Why the Prado is the Best

I am in my mid-40’s and have been to a lot of art museums, so I didn’t really expect to walk into another one and think, “Oh my god, this is head and shoulders above any place I’ve been to” (the Met, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Barnes, etc.). But then I had never been to Madrid and the Prado until this week. Here are three reasons why it really is the best:

1. The great stuff is so, so great. Within minutes of walking in, I had wandered into someplace called room 49, which might be the best single collection of Italian Renaissance art you’ll ever see in a single room. With a bunch of glorious large and mid-sized Raphaels, like this one:

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I mean, can you imagine seeing something like this just a couple minutes after you walk in? When I came across it, I didn’t know yet that they don’t let you take photos, so I snapped this one before the guards gently told me the rules.

And oh yeah, the Prado has a really interesting copy of the Mona Lisa too.

2. It’s not gigantic, but the quality is very high throughout. There’s something astonishing, often many things, in practically every room. Some highlights: likely the deepest Goya collection anywhere, from all across his career, including a bunch of large, airy, light-colored early paintings called tapestry cartoons up on the top floor. A magnificent set of El Grecos. And don’t get me started on Velazquez, Zurbaran, Ribera, Bosch (again, the deepest set of his works I’ve seen in one place), Fra Angelico’s Annunication, and Tintoretto. The main hall is anchored by a fantastic collection of Titian and Rubens, which… is absolutely great, but many of the other rooms are even better.

3. The way it just teems with life. So check out this graceful bit of Asian calligraphy, from a scroll I found in an out-of-the way, empty room, with no guards to tell me not to take pictures:

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I mean, those hands!

OK, the reason why you haven’t heard about the Asian calligraphy scrolls in the Prado is that there aren’t any. Our angel with the graceful hands is actually part of a Spanish altarpiece, circa 1200:

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Or maybe it didn’t look like an Asian scroll to you. But the magic of the Prado is that when you see so many amazing pictures together in one place, they amplify and animate each other, they transform each other, they dance with each other and with you, and before you know it, all the distinctions you’ve ever learned between different genres and periods and schools melt away. Then only the art is left, direct, pure, and alive, and it fills you with life, and keeps dancing with you long after you leave the building. The Prado is the most joyful art museum in the world.

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The Models Were Telling Us Trump Could Win

Nate Silver got the election right.

Modeling this election was never about win probabilities (i.e., saying that Clinton is 98% likely to win, or 71% likely to win, or whatever). It was about finding a way to convey meaningful information about uncertainty and about what could happen. And, despite the not-so-great headline, this article by Nate Silver does a pretty impressive job.

First, let’s have a look at what not to do. This article by Sam Wang (Princeton Election Consortium) explains how you end up with a win probability of 98-99% for Clinton. First, he aggregates the state polls, and figures that if they’re right on average, then Clinton wins easily (with over 300 electoral votes I believe). Then he looks for a way to model the uncertainty. He asks, reasonably: what happens if the polls are all off by a given amount? And he answers the question, again reasonably: if Trump overperforms his polls by 2.6%, the election becomes a toss-up. If he overperforms by more, he’s likely to win.

But then you have to ask: how much could the polls be off by? And this is where Wang goes horribly wrong.

The uncertainty here is virtually impossible to model statistically. US presidential elections don’t happen that often, so there’s not much direct history, plus the challenges of polling are changing dramatically as fewer and fewer people are reachable via listed phone numbers. Wang does say that in the last three elections, the polls have been off by 1.3% (Bush 2004), 1.2% (Obama 2008), and 2.3% (Obama 2012). So polls being off by 2.6% doesn’t seem crazy at all.

For some inexplicable reason, however, Wang ignores what is right in front of his nose, picks a tiny standard error parameter out of the air, plugs it into his model, and basically says: well, the polls are very unlikely to be off by very much, so Clinton is 98-99% likely to win.

Always be wary of models, especially models of human behavior, that give probabilities of 98-99%. Always ask yourself: am I anywhere near 98-99% sure that my model is complete and accurate? If not, STOP, cross out your probabilities because they are meaningless, and start again.

How do you come up with a meaningful forecast, though? Once you accept that there’s genuine uncertainty in the most important parameter in your model, and that trying to assign a probability is likely to range from meaningless to flat-out wrong, how do you proceed?

Well, let’s look at what Silver does in this article. Instead of trying to estimate the volatility as Wang does (and as Silver also does on the front page of his web site, people just can’t help themselves), he gives a careful analysis of some possible specific scenarios. What are some good scenarios to pick? Well, maybe we should look at recent cases of when nationwide polls have been off. OK, can you think of any good examples? Hmm, I don’t know, maybe…

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Aiiieeee!!!!

Look at the numbers in that Sun cover. Brexit (Leave) won by 4%, while the polls before the election were essentially tied, with Remain perhaps enjoying a slight lead. That’s a polling error of at least 4%. And the US poll numbers are very clear: if Trump overperforms his polls by 4%, he wins easily.

In financial modeling, where you often don’t have enough relevant history to build a good probabilistic model, this technique — pick some scenarios that seem important, play them through your model, and look at the outcomes — is called stress testing. Silver’s article does a really, really good job of it. He doesn’t pretend to know what’s going to happen (we can’t all be Michael Moore, you know), but he plays out the possibilities, makes the risks transparent, and puts you in a position to evaluate them. That is how you’re supposed to analyze situations with inherent uncertainty. And with the inherent uncertainty in our world increasing, to say the least, it’s a way of thinking that we all better start becoming really familiar with.

The models were plain as day. What the numbers were telling us was that if the polls were right, Clinton would win easily, but if they were underestimating Trump’s support by anywhere near a Brexit-like margin, Trump would win easily. Shouldn’t that have been the headline? Wouldn’t you have liked to have known that? Isn’t it way more informative than saying that Clinton is 98% or 71% likely to win based on some parameter someone plucked out of thin air?

We should have been going into this election terrified.

All the Children Boogie

The man sounds serious, that’s the first thing. Listen to Mick Ronson’s opening chord on Moonage Daydream, followed by the sound of Bowie’s voice coming in: “I’m an alligator,” he announces, in a grown-up voice that could credibly belong to, well, an alligator. There’s a little leather in it. You can’t help noting the parallel with how the Beatles start A Hard Day’s Night: a clear opening chord, a very brief pause, then a vocal that demands your attention. But while the Beatles emit unrestrained joy, the sound of the school doors swinging open at the start of summer vacation, an instant of anticipation before the bell rings and everyone rushes down the stairs into a world of vivid color, Bowie hits you in a worldlier way. You rush down the school steps, yes, but then your best friend’s older brother, the one who graduated three years ago, or was it four, grabs you, not roughly but with a force you can’t ignore, and pushes you up against the wall. Stand back here with me a minute, kid. Look around, take it all in, all of it. See what it’s really like out here. Serious stuff: even the moonlight in Bowie’s universe is serious. In Under Pressure, he sings of the terror of knowing what this world is about, and you can hear that terror across his work, from the very beginning all the way through to today. Listen to Space Oddity. Listen to Low (I’ve been breaking glass in your room again!). Listen to Ashes to Ashes. Listen, yes, to Blackstar.

Perhaps this is presumptuous, but I’m almost certain that you never knew until this past week how much you, and everyone else, loved Bowie. Within a day of hearing he was gone, I had established a routine. Every few hours, I would look for more tributes on Facebook: posts from friends, links to essays, appreciations from his fellow musicians, stories of chance encounters, all it resonating more than I had expected. The personal stories were genuinely moving, not corny. The musical appreciations were thoughtful and meaningful. Appreciating Bowie, appreciating each other for the shared feelings, appreciating the world more for having given rise to him, the communal mourning had a tangible sense of pride and purpose. All his children used it, all his children lost it, all his children boogied. It is plausible to think we will have a Best Bowie Tribute Pieces collection in bookstores by Christmas. And yet: his children? Really? Did he really mean so much, and why hadn’t we realized it before?

Bowie was always there, with that voice. When I first started listening to the radio, as a kid at the start of the 80’s, his entire 70’s output was in heavy rotation on every station in Boston I would tune to. Those were rock stations that played everything: oldies and classic rock (50’s and 60’s), punk and new wave, heavy metal, prog rock, singer-songwriters, soul, R&B, early rap, comedy records… and Bowie, a genre unto himself, and yet somehow connected to them all. Boys keep swinging all over in their musical tastes, with one artist or another thrilling you in any given week, but you always knew Bowie was outside all of that, more solid than the rest. He might sing about a brand new dance, but he never was one.

It’s surprising in a way that Bowie never seemed trendy, because he worked across such a range of musical styles. But what he achieved, more than any artist I know, is a genuine synthesis of all the types of music he touched. Somehow, you were always aware of the whole picture. Even the Beatles never quite managed that trick: in the moment when A Day in the Life was enveloping you, you weren’t harking back to It Won’t be Long. But somehow when you heard Let’s Dance, you were still conscious somehow of Young Americans, and Rebel Rebel, and Ziggy Stardust too. I still don’t know how he did that. Music is so powerful emotionally that it’s supposed to be reductive: you know a song really works when it makes you believe, in the moment when you hear it, that the song, just the notes you’re hearing, right here, right now, is the only thing that matters. Bowie’s special talent was that he could pack so much into that moment. It was his range, yes, but also his genius for synthesis and encapsulation. When you heard a Bowie song, and felt that this is all that matters, what you understood by this was especially rich.

The lyrical content of those moments mattered just as much as the music. Bowie was broader than the rest here too: he covered more themes than the other artists on the radio. When you listened to him, you heard about space, you heard about Nixon, you heard about the Berlin wall, and you heard about love and loss and yearning too, and time and mortality and death. I think many of us, discovering him on the cusp of adulthood, wondering about our place in the world, a little alienated, maybe feeling we were too smart for our own good, found his universe and the people who populated it uncommonly attractive. You could imagine yourself in a Bowie song. Synthesis again, lyrically this time, bringing the whole world into the moment.

I think this is why so many of the tributes to Bowie that I’ve seen this week treat him, with an unusual lack of self-consciousness, as an authority figure. Even a generation that rejected authority, that mistrusted its parents and political leaders and social institutions, needed a trail guide to its surroundings. For many of us, whether we thought of ourselves as artistic or not, Bowie was our ranger, a self-made cultural Buddha, an older brother who could guide us and shield us at the same time. Reading the tributes to Bowie from other musicians, all genuine and heartfelt, I’m reminded of Picasso speaking of Cezanne as his one and only master, the father of us all. Perhaps Bowie was like Picasso in a way, using and mastering multiple artistic styles, but he was even more like Cezanne, endowing his art with new gravity and inspiring generations, not to copy him but to make their own art. Seriousness again, from his voice to his musical explorations to the range of his lyrical themes.

Bowie used that authority in his work, too. It is remarkable, given his level of artistry and artfulness, how plainly, how directly he could address his audience. Listen to the lyrics of Rock and Roll Suicide: the knives seem to lacerate your brain? I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain! You’re not alone, turn on with me! This is a man who knows he has followers, who accepts the responsibility, who knows what he can say to them. The words look overwrought and pretentious on the page, but they work in the song, Bowie knows exactly what he can get across and how. He is a fully aware Buddha, not an accidental one.

You find Bowie’s influences all over the place, where you expect them and where you don’t. I went for a run in the park the other morning, with a collection of his 70’s songs on my phone as company. Toward the end, Ashes to Ashes came on, with its final chant: my mama said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom. Involuntarily, my mind pulled up Bowie’s other use of that phrase — get things done — in Modern Love (I don’t wanna go out / I wanna stay in / Get things done), and then pivoted to work, thinking about people I work with, who gets things done and who doesn’t. I realized, then, that the phrase in the song represents a core value that has been central to my entire work life, that my definition of effectiveness, in myself and others, is framed in terms of getting things done. It would be a gross overstatement to say that’s because of Bowie, of course. But it doesn’t seem entirely independent of him, either.

Thinking about Bowie on my run, I remembered too how in the early days of email, you would mostly send them to friends, and you would try to make them witty and artful. One favorite trick to add erudition, or other attitude, was to quote song lyrics, sometimes in context, sometimes as complete non sequiturs. Don’t lean on me man because you can’t afford the ticket. Bowie lines were great for that, which made this tribute from Brian Eno especially poignant. It turns out that our heroes Bowie and Eno, collaborators for decades, communicated in exactly the same way we did, only they didn’t need to lift their witty lines from Bowie and Eno. Turn over any rock this week, and you find Bowie’s influence.

Of course, that influence was only possible because he made beautiful art. Bowie’s voice has an older brother’s authority, but when he sent it to the upper register — think of the octave-high, over-the-rainbow jump in the chorus of Starman, all of Ashes to Ashes, and several songs on Blackstar (especially Dollar Days and the title track) — it also has a beauty that you rarely hear in rock and roll. Forgive me for always coming back to the Beatles, but when I think of Bowie singing in the upper register, I can’t help thinking of John Lennon, Bowie’s own older brother, singing at the end of “God,” on his first solo record. “I wa-a-s the dreamweaver,” John sings, “but no-o-w I’m reborn.” It is the most beautiful and affecting vocal I know in popular music, and Bowie sings in that rarefied neighborhood too. The voice of God, in more ways than one. I think Henry Rollins is spot on in his Bowie tribute when he speaks of him as having an “intimate distance” with his audience. The distance of his authority, the intimacy of his beauty, the two always intertwined.

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2015 Top 10

I posted next to nothing here in the second half of last year, so here’s making up for lost time: here is a list of a few notable things I ran across over that period. I can’t resist stealing the format Greil Marcus uses for his monthly Real Life Rock Top 10 column, especially since he just published a book collecting all the columns he’s written over the years. Something to strive for.

1. Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog. In a year of decent-to-good memoirs by good-to-great musicians, this 80-minute meditation on memory, time, and loss was more powerful than the rest of them put together. There is a lot to say about this multilayered film, but two pieces in particular, one in the middle and one at the end, and neither one about dogs, truly blew me away. It would ruin the movie to give them away, but in the first, “A Story About a Story,” the artist, who’s been telling personal stories in one form or another for forty years, is brave enough to unpack and expose all the assumptions and poses behind the whole genre. And in the second, “The Lake,” she gives you a take on parent-child dynamics that my wife and I are still arguing about. Anderson’s work is always artistic and creative, but this film has an emotional rawness and a directness that feels like a brand new direction more than a summation. She was kind enough to stop by to chat at the screening that I attended, and I asked her if the “story about a story” episode in the middle of the film was indicative of a new outlook on storytelling as a whole. She said yes, in a way that made me think she was still figuring out the consequences, and that they would flow into her work for years to come. I can’t wait.

2. Mourning Sun, at the West End Theatre, NYC. Directed by my friend Ari Laura Kreith, this is a play about the fallout from the cycle of child marriage, rape, and pregnancy in Africa. You worry that an issue play might be didactic or artless, but there is a lot here that is artful, especially a scene late in the first act that brings the issue home in the most devastating terms.

You see a stark set on an almost bare stage, you see a young woman getting on a bus. The bus driver notices she smells like a bathroom, the woman explains it away: she just encountered someone incontinent, she says. She moves, unsteadily, to the back of the bus. The passengers around her rise up in disgust, the driver kicks her off the bus. She tries to get on another bus, and the cycle repeats. The woman has an obstetric fistula, a hole in her bladder, from when she was raped as a child bride, became pregnant, and went into prolonged labor that her body wasn’t mature enough to handle. Now she can’t stop peeing. She tries to get on a third bus, repeating the same painful dialogue, and by then you’re squirming in your seat, so uncomfortable that you think you might actually smell the urine in the theater.

3. Richard Thompson, “Fergus Lang.” I saw Richard Thompson play a great solo acoustic show at NJPAC in Newark in April, and the one new song that stayed with me was this caustic takedown of a not-at-all disguised Donald Trump figure. It was springtime then, months before Trump announced for president, and Thompson’s satire played mostly for laughs. “Fergus Lang (the Trump stand-in) has a fine head of hair,” Thompson sang in the chorus, “when the wind’s in the right direction.” In the moment, the song seemed totally over the top — but something changed later in the year, as Trump became the 2015 king of all media and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. When you hear “Fergus Lang” now, all you can do is shake your head that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Thompson may have a rich artistic imagination, but the real Fergus Lang has managed to imagine a kind of politics that even Thompson couldn’t dream up. If art is the expression of imagination, as Henry Moore said, then is Donald Trump also the frontrunner for the Grammy for New Artist of the Year?

4. Golden State Warriors and Kansas City Royals. Sports stories don’t have to be inspirational, and the good guys don’t always end up on top. But when the teams that play with the most joy end up winning it all, it’s beautiful to watch.

5. The Red Iguana, Salt Lake City, UT. Mexican is my comfort food, and this unassuming place in Salt Lake City had the best mole sauces, and probably the best Mexican food, that I’ve ever eaten. When you first come in, they give you a sample of eight moles, and you can have your meal made with any of them. I had a chile relleno with a combination of two sauces, and I still feel like I can taste them months later. I can’t imagine anything hitting the spot more after a long day’s drive across Utah.

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6. The Mekons, “Heaven and Back,” Bowery Ballroom, NYC. After a recent documentary expanded their cultural presence from hundreds of fans to possibly thousands, the Mekons toured this summer to larger crowds than usual, and on this night in July, the Bowery was packed. The band responded with fierce intensity, cutting out much of the usual banter between songs, and reminding you that no matter what you knew or thought you knew about them, they were a great rock and roll band first. They even brought out the high leg kicks for “Heaven and Back”… and then Rico fell backwards into Jon’s guitar amp, some of the sound went out, and the song disintegrated into three minutes of archetypal inter-Mekon insults, sarcasm, and laughter. Hard as they may try, they can’t escape being hilarious. Then everybody picked themselves up and tore into the next number. It was as perfectly Mekonic as you can get.

7. Sleater-Kinney, “Was it a Lie,” Kings Theatre, NYC. The opening notes echoed the better-known “Jumpers,” S-K’s other death-themed song, which the band had ripped through near the beginning of the set. But while “Jumpers” stands in direct opposition to its subject matter, as perhaps the most life-affirming song you’ll ever hear, “Was it a Lie” is a lot harder to pin down. It is complex, and subtle, and what makes it work is the astonishing delicacy and empathy of Corin Tucker’s vocal. This one is for everyone who makes the mistake of thinking of Tucker mainly as a screamer.

8. Sleater-Kinney, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Kings Theater, NYC. One of the band’s few false moves on this December night was a rushed rendition of one of their early statement cuts, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” It didn’t ring true because it came across like a standard rock number, without any of the mystery, emotion, and slow self-discovery of the original version. The otherworldly shrieks that began the chorus were reduced to simple yells, the band calling happily to their audience, no longer the involuntary sounds of a woman alone in a room, discovering, step by step, the power of her voice. The song didn’t seem relevant for the band anymore.

Then, when the band came back out for their encore, Carrie announced, “We know it’s Hanukkah,” (and indeed a menorah rested on top of her amp), “but we’re going to play a Christmas song.”

What came next turned out to be a slightly obscure mid-period piece by those same Ramones. If you’ve never heard it, that’s because it’s not that notable: the original is hedged, campy, and plays largely for laughs. But S-K changed the terms of the song. Carrie put down her guitar, caressed the mic and slithered over the stage just like Joey Ramone used to, but with a seriousness of purpose that was all Sleater-Kinney. When she wished you “Merry, merry, MERRY Christmas,” she held you by the scruff of your neck; when she called out, “I don’t want to fight tonight!” her voice was filled with desperation, but also a keen awareness of her own capability. It was crystal clear, in that moment, why “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” had sounded obsolete earlier: the band was already your Joey Ramone, and much, much more.

Meanwhile, alone in a small town basement somewhere, a thin, quiet, completely straight-eyed 14-year old was trying out voices that she might use to let you know how much she wanted to be your Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Fucking Weiss. Shoulders of giants.

9. Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Two sequels to beloved sci-fi trilogies from the late 70’s and early 80’s with more than a few parallels. Both series were known for a grimier than usual picture of the universe, for one thing, and in both cases the second film in the trilogy was clearly the best and the third was relatively weak, for another. (In one case there was also a set of prequels that nobody wants to talk about, so I won’t either.) Seeing the Star Wars film was like seeing a band you used to like as a kid getting back together after twenty years and delivering a crowd-pleasing show of their hits, all the old formulas working as well as ever. Which might seem like enough, until you see Sleater-Kinney, or Fury Road.

10. Lou Reed, “Turning Time Around.”A late 90’s composition by Laurie Anderson’s late husband, played over the closing credits of Heart of a Dog, fitting the moment so perfectly that you couldn’t believe it wasn’t written specifically for the movie. Weren’t Lou and Laurie in the studio together working on it, going over sounds and timing and exactly how the credits would roll over the track?

Rhiannon Giddens Conquers the Universe

I came in with expectations. My wife introduced me to Rhiannon Giddens’s rootsy band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, several years ago, and their first record, called Genuine Negro Jig, had quickly become a staple of family car trips, music that both kids and grown ups could agree on. I had heard she had wowed New York City at an all-star benefit last year, heard she was making records with T-Bone Burnett, covering everyone from Odetta to Patsy Cline to Geeshie Wiley. And frankly, something about the vibe in the crowd at Town Hall last Thursday night made me suspect that this might not be an ordinary night. “There’s Joel Coen,” my wife whispered to me. “There’s Paul Krugman.”

I mention the celebrities only to say that you forgot all about them one number in (“Spanish Mary,” off the New Basement Tapes), because on this night Giddens put herself forward as the only person that mattered in the room, or possibly the world. Her version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” wasn’t quite as spooky as the original, but it had a soulfulness that I suddenly realized the song had always had, but I never quite heard expressed so clearly. She took on Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” a song of such power you almost can’t imagine anyone else covering it, and harnessed that power, spread it out, amplified, and clarified it, till every word rang in your head at once, yet the essential mystery of the song remained. Giddens’s range is astonishing: Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” loose and informal and playful, Nina Simone’s “Tomorrow is my Turn” slow and operatic, numerous other numbers entwining folk music and soul and blues into one. She introduced each song as a fan, with humility and boundless respect for the greats; when she sang, all that humility was swept away, and she expressed her respect for the greats  in the best way possible, by riding right alongside them.

And just when you were wondering if there was anything Giddens didn’t cover, if there was any other place she could take her music, she sang THIS (video from an earlier concert at the same venue):

I mean, sometimes there are just no words.