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Author: Briggs

November 15, 2008 | 37 Comments

Classical music is dying

That’s the sort of headline you see from time to time in places like Arts & Letters Daily and the arts sections of major newspapers. Invariably, what follows a few weeks letter is the rebuttal which argues, “No, it isn’t.”

It’s obvious, the Dying side says, that appreciation for serious, adult music is at an all time low. Just turn on any radio, walk into almost any business, or attend nearly any function purportedly for adults and you will hear simple, pop music, or worse. Classical music has all but disappeared.

Not true, say the Optimists. Just look at our attendance figures for last season’s opera or for the yearly Jazz Festival. Sure, the numbers wax and they wane, but they have held steady since roughly 1950. Concert halls are just as filled as they ever were.

I’ll suppose that later claim is true, that attendance is holding roughly steady. I can’t find an exact figure, but let’s say that concert attendance is 100,000 seats per year in the United States. The precise number doesn’t really matter: pick any steady number you want and what I’m about to say is just as true.

Here’s the relevant picture:
Classical music attendance

The left-hand vertical axis depicts the U.S. population in millions since 1950; it shows a doubling over the past 50-60 years. The right-hand vertical axis depicts the percentage of residents who buy tickets to adult music concerts conditioned on the fact that each year about 100,000 tickets are sold. The numbers are in hundredths of a percent. If I’m wrong and the number of tickets sold is a million, then the figures are the same but are in tenths of a percent.

This figure, of course, doesn’t account for people who buy multiple tickets. If we assume that the percent of people who buy multiple tickets is roughly constant, then the shape of the red line is still the same, it’s just shifted up or down a slight bit. Even if this percent is not constant, there will only be a small correction.

So, while population has doubled, appreciation has fallen by roughly 50%. No trivial amount, that.

Of course, some people will not go to concerts and will buy music instead. But we already know that the sales of classical music have dropped off a cliff. The number of radio stations that host classical music has declined, too. Do you even have one where you live? (NYC is an oasis in this respect.)

How about listening online? For one example, it wasn’t until earlier this year that Pandora began carrying adult music. In fact, when I was listening the other day they had a tool pop up on the side of their player which would allow you to move three sliders and then click a button, after which a search engine would find music you like. The distressing first slider was BPM: Beats per Minute. The others were something inane like funkiness or quirkiness. I wish I had the opportunity for a screen capture to show you. Anyway, I am unable to discover statistics on on-line listenership beyond the anecdotal, but I don’t find anybody boasting. The opportunities are there, on line, they are just not being fully used.

I don’t think lack of education accounts for the demise of serious music. There’s more than enough of that panacea going around. I believe it has more to do with fears of being called an elitist or of being thought old, or at least no longer youthful. To say that what you are hearing when you go into a bar (restaurant, store, bookstore, etc., etc.) is juvenile, simplistic, or just plain awful makes you sound crusty and sour. If it wasn’t for the constant barrage of bad music everywhere you go, we elitists would keep quiet about all this. But silence in a public establishment is rarer than a sense of humor in an Upper-West-Side Obama supporter.

To some extent, it’s those who create music who are to blame. Some of the musicians who call themselves “serious” are anything but. I’m thinking of that fellow Glass (which rhymes with) and that guy who “wrote” the piece where those on stage sit still for 9 minutes so the audience can hear the sounds of people gasping for breath after discovering they paid good money for the privilege. That’s art. Jazz in the mainstream has mostly devolved into the pablum called “smooth”: all flutes, and what I suppose are synthesizers, all the time.

I’m with the crowd shouting “Dying!” Too bad the only response seems to be “Who cares!”

To get a head start on the criticisms: no, there is nothing wrong with listening to pop music, just as there isn’t anything wrong with drinking pop. An occasional glass can be just the thing. But if you drink nothing else, your teeth will rot out, your stomach will ulcer, and you’ll regress towards diabetes and imbecility. Listening to Andrea Bocelli is like switching to diet pop: you have the idea that you’re drinking real pop, you just can’t identify that strange aftertaste. You are what you listen to. The British Invasion was just that: we should have fought back. Imagine a world without the musics of John Lennon. It’s easy if you try. Heaven.

November 14, 2008 | 9 Comments

Mark Twain

There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.

—Mark Twain

Twain was on my mind as Marty Wells and I were sitting in The Cigar Inn enjoying an Ashton Corona (if you click the link, I was on that leather couch).

Marty had just given a talk in the Public Health Department of the Cornell Medical school—which is only steps away from the Cigar Inn—on a method to analyze micro-array data, a hot area in statistics. It was a stunning success, as always. The most difficult aspect of the talk was to keep the fans from rushing the stage. Statistics can be a dangerous profession!

Anyway, I was wondering how far we could push Twain’s words after a regular sat down next to me and, as he always does, lit up an enormous Maduro-wrapped log. He sipped from that; but his main course was a steady chain of Native Spirit cigarettes, which he had between puffs of the cigar.

Another regular said, “I don’t know why you don’t have a pinch between your cheek and gum, too.” I suggested he could also add snuff and the patch to get “the whole experience.”

This is a man of few words, so he just gave us a grin.

He was—or still is—an itinerant electrician. I remember once when he asked me what I did. After I told him, he asked what kind of money you could make as a professor of statistics, and then he asked me what it took to become someone like me. I told him. He was contemplative and said he’d consider giving it a try. But he’d move to Florida and be a professor there.

November 12, 2008 | 27 Comments

New Arcsine Climate Forecast: Hot and Cold!

If you weren’t worried before, then take a look at this shocking new climate forecast!
Arcsine climate forecast

No, only kidding. This is the real forecast:
Arcsine climate forecast

Sorry. Can’t help myself. Here are four more “forecasts”.

Arcsine climate forecast

Each of the “forecasts” were generated by what is called a “random walk.” Here is what that is. Grab a coin and go out and stand on a corner of some sidewalk that stretches for a long way in both directions. Call one direction “positive” and the other “negative”. The corner you start at will be called “zero”. Flip your coin: If it is heads, then take one step forward toward positive; if tails, then take one backward toward negative. Keep doing this for a long time and soon you will find…that your neighbors think you are crazy.

But that’s a random walk. If you do the coin flips and steps for a long enough time, you’ll find that you spend a heck of lot more time than you might have guessed on either the positive or the negative side. You will probably find that, when you quit, you are way up along the positive side, or way down along the negative. This is true even though the average of those coin flips, the +1s and -1s that make up your steps, is pretty near 0; and even though the average goes to 0 the longer you flip the coin.

The “climate model forecasts” generated above were done so by reference to a paper by A.H. Gordon, available here, called “Global Warming as a Manifestation of a Random Walk”. It is a very readable paper that bears attention.

Gordon proposed that a climate could be made by generating random “shocks” to a climate system. What’s that? Well, imagine the climate is going along peacefully, maintaining its temperature and minding it’s own business, when suddenly—bame!—some external force causes it to change its temperature up or down. An external force might be a change in the Earth’s orbit, or a shifting in cloud cover, or a flock of birds flying this way or that, or anything. This shock persists in the system for some time; little shocks build up and over the course of a year the climate—the mean temperature—changes. It is just as likely for this random-walk climate’s temperature to go up as it is to go down,.

Random walks have some surprising properties which, by virtue of being surprising, are not intuitive. The first is that we’d expect adding random ups and downs (1s and -1s) together would get us a bunch of no changes (or 0s). We don’t get 0s, but numbers which travel far from 0 as time goes on. In fact, it can be shown—via something called the arcsine law—that it’s more probable that this climate will be at an extreme value whenever the series stops, and will not be near 0. The pictures show this.

What about the real climate, the one we actually live in? It’s certainly true that the real climate experiences external shocks of every kind. Gordon found (over the period he looked and with one particular, often used data set) that temperatures went up about just as many times as it went down, just like what would be expected in a random walk climate. He found that the value of the temperature at the end of the series he had was an extreme one, just like we would be expect in a random walk climate. He made a lot of pictures, like we have, and noticed that a lot of them look just like our real climate.

The pictures that make up our and Gordon’s “arcsine forecast”, for technical reasons, aren’t 1s and -1s, but numbers simulated from a normal distribution with a central parameter of 0, which means the numbers are equally likely to be above 0 as below 0 just like in the -1/+1 random walk, but here they can be any number greater or less than 0 (the standard deviation parameter, for those who know of such things, is set at 0.12, which is the same as the estimated standard deviation parameter for actual global mean temperature; see Gordon’s paper for a fuller description).

What does all this say about the real climate? That it happens to look just like a bunch of random numbers. Gordon cautions, “That is not to say that the temperature record is a random walk, but that it does possess similar features.” The surface temperature records “also exhibits properties of the arc-sine law. It is concluded that the global series could have arisen from random fluctuations and could therefore be analogous to arc-sine law governed by random walks.”

This means the climate we have might be less controllable than we thought it was (controllable negatively or positively through man’s activities).

He ends with some sage advice:

It is important to examine all ways and means by which the observed data series develop trends before facing hard and fast conclusions that any particular activity is the one and only responsible agent.

Below is the code where you can generate your own arcsine climate model forecast in R:
Continue reading “New Arcsine Climate Forecast: Hot and Cold!”

November 11, 2008 | 1 Comment

Signed copies: update

Just now got another batch of books in and I’ll mail them out tomorrow morning.

That should take care of all the orders I have received. So you better now! Supplies aren’t limited!

Small book cover
Click here to order.