Wednesday, December 17, 2014


As you've surely heard by now, big news about Cuba!

Seems like an appropriate time to finally write about my brief visit to the island. First of all, you should definitely visit, and do it as soon as possible while it's still such an incredible, incredibly bizarre place. It's obviously beginning to change as restrictions on private property and investment are relaxed.

Havana is a beautiful colonial wealthy 1959 city, frozen in time and subjected to half a century of decay and extreme poverty. Every building is in serious disrepair, and the cars are either carefully maintained 1950's American imports or sadder looking Soviet vehicles sent over when the Cuban economy survived on aid from the USSR. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, unlike anything else I'm aware of, and is simultaneously gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Beautiful, decaying Habana Vieja

Except, there is also a smattering of new renovation and high-tech infrastructure, such as LED stoplights and new vehicles imported from Asia by the government, most of which (I infer) has shown up in just the last couple of years as some restrictions have loosened. As if things weren't surreal enough, this leads to such juxtapositions as driving down the highway in a brand new air conditioned Korean tour bus adjacent to a desperately poor tobacco farmer in a horse-drawn carriage.

Speaking of desperately poor, the communist dictatorship has not only kept its people in poverty by disallowing most legitimate enterprise, it has indirectly destroyed the country's (or at least, Havana's) social capital by forcing so many individuals to resort to dishonest means of making a few cents off of clueless tourists or just anyone who can't bear to spend every minute of every day saying "no". (At least, I really hope this is the explanation, rather than that Cuba was always full of con men. I don't think it could have gotten as wealthy as it once was, if it was.) It is a safe assumption that anyone you talk to will try to take your money before you can escape, usually by directly asking you (after being friendly for just long enough to make you feel guilty saying no) but very often through more insidious tactics, such as the common scam of striking up a friendly conversation with a tourist, suggesting continuing the conversation over lunch or drinks, and taking them to a restaurant where they will end up paying $80 for toast and coffee. This is true of 99.99% of people who initiate conversation with you, but also a large majority of the people you initiate conversation with. It didn't take long for me to be as wary of every Cuban as I am of every American cop. I anticipate that this will be a major roadblock to future development.

The motivations are easy to understand, though. Wages are paid through the government and average less than $1 per day, often much less. Prices for daily necessities are also very low (6 cents for a glass of fresh mango juice, 40 cents for a personal cheese pizza, etc.) but not low enough to make that salary truly livable. And certainly not enough to mitigate the temptation of scamming a buck off of any tourist for whom a little pocket change is worth it to get rid of the scam artist following you around (or in better circumstances, for whom it's a cheap tip for a friendly cemetery worker who acted as a tour guide before revealing his main motive.) When a foreigner's pocket change constitutes a week's wages and other legitimate options are not available, it's not surprising that seemingly every person in the central district of Havana is exclusively focused on taking it off your hands.

The constant deceit made it very difficult to find out any trustworthy information about Cubans' opinions of their own country, attitudes towards the U.S., etc. Traveling with a Spanish speaker didn't help. We started playing a game of answering a different country every time someone trying to sell us on something asked where we were from. We were pleasantly surprised the first time, at "Oh you're American? I love Americans! All the animosity between our countries is just a problem for Castro and Obama. We love the Americans." But then next came "Oh you're Canadian! That's so great, you people are so much better than the awful Americans." Et cetera et cetera...

One of the most memorable and pleasant experiences I had was, after having my reference point for personal interaction decimated for three days, somehow having one conversation with the one Cuban without an ulterior motive, just before catching the cab back to the airport. I didn't even believe it was happening until I'd actually walked away without a single request or sales pitch. A teenage boy stopped me on the street and asked where I was from. "The United States." "Oh that's great! Which part?" "Oklahoma" "Oklahoma! Kevin Durant is the best!" I tried to get away by saying I was about to get a beer in the corner bar, but he persisted and asked if I would bring it outside to talk for just a couple minutes, and I reluctantly played along. I was even more pleasantly surprised by the rest of the conversation than when he recognized my state for something other than the OKC bombing, deadly tornados, and a certain musical that I would accuse of being even worse than the first two options if that weren't wildly politically incorrect.

His beliefs about Americans consisted of the following: We are subjected to the horror of having to pay for everything, like schooling, housing, utilities, health care, etc. As a result, everyone has to work three jobs. We're all workaholics and rely on anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants to cope with the stress. But then we come home at the end of the day and watch big screen TV from recliner chairs.

I clarified as best as could, and asked him about his own experience in Cuba. He works selling knickknacks from a cart, every day starting early in the morning. His dream in life is to visit the United States, or really anywhere else in the world, to glimpse existence outside of the Cuban island prison. His wide-eyed curiosity was admirable, and then the wistful defeat in his voice when he said he hoped that one day he would be allowed to travel was fairly heartbreaking.

Despite the fact that people seem to be quite unhappy with their government, there is definitely no shortage of up-to-date propaganda. We saw an unlimited amount of "53rd anniversary of the revolution" graffiti, Che iconography everywhere, and the ubiquitous national rallying cry for justice for "Los Cinco", the remaining three of whom were just released as part of the deal between Obama and Raul. I really wish I knew how much of this is an advertising campaign by the government, and how much comes from civilians.

The ubiquitous Che (appropriately affixed to the resulting decay of the communist dictatorship).

One of the most interesting encounters with Cuban propaganda was the Museum of the Revolution. Or I should say, most meta-interesting. The museum is in the beautiful former presidential palace, but the exhibits look like history class posters made by 5th graders 40 years ago. There wasn't a clear presentation of the history, but there was a large collection of spoons, cufflinks, hats, etc, used by various people associated in some way with the revolution. These were labeled with bits of age-yellowed typewriter paper stapled to the posterboard that the knickknacks were attached to or sitting in front of. In the midst of this surreal (sorry to abuse the word, but it's the only apt description for many things Cuban) presentation were comical bits of misinformation giving the CIA far too much credit. Americans grew up learning about US Cuban intelligence operations as the inept efforts they have been, from the Bay of Pigs failed invasion to this ridiculous and ineffective 50 year embargo. But to the Cubans, we apparently intentionally introduced dengue fever to the island, among many other evils. Castro, however, is a national hero for such wonders as ending professional baseball, the "profitable business that had enriched a few to the detriment of the athletes." My economist self obviously did a lot of cringing before we made it to the 3-story Cuban flag at the end of the exhibit.

Mural in entryway of the Museum of the Revolution (way too new and creative and interesting to be part of the main exhibit): The Four Cretins. From left (all typos exactly copied from the signs): Batista (thank you cretin for helping us to make the revolution), Reagan (Thanks you cretin for h lped us to strengthen the revolution), Bush Sr (thanks, cretin because you've helped us to consolidate our revolution) and Bush Jr (Thank you cretin for helping us to make socialism irrevocable).

Other miscellaneous things: the food is terrible, confirming the guidebook's description of it as "easily the worst in the Caribbean." That 40 cent personal pizza I mentioned consisted of a thick piece of strange bread-like material, covered with ketchup, a few shreds of cheese, maybe some bologna if I upgraded, and in one case, a chunk of glass. Strawberry ice cream, which I was initially thrilled to get on a hot afternoon for about 9 cents, tasted like, if anything, bubblegum. The fresh fruit (including one magical mango I can't even describe, and huge red guavas) was fantastic, and the meal we had the first night on the very forceful recommendation of our guest house keeper (I can only assume because she's in cahoots with them) was quite delicious, and the mojitos are great, but the everyday food you would survive on is just godawful.

By the way, I should also mention that those low prices are mostly only available to Cubans. It's a bit tricky, although doable, to convert the tourist currency into the regular Cuban currency, which is about 25 times less valuable but accepted in equal nominal amounts for goods at most vendors.

Art: I am utterly clueless about art but there seemed to be quite a bit of it, including a couple statues I absolutely love, including this one that I would really love to have explained (the limited information I've found indicates that there is no explanation):

An inexplicable statue in La Plaza Vieja, of a naked woman in high heels with a giant fork riding a rooster.

The music, on the other hand, is as fantastic as you would expect.

Outside Havana: If you go, stop by any one of the big fancy hotels and ask about a day tour to Viñales (they're all the same). It's the epitome of an engineered tourist experience, but it was still very nice and only $59 for a full day including lunch. Viñales is a breathtaking world heritage site west of Havana in a strange landscape of luscious cliffs, and the tours also stop in a rum factory, a (fake, for show) cigar factory, some caves you take a boat through, and a (not fake, but carefully manicured for tourist consumption) small countryside town. 


Last but not least, we also stopped at the strangest tourist attraction I've ever seen, the mural of prehistory, a 180x100 painting on a cliff depicting lifeforms that have occupied that area through the ages. A couple snails, some vaguely humanoid creatures, and a dinobear, all in bright primary colors, create the effect of a child's painting projected to massive proportions.

The mural of prehistory.

In short, go visit. Now.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

learn social preferences from Taylor Swift

Yeah so I love Taylor Swift... and not just because her lyrics are great for learning about social preferences!

Social image:
Don't look at me,
You've got a girl at home,
And everybody knows that,
Everybody knows that.
 Pure altruism:
I don't even know her,
But I feel a responsibility,
To do what's upstanding and right,
Social norms:
It's kinda like a code, yeah,
And you've been getting closer and closer,
And crossing so many lines.
And it would be a fine proposition,
If I was a stupid girl,
But honey I am no-one's exception,
This I have previously learned.
Empathy or indirect reciprocity:
And yeah I might go with it,
If I hadn't once been just like her.
And a bonus lesson on commitment devices!
Call a cab,
Lose my number,
You're about to lose your girl,
Call a cab,
Lose my number,
Let's consider this lesson learned.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

conservative inference

I went to see a physical therapist this week after finally figuring out that I still have a torn tendon in my elbow after a rollerblading accident last September, and our conversation makes me think that I've become too conservative about statistical inference, based on my economics training, to converse effectively with other humans. He asked me all kinds of questions about what makes it hurt, and I couldn't really commit to any answers because it mostly gets sore after doing things, so I never know exactly what causes it, although there are some clear correlations, but we all know correlation doesn't imply causation. Then he asked me a bunch of questions about whether the cortisone shot, tennis elbow band, or avoiding backhanded maneuvers is helping, and I couldn't answer that either, because all three began at the same time after seeing the orthopedist, so who knows which is making it feel better? Finally he just said "Ok, but it did feel better after you got the shot, right?" "Yes" "Alright then."

I suppose I should have known better - doctors are regularly bombarded by people who have googled their symptoms and are convinced they have crazy diseases and convinced that ridiculous homeopathic cures have had certain effects. They're used to having to scale back what they hear, not the other way around. (This also makes it incredibly frustrating when I do know what's wrong and they don't believe me. Like when I had bacterial bronchitis and went in as soon as I had symptoms and they made me wait another 10 days for antibiotics since the viral variety is much more common, even though I obviously got it from Matt who was responding to antibiotics finally prescribed after two weeks of suffering...)

This also reminds me of the time I was pulled over for speeding in Texas and he claimed I didn't signal when changing lanes, and I said of course I did, so he asked me how sure are you that you did. I said about 99% because I didn't consciously remember pulling the lever at that exact moment (it's just muscle memory, after all) but I'm sure I don't fail to signal more than 1 in 100 lane changes (not signaling a huge pet peeve of mine). Whoops. Most people claim absolute certainty when they're nowhere near 100% confident, so claiming only 99% confidence was interpreted as obvious lying. And then again when someone came around a corner and hit me when I was pulling into the lane, and I told the insurance company I realistically thought the liability split was approximately 80/20... big mistake. You'd think your own insurance company would advocate for your side a little instead of immediately acquiescing as soon as you admit to anything.

From now on I'll consider the equilibrium.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

classical perfection

I'm gonna geek out about classical music for a minute or many.

I'm in Berlin and in three days have seen two of the best classical concerts of my life (and I've seen a lot[1]). Of course, I should admit that my enjoyment of a concert (in any genre) is quite strongly correlated with how familiar I am with the music ahead of time; I'm very artistically dense and have to hear things a few dozen times before I appreciate them. And both of these concerts (or, the parts I intend to ramble about) were performances of music I was already familiar with, in extreme detail when it comes to the Appassionata. But even controlling for familiarity, they were exceptional.

The first was the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Sir Simon Rattle, performing Brahms' 3rd symphony, Debussy's La Mer, and some awful contemporary premiere that I'd prefer not to dwell on. I'm not a huge fan of Debussy, but when played live by the Berlin Philharmonic, it's definitely not bad. But the Brahms was what really blew me away. I'd have been happy shelling out the exorbitant last minute 64 Euro price just for that (and it makes me willing to overlook the Haas... though I really shouldn't have to plug my ears when I go to the symphony!)

In my limited historical understanding, Bach perfected and completed the baroque era. Beethoven perfected classical and started and defined the romantic era. Brahms perfected and completed the romantic era[3]. As you might expect from that categorization and my partiality towards romantic era music, I don't think I've ever heard anything by Brahms that I didn't like. He was maybe not quite the genius that Beethoven was, but much more consistently mindbogglingly wonderful.

Anyway, not only is Brahms' third symphony wonderful, the Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world. And it's been so long since I've seen a really top notch symphony, I was re-surprised[4] by how noticeable the difference in quality is[5]. Each individual appeared to be as intensely focused and engaged with the music as you might expect from a concerto soloist.

And so accurate. The difficulty with string instruments is that it is really, really, really hard to be exactly in tune all the time. Even the greatest violinists in history, playing solo rather than trying to match a group[6], play plenty of notes that are a bit uncomfortably too high or too low, if you train your ear to notice[8]. So you can imagine the difficulty in getting 40 different string instruments to simultaneously be perfectly in tune. That's what makes orchestras sound distinctly like large groups of instruments, with a somewhat harsh edge to them. I'm convinced that a big part of the reason why violins have a bit of a bad reputation for being irritatingly harsh is because they're most commonly heard in orchestras instead of solo (or played by mediocre soloists...). But the magic of the Berlin Phil is that it sounds like one huge perfectly integrated instrument. It's absolutely stunning.

I guess my overall point here is that I find it fairly unfortunate what a high percentage of variance in quality in string music is attributable to intonation. Obviously stylistic differences are just as large as between, e.g., pianists, but those differences take a back seat: I'd rather hear a very good performance with excellent intonation than an excellent performance with very good intonation, and that is very frequently the real tradeoff between musicians in the highest echelons[9]. None are perfect. (Itzhak Perlman, and more relevantly the Berlin Philharmonic, get close :)

The second concert was a solo piano performance of three Beethoven sonatas and some variations on a theme, played by Lief Ove Andsnes. This was partly a ridiculously fantastic concert because I was seated right there on the podium, about 8 feet from the piano, with a clear view of the whole keyboard. There is literally no other seat in the entire room I would've wanted to trade with, and it was also the cheapest ticket, by some great mystery of the universe[10].

The key part of the concert for me was, of course the Appassionata, which I've probably listened to 200 times in the last six months or so, to a whole bunch of different recordings before settling on one of Sviatoslav Richter's as the best. I like to think I know this piece about as well as a non-musician can.

Listening to this recording, in mental comparison to Richter's, was another illustration of the tradeoff between technical prowess and artistic styling. Not to say that Andsnes isn't technically outstanding (I'll get back to that in a minute) but his interpretation of the third movement might make you think he isn't at Richter's level. For the first movement, I thought the two performances were on equal footing. Andsnes perhaps pulled a little ahead due to his more dramatic rendition. But Richter is a little ahead in that dimension that I don't have a name for but which I'll try to describe: You know how when music seems to depart from the underlying rhythmic structure, but then circles back to it, kind of like a generalized version of syncopation? Sort of like in a lot of African music in which you can never tell where the measures are because the different instruments and different parts of the song weave in and out of different patterns of emphases so smoothly? Some musicians do that so well that you immediately mentally switch to the alternative rhythm and then have to readjust to the underlying framework when it circles back around. And other musicians get there a little more forcefully, so that you can always hear the underlying structure but with some forced off-beat accents. That's the other dimension in which Richter and Andsnes differed a bit. Richter is able to more perfectly fluently switch between metrics. For some reason that mental state of being not quite sure where the true rhythmic framework lays is a really satisfying attribute of any music that uses it well (i.e., again, a lot of African music).

In the second movement, Andsnes was unambiguously preferable to Richter, due to his artistry. And that's all I have to say about that.

In the third movement though (the really famous one), Richter is clearly ahead. This movement is brutal: the faster the better, unlike almost anything else.  It ideally needs to wash over you like a 12 foot wave of indistinguishable notes, so that the melody that occurs at the full-measure frequency scale comes through as the dominant thread, even though four or eight times as many notes as that are happening. I can't even think it as fast as it should be played (as Richter plays it).

I personally don't think Richter sacrifices any artistry in his rendition, although maybe a robot with arbitrarily fast fingers could be programmed to add a bit more of that and I just can't imagine what it would sound like. So when I hear anyone play it slower, I assume they just can't play it faster. For example, compare the above link to this one. The overarching melody drags unbearably and I have to stop it after a few seconds.

So, when Andsnes started the third movement about 30% slower than Richter does, I chalked it up to a (very excusable!) lack of Richter's superhuman skills. It was still very very good, of course, but Richter really spoils you[11]. But then, to my surprise, in the last break before the final wave (at 6:12 in the first link), he picked up the pace to match Richters. And he's right to do so! There should be a jump in speed there, but when you're going as fast as you possibly can to start with, that jump isn't achievable. But nonetheless, I much prefer that tiny oversight/sacrifice of Richter's to a wave of notes that's more gelatinous than fluid, even on top of the slight noticeable sloppiness of some tiny bits in Richter's[12] that is probably as inevitable as imperfect intonation is for violinists. If Andsnes can keep up the pace he had at the end for the rest of the movement, he can do it.

And now it's 3:40am and I'm going to end this ridiculously long blog post and go to bed.


[1] In junior high orchestra, we got extra credit for going to concerts if we brought back a program signed by our parents. I brought these back almost every week[2], and one Monday brought in three at once, from the previous Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. My orchestra teacher, with an expression of sudden realization, said to me "you have to actually go to them!" I was quite indignant at the suggestion I might be lying about it or silly enough to think that bringing in random programs was sufficient, but luckily he believed me.

[2] People really underestimate small college towns, for this reason. There were so many concerts or other cultural offerings through the university and not enough of a population to drive the price above nearly zero. And I could bike to them all.

[3] Well, there's Rachmaninoff et al... but that kind of romantic music has a distinct later flavor. And Rachmaninoff died in 1943, well into the contemporary period.

[4] I also saw the Berlin Philharmonic play Beethoven's 7th symphony in 1999, which also makes my list of best concerts ever, although the conductor's interpretation wasn't my favorite.

[5] To be fair, part of the greatness of the experience was due to the audience, which was informed enough to clap at the right times instead of stutteringly shattering the intentional silent transitions between movements, and was also very polite: hardly anyone even coughed, the ones that did almost all saved it for the gaps, and you can bet your life no one's phone even vibrated. Makes an enormous difference! Especially compared to free concerts in the park, which have been most of my symphony experiences for many years.

[6] That is, it's much easier to notice when two simultaneous notes are 1 hz off from each other than when the gap between two consecutive notes is 1 hz larger than it should be. Soloists really have a lot of leeway for that reason[7], and really fantastic string quartets are the ones who have been playing together for so long that they've learned to tune to each other nearly perfectly.

[7] And even better, play a fretted instrument... a BIG part of the reason why Chris Thile's mandolin renditions of Bach's solo violin partitas are so wonderful is that every single note is exactly on. Plus the ability to do 3 or 4 part harmony. Plus... it's Chris Thile. This is also why I love classical guitar and piano music; I can listen to it without my subconscious being slightly on edge about the possibility or remembered reality that the next note might not be exactly what I want it to be. Speaking of which, why is there no such thing as a fretted violin? Sure it would limit a lot of things, but in many cases I think that would be a great tradeoff. It would certainly make grade school orchestra concerts a lot more bearable...

[8] And so the danger in my habit of listening to the same piece on repeat for a hundred times in a row until it's essentially in my ears' muscle memory is that those uncomfortable notes become ingrained in my brain in association with the piece. I'd suggest iterating between several recordings, but that's often not possible: no one plays the Beethoven violin concerto like Perlman, and there's only one recording (to my knowledge) of him doing so.

[9] Then again, once again, I'm artistically anti-gifted, so maybe that's just me.

[10] As a stereotypical economist, I was elated before the performance even started by this outrageously good deal. 8 euro! And to think I was about to pay 35 euro for a seat up in the rafters when the website cut off pre-sales and claimed it was sold out! And what a stroke of luck that I showed up to see about last minute tickets at exactly the right time to get to the front of the line, and then left for dinner and came back once again at exactly the right time to get to the front of the open-podium-seating line.

[11] For this reason, I have no desire to ever hear the Beethoven violin concerto played live unless it's performed by Perlman. It's impossible that I wouldn't be disappointed with such a high reference point.

[12] There's one wrong note in the recording I've listened to a hundred times, and it's ingrained in my memory (see [8]) and drives me crazy. I need to go back and find another of his great recordings (there are several, but some definitely better than others) without it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Ridiculous things I've said, or come close enough to saying that I ended up stuttering around for long enough that my interlocutor just interrupted me in English (which isn't saying much - this usually takes about two seconds. Everyone speaks English and rarely lets me get through a complete sentence in German, so consistently that I often forget I'm in a foreign country and say 'hi' or 'sorry'):
  1. Currywurst con pommes.
  2. Dos stücke, bitte.
  3. Un brezl.
  4. Die sekretariat de schule...
  5. Gracias, tschüss.
  6. Wo sind los toilettes?
  7. Si. Er, oui. Er... *nods*. (At least a dozen times, it's crazy. There is no easier German word than 'ja'.)
This is why I like ASL (well one of the many reasons). When I'm trying to come up with the word 'hilfen', I never inadvertently stick my right fist out on my left palm.

I'm so bad at languages; it's a wonder I'm the offspring of a linguist. (Although, still not as weird as being descended from a long line of church organists...)