Monday, July 27, 2009

Breathtaking performances and thoughts on science funding

On a whim, R- and I went to see the ballet of Midsummer Night's Dream yesterday at Lincoln Center. And while all were quite good, one performer was breathtaking, even for a complete ballet novice like me. And apparently, it wasn't I alone who thought so, given the audience response to his solos and the couple in the seat next to us who came just for him. It reminded me of our recent trips to the opera, most of which were simply whelming, but one performance of La Boheme had a lead that was once again breathtaking (a view confirmed by the nytimes review we read later). And finally, our trip for the year to see the symphony, to see Joshua Bell perform a violin concerto, again breathtaking. Note, it's not like we do this a lot, these are among the handful of times we've been to Lincoln Center, but I expected in every case that these are among the world's best performers, they surely must all be at a level where a novice like me couldn't tell them apart, but there is still clearly a scarcity of true breathtaking talent.

Which again reminds me of my response to all those who constantly call for more scientists and engineers. There isn't much evidence that we need more of either. Both are good at producing new stuff for cheaper, but not at all clear I need any more stuff. (New health stuff is still genuinely useful, but there is already vast funding for health, not at all clear that more money could be efficiently spent).

Maybe what we need are more ballet teachers, and opera singers, and violin teachers. Gladwell's Outliers eloquently makes the point that genius is not born, it is made. And there are no doubt lots more out there who could achieve at such a level. And while we're at it, why not more chefs and artists and designers (I always use the example that it wasn't the iPhone's engineers that made it a hit--Apple is still paying off a patent infringement lawsuit to Creative who had the technology long before--it was its designers). Or even better, government bureaucrats shouldn't be deciding what we need, instead we should maybe let markets figure it out (of course market failures should still be addressed).
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