Californian Dreams

I watched two movies recently, Hail, Caesar! and La La Land, both of which are celebrations of Los Angeles. They made me reminisce about the year I spent living in San Francisco, and prompted me to think more deeply about California as a whole. In particular, I wonder if California felt so odd (to me) because of the winner-take-all effects of tech and entertainment. What happens to the way that people think when two of its big industries have extreme blockbuster dynamics?

I have three questions:

  1. California’s economy is massive, but two industries dominate popular imagination: tech in Silicon Valley/San Francisco and entertainment in Hollywood/Los Angeles. Far fewer than 1 percent of all new stars and startups can expect to break out every year; those that do find terrific success. How do these dynamics change the culture of the state and the way that people live, if at all?
  1. California is the land of sunny optimism. But one detects, in so much of the creative output, a strain of melancholy, or at least ennui. You hear it in the Beach Boys; see it in both Hail Caesar and La La Land; read it in Philip K. Dick, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and so many others. What do people have to worry about in the land of gold and gentle weather?
  1. In a country of immigrants, California seems to be the state of immigrants. It’s not just that many are of Asian or Latin American descent; in the beginning (i.e. about a century and a half ago), California was significantly populated with migrants-twice-over who came from the eastern U.S. Within the self-selected group of immigrants, these people were willing to decamp once more to search for gold or fame. If the U.S. is the country of immigrants, is California then the most American of all states?

I’m not sure that I can answer these questions directly, but here are a few thoughts around them.

***

Every movie can be thought of as a startup. They both begin as ideas in notepads. Creators pitch them to studios and VCs for funding. It’s up to the creator to sell the vision and recruit others who believe in them. Most startups and movies break even or lose money; a few become massively scalable successes that are economically and culturally important for years, perhaps decades.1 They have many differences, but they share at least these characteristics.

That’s from the perspective of creators and founders. For employees of startups and movie productions, there are similarities as well. Young people toil, not always in great positions, but they can always be on the lookout for other opportunities. It’s expected to be passionate about what you do. Things change in a big way if you meet someone willing to help you. (From one of the big numbers in La La Land: “Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know; the one to finally lift you off the ground… if you’re the someone ready to be found.”) Or people are not so fortunate. Tens of thousands of dreamers move to Hollywood every year, but only a few become stars.

One tangible difference between startups and movies is that the latter needs a team to assemble for a much shorter period of time. A more interesting difference is an intangible one: While both are blockbuster industries, one can argue that Hollywood has a more zero-sum attitude than Silicon Valley does. Annual spending on movies and music is fairly stable, which means that studios are fighting over a non-growing share of consumer budgets. Meanwhile, only a few movies become blockbusters, making competition for that handful of roles more severe for actors. The world of startups doesn’t seem so zero-sum.

The zero-sum competitiveness of Hollywood is one reason that Peter Thiel disliked Sorkin’s The Social Network. He wrote that the movie is more emblematic of Hollywood than the positive-sum thinking that’s more common in Silicon Valley.

***

What accounts for the strain of melancholy in Californian optimism?

It’s warm and sunny in both Hail Caesar and La La Land. (When I saw La La Land on a snowy day, I thought that the director was playing a cruel joke to divide the movie in seasons: Los Angeles in the winter and summer scenes looked identical.) But you can pick out the constant doubt and deep unhappiness of the main characters. The lyrics of the Beach Boys are sunny too; but why do they sound so sad? Maybe California is less happy than it looks.

Does desperation accompany its natural optimism because homelessness is so plausible? La La Land’s opening number is about how California will always have another day of sun. The mild, warm weather makes that condition far less punishing than in the northeast. One certainly encounters many examples of it in San Francisco. Homelessness won’t likely affect most tech workers, but even for them the prospect of sudden, faultless unemployment looms large. Will they be able to stay in their very expensive apartments for long?

Northern California is beautiful. But are the landscapes so stark and breathtaking because they’re far too dry? The Golden Gate is placid, and is that because the yellow hills and brackish water don’t allow life to thrive?

***

I haven’t spent much time in LA, but I loved my brief visit. It’s the only place in which a stranger at a party remarked to me: “I didn’t like my face, so I changed it, with plastic surgery.” One would not find such candidness in San Francisco or in New York.

Werner Herzog has great things to say about the city. He lives there now, having moved from SF’s Pac Heights neighborhood, where I used to live. It’s worth quoting him at length:

“Los Angeles is the city in America with the most substance, even if it’s raw, uncouth and sometimes quite bizarre. Wherever you look is an immense depth, a tumult that resonates with me. New York is more concerned with finance than anything else. It doesn’t create culture, only consumes it; most of what you find in New York comes from elsewhere. Things actually get done in Los Angeles.

“Look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and a wild excitement of intense dreams opens up; it has more horizons than any other place. There is a great deal of industry in the city and a real working class; I also appreciate the vibrant presence of the Mexicans. In the last half century every significant cultural and technical trend has emerged from California, including the Free Speech Movement and the acceptance of gays and lesbians as an integral part of a dignified society, computers and the Internet, and—thanks to Hollywood—the collective dreams of the entire world. A fascinating density of things exists there like nowhere else in the world.”

***

Here’s something I’ve come to appreciate recently: There’s a world of difference between value-creation and mistake-avoidance.

In the corporate context, that’s the difference between top line and bottom line activities. The first is about generating revenue and the latter is about cutting costs. Upside is limitless for salespeople, while the beancounters have only so much to cut.

Let me sharpen the point with reference to writing. Academic writing is often plodding and obtuse; I submit that it’s because academics are more concerned with showing that they’re avoiding errors rather than trying to communicate incisive ideas. The opposite of academic articles may be something like blog posts; the latter may be fuzzy, poorly-defined, or outright mistaken, but that’s tolerable so long as they introduce fresh ideas.

I feel that California is a place that better embodies the top line mindset and that New York is dominated by the bottom line mindset. California, venture capital, and movie studios are trying to pick the winner that makes irrelevant their losses. New York is complicated, but I want to argue that it’s finance-driven, and exemplified by the practice of insurance in particular. Insurance is about collecting a steady stream of revenue—on the liabilities side—without making a catastrophically wrong investment that wipes out half the value of assets. (A more colorful way to put it is to pick up nickels in front of a steamroller.) Venture capital tolerates mistakes in the search for a winner; insurance spends most effort avoiding big mistakes.

Finding brilliant successes and avoiding catastrophic failures are very different activities. Both are important, but they require different mindsets. I’ve found it useful to distinguish the two in nearly everything I do and see. Maybe that distinction goes some way to explaining why California and New York feel so different.

***

I don’t know much about California’s history, but I do know that a lot of people moved to the state in the 19th century gold rush. After gold, there came a silver rush, an oil boom, aviation, entertainment, and tech. I’m stealing a friend’s phrase: “Manifest destiny continues, not only through physical space.”

Each of these are winner-take-all industries. So you see, blockbuster dynamics have continually infused the state. Maybe we should expect that the people who were willing to move to California to be some of the most ambitious and can-do people in the world. And that subsequent generations have been nurtured with the same values as people who worked in other winner-take-all industries.

Or maybe not. Northern California offers the most outrageous examples of nimbyism, which is the total antithesis to a culture that accepts change and risk. The government doesn’t seem so can-do either. In eastern SF, replacing the Bay Bridge was initially estimated to cost $250 million; it was completed nearly 20 years later, for $6.4 billion, or a run-up of roughly 2,500 percent. In northern SF, the government has spent more time and about as much money (in real terms) building an access tunnel to the Golden Gate Bridge than it did building the bridge. California’s high-speed rail will be one of the slowest high-speed rail systems in the world, at the highest cost per mile of track. No wonder the state’s finances are a mess.

Virginia Postrel’s book on glamour highlights California as a particularly glamorous icon. It’s always attracted the ambitious. But for all the innovations of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, I wonder if people have lost some of the risk-taking tendencies of the past. Longtime residents and Uber drivers are always eager to let people know that the city isn’t like it once was. Perhaps they’re right, and the city’s startup scene is imprinted with a little bit more of the East Coast finance culture than techs would like to admit.

And maybe this is the right place to cite that, under generous definitions, about 10 percent of the San Francisco workforce is directly involved in the tech industry. That figure is closer to 20 percent for the Bay Area as a whole. And the state may not be attracting as many migrants. California’s net migration was negative between 2003 and 2014, losing about a million more people than it gained through migration. Instead of moving from Oklahoma to California, traffic may now be more common the other way. While IT and entertainment are big sectors, together they account for only around 10 percent of state GDP—though it’s possible to argue for a bigger share under different definitions. The two big blockbuster industries may not have that big of an impact in the day-to-day lives of most Californians.

But if they do, then maybe that helps to explain a bit of the melancholy in the culture and why those who were once ahead have tried to lock in their gains.

***

(Picture I took last year, off Highway 1. Does the California coast look so calm because the dryness doesn’t allow for a lot of life to thrive?)

A few last notes:

I’d like to read a book about California. Not a fiction nor a work of poetry by a Californian author; instead I’m looking for a history of the state as a whole. Any recommendations?

Right now, Seattle is the part of the country I’d most like to visit. Going purely off the descriptions of Cryptonomicon, it seems like geek heaven. Is it California-lite, with its own set of tech giants and blockbuster dynamics?

I loved both Hail, Caesar! and La La Land while I was watching them. Upon reflection, I liked Hail, Caesar! more and La La Land less. Both films are excellently reviewed by Richard Brody: “The Coen Brothers’ Marvelous ‘Hail, Caesar!’” and “The Empty Exertions of ‘La La Land.’

Thanks to MG, EW, PS, SG, and AN for discussions of these ideas.

1. Thanks especially to Michael Gibson for elaboration.

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The life of Philip Glass

I picked up Philip Glass’s memoir not because I’m very familiar with his music, but because I’d heard that he drove taxis and worked the odd plumbing job before he was well-known. I know of few other people in the classical music world who’ve taken a similar path, so I thought that this would be an interesting account of a life in the arts.

I ended up being far more impressed with it than I expected. Words without Music is written simply, winningly, without much commentary on music. And that’s just fine because we get to read about Glass’s very interesting life. (I’ll share a few excerpts below.)

Glass didn’t work just as a taxi driver and as a (self-taught) plumber. He also worked in a steel factory, as a gallery assistant, and as a furniture mover. He continued doing these jobs until the age of 41, when a commission from the Netherlands Opera decisively freed him from having to drive taxis. Just in time, too, as he describes an instance when he came worryingly close to being murdered in his own cab. The book offers many other interesting details, e.g. deciding to attend the University of Chicago at age 15, inviting a blind and homeless musician to live with him for a year, hitchhiking through Iran before it was closed to Americans and Afghanistan before it was invaded by the Soviets.

These biographical details are manifestations of a quality I admire. Glass never needed much convincing to drop everything in his life to go on a risky venture. I’m not familiar with the many plot twists in his life, and found the book engaging because I had no idea what new adventure he was going to go on next. It’s astonishing how open-minded he is. Consider: His decision to go to India was based entirely on seeing a striking illustration in a random book he grabbed off a friend’s shelf. In addition, he never hesitated to go into personal debt, at times quite steep, because his music couldn’t wait. The book is filled with instances of him saying “sure, when?” to improbable proposals without dwelling on their costs.

He seemed uninterested in stabilizing his position with more regular income. He never took up an honorary conductor position. He never ensconced himself in a plush conservatory professorship. And he didn’t even apply for grants because he didn’t like that they imposed terms.

Glass is either oblivious to conventions or fond of ignoring them. He mentions a few times that he was born with an “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” gene. There’s often reason to distrust these proclamations, but I did enjoying cataloguing his contrarianism. Other performers may look down on amplifiers, but he adapted them no less to the opera house. Other musicians may revere figures like Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger, but he rebelled and talked back to them. Other composers may scoff off film soundtrack commissions, but he tried them out and with success. Other music students may spend their Juilliard prize monies to practice and compose, but he bought a motorcycle so that he can ride around the country. When people made fun of him for appearing in a whiskey ad, he retorted: “It seemed to me that people who didn’t have to sell out… must have had rich parents.”

Here is a short clip of “In the Upper Room,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp and performed by the Ballet de Lorraine.

Now some promised excerpts. These are passages I found striking.

Being able to visualize: My father taught me to play mental chess. I would be with him in the car and he would say, “Knight to Bishop’s 3” and I’d say, “Pawn to Queen 3.” We went through a game together and I learned to visualize chess. I was probably seven or eight years old and I could already do that. Years later when I was learning to do exercises in visualization, I discovered I had developed this aptitude when I was very young… I discovered that many people couldn’t see anything, but I could see right away, and that was a big help. I had a number of friends who said they were having trouble visualizing and I realized I didn’t have any trouble. When I wondered why I didn’t I remembered those chess games that Ben and I used to play.

Keeping an open mind: When my father started to sell records, he didn’t know which were the good records and which were the bad… But he noticed that some records sold and some records didn’t, so as a businessman he wanted to know why some of the records didn’t sell. He would take them home and listen to them, thinking if he could find out what was wrong with them, he wouldn’t buy the bad ones anymore. In the late forties, the music that didn’t sell was by Bartok, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. [emphasis DW’s.] Ben listened to them over and over again, trying to understand what was wrong, but he ended up loving their music. He became a strong advocate of new music and began to sell it in his store.

Working: Luckily for me, I never minded earning money as best I could, and I actually enjoyed working at the [steel mill]… My curiosity about life trumped any disdain I might have about working. So if this was a reality check, then I had happily signed on at a fairly early age.

On being influenced by Bruckner: One major, and unforeseen benefit of the Bruckner expertise I acquired came when my friend Dennis Russell Davies became the music director and conductor of the Linz Opera and the Bruckner House Orchestra. I went to Linz for the first time with the poorly conceived idea that my music would sound better played by an American orchestra, because they would understand the rhythms I was composing. To my surprise, the Bruckner Orchestra played these compositions better than American orchestras.

Upon noticing a man in his sixties composing music in a coffee shop, when he was doing the same while still a student: It never occurred to me that, perhaps, it was a harbinger of my own future. No, I didn’t think that way at all. My thought was that his presence confirmed that what I was doing was correct. Here was an example of an obviously mature composer pursuing his career in these unexpected surroundings… The main thing was that I didn’t find it worrisome. If anything I admired his resolve, his composure. It was inspiring.

An early job: In Pittsburgh, I wrote some music for children in grade school and some for high school orchestras… At the end of the year we had a big concert, where all the music I had written was played. It was very satisfying. Here I was, twenty-six years old, and I was having a complete concert of my own music.

His first wedding: We continued our trip, driving west to Gibraltar. “You know,” JoAnne said, “we can get married here for five pounds.” We were both twenty-eight years old… We took our five pounds to the civil office of a Mr. Gonzalez, and that’s where we were married.

At a performance in Amsterdam: Before I had gotten even halfway through my performance, I noticed someone had joined me on the stage. The next thing I knew he was at the keyboard banging on the keys. Without thinking, acting on pure instinct, I belted him across the jaw and he staggered and fell off the stage. Half the audience cheered and the rest either booed or laughed. Without a pause, I began playing again, having lost the momentum of the music for not much more than five to six seconds.

For some reason Google Music offers woefully light coverage of Glass’s music. There are few of his symphonies, few of his early works, no Akhnaten, not even Satyagraha. You might expect him to be well covered given that he has some status in pop culture, but no. Why are his albums so absent from Google Music?

Times feature on upstate orchestras

Today the Times published a reported piece on the state of orchestras in Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany. It features a beautiful shot of Kodak Hall at the Eastman School of Music, part of the University of Rochester.

kodak

 

Though orchestras everywhere are struggling, the ones in these three cities are experimenting with techniques to draw new audiences, some of which are quite innovative. The story ends with a quote from the director of the Albany Symphony: “When I moved here from Los Angeles, I was very sad in the fall,” Mr. Miller said of Albany. “All the leaves died and fell off the trees, and I associated fall with death. And then finally my wife had to explain to me that it’s not about death. People love fall because it’s the first step to rebirth.”’

The most striking sentence in the story is this one, four paragraphs in:  “(This year’s festival starts on Monday; article, Page 17.)” It’s not hyperlinked.

That sentence is obviously meant for print. It’s amazing that it was not only unamended but also failed to link to the proper article. I’m a fan of both orchestras and news sources, but it’s grim to see one institution that has been struggling in the digital age is covered as a story of hope and rebirth by another institution that has seen arguably greater wrenching changes in the digital age. When the latter is so obviously stuck in the past, doesn’t it feel like conditions are bleak for both institutions?

Rockwell Kent (and my internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Hardly a week goes by without my thinking of my internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I remember it with such fondness. I had an incredible mentor, smart and caring, and it was good in so many ways. Here’s a post about a bit of that experience and about the work of an artist I like whom I discovered there.

PMA

The PMA is the most gorgeous place I’ve ever worked at. I liked being in a big intern class. There were around 40 of us scattered in different departments.  The overwhelming majority were art history majors. My department was an exception. I was a strategic planning intern in the Executive Offices, and worked with three people, all of them grad students: a Duke Law second-year worked for the general counsel; a Cooperstown student worked for government affairs; and a Wharton MBA second-year worked for the director of the museum. I was a sophomore working for the Assistant Director for Administration, developing a strategic plan for the museum over the next decade.

I commuted home every day with a student from NYU and a student from Stanford. We all took the Warminster Line into the suburbs. It was fun getting to know the arts majors from liberal arts colleges.

I applied to be a PMA intern in 2012 because of its museum studies program. I’ve never really studied art or spent much time in art museums, and wanted to spend a summer to correct that. The coolest part of the internship were the tours of the galleries conducted by the curators who managed them. As an intern for strategic planning I worked in administration, but received an education in art every day I was there.

In the second week of the internship we were taken on a tour by a curator to a new exhibit. It was there that I found an artist that I’m still moved by.

His name was Rockwell Kent. I hadn’t ever heard of him before. He was from New York, was active in the war years, and never got much involved in some of the crazier movements of his time. He can’t really be identified as an expressionist or a surrealist, though there are elements of the fantastic in most of his art.

He’s lived an interesting life. He was very active as a socialist, and was later Soviet sympathizer who won a Lenin Peace Prize. He also spent significant chunks of life in complete solitude in the wilderness of Alaska, Newfoundland, and Greenland.

Fun fact: He was plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Kent v. Dulles. The government denied him a passport to use to attend a conference in Finland. He sued for declaratory relief, saw summary judgment issued against him, and then won in the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.

Here’s why I like his art.

Kent made a lot of prints of otherworldly figures in enormous spaces. They usually stood alone, undressed, against a massive backdrop. That backdrop was often a starry sky, the desert, or the ocean. But they’re usually nothing other than background. The figures usually take up more than a majority of the print.

Kent1

It’s as if these figures have conquered a massive part of nature. In fact they look like triumphant heroes. Except often they have looks of anguish. They look utterly, utterly alone. And they’ve mastered the loneliness.

Kent4

You get a sense that the figures are content with loneliness. Either that or the total opposite: they’ve given in to despair. I find them tremendously moving.

Kent2

They look supernatural, floating in space.

Kent3

He also sketched for Life magazine four of his conjectures for how the world might end. One of them was that gravity might stop working.

Kent5

The other was that the sun would flare.

Kent6

Kent was a socialist, and you can imagine these people as heroes of resistance. But I can’t help also to think of them as Randian figures: alone, and having conquered the need to be with others. Doesn’t that apply?

Anyway, Kent also painted and did some sketches as satirist in the ‘20s. He also made some illustrations of Moby Dick, which are wonderful

Here’s the PMA’s online archive of Kent’s work.