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The Expert's Ear: Expertise And Aesthetic Judgments
The first time I listened to Pinkerton, Weezer’s second studio album, I hated it. And so did almost everyone else. Rolling Stone readers ranked it as the third worst album in 1996. Writing for Entertainment Weekly Jeff Gordinier compared it to “a collection of get-down party anthems for agoraphobics.” Reacting to a wave of negative reviews the lead singer of Weezer, Rivers Cuomo, confessed that Pinkerton is a “hideous record.” A few years later something changed. In 2002, Rolling Stone readers – the same readers that said Pinkerton was the third worst album in 1996 – voted it the 16th greatest album of all time. In 2004 Rolling Stone re-reviewed the album and gave it five stars. A 2010 “Deluxe Edition” reissue of Pinkerton claimed a perfect score of 100 on MetaCritic.com. Pitchfork likewise gave it a perfect 10.0. Today, Pinkerton is one of my favorites. What, exactly, changed?
To paraphrase Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, a person’s appreciation of a thing or event varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it. If you know a lot about hockey, for example, you and a novice will pay attention to different parts of the game when there is one minute to go in the third period and the home team is down by a goal. Will they pull their goalie? Will they pinch the defensemen? Will the coach call a timeout? These questions never cross the novice’s mind because he doesn’t know the rules of the sport. Both you and him might enjoy the game equally, but your appreciation of it is objectively greater.
Academic interests provide other examples. Is there any question that a Lincoln scholar would appreciate the chance to meet Lincoln more than someone who knows little about Lincoln? If you are a geologist what you see when you visit the Grand Canyon is different from what a non-geologist sees. If you are a neuroscientist a full neurological explanation of consciousness is more exciting for you than for someone who knows nothing about the brain. I’m certain that the physicists working at CERN were many times more excited when they discovered the Higgs-Boson than I was when I first read about the discovery.
Appreciation is a function of knowledge because experts know what to look for. This is especially true in art. Think about Philip Glass listening to Arnold Schoenberg, Picasso looking at a Monet, or Rodin in front of Venus de Milo. My knowledge of modernism music, impressionism art and ancient Greek sculptures, in contrast, is next to nothing, so it’s nearly impossible for me do anything more than listen and gaze. If I took a class on these subjects I would appreciate them more. In the meantime Monet’s Impression, Sunrise is just another “famous” painting.
In Of the Standards of Taste David Hume likewise argues that experts in art are drawn to the best work because, just like a scientist is in the best position to recognize good ideas in his area of expertise, an artist, having refined taste, is in the best position to recognize superior work in his domain. Here’s Hume in his eloquent 18th century prose:
A great inferiority of beauty gives pain to a person conversant in the highest excellence of the kind, and is for that reason pronounced a deformity: As the most finished object, with which we are acquainted, is naturally supposed to have reached the pinnacle of perfection, and to be entitled to the highest applause. One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can only rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.
The question is if experts are “right” and the rest of us are “wrong.” Is my judgment of 20th century music neither more nor less true than Glass’? In How Pleasure Works Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom mentions Art, a play by Yasmina Reza that comments on the tension between novices and experts with respect to aesthetics. The main character, Serge, purchases an unframed white canvas with some hard-to-see diagonal scars – perhaps homage to Robert Rauschenberg. Serge shows it to his friend Marc:
Marc: You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?
[Serge complains to another friend later in the play]
Serge: I don’t blame him for not responding to this painting, he hasn’t the training, there’s a whole apprenticeship you have to go through.
Most people side with Marc’s implication: Serge is an art snob who claims to have superior taste even though taste is purely subjective; it’s impossible to determine if art is “good” or “bad” because what’s “good” and “bad” is matter of opinion. On the other hand, it seems true that the reason experts prefer certain works (i.e., Bach) to others (i.e., Britney Spears) is because experts are drawn to compositions that require excellence and have the biggest aesthetic payoffs. Presumably, this gravitation is based on objective qualities distinct from subjective tastes.
And so it was with Pinkerton. When Weezer released Pinkerton a small group of dedicated fans and critics praised the album. They probably saw the rest of the world like Serge: everyone else “didn’t get it” because they don’t have the “training” to appreciate it. Like Marc, I thought they were all snobs. This line of reasoning bothered Hume. In his essay he does not deny that subjective tastes exist but he does maintain that judgments could be better or worse and that experts, by virtue of possessing the most knowledge with respect to their domains, have the best judgment. He would agree with Serge that truly appreciating visual art requires knowledge of visual art. Accordingly, Serge is in a better position to comment on visual art, just like a geologist is in a better position to comment on the geology of the Grand Canyon. I think Hume is right. I was in middle school when I first heard Pinkerton. To the end, I was a novice listener in regard to contemporary Western rock music. A few more years of listening to music – I also learned a few instruments and was in a ragtag Weezer-wannabe band – and I came to appreciate Weezer’s album because I was in a better position to appreciate and judge it.
Does that make Pinkerton objectively good and that with enough expertise anyone will see why? In Human Accomplishment Charles Murray argues that relationship of expertise to judgment forms a basis for treating excellence in the arts as a measurable trait. “The high correlations among [experts] are a natural consequence of the attempt by knowledge critics, devoted to their subject, to give the most attention to the most important people… Various factors go into the estimate of importance, but they are in turn substantially associated with excellence.” Hume partially agrees. Experts are not infallible or free from cultural chauvinism - he clarifies that the experts “must preserve his mind free from all prejudice.” But despite potential biases, true standards of beauty are determined by the “joint verdict” of “true critics.” (Although both never claim that experts could be “right” in an absolute sense).
I leave the last word with you, the reader. Do objective standards in art exist? Are experts in the best position to recognize these standards because they appreciate work conducted within their domain of expertise? I think the answer is yes… but maybe that’s just my novice subjective opinion, uninformed by experience.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.