Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween Goofiness (Self-Promotion Edition)

I have a new piece on McSweeney's Internet Tendency today, right on time for Halloween: "I Am Just Trying to Have a Civil Online Conversation about Vampires." Here's a taste:

Whoa there! That’s a pretty extreme claim. Surely you don’t mean to call ALL vampires “blood-sucking ghouls?”  
Have you ever donated to a blood bank? How is this any different?
I am not pro-vampire and I am not anti-vampire. I am just trying to have an objective discussion here without using loaded words like “kill.”

The rest is here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Why Booing Trump Matters

Various elite media types clucked, scolded, and clutched their pearls after Donald Trump got booed at the World Series and some of the crowd spontaneously chanted "Lock him up!" Because when ordinary voters do it, it's "uncivil." When Trump does it, it's the Voice of the People. But the talking heads' discomfort was about something more important: cognitive dissonance. Trump being booed threatens their worldview. The American media cannot accept the fact that President Trump is unpopular.

Donald Trump is very unpopular. More than half the country dislikes him. The polls have always shown this. But the media and political establishments refuse to digest this. They always find a way to attach a but or a qualification.

Unpopular, but that's just the other party. (Forget what the polls say about independents.) Unpopular, but only in the big cities (where most of the people are). Unpopular, but not in "Real America" (where most of the people aren't). Unpopular, but that's just the elite.

There's no such thing as a small elite that makes up more than half the population. If you think about that for a second, it's obvious. So some people work very hard to avoid thinking about it for even a second.

Having a random World Series crowd lustily boo the President of the United States threatens the pundits' world view. It undermines what they "know" to be true. So they organize all the excuses they can to protect the conventional wisdom from the facts.

Here's the thing: Trump, as a reality TV type used to creating false appearances, has carefully managed every appearance of his Presidency, precisely because he was afraid of this. He knows he's deeply unpopular and is afraid other people will catch on. So this may be the first time in his presidency that he's been outside without hand-picking his audience.

And look: people hate him. 100% of Trump's genuine public appearances have resulted in him being booed and jeered. The last time I saw him enter a public place where he didn't control the guest list was election day, when he went to vote in his local precinct. He got heckled. The video clearly captures some guy shouting, "You're gonna lose!"

Donald Trump is an unpopular figure with a small, fiercely loyal cult following. That cult following is a real political fact, which needs to be confronted. But it is not at all the same as wider popularity, and it becomes impossible to think about him, or strategize against him, if you don't think about the actual situation. And yet, our media establishment refuses to take the depths of his unpopularity on board. They are not at all interested in what is really happening. They'd rather go out and interview one of his stalwart superfans again, as if that told us anything.

Because Donald Trump is right about one thing: if the false perception of his popularity went away, that would change things.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.





Thursday, September 26, 2019

Impeaching the Black Swan

I have no idea how the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump will play out. Neither does anyone else. The most important thing to remember when reading media coverage of the impeachment process is that the writer has no idea how the impeachment process is likely to go. This goes for everybody.

The standard conventional wisdom has been that impeachment will backfire on the Democrats in a replay of 1998, when the Republicans impeached Clinton but made him more popular. There is no real reason to believe this. I'm not saying it won't happen. I'm just saying there's no evidence it will. There's only reason to expect an exact repeat of 1998, and I'm using the word "reason" loosely, is that a lot of political journalists covered 1998 and therefore assume this will go the same way. That assumption has nothing to do with logic or evidence.

Impeachments of a sitting president are so rare that it's impossible to generalize about them. This has only happened three times in the last 230 years, and one of those times the president resigned before the process finished playing out. Every single instance of impeachment is an outlier. They are all black swans.

There haven't been enough presidents of the United States, or even presidential elections, to constitute a valid statistical sample. But we fudge that, and run the numbers anyway, not always admitting how unreliable the results are. But no one can pretend that three is a statistical sample. That's ridiculous. No one tries to extrapolate anything from a baseball player's batting average after only three at-bats, or should. But this is more like a situation where only three games of baseball have ever been played. Predictions based on that are folly.

Would you read a sex-advice book written by someone who's only had sex three times? 'Or someone who started having sex three times, and finished twice? Pontificating about how impeachments turn out is the same way. No one has enough experience to know what's likely, or what's normal, and what isn't.

Over-generalizing from limited experience is a common mistake and a basic part of many political journalists' approach to their work. If you've ever heard a political journalist talking about some candidate's "Sister Souljah" moment, you've been given a good example. The journalist takes a thing that happened one time during Bill Clinton's 1992 primary run and treats it as something that must happen in all campaigns always. Woe betide the Democratic candidate without his or her Sister Souljah moment. But in fact there is no reason to expect the Sister Souljah incident to be repeated.

There are some people who try to argue that a 2019 impeachment will be a replay of Watergate in 1974 rather than of Clinton in 1998. But there's no reason to think that, either. It's no more likely than a replay of 1998. This doesn't have to be a replay of anything. Something totally different could happen. If there were such a thing as smart money in this case, and there's not, it would probably be on previously unforeseen outcome.

All three of the previous presidential impeachments were weird and therefore hard to compare to one another in any meaningful way. This one is also strange. The first impeachment was of a president who'd been vice-president before the president was assassinated, which had never happened before either, and he was not from the murdered president's party but the opposing party, because of a national unity ticket during the Civil War, and ... you get the idea. Totally unrepeatable circumstances. Watergate was also very strange. The Clinton impeachment was maybe the most "normal," in the sense of the impeached president's wrongdoing being the least unusual (which is not an excuse for illegality but a comment on its statistical distribution), but that arguably makes the Clinton impeachment unusual in its own right, another freak occurrence. Impeachments are so weird that you learn nothing from one experiment that you can generalize to the next. Nate Silver isn't going to help you out of this one.

The circumstances we're faced with are extremely strange, and so is the current occupant of the White House. Trump doesn't fit many precedents or norms. He's a kind of black swan president himself, who sometimes gets treated in the press as if normal probabilities don't apply to him. Trump won despite being behind in the poll and despite losing the popular vote by a bigger margin than any electoral-college winner ever had, so there's a sense in the press that the normal political expectations don't apply and that Trump's awful poll numbers, for example, won't hurt his chances at reelection. (This is another version of the generalizing-from-one-result error. Trump won a massively unlikely victory last time, so some people expect him to win next time. It's a bit like expecting someone who just turned an unassisted triple play to do it again tomorrow.)

It's not simply that we lack the experience to know what will happen or what will likely happen. We don't have the experience to foresee everything that can happen.

If you've only rolled a pair of dice three times, most of the possible outcomes have never occurred. There are eleven basic outcomes, from rolling a two to rolling a twelve. After three rolls, you haven't seen most of those. In fact, you may not have seen the most likely outcomes yet. Seven is the most likely result, coming up once in every six throws. But if you've only thrown the dice three times, the odds of seeing at least one seven are only between 42 and 43%, less than half. You are more likely not to have seen a seven than to have seen one.

That doesn't mean seven can't or won't happen on the next roll of the dice. It remains just as likely as it ever was, as do all the other results you haven't rolled yet. (Similarly, if you have only seen three at-bats of baseball, you may not have seen a hit, or a strikeout, or a walk, which doesn't make them any less likely in at-bat number four.) Expecting the next throw of the dice to produce the same result as the throw just before it, and discounting the possibility of an outcome you haven't previously seen, is obviously a mistake.  But that is exactly how many people are discussing impeachment.

The current thinking is that the party that impeaches the president will be punished by the voters, because that's the conventional wisdom about what happened last time. (We can debate that, too, but for purposes of this argument I won't.) No one talks about any political risk for the party defending its president, or facing a backlash from voters for shielding a president who's committed crimes, because that's never happened before. But "never happened before" in this case means "has not turned up in a minuscule and not necessarily representative sample of three freakishly-strange events." That something didn't happen in the first three tries doesn't make it impossible. It doesn't even necessarily make it unlikely.

In the same way, the three results you have seen aren't necessarily the high-probability ones. You might have rolled snake-eyes or boxcars in the first three rolls, either of which only happens once every 36 times. A thing that happens only three percent of the time is something that could and does happen. To bring things back to American political history: in 1804 the United States had only had three vice-presidents. One of those three had shot another Founding Father dead. That didn't mean that future veeps had a 33.3% likelihood of killing a Cabinet secretary in a duel (which would get us up to sixteen killer vice-presidents at this point). It just meant that three examples is nowhere close to being enough to get a sense of what's normal. (Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson weren't exactly a representative sample themselves.)

We don't have enough of a historical track record to know what's likely, or even the full range of what's possible. As the late, great William Goldman said about the film business, nobody knows anything.

Alea jacta est, kids. Buckle up.

cross-posted at Dagblog. Please post comments there, not here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Hoarding, Archiving, and the Public Domain: Universal Vault Edition

The New York Times Magazine just dropped a piece on the complete destruction of every master recording in Universal's West Coast vault. I haven't even finished reading it, because it's so terrible I have to digest it in installments and take breaks. Hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable master tapes were destroyed.

There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

There are no more original recordings by Buddy Holly. They were all in the vault. The core of Chuck Berry's musical achievement burned. Decades of seminal work by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday ... that's just the beginning of the list. Read it for yourself, but maybe only a few paragraphs at a time. It's hard to take.

It's a major loss to the history of human culture. And the company had kept it hushed up. I applaud the Times on their investigative work.

Oh, by the way, there were unreleased session masters in there, too. Lots of them.

And here's the thing: those recordings were part of our shared heritage. On one level, that musical history belonged to all of us. But on a legal and financial level, they belonged to Universal Music Group, who kept them in part of a warehouse they rented from former sibling company Universal Studios, who let them incinerate.

But a lot of the music in those recordings only belonged to UMG in the 21st century because copyright laws had been repeatedly changed. Everything in that vault recorded before 1952 would have been public domain before the fire hit, based on the laws in place when the music was actually recorded.

Would that have changed anything? I don't know. We're talking about one-of-a-kind physical artifacts, which would have retained some of their value even after the music in them became public property. In fact, they might have had much more value, as unique assets that allowed UMG key advantages over their competitors. And maybe that would have changed the incentives.

The incentives of nearly-interminable copyrights, which are allegedly designed to protect our artistic heritage, often align to damage or destroy it.

Let's start with the fact that a lot of that music, including lots of unreleased music, was just sitting in that vault. Why hadn't UMG released it? Because they didn't have to. No one else could. The law gave them exclusive rights to those recordings, so they had no competitors. UMG could just keep all that music in the back, like the crate with the Lost Ark.

We think of copyright as the right to publish something, but it is more accurately described as the right to keep work from being published. Exclusive rights to publish means that you can keep other people from publishing it. That's what copyright is on a practical level: the right to get the court to stop someone else from selling something. But if you have exclusive rights, you also have the right NOT to release something. No one can make you sell your property, right?

What that leads to, when you have copyright terms lasting an unprecedented 95 years, is big music companies (and film companies, and book publishers, and, and, and) ending up owning a lot of old things that no longer have huge commercial appeal and that don't seem worth reissuing. But on the other hand, all those things collectively are the company's property, and there may be a way to make money on them someday, so there's no reason to let anyone else have them, ever. 95-year copyright means a lot of things get kept in the back room by private owners who don't really want them and don't want to let them go.

This is how priceless cultural artifacts end up in a hoard when they should be in an archive. God forbid massive corporations give, or even lend, their libraries of priceless master tapes to libraries or museums that would protect them. Because, you see, that would let other people have access to that art.

And the incentives change when your copyright protections run out. When you know that every other record company is about to release their own copies of Billie Holliday's Stay with Me, you have an incentive to reissue it yourself. And more, importantly, to remaster it with improved sound quality, exploiting those original master tapes. Maybe even to throw in some previously unreleased material. But if there's no competition, you don't get around to it.

"But wait, Doctor Cleveland," some of you will say, "doesn't the long term of copyright create an incentive for companies to protect all those old masters?" The answer, evidently, is no. Not enough. Our intellectual property regime didn't cause this fire. But it sure didn't help. And that's a damned shame.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Shakespeare Wasn't Perfect

So The Atlantic has seen fit to publish more "Shakespeare authorship" conspiracy-mongering, this time masquerading as feminism by proposing a female candidate. But the piece doesn't quote even a single line of the real poetry that woman wrote. It can't, of course, because that would give the game away. If the piece let you read Emilia Bassano Lanier's actual poetry it would become dangerously easy to hear that Lanier sounds like herself, not like Shakespeare. So the "feminist" conspiracy theory is dedicated to silencing the voice of an authentic woman poet. (Nobody said it was a good masquerade.)

The Atlantic piece rehashes the same old tired arguments that have been rebutted hundreds of times before. This isn't about real debate. But the biggest mistake is the assumption that Shakespeare is above criticism, and always has been. That has never been true. Shakespeare authorship conspiracies are outgrowths of an unhealthy hero-worship of Shakespeare, treating him as some infallible demigod.

Don't get me wrong. I think Shakespeare is terrific. I wouldn't spend my professional life teaching and writing about him if I didn't. But I also think he's great enough that we can admit his failings. Bardolatry, the idol-worship of Shakespeare, keeps you from understanding him.

So the Atlantic article begins by talking about how great Lady Macbeth is as a character (true enough), and rhapsodizes about how many other great female characters Shakespeare wrote. Then the first argument is basically that Shakespeare must have been a woman to write such great women. There's a little hedging, but that's the claim. Only a woman could write Lady Macbeth. If something seems wrong there, wait. One of the other examples is The Taming of the Shrew.

Yes. That Taming of the Shrew. Where the wife is, uh, a shrew. Who gets tamed. That Taming of the Shrew. Which apparently only a woman could have written.

And that, uh. Well. Kind of a surprise.

Or it would be if we were applying normal everyday logic to Shakespeare's works. To most casual observers, and a lot of professional ones too, The Taming of the Shrew looks sexist, what with Petruchio starving his wife into submission. (That is not my interpretation. That is what the text itself says. He doesn't allow her any food until she knuckles under.) But maybe it gets better if we look more closely? Say if we apply some English-major tools, like looking hard at all the metaphors Petruchio uses to describe Kate? Oops, sorry, no, he's always comparing her to domesticated animals. Whoops. Actually worse than it looks from a distance.

Now, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there is a tradition of serious scholarship, much of it by feminist women, dedicated to saving the play from misogyny and discovering subtle anti-sexist messages inside it. We don't want Shakespeare to be a sexist pig, so we're going to work hard to get around any politics we don't agree with. I've read a lot of that criticism, and it's smart. But other feminist scholars disagree and say, Nope, sorry, all the stuff about dominating and subduing women means exactly what it says.

What's different is saying, No. The Taming of the Shrew is SO feminist that NO MAN COULD HAVE WRITTEN IT. And that, to borrow a phrase from psychoanalysis, is crazy talk.

Rather, it's a defense against cognitive dissonance, much like what we see with members of cults. The unpleasant truth has to be closed out. Our doomsday prophet isn't wrong! It's proof of how right he is! Shakespeare isn't a sexist with bad four-hundred-year-old politics! He's a feminist! In fact, he's the greatest feminist ever. He's such a great feminist that he could not actually be a man!

Whoo boy.

The Atlantic article's preferred ghost-writer, Emilia Lanier, also features in Shakespeare scholarship as a way to get past things that make modern readers uncomfortable. You see, her maiden name was Bassano (which is the name the Atlantic article uses, even though she didn't publish under it). And she had Italian heritage, and maybe-just-maybe Jewish heritage as well, so she got put forth forty years ago as a candidate for the Dark Lady of the sonnets. There's no reason to believe that. All we know is that the Dark Lady had dark hair and dark eyes, which doesn't narrow much down. We can't prove that Shakespeare and Lanier ever spoke with one another.

But, you see, if we can say the Dark Lady was a Venetian Jewess, then some things that make us uncomfortable about act four of The Merchant of Venice cease to be problems. See, Shakespeare can't be an anti-Semite! He had a Jewish mistress! (As if an anti-Semitic Gentile marrying his Jewish mistress were not part of the plot of The Merchant of Venice.)

As with Taming, there's a lively debate about whether Merchant is anti-Semitic or cleverly critiquing anti-Semitism. But having Emilia Bassano Lanier actually write The Merchant of Venice is three steps further into crazy land. If Merchant had actually been written by a Jew, that would be one seriously self-loathing Jew. It's a shonda, I tell you.

The problem here is that Shakespeare is treated as above reproach, so obvious complaints have to be explained away. No one is allowed to speak ill of the divine William. But Shakespeare was not a god. He was human, and flawed, and when we refuse to see the things that make us unhappy or uncomfortable we are refusing to read him. Better to take him as he is, flaws and all.

It isn't just the so-called anti-Stratfordians who do this. They merely express a mutant form of the excessive reverence that keeps many people from looking at Shakespeare honestly. It's not an accident that the authorship conspiracy theories don't start until 1850, when the Shakespeare cult had already taken full hold. Shakespeare got built up into a secular divinity, and then people looked at his all-too-human biography and decided it was uncomfortably ungodlike. So they looked for a better candidate. It's the literary-biographical equivalent of making up a divine ancestor for the founder of your tribe.

The author of the Atlantic piece, like many other conspiracy theorists, claims that the "doubts" began in Shakespeare's lifetime. She went on twitter to say so, and to complain that documents critical of Shakespeare had been suppressed by scholars. I mean, some of those documents get reprinted in collected editions of Shakespeare for students, and they were in my college textbooks, but I guess if you have to look in the back of the book that's a conspiracy or whatever.

The real point is that none of those critical comments about Shakespeare are disputing that he wrote the plays. They are saying that his plays suck. The conspiracy theorists claim that the plays are too wonderful for mere William Shakespeare from Warwick to write himself. But the critics they point to as "evidence" are actually saying that the plays are not good.

That seems unthinkable to us, but that's only because we've drunk the Kool-Aid. Not everybody liked Shakespeare during his lifetime. At least one person is on record liking Shakespeare as a human being but not liking his art, because he thought Shakespeare was a hack. Not that Shakespeare was too much of a hack to write Julius Caesar. He thought that Julius Caesar was hacktastic. No really.

Shakespeare also had fans and admirers, lots of them. But he had haters, especially at the beginning and the end of his career. At the end of his life, and for many decades afterward, he was considered an intellectual lightweight whose plays were not learned enough. Not that he wasn't learned enough to write the plays. That the plays themselves were not learned. Not sophisticated. Not intellectual. Pretty good, for an old guy, but no John Fletcher and no Ben Jonson.

This goes against everything our culture tells us about Shakespeare. But it's true. It's documented fact. For a lot of the 1600s the works of Shakespeare were not treated as lofty works of erudition. They were considered good, stupid, old-fashioned fun. A guilty pleasure.

That's not the way we look at those plays any more, but it isn't necessarily wrong. And it isn't crazy. Shakespeare's worth taking seriously, but he's not supposed to be a religion. If he's never fun you're doing it wrong.

cross-posted from Dagblog. Please post comments there, not here.