Bela Bartok and Birth of Modern

Bela BartokOn this day in 1881, the great composer Bela Bartok was born. When I a music major in college, a lot of people were really into Bartok. I never got it. It always seemed to me that there were more interesting modern composers like Elliott Carter. But now I get it. Bartok is kind of like Schoenberg without the rigidity. He didn’t worry about traditional tonality. But he wasn’t out to protest it either. And as a result, his music is surprisingly melodic. And it has wonderfully complex but non-traditional harmonies and classical counterpoint.

To me, most of his music sounds distinction impressionistic. But while people like Debussy were very modal in their music, Bartok went his own way. As a result, one doesn’t really hear people who sound like him. His is work is idiosyncratic. I found the following very interesting quote from Milton Babbitt, “Bartok’s solution was a specific one, it cannot be duplicated.” He meant this as an insult, but I think it is the greatest compliment. Bartok’s work was very different from one composition to another. Why should he write the same thing over and over again? He was a composer, not a theorist.

To get a good idea of what Bartok is all about, you should really listen to his Second Violin Concerto. But it is difficult. So here is the much easier Concerto For Orchestra, which was one of the last things he ever wrote:

Happy birthday Bela Bartok!

Want Investors? Be an Attractive Man!

Fiona Murray - Study authorResearchers at MIT and Harvard noticed that less than 10% of venture capital money in Silicon Valley went to companies by women. So they decided to look at see if there was some real reason for this like woman not having as many startups or if it was just sexism. Can you guess what they found? They took actual startups and presented them to actual venture capitalists. But they randomized them so that sometimes a woman was presenting and sometimes a man was presenting. They also broke the sexes down into attractive and ugly.

The result? The venture capitalists said that they would invest 68% of the time when it was a male presenting. When it was a female, only 32% were interested in investing. So a startup was twice as likely to get funding if it was headed by a man. I’m a cynical guy and even I was shocked by that. But it gets worse. Attractive men were even more likely to get funding. Attractive and ugly women did not have a statistically significant difference, probably because to the venture capitalists, all women are unappealing.

I got this information from a Forbes article, New Research: VC Preference For Men Persists (And Attractive Males Fare Best). It is telling. After going through the research, the author seems to have forgotten what the study showed and tried to minimize its importance:

Another theory holds that male- and female-led ventures tend to focus on different kinds of market opportunities that map to different levels of growth—that male entrepreneurs tend to pursue ventures across a spectrum of industries, while women-led ventures pursue female interests such as fashion, cosmetics, and cooking.

That’s not what the research was about. And regardless, the research indicates that if an attractive man starts a new fashion company, investors are far more likely to give him money than if a woman had started it. There are lots of other reasons why women don’t get as much investment money as men. I’m sure that men being more aggressive helps them. But this study strips away all of that.

The last third of the article is an inspiring story of a female entrepreneur who beat the odds even after the “funding community rebuffed her.” These are a mainstay of conservative apologetics for inequality. If one woman can make it despite the sexist racist ageist system, then anyone can! Of course, that doesn’t follow. And regardless, all that means is that an exceptional woman can do as well as a mediocre man. That isn’t any reasonable person’s idea of “equality of opportunity.”

Why Conservatives Ignore Global Warming

Climate Change Is a HoaxThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a report this week that, Predicts Dire Threats for People, Including Food, Water Shortages. Who would have thought? I mean, other than pretty much everyone in the field.

Since I was a climate scientist from roughly 1990 to 1998, one thing is especially clear to me. The predicted changes to the earth’s climate at that time have turned out to be conservative. The climate is getting much worse much faster than we had thought. We are so used to economic forecasts that tend to be much more drastic than what the truth turns out to be. A good example: Social Security projections. But with climate change, it has been the opposite. And the terrible thing is that while economic problems can be quickly fixed, global environmental problems cannot.

I keep coming back to the issue of uncertainty and danger. When it comes to the dangers of inflation, conservatives are all over it. And again: inflation can be fixed. And fast. But even if there were a small chance that humans are changing the climate, we would normally be concerned about it. It would be the same as a large asteroid hitting the earth: unlikely but catastrophic. So why don’t conservatives want to do anything, even if they think it probably isn’t happening?

Of course the truth is that it doesn’t work that way. We know the earth is heating. Conservatives have no real opinion on the science. But what they do have an opinion on is that the solutions for addressing global warming are things that they are committed to be against. What’s more, American conservatives have what can only be termed a mystical belief that any problem can be fixed with some technological innovation.

The sad thing is that they are half right. Technology is critical in solving the problem. But it should be solving the problem now. (Actually, it should have been solving it forty years ago, but I’ll leave that.) We all know that fossil fuels have great externalities that are not factored into the price of a gallon of gas. If the costs associated with a warmer world were factored into the price of gas, other (cleaner) fuel sources would be competitive. This is the idea of “cap and trade.” If gas cost a dollar more per gallon, there would probably be an order of magnitude more money going to investments in clean technologies.

So we are left with a world that is heating rapidly. We have a conservative movement that is determined to not see what’s going on. And in the end, when whole islands disappear beneath the ocean, when drought plagues this country’s farm regions, when extreme economic problems occur because of global warming, the conservative movement will give us a great big Rick Perry response, “Oops!” But it won’t matter in the future. Conservatives will go on ignoring any facts that conflict with their ideology. And roughly half the people will continue to vote for them. That’s the story of America: an ever repeating, “Oops!”

Let Discrimination Ring!

Hobby LobbyJeffrey Rosen wrote a very interesting article in New Republic, The End of Anti-Discrimination. It is about the Hobby Lobby and Conestega Woods cases that the Supreme Court is hearing. But they deal with an issue that has been much on my mind: where does it stop? If a company can say that it ought to be allowed an exemption against providing birth control in its health plans, I don’t see why a Christian Scientist employer couldn’t say it is only willing to provide prayer for its employees’ healthcare needs.

The article goes one step further. As Rosen notes, both cases “will force the justices to confront the future balance between the First Amendment on one hand and anti-discrimination laws on the other.” The article is based upon a podcast between two lawyers on each side of the case who nonetheless agree that this is the issue. The article isn’t this blunt, but I think it is important to be clear. A Christian hotel owner could say, “The Bible says that the races should be separate. Most of my guests are white. So I won’t provide accommodations to blacks.”

I don’t see this happening. What the court will most likely decide, if it finds in favor of these companies, is some principle that will limit the ruling. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In Citizen’s United, the courts just brushed away such concerns. And here, they might say, “Sure, people could use this law to discriminate, but that isn’t going to happen.” You never know with this court. It has, after all, three justices who are little more than right wing partisan hacks. You have two justices who are extremely conservative. Three justices who are moderate. And one justice who is somewhat liberal. That’s a recipe for bad law. And bad law we have been getting.

But even if we do get a very limited ruling, it will be very bad. It will set up a structure for more and more businesses to use their legal rights to punch holes in workers’ rights generally. But the issue is much bigger than that. This whole push of the Supreme Court to codify business rights as equal to individual rights brings on nothing short of the end of democracy. As we’ve seen over the last hundred years at least, the powerful can manipulate the political process as surely as a puppeteer controls a marionette.

In the short run, I’m very concerned. The rich have managed to acquire almost all of the wealth in this country. And now they are trying to corner the market in power. Or maybe they already have, since both political parties are beholden to them and the courts are firmly in their pockets. Whether they can completely disenfranchise the people at the ballot box remains to be seen. I’m not at all sure they can’t. So in the long run, I’m also very concerned.

Afterword

There is a “bread and circuses” aspect to modern America. The power elite have been pretty good at allowing the middle class to be savaged, but still limp along. At the same time, there are more than enough circuses. But I fear that one of the biggest circuses for my fellow liberals is social liberalism itself. That stuff doesn’t harm the power elite because mostly they too are social liberals. And they keep us all focused on these relatively minor (high up the hierarchy of needs) issues so we don’t do anything about the fact that we live more and more in squalor.


H/T: Ed Kilgore