Context and age and soft skills

It is hard to know when oneself does not have enough context to appreciate a piece of art. When someone else lacks context, it is easier to see.

Consider my children watching last week’s Super Bowl halftime show. Snoop Dogg was performing on a stylized urban-themed stage. My kids could see the same thing I could see. They did not, remotely, “get it”.

You better lose yourself in the music…

“Lose Yourself” performed by Eminem

Children have little context for anything. But this half time show was a cultural moment. Millennials and Gen X experienced an awakening, or perhaps a collective crisis.

The following tweet got 60 thousand likes about how old the performers are. Everyone was calculating how many years had gone by since this hip hop and rap music was new. Decades have passed and now we who have the context to understand this music are feeling old.

In some nursing home in the year 2070, school children will trudge in and sing “Lose Yourself” because it makes the old people happy. The kids will not understand the appeal.

Matt and Ben are tweeting about music in code, but it happens to be a code I know. There are many codes that I do not know. I think that is part of what Tyler means in his latest posts about how “context is scarce”.

The real reason for writing about context this week is not the Super Bowl. I was reading yet more articles about tech skills and labor demand.* Once again, I came across the issue of soft skills. Could we say, “Soft skills are that which is scarce”?

When workers lack hard skills, it seems straight-forward to pack them off to a bootcamp. Teach them, for example, some functions in a programming language. The solution to a lack of soft skills is less clear, although maybe that is what decades of modern education is for. Corporate workers today need to know when to apply their skills and what tone to use in their email communication. They must not embarrass the company.

If a manager tells a worker to do “X task,” they cannot explain every detail. The worker needs to have the context to carry out the work on their own. Workers need to know the code.**

Could that be why so many employers desire a bachelor’s degree? Tyler wrote:

9. So much of education is teaching people context.  That is why it is hard, and also why it often does not seem like real learning.

Does this explain why there is simultaneously age discrimination and the ubiquitous “5 years of experience” hurdle for good jobs? Managers are looking for the sweet spot of current technical savvy and institutional context.

* I was reading a report by Quinn Burke. Here’s a published paper on soft skills and STEM. Here’s a blog of mine in which I wrote, “Trust falls and Tolkien is the prescription for this workforce.”

**funny Elf clip on The Code and dating

Modern loneliness in Toy Story 4 and Taylor Swift

I just saw Toy Story 4 (2019) because I’m a parent (don’t keep up with new releases – watch Pixar movies). The depiction of utter loneliness of the Gabby Gabby doll is one of the memorable parts of the movie. She knows that other people are experiencing human interaction, but she has none. Not a single human person notices her or needs her. Can you imagine that being the main plot of a movie made in 1940?

Loneliness is not completely new for humans. In the past, a lonely person might have had extra time to focus on nature, God, or books, or just immediate survival. Today, lonely people can be inundated with images of faces while also knowing that they have no real local friends. The Toy Story toys are like modern rich people in the sense that material survival is far from their minds. The toys can sit on a shelf for decades, awake and alone. No physical needs drive them out to a grocery store or into a service sector job. They have time to obsess over their social status, and the result can be tragic. (The fate of sitting on a museum shelf for years was discussed at length in Toy Story 2.)

Gabby Gabby reminded me of a bleak 2014 song by Taylor Swift called “Wildest Dream”. Swift sings as a female protagonist who sleeps with a handsome stranger knowing that he will leave her right afterwards. Here’s what she is hoping for:

I can see the end as it begins

My one condition is

Say you’ll remember me

Taylor Swift, 2014

She’s concerned that the man won’t remember the encounter at all. That is some malaise, yes? She has no hope at all for a lasting relationship. That is an illustration of one way that loneliness looks in the modern world.

From a male perspective, also in 2014, a similar sentiment is expressed in “Stay with Me” by Sam Smith.

I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?

Again, the singer is asking for someone from a one-night stand to help fill a void of human connection instead of immediately leaving. Swift and Smith wonder aloud if there is some way to at least temporarily feel like they are close to another person.

These forms of loneliness in pop culture resonate with the public. Toy Story 4 yielded over $1B at the box office globally. “Wildest Dreams” was on music charts around the world. These forms are somewhat new, due to new technology and changing social customs. I’m not trying to write the next Bowling Alone (2000) in this blog post, but merely noting some current illustrations, inspired by Toy Story.

I bet a proper classicist could find us some illustrations of old-style loneliness. When I think of ancient loneliness, I think of to-be-King David hiding in desert caves trying to avoid being stabbed by a Bronze Age(?) sword. He chronicled some of those feelings as follows

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish. … See how numerous are my enemies and how fiercely they hate me!

Psalm 25

David is lonely, but he’s also hiding from numerous nearby fierce enemies. So, it’s not exactly like Gabby Gabby who is sad that no one notices her at all. (In fact, maybe it puts our problems into some perspective.)

There is a recent 2020 New Yorker article, inspired by Covid lockdowns, on the history of loneliness. They consider the idea that this really is new. Maybe there would not have been a Gabby Gabby doll in ancient poems. As usual, economics is part of the story.

In “A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion” (Oxford), the British historian Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others,” and she objects to the idea that it’s universal, transhistorical, and the source of all that ails us. She argues that the condition really didn’t exist before the nineteenth century, at least not in a chronic form. It’s not that people—widows and widowers, in particular, and the very poor, the sick, and the outcast—weren’t lonely; it’s that, since it wasn’t possible to survive without living among other people, and without being bonded to other people, by ties of affection and loyalty and obligation, loneliness was a passing experience. …  to be chronically or desperately lonely was to be dying. The word “loneliness” very seldom appears in English before about 1800. 

The New Yorker, 2020

Lastly, Mike wrote a great piece on loneliness in art last year. He even introduced a formal economic model!

Watching Get Back

I enjoyed watching Get Back, the new documentary about making a Beatles album. Sometimes I skipped over rehearsal scenes. The streaming format allows you to treat Get Back like a coffee table book, if you choose, as opposed to a feature film that you watch all the way through in one sitting.

I know very little about The Beatles, aside from recognizing their hit songs. Here are my impressions after watching most of Get Back.

Paul McCartney is a rock star. His hair could have its own line in the closing credits. When Paul goofs off, he appears to be entertaining his bandmates because he loves playing for any audience. Conversely, John Lennon seems to joke around because he does not take their music seriously. Paul is motivated to make the Beatles excellent. Ringo’s ability to show up and be quiet is almost as important as Paul’s ability to lead.

I’ll put up my tribute. Then I’ll add more casual observations.

Continue reading

Happy Fourth of July

Like most works of genuis, the Hamilton soundtrack is the result of much deliberate work. I just watched the documentary called “Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway”.

In one of the interviews with creater Lin-Manuel Miranda, he explained how he wrote each character with a different msuical style. George Washington has lines that sound militaristic, as opposed to the synchopated complex raps that Alexander Hamilton spits out. Hamilton is not merely undifferentiated “hip hop” music. Miranda used jazz music to inspire the Thomas Jefferson solos.

If you have already enjoyed the Disney+ recorded version and/or the soundtrack, then I recommend the documentary as an extension of the fun.

Happy Independence Day from EWED!

An Economist Learns Piano: Part 1

My life didn’t change all that much due to Covid-19 pandemic. I live in a small university town. I mostly continued to go to work and my kids mostly continued to play with their neighbor friends. After a brief hiatus, I ended up growing much closer to my neighbors. One nearby couple are even the godparents my most recently born child.

The university at which I teach is a liberal arts school…. And I teach economics. I knew that these music-type of students and professors were out there, but I didn’t have much exposure. I recently obtained a zero-priced piano and had a good 2-hour conversation with a music major. This post illustrates part of I’ve learned so far. First, a graph.

Whether we want to or not, many of us know the musical scale thanks to The Sound of Music. What I didn’t know was that there is not a uniform distance between all of those notes. Along the x-axis is the note labels (do re mi fa so la ti do). The pitch is characterized by an increment called a step. Given some arbitrary pitch for the first note, do, each subsequent note is a specific number of steps away. The pattern is that each increment between notes is 1 step, except the step from mi to fa and from ti to do. Those are half steps. The result is a segmented function.

Now, this pattern can be applied to a piano.

There are a total of 88 keys on a piano. Some are black, others are white. But all of them are a half-step increment from the prior and subsequent key. IDK why there are small black keys and big white ones. But pianos would be a lot bigger without the narrower black keys. Every single white key on a piano is labeled with a letter. The letter *does not move*. A ‘C’ is always a ‘C’.

What can move is the scale label, do, which can be any key. The pattern identified in the graph above must be maintained. To play ‘in the key of C’ means that ‘C’ is identified as do. The remaining keys can be labeled.

The key of ‘C’ is easy because the entire scale can be played on all white keys.

Those two half steps that we mentioned earlier? Those might have been on a black key – except that there is no black key between ‘B’ and ‘C’ or between ‘E’ and ‘F’. The B-C keys are adjacent. That means that their pitch is a half-step apart – exactly what is necessary for the pitch difference between mi and fa. The same is true for the E-F step and the pitch difference between ti and do.

What about the black keys? We can see their roll by placing do on a different lettered key. We can start on ‘D.  

do to re is a full step, from ‘D’ to ‘E’ – skipping the black half-step that’s between them. For re to mi we need to skip a key, all keys are a half step apart. So? To the black key! We skip ‘F’ and land on the subsequent black key. Then, fa falls on ‘G’, a half step and a single key higher in pitch. ‘A is a full step away from ‘G’, so that’s so. la is another full step away on ‘B‘. Recall that all of the keys are separated by a half-step – the key colors are 100% unimportant. ti is a full step higher – but there is no key separating ‘B’ and ‘C’. So, we skip up to the black key again just as we did with mi. Finally, do is a single key and a half step more.

There you have it! One of the things that a pianists can do is play the entire scale, from do to do, starting from any lettered key on the piano. I can’t do that yet, but golly I certainly feel like I have a better handle of what I’m even looking at.

PS – My conversation took a long time and I had to nail down the difference between 1) The note label, 2) the pitch step increments, & 3) the piano key letter labels. Key letter labels and the note labels are ordinal variables while the steps are cardinal. So, the graph at the top of this post isn’t the only important relationship. The graph below includes the relationship between the step and key letter labels. A graph of the note label and the key letter labels requires a rudimentary knowledge of flats and sharps (with two different do’s).

Least Hypocritical Artist: Rich Mullins

I’m creating a new award: Least Hypocritical Artist Award. Rich Mullins is the winner.

The most human and not-overly-polished collection of works by Rich Mullins can be found here. You have to order it as a CD. I do not know of any digital platforms selling it. I bought a used copy for less than $3.

Since I have a CD player in my kitchen (left there by prior home owner) I have been listening to this album all week. Rich Mullins is a tremendously talented musician. These album tracks are live concert performances with jokes and introductions. Maybe I appreciate it especially this month because concerts and public gatherings cancelled for Covid. A DVD of a live concert is also included with the CD.

Because of social media, artists are getting in trouble when they say something that doesn’t fit the polished image their managers try to cultivate. Public figures disappoint sometimes. The spectacular fall of Jerry Falwell last month is an example of someone who presented a certain image to the world that turned out to be false.

Rich Mullins claimed to be a Christian, but he didn’t claim to be perfect. Rich Mullins put his whole heart and life out there. No surprises. You can’t disappoint your fans if you never tried to hide anything. Mullins was a bit self-deprecating in public but radically generous in his private life. He followed the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He lived very simply despite his modest professional success.

Mullins tragically died in a car accident at the age of 41 in 1997, when I was still too young to fully appreciate him. You can find his best selling albums and you can buy his popular songs on iTunes. This album is the best one that I have found for getting to know the man.