.

Talk about smashing boundaries.  Here is video of that de-trendy trio playing backup music to the Isaac Mizrahi fashion show in New York’s fashion week.  The tune is apparently the new Dave King-penned “Really Good Attitude”  (listen for the hand claps.)  See if you can see any effect on the models’ expressions when the improvisation really goes off the rails.

Here is Ethen Iverson’s account of the event from his great blog Do The Math.

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