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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

    I recall reading somewhere that one of the reasons Harvard has so much money is that the majority of donations they receive are earmarked for a narrow range of projects and they receive more money than they can spend in those areas (while other areas remain underfunded). I can't find the article but maybe someone else remembers it. Regardless I wouldn't be so quick to assume that many people are funding universities without restrictions on how the funds must be used.
    I'm not sure I buy the Harvard story (even if it had some truth to it, there are lots of ways to get around this sort of thing, and if it were ever a serious constraint I'd imagine Harvard would be pretty good at finding those ways by now). But your broader point is valid; it would be good to have actual data about this.
    The Harvard story is actually true, and yes, they have found the ways around it. Basically, one main strategy is that you invest the original donation in such a way that the dividends and capital gains go into the general endowment. Within a generation or two the problem is solved. You can do that when you're immortal.

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

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

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

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

    Do we have any data about effectiveness of old science? Even if it was more productive per scientist (I'd love to see any evidence for that) it also had very low scale and there was plenty of low hanging fruit around, so it's not directly comparable. Maybe compare productivity adjusted for discipline maturity?
    My usual link is to Human Accomplishment; Murray thinks that post 1890s or so there seems to be a downwards trend in how many figures of eminence there are per capita. This is masked by the simultaneous massive increase in world population and scientists. (He only calculates data up to the 1950s using reference books from the 1990s, which, along with his statistical techniques that escape my memory, hopefully attenuates or eliminates entirely questions about recency effects.) (If you're interested, I have Human Accomplishment as an ebook.) Independently of Murray, I believe I have seen mainstream articles to the effect that science over the 20th century has seen a striking increase in average number of authors per paper and similar metrics. I'm not really sure I buy the low-hanging fruits argument. The 20th century has seen all sorts of new fields with tremendous low-hanging fruit. Look at computer science - it seems like everything in it was invented or thought about in the 50s and 60s and we are only just getting around to really implementing it all. And there seems to be similar problems in artistic fields (why would low-hanging fruits be exhausted simultaneously?). A quote-provoking quote for consideration from Tyler Cowen's Creative Destruction:
    This makes it extremely difficult to compare such numbers pre-20th Century (indeed, pre-1945) and after.
    Perhaps I wasn't clear. You may not see any absolute decline if you simply count milestones or # of papers or something. You see the decline if you count milestones/breakthroughs per scientist, or something. Which is the question - are we seeing diminishing marginal returns? The data suggests yes. Then we can discuss why the diminishing returns. (Government poisoning academia? Low-hanging fruit exhausted?)
    Or just a lot more people going into science than would have before, thus getting a lot of the less-brilliant in the job? That's the obvious one that springs to mind. Particularly post-1945, when the demonstration of the power of technical superiority in World War II and fighting the Cold War really opened the gushers of science funding.
    That would be a variant on 'government poisoning academia', I suppose. Counter-arguments would be the Flynn effect (more brilliant people), increase in prestige of sciences versus humanities (bigger share of brilliant people), and existence of a decline prior to 1945.
    Was the low hanging fruit depleted in music too? Any musicians at the level of Beethoven lately? Patronage just worked better?

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

    Sure. Do you think The Beatles will be any less memorable than Beethoven? First mover advantage is huge, but it only works for one field. It is strongly unlikely that there will ever be a classical composer comparable to Beethoven, simply because of Beethoven's name recognition and his impact on the field. But whenever a new field is invented, that's opening the gate on a new orchard with a bunch of low-hanging fruit. In 100 years, the early chipmusic composers will probably be comparable in name recognition to jazz greats today.
    How well do you know Beethoven's work?
    Not very? I know about 6 pieces (and have heard probably 20-30), and comparable amounts from ~6 other classical composers from his time plus/minus a century. Since I'm not terribly into music, my sense of "Beethoven's level" is cultural impact + name recognition + durability; I understand that someone whose interest in music stems from technical appreciation may have very different standards. But it seems hard to compare, say, Beyonce's work with Beethoven's work at the same age without personal preference coming into play.
    Did you enjoy what you heard? If so, consider trying out more. My own experience has been that his best known works make less of an impression than his lesser known works (on account of the fact that the best known ones have been repeated and imitated to the point of becoming cliched). I listened to most of Beethoven's works many times back in college and found doing so very worthwhile - an eye opening experience. Would be happy to give a list of my favorite recordings and pieces but only if solicited. I think that while aesthetic preferences do vary from person to person, there is a notion of aesthetic quality that emerges across large numbers of people (partially picked up in the "durability" variable) which is much less subjective than one might initially suppose. Of course, it would take a lot to detail and support my position. I'll think about making some top level posts about aesthetics. Some quick points: 1. To put a positivist spin on the question, one could pick a randomly chosen collection of 100 college students, have half of them listen to Beyonce for three months and then listen to Beethoven's early works for three months and the other half listen to the two artists in the reverse order and have them record their preferences between the two. 2. I find Beethoven's early quartets among the least compelling of his works (favoring his early piano sonatas over his quartets). 3. The comparison of Beyonce with Beethoven at the same age is misleading as an indicator of the relative stature of the two artists. Many people who know classical music well have the impression that Beethoven's quality improved considerably with time whereas as far as I know, few fans of contemporary popular music have a similar impression of their favorite contemporary popular artists.
    How would you know if there was a composer comparable to Beethoven today? Afaik, it's hard to tell which art will have staying power.
    That would be the Beatles, for one. For another, "eternal" legends go in and out of fashion. The Bach family had a lot of musicians and composers in it, and for a long time C.P.E. Bach was considered way cooler than J.S. Bach. The former is still respected, but the latter is now considered way above. The tides of fashion are in all sorts of places.
    Yes, but you haven't heard of them, because they're obscure academics. (And their music wouldn't necessarily be intelligible to you either, due to the musical analogue of inferential distance.) Nowadays universities play the role that aristocratic patrons did in the past.
    This is incorrect. Major record companies played the role of patron in pop music from the 1960s to the present. Music made by academics that literally no-one listens to - seriously, a lot of this stuff is never played in public - is culturally irrelevant and only exists because of a small space not subject to feedback effects. (I used to be a music journalist. This is a specialist subject of mine.) Edit: By "culturally irrelevant" I mean that it has very little in terms of ripple effect or influence on things outside its small space. This is not to say it's bad music, or worthless - but that there's no promotion and little or no feedback unless the composer goes to particular effort.
    Not what we're talking about. Vassar mentioned Beethoven. I'm a composer (that's what "komponisto" means). Of the type you just called "culturally irrelevant". It won't suprise you to learn that I have approximately the same high regard for music journalists as you do for composers like me, and your "specialist" opinion carries little weight in influencing my view of these matters.
    This is as it should be ;-) However, Beethoven did not labour unheard in academia. And it's all music. "Classical" isn't one genre, not even a bit. Anyway, poetry tops the recorded sound charts these days. It's very popular. Children popularly aspire to be poets.
    It sure isn't. "Genres" are things like the symphony, the string quartet, and the piano sonata. "Classical" is a period in history.
    Ah, I should clarify again - I'm speaking of "genre" as "marketing term used by people as if it carves art at the joints" - what you see on the cards if you walk into a record shop. All the jargon in this space is overloaded. See clarification above re: term "culturally irrelevant". (And off-topic: got links to your music please? I'm interested now. dgerard at gmail dot com.)
    Have you composed a Bayesian inspired opera about the Amanda Knox trial? Because you should.

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

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

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

    And, y'know, I thought "that picture reminds me of MS Office Clippy" before I got to the word they used for it and laughed loudly and embarrassingly.
    I'll render it as '80s synth pop. (LMMS! Cheaper than a red sports car or a trophy girlfriend!) Lloyd Webber's days are numbered. Next: THE SEQUENCES CYCLE.
    Link me to some obscure Beethoven-like academics? I'll give it a try. http://eceserv0.ece.wisc.edu/~sethares/ttss.html is some random fun obscure academic music I came across on Hacker News the other day.

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

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

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

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

    Crumb: 1970

    Dillon: 1992

    Ferneyhough: 1980, 1997, 2006, 2007

    First: 1999

    Murail: 1983

    Ran: 1991

    Westergaard: 1958, 2006

    Wuorinen: 1971 1984, 1998

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

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

    For what it's worth, I tried listening to Ferneyhough 2007, and the first few minutes were fascinating. It was as though the music was playing something in the back of my mind. And then I ran out of attention. Is the sort of music you listed especially dependent on good reproduction, or is youtube enough for a fair sampling?
    It's especially dependent on good performance, but I don't think recording quality is necessarily much more important than for works of earlier periods, at least above a certain minimum threshold. Certainly not for the works I listed, which I think are fairly represented by the linked recordings. (Excepting perhaps Carter's Variations for Orchestra, for which the audio is too soft.)
    Thank you for the list, it was interesting to listen to. Not gonna lie, though, I got to Wuorinen's piano concerto and thought (roughly) "thank god! Something I can tap my foot to!"
    I'm not sure how you could tap your foot to the Wuorinen concerto, but I listened to it and his Lepton, and enjoyed the energy level and variety of texture. I wonder if some of that could be brought into more accessible music.
    It is possible that it was due to an ephemeral state brought on by listening to an hour of the other stuff. But: I could tap my foot because the first beat of many measures was emphasized, and notes tended to have only a few lengths, which were integer multiples or divisions of one typical length, which in turn was an integer division of a measure. And I did tap my foot because the piano is more forgiving to "let's mess with octaves" moments, and the piece involved things like harmony and phrasing. There may even have been a cadence in there somewhere.
    I'm wondering if the surprising (to me) number of Conservatory-trained musicians and indeed composers I have known who ended up in heavy metal bands just to get work in the field of music might have a place there ... any thoughts on those people?
    Who are they?
    See here.
    You may have to correct my history but weren't modern composition techniques pretty unpopular right away. It isn't like academic composers have been building off each other for decades with few listening and so now their music isn't intelligible. Rather the introduction of atonality, the 'liberation of dissonance' and moving off the diatonic scale were very rapid changes to music which were very alienating. This prompted Adorno to say things like I'm curious what you think of his position, actually. So I'm not sure inferential distance is the right metaphor. It seems to me that while the uninstructed listener may not understand the works of modern academics, they likely didn't understand the works of Beethoven either but were still able to enjoy them for emotions they evoked. Contemporary music evokes emotion and while I don't know a lot about it I can enjoy it (partly, I think, because I've learned to enjoy the more avant garde end of pop music) but the emotions contemporary evoke tend to be more complex, and darker or at least bittersweet. I don't feel at home listened to contemporary music and I think thats the experience created by dissonance and what a lot of people recoil from. Where does like, John Adams fit into this? He seems fairly accessible to the uninstructed.
    This is the way it is presented in drama-maximizing popular histories of music, but the reality is -- from a purely musical perspective, not taking into account the socio-political conflicts of the time which often played themselves out in artistic battles -- that the development was quite natural and gradual. Schoenberg was a controversial composer from the beginning, well before he finally decided to stop writing key signatures in his scores. Works such as Verklärte Nacht that are now considered audience-pleasers were initially received with a great deal of hostility. (My own theory on the reason why the meme of Schoenberg's "inaccessiblity" still persists with respect to his compositions of the latter part of the decade 1900-1910 but not with respect to the earlier part is that the political conflict between the pro- and anti-Schoenberg factions that was in existence in Vienna around 1910 was frozen in time by the World Wars, and so Schoenberg comes down to us in history as "the guy who was stirring up all that trouble in Vienna right before WWI". This affects the way people listen to the music: if they're expecting it to be "inaccessible", they'll have a tendency to find it that way.) Continental intellectuals like Adorno tend to engage in a sort of commentary on these things that really is basically a form of poetic literature, and is not really to be taken as rigorous analysis, I don't think. That having been said, I think it can be read basically as agreeing with your point i.e., that the new music was tapping into regions of thought-space that folks weren't used to having music go into. I think this is fair. The Schoenberg school can legitimately be considered a manifestation of the wider "expressionist" movement across the arts, which highlighted the darker sides of human psychology. However, this isn't necessarily the case for post-Schoenberg music. Come to think of it, it isn't even the case for Schoenberg's later works (his twelve-tone period), which
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    Pretty much. You have to be at least a bit of a mutant, or train to be one, to like that sort of thing. I think it's worth it, but I like it for its jarring qualities. I think the key phrase here is: Your Mileage May Vary. That he was talking like an arrogant prat. But arrogance is hardly unknown amongst artists, and doesn't make his art bad. Such clues as to the inside of the artist's head are often useful in reducing inferential distance - though, of course, what artists think they're doing and what they're actually doing can be widely disparate.
    Wait, what's musical inference like? Is it anything like how you wouldn't truly appreciate the latest, top theologians because the theological analogue of inferential distance? Edit: Looks like you gave an answer to this in the sibling thread, but I think the point still stands. (You already know what I think about "You need years of study to appreciate this.")
    Inferential distance comes in because art is designed to push the buttons of people, firstly the artist, in a given time, place and culture. As distance and shared cultural vocabulary increase, inferential distance increases.
    Inferential distance, or cliquishness? Is there a way to distinguish whether they're hitting some objective target, or are just agreeing to pat each other on the back?
    Not really. But "are you really enjoying this or just pretending to enjoy this?" may be a technically meaningful question, but I doubt it's actually much of a useful one. In any case, "Thank you, but no sir, I don't like it" is always a valid response. Since creating a subjective experience is THE WHOLE OF THE POINT of art. (There's little more miserable as an actual fan of music than to find oneself listening to music that is merely objectively well constructed, particularly in a smoky pub, notepad in hand, charged with writing something about it.) Though it can be entertaining in itself to nerd about the lines of memetic descent of the cultural vocabulary used and so on. One can justifiably feel quite clever about being able to do so. But that isn't the point. Unless, of course, for that person it is.
    Are you claiming there are no such fields? Even in music, it can take years before you figure out what's up with something. And programmes of training exist to get you there quicker. (Whether you want to is an entirely separate matter. I find myself wondering what to do with 400kg of vinyl records. Stuff is a curse.)
    People appreciate air travel without study of aerospace engineering. People appreciate being able to conduct secure transactions without study of cryptography. People appreciate cell phones without study of EM physics and information theory. And in case you think I'm limiting it to science/engineering: People appreciate acrobats without study of acrobatics. And the Beatles without study of musical history. In all of these cases, the field, in a sense, forces you to care about it. You may not be able to understand its details, but you can't deny that there is a genuine achievement behind it that can't be faked. In contrast, there are fields where the best thing you can say is that, well, the people who already invested a huge portion of their lives in it think it sure is swell... . What should I make of those?

    People appreciate air travel without study of aerospace engineering.

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

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

    I think the key point is

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

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

    I think people without the specific understandings conflat... (read more)

    Sure they do, by virtue of the fact that they appreciate that the (purported) good plane affords them opportunities that they like, and which can't be faked. They don't have to know all the details about the structure and engine to know that, "wow, this plane sure holds a lot of people, moves them a long way, very quickly, and does so in a way that I can afford". But is that training in objective achievement, or in how well you know a clique's inside jokes? I claim that for academic art, it's the latter -- that there's no sense in which it's great other than "this group has decreed it so", just as it is with theology.
    But could they look at a plane, without seeing it in action, and predict that it would very quickly move a lot of people a long distance in an affordable way? It doesn't seem like this metric could appreciate the differences between any of the main passenger planes in use. I contend the former - the sense in which it's great (other than "approved by elites") is that it takes large amounts of effort and very refined skill.
    I see "predicting how good a plane is without seeing it in action" closer to "predicting how nice a piece of music is by looking at a printout of its waveform", rather than appreciating music one listens to. (I was about to say "looking at sheet music", but that's closer to "looking at engineering blueprints". Sure, in general an aerospace engineer might have a general idea of how a type of plane might perform by looking at it---like a good sound engineer could get a sense of rhythm and tempo from seeing a soundwave---but it's hard to tell if the particular plane you're looking at actually has a plausibly functional engine without looking at the details in a form meant for reading them, just as it's hard to see from a soundwave if the sounds are actually pleasant or not.) Sorry, I got a bit wordier than I meant to explaining it; the point, I don't think "predicting a plane's behavior" is a very good example for this discussion. If you want an example, take something closer to what people have more-or-less efficient hardware for (as they seem to have for music). For example, one does not have to be a good athlete or sportsman to be able to appreciate one, and can predict somewhat how good an athlete might be in a particular situation by looking at one in "inactive" state. (Though, of course, accuracy and confidence would be low. It's hard to predict the winner in a championship, similarly to how it's hard to predict which particular song will be most popular in some genre. But one doesn't need to be an expert to appreciate that I suck at singing as well as at basketball, most people could determine both after hearing me try a single note, or seeing my height.)
    Presumably, it depends what drove them to invest time in it in the first place. If someone ended up as a advanced composer because they really liked Beethoven etc. when they were young, and subsequently followed their nose, up through Schoenberg, until they finally became Milton Babbitt, that should suggest that something may be going on other than a cynical pursuit of status. Now, whether you would want to bother following a path to appreciation of contemporary music will depend quite simply on how much enjoyment you think you can get out of music in the first place. And it should be noted that this is somewhat hypothetical anyway, because it's already been pointed out that non-specialists can and do enjoy advanced music. The stigma against small groups of people experiencing large amounts of enjoyment -- as opposed to large groups of people experiencing small amounts of enjoyment -- ought to be abolished.
    This is a very credible short version of the argument you are making as I understand it.
    So you think in that comment, komponisto has sufficiently broken the similarities I have cited to theology as an academic field? If so, please elaborate further about how you came to this conclusion.
    See this comment, where I wrote:
    I didn't say that he did that, but he clarified an argument which I think if fairly plausible. I'm not claiming he's compelling. Certainly it could be made in some situations and its case still not hold, but its pretty significant evidence, I think, for his position. He can argue more if he wants to. FWIW, I still think that something has to be fairly wrong with the field if it can't make a better opera just to prove that it can and to make some money, but something can be fairly wrong with a field without the field being bogus.
    Out of curiosity, and for calibration: what, in your opinion, was the most recent (sufficiently) "good" opera? This is very true, and there is plenty that is wrong with the field of music.
    I like Lady McBeth of Mtsensk District, from 1934, but its not in cannon. I have heard great things about Dr. Atomic, but I haven't seen it and don't know much about it. Of cannon operas, I don't know anything comparable to Figaro or to the very different Ring Cycle. There must be possibilities for operas that good and that different from anything else. Aida is probably my favorite ordinary cannon opera, but I don't like it nearly as much as the others I just mentioned. I enjoy Phantom, which isn't an Opera but which makes use of operatic vocals and melodrama and I generally enjoy pop music that incorporates highly trained vocalization skills.
    I'm actually not all that familiar with Lady McBeth, having only heard excerpts on occasion. My impression is that it's one of his more adventurous pieces, but in general, Shostakovich is too conservative for me (for which he can't entirely be blamed, since conservatism was imposed by the regime he lived under). What do you think of Wozzeck? Lulu? (These are close enough to "canon" to count as such, from the point of view of music history and criticism. Particularly Wozzeck.) (Your answer here will probably determine whether anything more modern has a hope of satisfying you.) I've seen Doctor Atomic, though only once. I doubt you'll find it comparable to Figaro or The Ring, but I could be wrong.
    Sorry for the delay, didn't have a chance earlier. I just checked out Wozzeck. My assessment-- The positives: Decent pure instrumentals when no-one is singing. Locally there is clear and interesting musical structure at times. Not repetitive. Definitely music. The negatives: No characters, no conflict, no interesting music for the first two scenes, no emotional range, no large scale structure, insipid cliche propaganda themes, intentionally ugly in every respect, repetitious, extremely boring and repetitious vocals. My net assessment is that it was written by someone who knew how to compose, or at least how to compose interesting short snippets of symphonic music and plausibly short experimental songs but who had no idea at all of how to make an opera.
    Yeah, so if you don't like Wozzeck (probably the greatest opera of the 20th century), then it pretty much follows that you would think opera died in the 20th century. My reaction to some of your negative points: This is demonstrably false, so I'll have to interpret is as an assertion that you didn't perceive any large scale structure. Which is possible, if this was your first hearing and you weren't already acquainted with this kind of music (i.e. able to perceive large-scale structure in other works of the Second Viennese School). It seems that you did perceive structure on the level of phrases, but not on the level of acts or the whole opera. What about intermediate levels, e.g. did you perceive structure on the level of scenes? This is arguably true now, after works like Wozzeck, etc., but it wasn't true at the time it was written (WWI and aftermath), and it certainly wasn't true at the time of Büchner's original play a century earlier. I can see why you might say that about the first scene, if you're new to this kind of music, but I'm surprised you would say it about the second scene, especially given that you did find interesting music elsewhere in the work. (I assume you must have liked Marie's lullaby in the third scene, which is everybody's favorite part.) As a statement about the composer's intentions, this is most assuredly wrong. (Just as our enemies don't perceive themselves as evil, neither do artists we don't like typically perceive themselves as creating ugly work.) I'm pretty familiar with Berg's life and personality, and feel very confident in asserting that "intentionally ugly" is not at all how he would have described his own music. This seems to contradict "not repetitive" from the "positives" list, so you might want to elaborate. You seem to be referring more to vocal passages here, but these don't contain more repetition (probably less) than the instrumental passages. Your disagreement with the musical establishment (and also with me pe
    Scene-level structure: I could see that the scenes were integrated pieces, and the endings were obviously appropriate endings for the sort of material that the scenes consisted of, but it seemed to me that in most cases one could have broken the scenes into 1-2 minute segments, choosing natural break points and adding transitions. You could then have shuffled the middle segments without detracting from the scenes. The themes were obvious in 1925, but arguably not in 1914 when the opera began and definitely not in the 19th century. OTOH, I don't think they were handled well at all. Some artists (I'm thinking of Celine in particular) explicitly have said that they wanted to create ugly work. For that matter, some business-people I know do see themselves as 'bad guys', though they probably wouldn't say 'evil'. Yep, complaint was about the vocals. The point of the discussion was to figure out whether I could believe that the musical establishment is doing the same thing that earlier classical composers were doing. My impression is agnostic and remains agnostic. I'm sure that they are doing something technically difficult, and was already sure of that, but I'm just not convinced that its something worth while. The key question is essentially one of whether Beethoven or Wagner (or Gauss or Hilbert) would consider the history of music (or math) from their day forward to be interesting (and whether Beethoven etc would consider modern academic music more or less interesting than jazz, Indian classical, Pink Floyd, etc,)
    You have forgotten Goldman's Law (of Hollywood, but it applies to all art, and particularly to making money from art): "Nobody knows anything." Also, these schools don't teach music industry - just music appreciation and making. There are schools that are for the specific purpose of teaching music writing and performance in order to make money. (The younger teen just applied to go to that one.)
    Okay, this clarifies our dispute greatly. Let me say, then, that my position here is not based on disliking "small groups that get large amounts of enjoyment". What distinguishes music as an academic field is this purported enjoyment plus the cultural capture -- the belief, which you keep repeating, that not enjoying the elite-designated music is a failing of the listener, and academia is the one that gets to make this call. If there were a real accomplishment here, rather than a mere agreement to applaud other members of the clique, academic-produced music should outperform in blind tests, but it does not, and this is (mistakenly) dismissed as a failing on the listeners' part. But if you're going to permit yourself that standard, you can call absolutely anything great, and rook society into respecting it, as I have shown with the theology comparisons. If you can hype up me the way Joshua Bell gets hyped up for his performances, then sure, I could command big fees for apparances. But this would say very little about what I have to offer. So this has nothing to do with a stigma against small groups that have found a way to amuse themselves. No other group gets the academic respectability in the absence of objective results that art does -- except perhaps other lost academic fields. And all the answers you've given me could work just as well to "prove" anything good and excuse why it can't pass any objective test.
    I think we need to taboo the highlighted term. There are, in fact, cognitive/intellectual prerequisites to being able to enjoy music. This shouldn't be surprising: chimpanzees presumably don't get human-level enjoyment out of the Beatles, much less Beethoven. (And even if they do, mice still don't, etc.) I doubt the infant Beethoven would have appreciated the works of his adult self. And so likewise, some humans (like my current self) are better equipped to appreciate Ferneyhough than others (like my 12-year-old-self). It occurs to me that what this argument is really about is status. I read you as resisting the idea that the kind of abilities involved in being able to enjoy academic music are something that one should be awarded status for possessing. I think this may be because you misunderstand the nature of those abilities. (It's very important, by the way, to understand that we're not talking about aesthetic evaluation, at this point. We're talking about the ability to hear the music as music, as opposed to incoherent nonsense. Only after you can actually perceive the musical structure of a piece can you begin to talk about the extent to which that structure suits your own personal tastes. But most people who say they "don't like" contemporary art music aren't at that stage; what they are expressing is the fact that contemporary music sounds like nonsense to them, and they are mistaking their non-enjoyment of nonsense for aesthetic disagreement, evidently not quite realizing that the music actually sounds different to people who "get" it.) Outperform what, in what kind of test? What test does a piece of music have to pass for you to consider it a "real accomplishment"? Meanwhile, I have some empirical predictions for you. If any of these were able to be decisively falsified, I would be confused and would have to reevaluate my model: * The average IQ of the population of Beethoven enthusiasts should be higher than the average IQ of Beatles enthusiasts, an
    Answered here. No, that humans are smarter than chimpanzees does not imply that the music you like is objectively better than other music, nor does it having the capacity to be worked at for years. (I am given caution by having heard similar arguments from rock musicians who have fifty Frank Zappa albums. Technical complication is an emotional button for art to press, that humans have and chimps don't, but that does not make it the highest of all possible buttons.)
    I did not use the highlighted phrase in my comment. You will have to spell out an argument that what I said implies that, because I don't see it. You'll have to start by telling me what "objectively better" means. And then, assuming you're actually disagreeing with me about something specific, you'll have to tell me why the argument I presented is wrong. Which of my predictions do you disagree with, and by how much?
    Your comment makes detailed claims of inherent superiority of the fans of the music you like. Are you claiming that doesn't constitute such a claim?
    A claim that X utilizes more intellectual resources than Y does not constitute a claim that X is "objectively better" than Y, no.
    There are several disparate issues that I'm going to need to tie together, and I think they represent an excellent example for how to apply the lessons from the sequences, so I'm going to save my replies on this topic for an article that more coherently presents my intuitions in context. Tentative titles: "Truly Part of Your Values", "Excellence in the Dojo Alone"
    Quite simply seems simply mistaken, even if you are mentioning one important factor. Yes, the pursuit of status without cynicism.
    In my experience of this sort of thing, it's motivated by the pursuit of a personal obsession. I've watched this in the rabid variety of record collector, back in the '80s and '90s when this sort of thing could be difficult and expensive. I've been that record collector. It involves turning into an obsessive crank, at a penalty to status.
    How does it affect your enjoyment of the music?
    Sometimes it feels worth it! Note that what you have created for all this effort (obsessive record hunting, studying twentieth century music, etc) is a subjective experience. This exists only inside your own head. Perhaps you can communicate it back out again - justify the effort by perpetuating the meme - perhaps you can only tell others that it's possible. As I noted, at times it feels like being really fussy over the variety of heroin you're going to ruin your life with.
    We're talking about aesthetics here, in which the end product is a subjective feeling in the listener's brain. As such, a useful analogy would be you refusing to believe that a novel in a language you don't speak (say, The Brothers Karamazov in the original Russian) could possibly be better than Red vs Blue fanfic, because if it was you'd be able to read it, c.f. your list of analogies above. That is: the key point your analogies above miss is the concept of inferential distance. Even if the inferential distance is huge (e.g. learning Russian), that doesn't make claims of the art's quality fraudulent. What's annoying you, I suspect, is komponisto's apparent assertion that his chosen favourite music is not only good, but objectively the best music there is, and that the qualia one experiences from this music are the best available from music. This is ridiculous to me too. However, that there is inferential distance between you and the music does not make the music a fraud. This apparent assertion of yours is also ridiculous. The purpose of all forms of art appreciation course - degrees in music, a newspaper article, a record review - is to lessen the inferential distance to a given piece of art.
    I'd like to know which specific statements of mine give this impression, because that isn't what I see myself asserting. From my perspective -- of having to endure a constant stream of casual remarks to the effect that contemporary music sucks, often coming from people who aren't particularly familiar with contemporary music, but think themselves sufficiently informed because they enjoy listening to Mozart to show off their own status -- I'm basically just defending the existence of the music I like. In the process, of course, I expressed enthusiasm for this music, and what I'm seeing here appears to be pushback from violating the social taboo against expressing high levels of enthusiasm (for pretty much anything).
    I was looking through your posts, but this one appears to say precisely that. No, it does not make you smarter than everyone else. Some people have more capacity than others, but you haven't magically hit the sweet spot for all of human music. That is the bit I'm seeing and going "that's ridiculous". Art works by pressing buttons in someone's head and generating a subjective experience. The artist first, then others because humans in a particular time, place and (sub)culture will have similar enough buttons to be able to talk about them. Inferential distance kicks in when you take the art out of its time, place and (sub)culture, and at that point it may in fact take a degree's worth of bridging to get there (and to a huge number of other places as well). Art is great for effect in general, not just for your carefully defined personal category of "interestingness" (and I can't find the post right now, but I recall you saying you were using your own personal definition of "IQ" as well). That presses your personal buttons very effectively, but it's not a universal button and - and this is the key point - it's not the greatest of all buttons. Can simple art be effective? Can there be simple art that is more effective than complicated art? Here I include "simplicity on the far side of complexity" as "simple", though arguably one may not. But hey - tell me I'm wrong.
    That was written after the grandparent, first of all. Secondly, see my reply to you there: it doesn't say that at all, unless you invoke additional premises (such as "utilizing more intellectual resources" implying "objectively better") that I haven't stated. Do you deny that appreciation of contemporary art music (or even Schoenberg) is Bayesian evidence of high IQ? For purposes of this specific sub-discussion (regarding empirical predictions), you may assume that I am talking about "the thing measured by IQ tests". I haven't come close to claiming that my buttons are universal. As for "greatest", well, obviously I think the music I like is the greatest music. But this isn't an information-free statement: there are reasons I like the music I like, and those reasons are not unrelated to musical ability and experience. Obviously, there's a personal component, too -- I like some composers and works better than others of equal sophistication -- but that personal component plays a much smaller role in explaining my "disagreement" with nonspecialists than it does in explaining my disagreements with specialists (which will tend to be much narrower). Yes, as long as interest comes from somewhere. Superficial "complication" is not the only way to create interest.
    Are there universal buttons? That there is any controversy at all over value of music so many thousands of years after its inception, and that music taste is tagged 'personal' (and indeed, uses words like 'taste' and 'preference') suggest there are not. In the absence of universal buttons, how do we rank 'greatness' of buttons? Again, 'music taste is personal' is an impediment. There are several options: * Ranked according to percentage of population affected positively (possibly minus percentage affected negatively) * Ranked according to intensity of positive effect (possibly minus intensity of negative effect) * Ranked as some synthesis of percentage and intensity. * Ranked according to correlations with positive or negative traits, as determined by which traits increase or decrease fitness (musical tastes as an indicator of fitness) * Ranked according to correlations with positive or negative traits, as determined by which traits increase or decrease social ability (musical tastes as a derivative of status and signalling) The first three suffer from all the problems common to majoritarianism solutions - a self-approving effect (where the individuals who prefer 'what the majority prefers' make up the majority). The fourth is a pure evo-psych idea. The fifth is a twist on the fourth, but suffers to some extent from issues relating to cultural relativism ('greatness' of buttons is heavily dependent on current cultural settings). Some of these systems at first glance seem to rank appeals-to-intelligence quite highly. Possibly appeals-to-desire-for-status could take top spot.
    I could see a milder claim of universality that isn't on your list-- a claim that a large majority of people over an extended period of time like (or perhaps love) the music which is claimed to be universal. It's amusing to see claims that some types of music (usually classical) are wonderful because they're universal, but also that people these days need to learn to like them.
    I don't see how this comparison holds, since I can read a translation of TBK, and nothing I've said implies that not knowing the language it's written in suffices for any kind of dismissal. Certainly, you can enjoy it more if you learn Russian and read it in the original, but it probably wouldn't be worth the effort to do so just to enjoy this book (plus some other set) -- yet that's basically what's claimed of the top academic music/theology, and I hope you can see how that position is in error. I don't know if komponisto asserts this, but by selecting one clique's favored music (which cannot show its superiority in unfakeable tests), academia is saying something like this, and it is that position that I reject.
    OK then, you don't get that analogy. Do you believe it is possible to learn about a piece of art and understand much better what it's about where you didn't before, thus increasing the quality of your subjective experience of it? This phrase reads like a mindboggling category error on the level of this Robin Hanson post. Could you detail what sort of tests you are thinking of, and preferably any past examples? I cannot imagine what you could possibly be thinking of which would actually usefully answer any question about art as far as someone interested in having a superior artistic experience is concerned.
    No, I got the analogy just fine -- it just didn't prove what you thought, and my position didn't imply what you claimed. Yes. But when you get to the point where you're claiming I must first be (in effect) indoctrinated into an insular clique, you're going way beyond that. Once you start getting to pre-suppose feeding the listener a long cirriculum, it's no longer sufficient to say, "hey, after that indoctrination, they liked it, so we were right all along!" As I keep saying, you can make anything likeable by this metric! My point is that any such priming of the subject means you have a higher standard to meet: that work needs must then be compared to other entertainment venues that can apply a similar amount of priming -- you have to account for opportunity costs, in other words. You can make me like your dance style after 10 years of indoctrinating me? So what? I can make you like Star Trek after 10 years of indoctrination -- but Star Trek doesn't get entire academic departments devoted to it. I already gave one -- the Joshua Bell experiment. For others, it would be things like, "can people identify which ones academia has designated as 'good' without having been told in advance?"
    That's called "inferential distance" as it applies to music; the distance between you before you learnt more about the art and after you learnt more about the art is the inferential distance. You appeared confused by and dismissive of the concept in music previously. Please go back and see if anything I or komponisto (who thinks quite different things to me, by the way) have said makes any more sense to you now. Er, I at no stage questioned this, and previously agreed with you in saying so. You appear to be claiming I said things that are a bit like things komponisto said (and which I disagreed with). You didn't answer before so evidently I have to ask again: are you seriously asserting that, rather than being a human interest "fish out of water" story, the Washington Post seriously intended it as a scientific test of Joshua Bell's artistic merits? What?
    If you can do it in less time, so much the better.
    That's just compounding the error -- for comparison: "If you can appreciate the current top theological innovations without having gone to seminary, hey, all the better -- that's proof of your worth, rather than our own cliquishness!"
    Any recommendations for those familiar with Baroque/Classical/Romantic music and interested in bridging the musical analogue of inferential distance here?
    Proceed chronologically, and gradually. Start with the latest/most advanced period or school that you can currently comprehend, and increase to the next one above. After you've "mastered" the next one, iterate. (Of course, there isn't exactly a total ordering, but it's close enough for this to work.) For example, if you can "handle" late Mahler, you should be able to handle early Schoenberg (which actually came before late Mahler, as it happens). In which case you should try your hand at middle Schoenberg. After you've mastered late Schoenberg (and Webern and Berg, etc), you're ready for postwar music. When you get to the point where the most advanced pieces of the 1950s and 60s, say, are comprehensible to the point where you can sing them to yourself from memory without having heard them in a while, then you will probably find the advanced music of our own time to be reasonably accessible.
    Thanks; I'll try listening to Schoenberg's works chronologically.
    For that project, you may find the Arnold Schoenberg Center's website very useful. (It offers free online streaming of essentially all his works, though the recordings used aren't always the best; I'd recommend supplementing with other recordings.)
    Thanks for the recommendation. This looks like it might be useful.
    What do you mean by "at the same level of Beethoven?" I can easily imagine that there are composers who you personally appreciate as much as Beethoven, but in line with Nancy Lebovitz's comment I think that one should hesitate to have too much confidence in the general "subjectively objective" appeal of one's personal favorites among contemporary artists.
    "Of a level of sophistication relative to their peers and predecessors comparable to Beethoven's level relative to his." Ironically, this isn't true. Because Beethoven happens to be a personal favorite, I didn't take Vassar's question literally, but instead interpreted it to mean "are there any contemporary composers at the level of {Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.}?" My confidence lies not in the "general appeal" of any particular favorite composer of mine, but rather in the proposition that there currently exist people who are doing the-thing-that-Beethoven-was-doing. Another way to put it would be that if a genetic twin of Beethoven were born in this era, he would with high probability grow up to be a member of the set of people I'm referring to.
    Huh? You go on telling us how skilled you are at appreciating music with lines about inferential distance etc and then you put Brahms at Beethoven's and Bach's level? I'm totally convinced that visual artists became less accessible with time as their 'inferential distance' increased, and ditto authors, but in both cases its commonplace for the good moderns to demonstrate their ability to do work of the sort that older artists did. In contemporary symphonic music, John Williams and Phillip Glass dominate the field and far more people still listen to the older composers. If you and your academic friends are much better, why don't any of you prove it by out-competing them? It would obviously be lucrative to do so if you could be as popular as they once were. I'd really like to listen to some modern operas with the musical quality of older operas but better plotting and characterization. I can't be alone in that respect.
    It's remarkable that classical music is the only field where people have to be tempted to listen to new work by having old music in the program. It's as though publishers couldn't get an audience for Rowling unless a few chapters of Dickens were thrown in. I'm not sure it's possible to improve operas with better plotting and characterization. If I understand the purpose of opera, it's to have rapidly changing highly intense emotions, and this may be inconsistent with more realism than is already typical.
    No; the whole point was that I was "modding out" by levels of "greatness" that I didn't perceive as relevant to the fundamental intent of your question. In other words, I was ignoring the difference between Bach and Brahms. Just as most people who take your point of view do -- they express skepticism that there is anybody at the level of Brahms around today. Musicians do this too! It's a standard part of one's training as a composer to learn to write imitations of older styles, such as Baroque fugues, Classical minuets, etc, etc. And, given the situation in other arts, which you acknowledge, why would you expect otherwise in music? What would account for the difference? I don't say that "we" are better than they are at what they do, and I don't claim that what they do is necessarily easy. But what they do isn't the same thing as what we do. They're optimizing for different criteria. They don't "dominate the field". They've achieved high cultural status while doing something that looks sort-of similar to "the field". In the old days (i.e. the 19th century), there wasn't as much difference; you could get lots more status by doing what we do, because at that time you could effectively do both things simultaneously. That just isn't possible nowadays; while e.g. Brahms could write the most advanced music of the day (and yes, it was; see Schoenberg's essay "Brahms the Progressive"), and also achieve high status in contemporary culture, if you try to do the former today, you won't do the latter, and vice-versa. This is exactly what you would expect if you understand the notion of inferential distance. Frankly, I have hardly ever come across serious arguments for the contrary position, i.e. a detailed theory explaining why no modern composers are "as good" as Brahms. (*) Most people claiming this simply take it for granted that popular reknown is the optimization target. (*) A huge exception would be e.g. the work of Heinrich Schenker -- an extreme anti-populist whos

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

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

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

    I'm seriously interested in someone performing some experiments on this subject. It seems to me that it would provide an extremely practi... (read more)

    I myself would guess that none of the works produced over the past hundred years would be judged by the majority of an impartial audience to be significantly more compelling than (for example) Bach's Chaconne. Same here. I'm impressed that you're familiar with the Von Neumann quote (which is sadly little known in the mathematical community but which my friend Laurens is fond of); but on the face of things it doesn't seem to directly support your paragraph above. Explain further if you'd like? Several points here: 1. My impression is that there are issues of bad social/cultural institutions destroying artistic ability outside of academia. I have some friends artistically genuine who have spent some time as painters and become disillusioned with the signaling games and hypocrisy present within the communities of painters that they've come across. Note that fledging painters and authors face greater financial pressures than academics and that this can lead to perverse incentives (to appeal to the lowest common denominator or to current fashions for greater marketability). See Minhyong Kim's comment here. 2. The absence of new empirical sources for mathematics seems to me more a consequence of the stagnation of theoretical physics than the social structure of the mathematical community. 3. In my own view insufficient emphasis on exposition has played a significant role in whatever stagnation has occurred within the mathematical community since, e.g. the 1800's. The barrier to entry has gotten progressively higher as mathematics has developed and in such a setting, in absence of strong efforts to to cast background material in an accessible and readily digestible form, the pressures toward specialization and fragmentation get progressively stronger. There aren't career-based incentives for expository work so mathematicians who are interested in exposition either conform to the research-based publish or perish norms or leave. 4. I'd be happy to compile an annot
    From my perspective in applied math things are exactly opposite. We're practically drowning in empirical sources begging for better numerics. There is hardly a scientific or engineering field today that couldn't be revolutionized by a breakthrough in a relevant area currently under study in the applied math community. The problem isn't lack of necessity, inspiration, or motivation, the problem is the problems are damn hard, and I'm far from convinced that we attract the best minds. Even with very clear, objective goals, progress can still be painfully slow! I very much agree. Incentives are out of line for most areas of science, but I think the fallout from this is especially poignant for math. I view part of our discipline's responsibility as curating the common mathematical knowledge used by all other disciplines.
    Like mathematicians, musicians who only write for experts are unmoored from empirical feedback and are thus dependent on unusually good taste if they are to do something valuable. It's not fair to expect people who can't evaluate their work to conclude that they have such good taste even if they are acknowledge to be very smart. Fledging painters can paint for both the lowest common denominator AND for themselves if they want to. Academics can't do popular work without that counting against them with other academics. There's lots of need for math in complexity theory and other domains. Quantum computing for instance. Really all over the place. Crypto is very popular. Probably lots of engineering examples. I'd be happy if someone else we both know who shares this concern would review that list.
    I agree. I guess the reason why I took pause is because Von Neumann's quote does not immediately suggest that he concurs with his quotation more just obliquely raises the possibility that you suggest. It's not clear to me that this is true. Doesn't it depend on what the lowest common denominator is? Van Gogh painted for himself and is reported to have been unable to support himself by selling his paintings. Are you suggesting that things have changed since his time? If so, how and under what evidence? My observation has been that this is mostly true. (1) It should be noted that Von Neumann was in large measure an applied mathematician and so it's natural to expect him of being biased in favor of applied topics. (2) There is widespread agreement among most sophisticated contemporary mathematicians as to the high aesthetic value of some of the pure mathematical achievements over the past few decades. I agree that it's difficult for an outsider to quickly ascertain that there's something substantive going on here but I give you my word for whatever it's worth :-). (3) I've had a less pronounced positive aesthetic response to most applied math topics than to some of my favorite pure mathematical topics. I've found that applied topics are more ad hoc and lacking in internal coherence and a large part of what I find compelling about pure math is the high degree of internal coherence. As I've said elsewhere in this thread, the danger of generalizing from one example here is very serious and I do not question to sincerity of those who are passionate about applied topics (or pure topics like graph theory and elementary analytic number theory which I personally find disappointingly ad hoc and lacking in internal coherence but which some people eagerly devote their lives to). (4) My own interest in applied math topics comes more from the applications than from the math involved. (5) I would differentiate between "early" applied math (e.g. of the type that Newton and M
    Thanks for the very thoughtful and clear post. My one caveat with your claims here is that Van Gogh was severely insane, which probably impaired his ability to support himself quite a bit. Also, how likely does it seem to you that applied math lacks pure math's aesthetic value because its done by less aesthetically sensitive people (positive feedback loop) rather than because it couldn't be like classical applied/pure math?
    This is a fair point. I would guess / vaguely remember that there are plenty of examples of psychologically sound great painters who had trouble making a living but don't have a list off hand. Laurens suggested Cezanne as an example but I have not independently verified that he qualifies. I don't know very much about visual arts. Note that in general there's a selection effect where artists/scientists who have dim prospects for making a living doing what they do are disproportionately likely to leave relative to other artists/scientists of their quality. It's hard to know how significant this selection effect is in a given domain. There's almost certainly some effect of this type; I'm uncertain as to how large the effect. Two relevant points: 1. To the extent that applied math involves features specific to how humans interact with the world (i.e. taking into account contingent constraints specific to human needs) arbitrariness creeps in on account of the fact that humans were generated by a random process. 2. There seem to be arbitrage opportunities for mathematical expertise to bring clarity to areas that were previously somewhat obscure. For example, SarahC has suggested that principle component analysis might be utilized to better understand what's referred to as autism (a fact that I haven't previously seen discussed explicitly). The existence of such apparent arbitrage opportunities suggests that there may be quite fertile unexplored ground within applied math.
    I have always been intrigued by Kenneth Rexroth's take.
    Thanks for the link. That was a delightful essay.
    Sweet! Do you know of any existing works that attempt this (perhaps at a higher level of sophistication)? Also, what are the mathematical achievements you would focus on?
    One good compilation of "pure mathematical achievements that are regarded among elite pure mathematicians as being of great aesthetic value" is Proofs from THE BOOK.
    Is the Joshua Bell experiment the kind of thing you had in mind? If so, it pretty conclusively confirms your suspicions. Fame feeds on fame, status on status. Which is why it's all the more important to constantly check that a field hasn't lost its moorings.
    Not really, because Joshua Bell was playing mostly (maybe even exclusively) old music in that experiment, if I recall correctly. Vassar's suspicion was that people nowadays don't know how to write in old styles well enough to be indistinguishable from old composers. Edit: but just to go along with it for a minute, do you really think Bell's status is the result of a random process? Maybe with respect to other "great" violinists, yes, but certainly not with respect to the average person, or even the average professional violinist.
    Right, it proves the (arguably) stronger result that even the old music, with its canon status, can't appeal to the uninitiated. Impressing the indoctrinated is not impressive. The hard part is to impress the unindoctrinated. Of course not, just as I can't make my friends laugh by generating random utterances. But that doesn't mean that the average person is somehow deficient for not laughing at our inside jokes -- or that I can go on denying that it's an inside joke.
    Here, the analogous situation would be an "average person" denying the joke was funny because they weren't in on it, despite the fact that they saw a bunch of people laughing hysterically at it. (...a bunch of people who were willing to welcome them into their group if they caught up on the group's history, so they would be able to get the jokes!)
    But people don't claim that their inside jokes are the highest form of culture and that others are somehow deficient for not wanting to join in on it. I understand that if you invest some effort E into appreciating something, you'll appreciate it. The fact that I appreciate it for some (potentially huge) E does not somehow justify the effort -- you can say that about anything. The appropriate comparison would be "what ways of amusing myself for that level of personal investment are the best"? And given these opportunity cost considerations, it's quite understandable why the utter indifference of the public is a strike against the field.
    No, not really. In the concert hall, you would have no problems distinguishing Bell from a random violinist: he's actually much better. The Joshua Bell experiment was an experiment in seeing how someone who was unambiguously a top-class artist held up with inferential distance deliberately hugely increased - not a test of "is status in music a lie?" but "how arrogant is a top-class artist taken out of their depth?" And, y'know, Bell did pretty well and came across as a perfectly reasonable fellow.
    That doesn't matter if there are so many more appealing cultural venues than concert hall. No, he made less than the typical busker and really only attracted those who were trained to identify the signals. I don't dispute that the music is good, for some people. I just think it's ridiculous how much more money it commands for the wrong reasons. His skill isn't so much better than the mere 95% percentile to justify that -- that's why they have to rely on so much more than musical skill to market him to royalty. I don't see what difference that makes. But yes, he surprisingly did recognize how much his self-worth collapses when he's not pre-validated (i.e. performing for people who haven't paid lots of money for it).
    I meant "did pretty well" in terms of not reacting with arrogance, that being what was actually being tested. The trope in play (what made it a story that you remember) was Fish Out Of Water. (The way to make money as a busker is to, whatever your instrument, play the Beatles. Over and over. And over and over. And over and over. And over and over.)
    I'm actually quite willing to believe that Silas remembered it because (he thought) it proved his theory. For my part, I viewed it as a test of how well the average person can detect subtly presented costly signals when under distraction. (Answer: not very well.) The detail I remembered most was how children would stop with interest, only to be dragged away by their hurried parents.
    Point. I suppose I mean "why they bothered to run the story." They weren't running it to expose Bell as a charlatan, they ran it as Fish Out Of Water. Yeah :-D Unfortunately, the distractibility of the people with the money is why busking for money involves Beatles. Lots of Beatles. More Beatles.
    Not really. I remember it because it's fun watching people try to explain it away -- I get a new answer every time for why the highest cultural achievements get utterly ignored, at that must be a problem on the beholder's side. Is that the standard you really want to go by? What children like?
    But what's the water then? And why is the fish's greatness so brittle that you have to define the water so narrowly?
    Er, I'm not. The water is the world where people know the sort of music he plays and can form communicable opinions on how well he does it. Are you really claiming they wrote that story to demonstrate Bell was a fraud, rather than as a fish out of water story?
    Okay, and the water for theologians is the community of theologians. Does that mean they're accomplishing something truly great, or that they're a clique?
    I have just corrected the systematic downvoting of Silas. His general point seems important.
    As it happens, I was also the victim of systematic drive-by downvoting in the last few minutes. I don't know what the relationship between these two facts is. (Edit: I didn't participate in the downvoting of Silas, I don't think.)
    I have a long-standing policy of not voting in discussions in which I am strongly opinionated and participating in, which applies here.
    As was I. Go rationality! Though to be fair, arguing over aesthetics on this level is like arguing over which variety of heroin is best to be addicted to. Battles to the death for insanely low stakes. Having us all taken out and shot is not an unreasonable passing fancy.
    That's an impressively sane analogy to keep in mind. Thanks.
    Your analogy would only be valid if theology was the study of an aesthetic matter. (I might think it was better approached as one, but I doubt we'll find many theologians to agree.)
    *redefines theology as the study of aesthetic matter* You don't get away that easily. If your entire argument rests on, "I've chosen to apply this symbol, this way" then I think we're done here.
    Well, not really. You're asserting music that you have a greater than negligible inferential distance to is a fraudulent field, and you're comparing it to a field you already consider fraudulent. As such: the difference is that music is about aesthetics, not about the qualities of claimed supernatural beings. And in art, there is such a thing as inferential distance. Long post on the subject here. A given piece of art is created in a time, place and culture, to press the buttons in people's heads, preferably starting with those of the artist. You will appreciate it more if you learn more about the time, place and culture, right down to the inside of the artist's head as far as that can be ascertained, thus getting closer to the place in inference space of its birth. Theology doesn't, as far as I know, make the existence of God more believable if you know more of it; however, it is possible to learn about the cultural reference point for a piece of art and appreciate more what the artist was doing.
    Depending on who you're considering to be doing the caring and not-caring, this may very well be an apt description of the situation. But the main point I would make is that these are student exercises. Writing works in older styles is a skill that one learns in school; it's very much like how math students are asked to re-prove theorems of Euler or Cauchy. You may be seen as a genius if you rediscover the proof of the fundamental theorem of algebra, but nobody's going to give you the same kind of credit they give Gauss. Likewise writing a really great fugue in your counterpoint class isn't going to make you Bach. Part of the reason is that Bach already did this stuff (so you're not in the "canon"), but also when Bach was doing it it was at the frontier of musical thought, which it isn't today, as evidenced by the fact that it is taught to undergraduates. Whereas Bach's challenge was to be as inventive as possible, today's students have to be as inventive as possible while still sounding like eighteenth-century music, which is a challenge of a different kind, and will tend to produce different musical results. First of all, the total number of operas written since the form was invented (something like 40,000, if I recall correctly) is much larger than any single human could plausibly have heard. You must be talking about the active repertory of famous opera houses, which is indeed probably something like a few dozen. However, there are good reasons apart from artistic merit to expect that the number of operas in regular production would be small: namely, staging an opera is typically a very costly and laborious undertaking. (So is composing one, by the way, which is why doing so is not a typical student exercise the same way writing a fugue is.) This will push toward conservatism in repertory selection, with companies sticking to the pieces they already know "work". There are all kinds of obscure operas by great composers (such as Handel) that have only recently be
    But what the Beatles were doing was more like being as inventive as possible while still being fun to listen to for untrained people, a constraint that Bach shared. I just don't know enough about modernist composers to say, but I would give them more benefit of the doubt. It's also noteworthy though that I know non-professionals who claim to enjoy them, which seems like very good Bayesian evidence that they are doing something significant. I don't think that your response on the opera question is really a satisfying rebuttal to my point.
    Only as a result of the historically contingent fact that Bach's wildest musical ideas happened to still be comprehensible to untrained people, because the inferential gulf wasn't yet very large. (Seriously, it's not as if Bach secretly invented and wished he could write Schoenberg-style music, but reluctantly restrained himself because of his social obligations. What Bach produced -- at least some of his output -- was literally the most inventive music he could think of; and sometimes he was indeed criticized for going beyond the "norms" of the day.) Yes. Though this is a point which unfortunately tends to get lost, there are indeed non-professionals who enjoy contemporary art music, and there are in fact "ways into" the music for them; things they can learn to enhance their enjoyment, even if they don't quite reach the full level of appreciation that a professional might. And there are actually some folks who are musically gifted enough that they just "get it" right away, even though they don't happen to be musicians. I don't know whether this will help either, but I did want to make the point that the most gifted composers tend not to want to spend their time writing in old styles, for the same reason that the most gifted mathematicians tend not to want to spend their time rediscovering old theorems. This is a better explanation for why we don't see large quantities of Bach-quality Baroque-style music being churned out today than "lost knowledge" or historical genetic anomaly. (And why didn't we see more of composers literally imitating Baroque music during the Classical and Romantic eras?)
    A slightly different point, but when I brought up the possibility of current composers writing in the old styles and thus creating attractive music, several people told me that it's simply too hard to write music in an old style. There seemed to be a strong consensus there, but perhaps the problem is that they were applying too high a standard of authenticity. I'd be content with music which supplied many of the pleasures of baroque or classical-- it doesn't have to pass for period music to a well-informed listener. ---------------------------------------- I have a notion that you can tell which sf artists have been to art school. The composition, anatomy, and perspective are all excellent, but there's no sense of motion. When I say it's a notion, I mean that I haven't checked it in any way, it just seems like a plausible way of explaining paintings with those characteristics. ---------------------------------------- So far as mathematics is concerned, aren't there two streams-- empirical and for the pleasure of the mathematicians? Neither of these are the same as working on whatever math is publishable, though.
    As an example, I'm more familiar with the work of Jeremy Soule than I am with the work of Stravinsky. That's not at all a statement about their relative quality as composers, just a statement that one of them makes soundtracks for video games. And while they're very nice, I can't help but imagine that a lot of my affection for his pieces comes from the emotional attachment to the games they were in. But I've also got to point out that in aesthetic fields, when you get to the point where inferential distance makes laymen unable to appreciate what you're doing, you've gone from creation to masturbation. I go to art museums from time to time and am struck by the difference in captions as you move from medieval art to contemporary art: the captions for the medieval art tell you who everyone in the picture is (because you're unlikely to recognize St. Augustine by looking at him or his symbols), but the art speaks for itself. The captions for the contemporary art have to tell you not just the symbolism but also the subject. Many of them were essentially performance art, which disgusted me pretty deeply. That may actually be a better way to put it- if your work is best understood as performance art, you should change fields.

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

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

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

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

    In the early 1990s I spent rather a lot of time listening avidly to the sort of thing advertised in the small ads in the back of The Wire: where the far end of post-hardcore-punk rock music, the far end of jazz and the far end of twentieth-century classical (Schoenberg is the barest start of the good stuff) converged. Most people would call this hideous racket, and I must admit that, despite all the thought that went into it, this was an aspect I would have called a feature. Disappointment was going to a concert of modern stuff and hearing something that sounded like a film soundtrack or a soundscape rather than an assault on the senses. This is something of what I mean when I distinguish "good" or "worthwhile" from "of no cultural impact" - the latter speaks of listenership and influence on other artists. This is difficult to quantify, but (to use the example of friends doing music degrees) an academic composer who puts their stuff on the net and blogs and tweets about it and hangs out on 4chan /mu/ will have more impact than an academic composer who has nothing available. That's the point at which the bug of art impacts the windscreen of arts industry. I am also deeply sceptical of the notion that art progresses in the manner of technology or science. It's made of memes and lines of influence can certainly be traced (you can even usefully do cladistics on them) and some stuff comes after other stuff. There's simple stuff, there's complex stuff, there's the simplicity on the far side of complexity (you could pick up a guitar and write a punk rock song, but you are unlikely to sling those three chords as effectively as the Sex Pistols did). But we don't study Shakespeare or Chaucer because they're just the precursor to the amazingly advanced stuff we do now (in the manner of Newton being first-year stuff) - we study it because it's good in itself. No-one listens to Beethoven or Bach as a precursor to current brilliance, they listen to it because it's good in itsel
    For some reason, I thought of this, which I shouldn't have liked but did anyway.
    Yoko Ono gets such a bad rap. As Lester Bangs notes in the linked piece, she had quite the excellent line in really good horrible noise. Once you get the idea that horrible noise music is supposed to sound like that, you can start sorting out what works for you and what doesn't and when and why. (Current kick: There's a lot of '80s and '90s industrial-towards-neofolk bands who did limited-edition albums in runs of a few hundred. These became legendary due to rarity. Now we have the Internet and approximately all recorded music is readily available free, and it becomes clear why the runs were only a few hundred. I play them and they brighten my day and the teenagers, taking a break from their bad heavy metal with inept sub-Metallica solos and floppy fringes, look at me like I shat in their ears personally. Fair warms the heart. Of course, horses for courses. I am not actually recommending anyone else actually bother doing this.)
    This view is mistaken. It's not, mind you, your mistake, but that of the music theory community, which has egregiously, utterly, and persistently failed to carve musical reality at its joints. In point of fact, Schoenberg uses the same set of pitches that the composers you like do -- the ones you find on a piano keyboard. And contrary to implicit music-theoretical tradition, you don't have to pretend that those 12 pitches in the octave aren't the same notes you're used to, either. In simple terms, the difference between Schoenberg and the music you like, and the reason people have trouble with the former, isn't that Schoenberg isn't in any key, but rather that Schoenberg changes keys so quickly and constantly that your ear has trouble keeping up and feels "confused". A note may literally be "in a different key" from the previous note. There is much less redundancy to reinforce the "meaning" (i.e. position within a diatonic scale) of a note; you have to "catch" it immediately. You can see how this state of affairs would have been the product of gradual evolution, something analogous to an inferential chain -- with more information content being packed into music with each generation of composers. The point is, it's a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.
    What music I have heard in carnatic scales I have enjoyed, which I imagine is what you're talking about. But comments about "these are a few special cases in all of design space!" suggest to me that that's where the quality is, not that there are vast realms of good stuff just over the horizon, and we just haven't looked there yet. If you buy into the idea that music is a superstimulus of vocal tone, it makes perfect sense that there would only be a few ways to make music appealing to humans though there are many possible ways to make music.
    My impression is that music in general has become less oriented towards melody. Some of what I enjoy is weirder than anything I would have expected to like. I heard Sun Ra Arkestra, and enjoyed most of it. I think the trick is to get emotionally involved with changes of timbre.
    That's a little much-- there's plenty of art which appeals to specialist audiences (hard science fiction, for example-- most people aren't going to have much fun with Diaspora), but which is still a meaningful effort by the artist.
    Some video games, too, seem to be aimed at very narrow audiences, and yet are quite impressive if you happen to be part of that audience. For example, the infamously difficult I Wanna Be The Guy is quite clever, but it definitely takes a certain kind of background and mindset to actually enjoy playing it. And there are many people who don't appreciate even extremely popular video games; for example, my mom will never experience what makes people enjoy Halo.
    What you've done is go from creating art for a lay audience to creating art for a specialized audience. I agree that the extreme form of this is creating art for the enjoyment of nobody but you (aka masturbation), but there are interim stages along the way that are meaningfully distinct.
    On the other hand, I saw Artist's shit at the Tate Modern and literally spent five minutes laughing. IT IS PERFECT AND BRILLIANT. If you want the simplicity on the far side of complexity, that's it. (... in a can.)
    That's an unnecessarily loaded, rhetorical way to state your point of view. So if you don't meet a certain "laymen appreciation" quota, then you're literally not creating anymore? That's silly, of course. And of course I hardly need mention the negative connotations of "masturbation". But the point is substantively wrong, also -- or, at any rate, you're assuming the conclusion you need to prove: that the value of art depends only on the ability of laymen (large numbers of them, presumably, since I doubt it would suffice for me to exhibit particular examples) to directly appreciate it. My fifth-grade classmates used to make a similar argument with respect to Beethoven: since I was the only one in the class who liked his work, he was clearly a failure as a composer. Likewise, I suspect you (and others who say things like this) are probably just insufficiently aware of the community of people who appreciate contemporary art music. It's unfortunate that there's currently so little intersection between that community and this one; but that community exists nonetheless.
    I do listen to contemporary music. Or is that not what you had in mind? :P I apologize if that was too crude for you, but it seems to me an apt description (both of the situation and why outsiders feel the way they feel about it). For it to be sex it needs to include other people. Of course I would never make a statement so sweeping. Masturbation is hardly valueless; it just serves a rather different function than sex, which seems to me to be a cruder restatement of your earlier point. But the implication of such a view is that the cultural descendant of Beethoven is The Beatles, and the cultural ancestor of little-known academic composers are the writers of 16th century theological texts- very sophisticated, but they're no Shakespeare. (I should clarify that by theological texts I mean commentaries, not foundational works like the King James Bible.) And so when we discuss "the-thing-that-Beethoven-was-doing" there are two things we could be talking about- making music for a particular set of instruments, or significantly contributing to the history of music. If there is any gulf of misunderstanding between us, I think it hinges on that last bit.
    Crudeness wasn't the problem; the connotation of disapproval was. That absolutely does not follow. That is not an implication of "such a view" (i.e. my view) at all. A meta-observation about your comment: it doesn't seem to reflect your having received new information from my previous comments at all. You've simply restated the position that I'm arguing against, without explaining why the things I've said fail to undermine that position. For example, it should be clear by now that I don't agree that "the cultural descendant of Beethoven is The Beatles", and it should be equally clear why: in addition to the fact that the actual memetic lineage from Beethoven to the Beatles is much less direct than from Beethoven to contemporary art-composers (a point I didn't actually mention explicitly), Beethoven's intention -- his profession, his métier -- was to write the most interesting/advanced/sophisticated music he could. (Beyond the blatant evidence of the music itself, as compared with his (more "popular"!) contemporaries, this is a matter of historical record, as revealed in his letters.) In this crucial respect, he resembles contemporary academic composers much more than the Beatles (who, as popular musicians, have few rivals, of course). Now, I made it clear in my exchange with MichaelVassar and multifoliaterose that this was what I was talking about. Yet, in the parent comment, you continue to frame the discussion as though that had never occurred: ...as if my idea of "the-thing-that-Beethoven-was-doing" had mainly to do with instrumentation, and as if we all agreed that popularity among laymen was the criterion by which "contribution to the history of music" is to be judged -- in blatant disregard of my previous remarks in this thread.
    I think that as a lay-person there is serious room for doubt regarding whether what modern academic composers are doing is as competent, judged as an attempt to create the most interesting/advanced/sophisiticated music possible, as what the Beatles were doing. It would be nice to know what Beethoven would have thought. Do you understand why the theological texts were brought up? The central contention in question is whether the claims of a field such as this can be trusted by outsiders. One critical question, in that case, in my opinion, is whether there are any ways in which it could be. It's like asking if topologists or computer scientists are more genuinely 'heirs to Euler'. At least in math we can see that Wiles was doing roughly the same thing Fermat was doing and in literature the publishing industry and public sized upon Toole, who was doing a more authentic version of what Dickens was doing. I guess that one indicative question regarding math would be "How well recognized was Wiles by his professional peers before his famous proof?".
    Consider the following, from a scholarly book on Beethoven's compositional methods: -- Barry Cooper, Beethoven and the Creative Process, p.20 Where do you honestly think someone with these kinds of sensibilities and priorities would tend to end up nowadays? I'm not saying he wouldn't appreciate the Beatles for what they are -- a fabulous popular group. But the idea that he would consider their songs a more worthy successor to the Eroica symphony than the work of Boulez and Babbitt is pretty ridiculous. Standard heuristics apply. Check whether the most highly regarded people in a field seem to have impressive general intellects. Check whether they can send other costly signals that are intelligible to outsiders. (I'm pretty sure Milton Babbitt can write damn good fugues; Peter Westergaard has written the best book on "tonal" (17th-19th century) theory I know of.) Check whether any people you already regard as impressive are willing to associate with these folks. Etc. Whatever you think the ultimate value of advanced music is, tests like these should at least be able to convince you that it isn't a hoax.
    I honestly think that someone with these sensibilities might think that music since WWII is a wasteland with respect to what they cared about. I'm pretty sure that the authors of the best theological texts had impressive general intellects and associated with impressive people. They were probably frequently good public speakers too, a costly signal. I don't think advanced music might be an intentional hoax. (which could be OK. It always seemed to me that in Andy Warhol's case hoax was the art). I think it, and advanced math, may not be the heirs to the unquestionably valuable traditions that they claim to be heirs to, but may instead by the emergent properties of certain institutional designs in the absence of outside constraints. There are other possibilities too. It seems to me that modern art, in the sense of the 1860s-1950s, is basically not the intellectual heir of the old masters. Picasso etc were doing something much cooler than the old masters were, but what they were doing is better thought of as being an heir to certain tribal art-forms, especially from the pacific islands, empowered by industrial civilization, specialization, etc.
    It is conceivable, I'll admit, that such a person could have ended up like Schenker, who was as much a musical genius as the greatest composers of his day, but thought that music after 1900 was a wasteland. But note this: Schenker essentially wrote no music of his own! For all that he hoped his theories would form the basis of a "rebirth" of the tradition that (in his view) died with Brahms, he never bothered to put them into practice himself and demonstrate whatever he thought it was that the composers of his day should have been doing. I don't think this is a coincidence. The literal closest successor to Brahms was Max Reger, whom Schenker despised, and Schoenberg is the next step after Reger. I really don't think it's psychologically possible to be a composer of genius and a musical conservative at the same time. Yet, in order for a modern Beethoven to oppose contemporary music, that's what would have to have happened: at some point in musical history, they would have had to have sided with the conservatives against the radicals. I don't think someone capable of doing that would have been able to produce the Eroica in 1805; they would have more likely been the guy at the premiere who shouted "I'll give another kreutzer if this thing will only stop!". The main problem with theological ideas isn't that they aren't interesting, but that they aren't true. But art doesn't have truth-values; interestingness is all there is. Someone posted a list of questions for Brian Ferneyhough (and other contemporary composers) on the talk page of his Wikipedia article, and Ferneyhough actually responded. For some reason I think you might find it interesting; I suppose it may have to do with the fact that the writing style in some of his answers reminded me of your own.
    Andy Warhol's art was an example of the simplicity on the far side of complexity. Picasso was extremely skilled in representational art before he started doing his cool stuff. Schoenberg did more conventionally listenable music before he went all twelve-tone. As I note, if it presses people's buttons in a given cultural context then it works. That's the bottom line. (Yes, just about everything is art.)
    I took Vassar's comment to indicate skepticism as to the value of contemporary academic composers rather than adulation of the Beatles. To contextualize where he might be coming from: I personally have a strong appreciation of music and have gotten very little out of most of the contemporary classical pieces that I've heard, e.g. at symphony performances. I know several people who have a strong love of music and who have had the same experience. As such, in absence of further data, it seems to me quite reasonable to have a prior against the notion that a given contemporary composer's work is of aesthetic value to the typical person interested in music. Of course the issue may be a musical analog of inferential distance, but a priori that could be an issue in principle be for any unfamiliar music of sufficiently high Kolmogorov complexity independently of its aesthetic value to humans. It's unfair to make a confident judgment against such music without making a solid effort to attempt to bridge the hypothetical inferential distance, but I think that Michael Vassar's statement that there's serious room for a lay-person (who has not had the time to go through such a process) to doubt the value of such music. The situation would be different if there was a very uniform consensus among classical music lovers that the contemporary material is best. As things stand; a whole number of explanations for divergent views as to the value of contemporary music could apply: it could be that the people who don't appreciate it are unsophisticated and/or haven't gone through the work that they would need to in order to appreciate it; it could be that the contemporary academic music world is engaged in a runaway signaling game which is unrelated to aesthetic value; it could be that the phenomenon is explained by neurodiversity; it could be some combination of all three. This sounds quite reasonable.
    I agree. Of course interesting/advanced/sophisticated is ill-defined and perhaps irreducibly subjective. For a sufficiently broad notion of "roughly" :-). I think that it's fair to say that Fermat's work represents more originality (picking up on a thousand year old theme and pushing it considerably further than it previously had been in contrast with Wiles who was in some sense working within a well-defined context) whereas Wiles' work represents a higher standard of technical virtuosity (Fermat never wrote hundred-page-long dense technical manuscripts relying on thousands of pages of background material). To what extent they would be able to interchange roles had they lived in different time periods is difficult to judge. Wiles was very highly regarded before his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. His earlier papers were few but of very high quality. He was best known for his proof of the first infinite family of cases of the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture (with his advisor John Coates) and his proof of the main conjecture of Iwasawa theory with Barry Mazur. It's possible to easily indicate how the former achievement ties in with classical mathematics (c.f. the first chapter and page 92 of Neal Koblitz's Introduction to Elliptic Curves and Modular Forms. The latter achievement is less immediately intelligible but the methods are supposed to be close to those that Ribet used to prove his portion of the Herbrand-Ribet theorem which is a natural sharpening of the criterion which Kummer used in the mid-1800's to prove many cases of Fermat's Last Theorem. (Note: Wiles' eventual proof of Fermat's Last Theorem was along completely different conceptual lines from Kummer's work although some of the machinery that Kummer developed is relevant.)
    It's so convenient to be able to say that, isn't it? A great way to save oneself the trouble of having to enter a detailed technical discussion. I think it's a good idea to beware of such get-out-of-jail-free cards. Yes, given anything you choose, there exists a possible mind in mind-design space that regards that thing as "interesting". However, unless you think it's a genuinely open question whether "Mary Had A Little Lamb" is as interesting as the Eroica, I feel that such assertions are ultimately disingenuous.
    I'd like to have a more detailed discussion; my disinclination to do so up until now is a matter of short-term time constraints more than anything else. 1. I'm not a total aesthetic subjectivist when it comes to human music appreciation. 2. I do think that there are some genuinely differing aesthetic preferences between humans on account of differing genetic and environmental factors. For a simple example; I'm highly noise sensitive and this bars me from appreciating very loud music independently of how aesthetically valuable somebody who is not noise-sensitive might find it. 3. The question in my mind is not so much whether "Mary Had A Little Lamb" is as interesting as the Eroica as much as whether (for example) Philip Glass is as interesting as a famous academic contemporary composer. I find it quite possible that different people might have different views on this last point on account of having differing neurotypes.
    Right, but that's the kind of thing that would enable one to evade a technical discussion (i.e. a semantic stopsign), and hence is an intellectual warning sign. (I don't necessarily think evasion is your actual intent, of course). For the most part, at least in my opinion, the relevant musical variable is not absolute loudness measured in decibels, but relative loudness in the context of a piece. (Of course, the more degrees of loudness are used, the wider the range has to be in absolute terms.) I'll reply futher later.
    I wonder if pre-WWII jazz musicians are closer in spirit to this, in terms of both "writing the most interesting/advanced/sophisticated music [they] could" and "advancing the field of music"?
    Quite possibly. I don't even see any need to restrict to pre-WWII. My impression is that, among the various styles of popular music, jazz has tended to come closest to manifesting this ideal in general.
    Thanks for your response. "Sophistication" can be read in several ways. Do you mean something like "technical intricacy"? The relevant variable for me personally is subjective aesthetic response. Have you found contemporary composers to whom you've had as strong a positive aesthetic response as Bach or Brahms? From what you've written elsewhere I would guess that the answer is "yes" but asking to make sure that I understand. How do you characterize the-thing-that-Beethoven was doing? At present I believe otherwise, but you have more subject matter knowledge than I do. I would be interested in seeing you flesh out your thoughts here.
    Well, I suppose your use of the phrase "something like" would allow me to get by with a simple "yes". However, I reserve the right to ADBOC if necessary. My choice of synonym would be "interestingness". Basically, music that, whatever its particular rhetorical, programmatic, or "emotive" features, sounds like it was written by somebody in the 140+ IQ range. Surely you realize that that's just a fancy way of saying "what I care about is how much I like it." This is a step in the wrong direction: a de-reduction rather than a reduction of the concept we're trying to explicate. I mean, obviously the same is true for me also. Yes, of course! Writing maximally interesting music. My curiosity is roused. What kind of musician would you predict that a modern genetic twin of Beethoven would most likely become? What predictions does your model make about the music that a modern composer would have written if he or she had been born in 1770?
    This is fair. Is IQ really the factor that you want to highlight here? I would guess that 90+% of people with 140+ IQ are incapable of writing music that I find compelling. My statement was nonvacuous; as far as I can tell there are people who judge works of art based on criteria other than subjective aesthetic response. Thanks for clarifying. I used "subjective aesthetic response" rather than "how much one likes it" for the connotations. Here too, my question was not vacuous; there are people who I know who would answer in the negative. I myself would answer in the negative though this should be understood in the context of me having spent relatively little time with contemporary composers. Will respond when I have some more time.
    As you know, P(A|B) != P(B|A). It's not that most high-IQ folks are capable of writing interesting music, but rather that almost no non-high-IQ folks are. (It may be useful to recall what I mean by IQ, which isn't necessarily what people immediately think of when they hear the term, but is what I believe they should think of.) This should make sense when you consider that music is ultimately generated from the composer's stream-of-consciousness; and the higher one's IQ, the more interesting one's stream-of-consciousness tends to be. (This is almost tautological given my conception of IQ.) To a large degree, this impression probably exists due to communication difficulties, in particular a vocabulary far too impoverished to adequately reflect the complexity of aesthetic value. Many (not all, but a nontrivial subset) of the people you're talking about, I would venture, will have conceded more than necessary when they agree that they're using criteria other than "subjective aesthetic response" to judge the value of a work. (EDIT: I am led to suspect this because you contrasted "subjective aesthetic response" not with, say, the number of people who say they like it, but rather with "technical intricacy".) The "of course" here was meant to suggest not that your question was vacuous, but rather that you were perhaps a bit overly timid in inferring my answer previously. :-) Looking forward to it.
    The only thing that is a tautalogical result of having a high IQ is the ability to achieve good results on IQ tests. I agree with respect to music, high IQ and stream of consciousness and all practical expectations. Just not the redefinition of IQ. Make up a new name for what IQ tests should measure - or just use 'intelligence'.
    (1) I said "almost". (2) Is "cancer" the ability to get positive results on cancer tests?
    No. If humans adopted a naming convention for the purposes of suiting your analogy then "CQ" could be.
    I could continue the semantic argument ("would it be a CQ test or a cancer test?"), but instead I'll just skip to the real reason I use the term "IQ", which is because it's shorter than "intelligence", and I don't consider "the ability to achieve good results on IQ tests" to be an interesting or important enough concept to deserve exclusive rights to the term.
    There are a couple of potential issues with your usage: 1. The ability to achieve good results on IQ tests is correlated with various figures of interest. See the references that Carl Shulman gives here. As such, IQ does have a functional and useful technical meaning and assigning it a new meaning can be confusing. 2. Different people may have different notions of "the underlying trait that IQ tests are supposed to be measuring." In particular, there's a serious possibility of perhaps unknowingly taking one's own mental architecture (including aesthetic preferences) to define the direction (if not magnitude) in mind-space of this trait on account of generalizing from one example. The use of "intelligence" stands to suffer from (2) though not (1). I've found it most fruitful to maintain a positivistic attitude toward intelligence as a concept unless I'm in conversation with somebody who I know attaches the same connotations to the term that I do.
    (My other comment not withstanding; I agree that what IQ tests measure is of limited interest and usefulness; the issue is just that it's not so clear how to do better.)
    And for even more brevity you could leave out the word 'tautological' and elaborations thereof. As a bonus you wouldn't need to read corrections! :)
    I suspect they'd do the best they could in the situation they found themselves in. e.g. A genetic copy of Shakespeare might well become a writer, and an excellent one, but I don't see that he'd necessarily find himself working in theatre. (It's almost a cliche to assert that these days Shakespeare would be in Hollywood.)
    While old science seems to have had greater total, bulk impact on the world than new science, I have polemically overblown the independence factor. "Gentleman scientists" were few, most scholars had patrons of some kind. It was more of an invitation to consider non-donation-based funding models. We have evidence that part-time scientists can do great work. Wouldn't it be better if researchers spent their non-scientific hours together producing short-range value rather than fight each other over grants and tenure?
    I think part-time science is a cool idea. I would like that, rather than a full-time corporate job (as I have now) or a full-time science job. There are disadvantages of course - science requires an awful lot of time investment - but it might get scientists out of their ivory tower (without corrupting them or killing their time with fund-raising).
    I've seen (I forget where) an organization where people can make charitable donations directly to science. This sounds like it ought to be the third component of how science gets funding (the first two being government and technology companies.) If enough people are passionate about space exploration, for instance, but government and industry are dragging their feet, then enthusiastic laymen should be able to pool money to fund research.
    More part-time and/or amateur scientists would be a good thing. This is more difficult today because there are fewer projects that one person, or even a handful of people can do on their own. The canonical examples of 'big science' are the humane genome project, particle physics and atmospheric prediction. All three rely on massive international investment in infrastructure, the coordinated contributions of many specialists, and research programs with very long timelines, and where progress is mostly incremental (another bug sequenced, another 0.1 improvement in anomaly correlation, another dB of evidence in favour of some micro-theory). That's not to say there are no problems left that a genius in a garage can't attack, just that it seems to me they are fewer than back in Lord Kelvin's day, and that the big problems that most of agree we want to solve require massive cooperation: the only effective system we have yet devised for this is via national science agencies.
    Also controlled fusion (both ICF and most magnetic bottle approaches)
    Much more so than today not just per scientist but even compared to world population. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18625066.500-entering-a-dark-age-of-innovation.html

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

    Elsewhere I've suggested "Social Escrow" as a solution. You pledge a certain amount, contingent on enough other people doing so and perha... (read more)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

    I'm confused a bit. You see existing science funding as being mostly/entirely wasted on worthless projects?
    I'm not really an expert here. It would depend on the field. In a typical field I'm betting that at least 75% of the money is spent on projects of, to put it mildly, such low marginal utility that the time spent reviewing the grant proposal, reviewing the submitted paper, and reading the published paper, is not worth the result.
    Could you elaborate here? Are you saying you think the impact of a higher portion of GDP spent on "science" would be negative, more or less neutral, or positive (but with diminishing returns)?
    Do you think that a marginal dollar that is allocated to research on, for example, the synthesis of conductive plastics increases or decreases the signal:noise ratio? What fields do you think would have a marginal output of less than $1 of value generated per dollar you invest?
    8Eliezer Yudkowsky
    Mostly fields which are producing lots of "statistically significant" results and no universal generalizations (where "This happens to everyone with gene X" is a universal generalization even if not everyone has gene X). Conductive plastics doesn't sound too bad because you can tell whether or not a plastic conducts pretty clearly.

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

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

    There are optimization pressures from peer review and academic jostling for position. My point above was that things which passed all the quality checks were being stopped for no reason except lack of money. If you expect any good from the existing research, you should expect those unfunded efforts would have been at least as good, giving a linear speedup per added money. The market optimizes for the aggregate desires of the buying public and for the ability to produce something valued more by the public than its raw materials - if it achieves scientific usefulness, that's a byproduct.
    And I suspect a great deal of scientific research is done at companies which then keep it secret. That work isn't wasted, but it isn't doing the kind of good that shared information can.

    This kind of thing is often considered one of the main roles of government: funding important projects on a constant basis over a long period of time. It's hard to fund those with charity; charity funding tends to be inconsistent over time, and people who do give to charity are likely to give to whatever cause is "popular" that year. I wouldn't want to try to fund "maintenance of one specific bridge every year over the next 50 years" with just charitable contributions from people who use that bridge and benefit from it, because some ... (read more)


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

    I'd love to see a followup post on these modern day institutions that don't exist. So much of our environment and experience is dominated by our tribal instincts that it is diffiucult to picture which institutions would exist were we somewhat more rational.

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

    Couldn't you greatly increase voter rationality much faster and cheaper by limiting the franchise or encouraging less rational people not to vote?
    Does a concept of "less rational people" even have any sense And most likely it would be highly damaging, I don't have any evidence with me but I'm willing to bet real money on prediction market for that, that in cases where some class of people are excluded from voting (vote rarely like young people, or don't matter much due to the way votes are counted), their interests are seriously underrepresented in government decisions, relative to interests of classes of people who are voting a lot, in a way that matters (old people, regional interests in first past the post systems).
    If you found a way to identify less rational people that didn't exclude any groups that were identifiable enough for government policy to discriminate against them, it could work, but that sounds hard. Limiting the franchise sounds tough but there are some obvious ways to reduce the number of less rational people who are voluntarily choosing to vote: reduce the number of get-out-the-vote campaigns, specifically those that mindlessly repeat slogans about voting, and focus more on campaigns with a rational explanations of why people ought to vote Of course... perhaps get-out-the-vote campaigns tend to have more of an impact in demographics that vote less on average, like young people, so they might have other beneficial effects in that way (and given that probably the portion of potential voters who aren't swayed by mindlessly spouting slogans about voting is vanishingly small, this would probably dramatically outweigh any effects of them on voter rationality). Still, it's a thought. Get-out-the-vote campaigns just seem INCREDIBLY weird to me.
    Get out the vote campaigns are often just excuses to get out the vote for groups that are likely to vote according to the organizer, if for no other reason than that a particular neighborhood might be inclined to vote one way.
    There aren't enough of them. Obvious problems would result.
    Rationality should be the primary purpose of schools. You get the other as a side-effect.
    Rationality should be the primary purpose of schools. You get the other as a side-effect.

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

    I'm not really following your comment. When Robin advocates large prediction markets on all sorts of topics, or specifically markets on CEOs & whether they should resign, is he saying bizarre incoherent nonsense? Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with Pearl; would a Pearl-style explanation be 'if a wealthy influential person believes my writings about prediction markets and creates something that meets my specifications, the results will be good (with high probability)'?
    I think it's simply a choice of phrasing that happened to cause an incongruous mental image for me; hence my attempt to work it around to a description I could encompass. I think of "to fail" as an active verb -- futarchy doesn't exist because we fail to enact it. In my brain, something that doesn't exist can't do anything, including fail to exist. As for the Pearl reference, I think I'll just point you to the source.

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

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

    6Mike Bishop
    I think you are being too literal. I interpreted Eliezer as saying that the obstacles to good large institutions are so great, that most of them never get off the ground. The rest of the post mentions some of the explanations for and implications of this fact. (Completely rewritten comment to be more polite and helpful)
    How many is 'many'? And are countries now "institutions"? I agree that 'Germany' survives, but not that, say, the Second Reich / Third Reich / GDR survive. How many governments in Africa maintain continuity back to 1913? Asia? (Hm, maybe India - whups, no, independence and the partition; China - but the government fell to warlords and Communists; perhaps wealthy industrializing Japan - no, conquered by America; Vietnam or Korea - actually maybe we'd better go somewhere else.) How many governments in South America? (No, that's not too good either given how many coups and revolutions there always are there.) Well, there's always Europe (wait, no, WWI, WWII, the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Warsaw Pact, all took out a ton of governments). Well. There's always North America. Three governments counts as 'many countries', doesn't it? (But wasn't there some sort of unpleasantness in Mexico 1910-1920... I'd better be quiet about that so as to not spoil a beautiful theory.)
    My interpretation is that most of the things we desperately need large institutions to do are simply not being done.

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

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

    Have we considered encouraging people to donate to science in a similar way? Not r... (read more)

    I don't think the lack of scientists is the issue. The issue is others providing all the engineering and support that scientists need - to survive in the first place, and then to get science done. If you want to continue your example of sacrificing a child, a more effective proposal would be to have extra children and bond them into near-slavery, taxing them at some high amount so as to support those who do science. But that would be a real sacrifice, and most would not find the idea pleasing.
    I think the myth you're thinking of is of Agamemnon and Iphigenia. It might not bear all that much on your broader point, but one possibly relevant difference is that Agamemnon was told to sacrifice Iphigenia by a prophet of the goddess holding up his fleet; he wasn't doing it on spec, but in response to a specific one-time demand, and perhaps more importantly to absolve himself of a personal mistake. The medieval European approach to producing clergymen (roughly: make more heirs than you need and send the spares to the Church, preferably with generous donations to smooth over any difficulties) might make a better analogy.

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


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

    It's quite possible to raise money for microgrants (c. one-paycheck amount) for young scientists. From individuals. And then keep it up year in and year out. And add more subcategories (e.g., a friend of mine started with a single grant for both botanists and zoologists, then a year later there were two, and now other people started running their own and we have four.)

    You can't fund big science this way, but people do pay money. You probably can't raise money for any kind of science, but it's not a general rule at the very least.

    Old post, but I want to chip in some data regardless.

    Science which can be done by nonspecialists gets wide participation. For example, the Audubon Society's annual Great Backyard Bird Count draws more than 150k participants per year: https://www.audubon.org/conservation/about-great-backyard-bird-count

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

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

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

    • coordinated buying clubs (not quite the same as big trade
    ... (read more)