Art Appreciation: Jules Breton

This painting, The Song of the Lark, was brought to my attention to Bill Murray, who credits seeing it with reminding him that life is full of second chances. He came across it at a particularly dark time back when he was a struggling young actor in Chicago:

“And so I started walking north. And I ended up in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. And I just walked inside, and I didn’t feel like I had any place being there. They used to ask you for a donation—you know, when you walk into a museum—and I didn’t, I just walked right through, because I was ready to die. And, uhh, pretty much dead.

There’s a painting there, and I don’t even know who painted it, but I think it’s called The Song of the Lark, and it’s a woman working in a field and there’s a sunrise behind her. I’ve always loved this painting, and i saw it that day and I just thought, ‘Well, there’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects but the sun’s coming up anyway, and she’s got another chance at it.” I think that gave me a feeling that I too am a person and get another chance every day the sun comes up.”

“The Bed of Procrustes” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Every aphorism here is about a Procrustean bed of sorts—we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences.

A well-formed aphorism is a work of art. Economical and evocative like poetry, it begs you to reflect on it; to comprehend the idea it’s presupposing in just a sentence or two.Once comprehended, you can either reject the premise of an aphorism or embrace it. Either way, the act of pausing and reflecting on the state of the world feels like a worthwhile meditation.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an arrogant man with a head full of interesting ideas. He’s obsessed with trying to understand human fallibility and the limits of what we can know. At the end of the day, whether or not you agree with him, he’s fun to read.

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“The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones” by Rich Cohen


There’s something monstrous about Mick Jagger. Forget Keith; Keith is a trance-ridden melody. Forget Charlie; Charlie is a mercenary, having chosen success over jazz. Forget Bill; Bill is the back line. When you talk about the brain of the Stones, you’re talking about Mick, who’s always operated with a cruel edge that bleeds into the music. You see it in the remorseless way the Stones have continued decade after decade. Everyone I ask to explain this longevity gave the same answer: Mick Jagger. His will, determination, and intelligence. What is the quality that allows Mick to operate with such lack of sentiment? Is it ambition, or something more?

Once upon a time, Mick Jagger’s drive and the effect it had on people were associated with evil, which is why songs like “Paint It Black” and “Sympathy for the Devil” went over so seamlessly. They confirmed what we already knew: Mick is Lucifer. But that’s wrong. Mick is not Lucifer. He’s showbiz, a pop version of the classic Hollywood diva, for whom the show must always go on, for whom obscurity is even more terrifying than death. It’s a special kind of charisma that generates tremendous light but little heat. People crave that light but get no sustenance from it. It destroys them. Life with Mick is life astride a black hole. Time accelerates. Two years ages you immeasurably. Yet none of it touches him. Because no one else matters. He’s the ego that became the world. He stands before millions but the millions don’t exist. At the center of the universe, Mick Jagger dances alone.

Rich Cohen has written a startlingly good book on the Rolling Stones. I share this obsession with him, and having read much of what has previously been written about them; this book is by far the best.He writes from the point of view of someone who regrets having been too young to witness the Stones Touring Party of the early seventies and only has nostalgia to look back on. A viewpoint I can relate to all too well.

The rock’n’roll folklore is all here, but written by someone more talented than your average 70s gonzo journalist. Along with his considerable skills as a writer, Cohen has the advantage of perspective. Those old first-hand dispatches from music journalists read with the breathless air of a war correspondent on the front lines of the Western Front—a narrative that seems silly today. Music not only failed to change the world, it seems silly in retrospect that anyone in their craziest pipe dream would ever expect it to.

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Laws Are Not Enough

Albert Einstein had a roving mind that wasn’t limited to physics. His ideas were often big, considering prosperity, attempting to encompass the whole of mankind and the individual. Ideas and Opinions gathers his general writings into one volume. Recurrent topics include freedom and what it means, religion, politics, education, and the contributions and shortcomings of science.

“But laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man may present his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population. Such an ideal of external liberty can never be fully attained but must be sought unremittingly if scientific thought, and philosophical and creative thinking in general, are to be advanced as far as possible.

If the second goal, that is, the possibility of the spiritual development of all individuals, is to be secured, a second kind of outward freedom is necessary. Man should not have to work for the achievement of the necessities of life to such an extent that he has neither time nor strength for personal activities. Without this second kind of outward liberty, freedom of expression is useless to him. Advances in technology would provide the possibility of this kind of freedom if the problem of a reasonable division of labor were solved.”

“The law can do something. But the law never yet made a fool wise or a coward brave or a weakling strong.”—Theodore Roosevelt

Let this be a reminder to keep an open mind and be tolerant of people’s differences. An open mind allows for optimism. At the same time, be sure not to be foolish or cowardly in your convictions. To balance those competing interests is a never-ending tightrope walk. Good luck.

Art Appreciation: Francisco de Goya


Yard With Lunatics. This painting by Francisco Goya from the late 1700s leaves me cold. It depicts a mental institution in all its wanton ghoulishness; painted when the painter himself feared (correctly) that he was going mad.

Perhaps this work of art was born out of the same impulse that drove Stephen King to write The Shining: “Still tormented by a desire to hurt his children, he turned to the technique he had learned as a child himself—believing that if he wrote about something bad, then it would never happen. This resulted in The Shining, the story of a little boy whose alcoholic father tries to kill him.” An attempted exorcism of fate through art.

“The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande


.Here, then, is our situation at the start of the twenty-first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. And, with it, they have indeed accomplished extraordinary things. Nonetheless, that know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields–from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

The Checklist Manifesto chronicles Dr. Gawande’s quest to better understand the sources of the greatest stresses and failures in the practice of medicine. From an essay he read in college, he gathers that there are two kinds of failure: those of ignorance and ineptitude. “Failures of ignorance we can forgive,” he says, “If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.” To remind us to apply this knowledge correctly, he happens upon a simple solution—the checklist.

He emphasizes with our inherent resistance to such a simple fix. He understands that a checklist feels by its very nature robotic and ‘soulless’ but says that a well-designed one doesn’t have to squelch our heroism. Across industries, from aviation to construction, Dr. Gawande shows that a checklist can get the routine and known checked off so we can focus our full attention on the parts of our jobs that include uncertainty.

Our world is complicated, and any method of better organizing all of our knowledge and information is much needed. Mundane as they are, the checklist has been shown to save lives and money in just about any place it’s methodically used.

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Perverse Incentives in Media


Read what I have to say about perverse incentives here.

With journalism, the internet has created a set of perverse incentives that makes all of our lives a bit more convenient but have had unforeseen political consequences.

Media outlets are paid by the click, and that which goes unclicked goes unseen. Before long, those types of stories are no longer being written. With the unbundling of the variety of stories in a newspaper comes the evisceration of a news team’s budget. Craigslist and Indeed have diverted the ‘Help Wanted’ and ‘Classifieds’ revenue away from newspapers. All of this leaves us more narrowly informed and much more partisan. Ever wonder why national politicians seems to be going crazy? This is a significant contributing factor.

With the incentive structure for online journalism and the unbundling of the subscription model comes the return of some of the worst aspects of Yellow Journalism. The tenants of yellow journalism as laid out by the media historian W.J. Cambell include:

  • Prominent headlines that screamed excitement about ultimately unimportant news
  • Lavish use of pictures (often of little relevance)
  • Impostors, frauds, and fake interviews
  • Ostentatious support for the underdog causes
  • Use of anonymous sources
  • Prominent coverage of high society events

All of those look familiar to me. These are the hallmarks of a media structure that is perversely incentivized to rewards transient sensationalism over farseeing rationality, and frivolous trivia over hard facts.

What is a Perverse Incentive?

The fundamental lesson of economics is that people respond to incentives, while the driving insight of psychology is that people respond to positive or negative reinforcement. The two conclusions are very similar in their implications, but economics is focused primarily on money while psychology places its emphasis on love and attachment. Both incentives and reinforcements depend on the logic of cause and effect. Do this and get that.

The desire for money, love, respect, and leisure are some of the most powerful drivers of behavior that any of us will ever experience.  No one would disagree that the need to avoid the opposites of these rewards, being death, neglect, scorn and thankless toil, is an equally powerful motivator. The incentives structure of positive and negative reinforcements drive our behavior in just about any situation we’ll find ourselves in.

Given the corollaries between incentives and reinforcements, it’s tempting to assume that a perverse incentive would be the same thing as a negative reinforcer. It’s a bit more complicated than that. With negative reinforcement, you deter a behavior by punishing it. A perverse incentive, on the other hand, is an incentive to do something that has an unintended result that is contrary to the interest of the person naming their terms.

If I reward you for doing something a lot, you will be incentivized to inflate that number at all cost, outcome be damned. Your incentive to do the right this is perverted by the incentive to do the expedient thing. In business, an unfortunate example of this is a CEO’s whose salary is tied to the stock price company initiating company-wide lay-offs in order to revive a faltering stock price. In history, an illustrative example took place in Hanoi, under French colonial rule, where a program that paid villagers a bounty for each rat tail handed in was intended to exterminate rats led instead to the farming of rats by those citizens.

Economics is particularly bad at teaching empathy, and that’s the attitude you need to avoid setting up a perverse incentive for someone. Before deciding how you’ll reward or punishing someone else’s behavior, it’s helpful to think about how you’d react to the given reinforcers if you were the person you’re incentivizing. Chances are, your needs aren’t that much different from theirs.