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Apr. 16th, 2016

Hamilton bubbles

I don't follow pop culture, and in particular music, at all closely. But through my social media feeds I get some sense of the media-hype cycles and who the biggest stars are – Kanye, TSwift, Adele – and sometimes I even join in the hype and buy a CD.

The Hamilton musical started becoming a common topic on my Tumblr dashboard late last year, despite my dashboard only mildly overlapping with any fandoms; it was enough to make me add one of the tags to my Tumblr Savior blacklist. Vox published a lot of stories and explainers about it. I saw a recommendation for the cast album on a blog I read, saying that "It’s a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton set to rap, but you will like it even if you do not like rap or early American history." The YouTube video of the first song is geoblocked in Australia, so it took a long time for me to give in and listen to it*, but when I finally did so a week ago, almost immediately I saw an Atlantic story about the GOP race with a Hamilton reference in the headline, a New York Times article about its historical accuracy or otherwise, and a tediously weird rebuttal in Vox (of course). Hamilton is everywhere.

*I installed Spotify for this, listened to the first 40-odd minutes, then bought the double-CD; Napster's lawyers would be proud of me.

But I seem to be living in a bubble or two, because the cast recordings are nowhere near as popular on YouTube as the pop music which crosses my radar. The opening song (geoblocked in Australia, and apparently unlisted on YouTube) has just 3.4 million views, having been uploaded in September 2015. I scrolled down the Billboard charts to try to find something comparable, and clicked on Kenny Chesney's Save It For A Rainy Day, which spent five weeks on the chart and peaked at #54, and which has over 11 million YouTube views since its upload July 2015. That seems pretty typical (in my admittedly very limited sampling) – I could watch the top 50 on Rage every week, and pretty much every song will be more popular than Hamilton currently is.

(The cast album is doing OK on the album chart, having spent half a year there, peaking at 12 or 15 depending on the source, and still at 19 this week. And maybe it's doing proportionally better on Spotify than on YouTube. Still I think there's a mismatch between Hamilton's presence in my corners of the Internet, and how many people are actually listening to it.)

That Hamilton isn't Swift-level popular is probably because it's theatre, inherently not a mass-consumption product. The Richard Rodgers Theatre seats about 1300; at around eight shows a week, the total audience for the first year of its Broadway run will be about half a million. Of course the album makes it far more accessible, but it's marketed as a musical, and most people will therefore ignore it.

Why is it everywhere in my Internet then? One possibility is that even the presence of mashup fandom posts on my dashboard doesn't imply that everyone reblogging has watched or listened to Hamilton:

While catching up recently with a friend who is much more active in fandom than I am, she mentioned Hamilton. “Oh, have you seen the show?” I asked. “It’s incredible.” She laughed and responded that she hadn’t listened to a single song, but “it’s on my Tumblr dashboard—every fandom mashes up with it, so it’s like I know it.”

I follow a handful of people from so-called 'rationalist Tumblr', a loose grouping of people vaguely connected to LessWrong, generally without all of LW's strange dogmatism. Many of them often think in ways I like, and apparently that includes appreciating clever rhymes about weighty subjects.

I keep an organised collection of my favourite science songs (link!), but economics or history works as well. Hamilton gives us clever rhymes with professional production, and gives us 20,000 words of it. It's so lyrically incredible that it oughtn't take much to spread across a receptive little Internet subculture once someone in there first listens to it.

Hamilton's more than just clever rhymes (though so many of them fly by so quickly that it rewards multiple listens) – it's a compelling story in its own right with interesting characters, and totally warrants an even larger dedicated fan base.

My favourite aspect of the fan side of Hamilton is the Ham4Ham YouTube videos. Hamilton tickets cost a lot, but a handful are sold cheaply to lottery winners, who used to form a crowd outside the theatre. Miranda would organise some sort of short performance for the patient crowd, someone would video it with their phone and upload it to YouTube (they've since switched to online lotteries and pre-recorded Ham4Ham videos on the official YT channel). These videos often have poor sound quality, people running in front of the camera, and they have astonishingly high like:dislike ratios. Usually a ratio near 100:1 is what you'd get for a video that's really good (or an old song that people who don't like it won't search for), 200:1 for something exceptional. This poor-sound-quality video is at 375:1; this spoken-word version of Cabinet Battle #1 from the White House is at 500:1; a six(?)-year-old Lin-Manuel lip-synching (a video of little interest apart from its subject) is at 1377:1. It's a very happy corner of YouTube, both in the ratings and in the comments.

What about Vox and the Atlantic and the New York Times? I wonder if it reflects what Freddie deBoer complains about ("If our political media was made up of something other than affluent Ivy League grads...") – the people interested in theatre are a small proportion of the general public, but there's a disproportionate number in the media. (On a related note, Matt Bruenig had a hilarious line about Paul Ryan, tweeting that "his schtick is so well calibrated for the NPR/Hamilton crowd, it's actually kind of impressive".)

On the other hand, Vox is pretty SEO-focused, so presumably their Hamilton articles get lots of clicks. And when Junkee posted an article on Facebook about (tentative) plans to bring Hamilton to Australia, it got 500 likes and 100 shares, a lot better than Junkee FB posts usually do.

Is it just that the relatively small Hamilton-fan demographic is super-passionate and will read and share articles on the subject? I don't know.

No conclusion.

(But if you're not sure if listening to the 2.5-hour cast album is worth the time investment, try this 4min video of Miranda at the White House, performing in 2009 what became the opening song to the musical. The only background knowledge assumed is that Aaron Burr, as Vice-President, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and that Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, is on the US $10 note.

If listening to the cast album, I recommend following the Rap-Genius lyrics and annotations, so that it's clear who's who.)

Apr. 13th, 2016


Very late, I listened to the Hamilton cast album. My take is that it is good, and below I list some of my favourite bits (numbers are track numbers).

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Jan. 9th, 2016

Star Wars

Spoilers ahead. The Internet has no shortage of Star Wars opinions, but Star Wars is fun to think and write about even if there's no-one reading.

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Nov. 11th, 2015

Dream closure

(There's no point to this story – it's just an unusual pair of dreams for me.)

A while ago – a year-ish perhaps, but it wasn't so remarkable at the time that I noted it down anywhere – I had a dream, possibly a recurring one, that I'd gone back to university. Studying for a coursework Master's, I was enrolled in a geostatistics course, the sort of course that I was lecturing in real life. And I was totally overwhelmed by it. I couldn't keep up with the assignments, and as the weeks went by, it became clearer and clearer to me that I was going to fail. I dropped out, my self-confidence crushed, having lost what is perhaps my best skill, namely passing maths-heavy university courses.

Those feelings of total inadequacy passed soon after waking up, and I hadn't thought back to those dreams since long after waking up after the last of them. Then last night I dreamt that I'd taken on tutoring a third-year maths course in neural networks, despite only knowing about one sixth of the lecture material. (I'm working through a book on the subject over at my .com.) I was sure that I'd be able to learn the content well enough as the course progressed to teach it.

I can't remember if I was awake or still dreaming when I recalled my dreamt coursework failure of a year ago, though given the strength of the emotions involved, it was surely while still dreaming. It was as though, by becoming a tutor for material that I didn't yet know and being sure that I'd do a good job at it, I'd redeemed myself for giving up on the geostats course. A small moment of strongly felt triumph, a heavy weight lifted from my shoulders. I woke up happy.

Jan. 12th, 2015

Brief notes on partially franked dividends

On a recent trip to Brisbane I was having dinner with a group of old friends, and I realised that we had become incredibly boring people who talked about superannuation, the stock market, and so forth. In this post, I set out some notes on the taxation of partially franked dividends; I think it is relevant to at least two people, author included.

(I worked this algebra out today, not financial advice, may only apply to Australia, may not even be correct though I think it is, etc.)

You own shares in a company. The company pays out a dividend to its shareholders, without having paid company tax on it first. In this case, we call the dividend unfranked, and you pay tax on it according to your marginal income tax rate (probably 32.5% or 37%). If your marginal income tax rate is ti, and the dividend is D, then you'll owe the tax office ti*D.

The more complicated case is if the company pays its company tax on the dividend before giving it to shareholders. If the company tax has been paid in full, then the dividend you get is fully franked. The key points are:

  • The ATO taxes, at your marginal income tax rate, the imputed full value of the dividend before the company tax was paid on it (the grossed-up dividend).
  • You get credits for the tax that the company has already paid on the grossed-up dividend, so that the tax isn't paid twice.

Algebra should make this clearer (if not, there are heaps of explanations on Google). Let tc be the company tax rate (30%). Let Df be the franked dividend, i.e., what you receive. Let Dg be the grossed-up dividend, i.e., what the tax is being imposed on. We have

(1 - tc)*Dg = Df.

More generally, the dividend may be only partially franked. Let f be the fraction of the dividend which is fully franked. Then

(1 - f*tc)*Dg = Df.         (*)

The total amount of tax the ATO wants is ti*Dg. The company's already paid f*tc*Dg, so you owe

tax_owing = ti*Dg - f*tc*Dg = Dg*(ti - f*tc).

(If this quantity is negative, then the tax office owes you money, and this can either turn into a tax refund or offset some other tax.)

It is more useful to use (*) to work out how much tax you owe as a function of the dividend that you receive:

tax_owing = Df * (ti - f*tc) / (1 - f*tc).

Plugging some numbers in: if the dividend is fully franked, then f=1. Say ti = 37.5%, and tc = 30%. Then you owe the ATO (37.5% - 30%) / (1 - 30%) = 10.7% of the dividend you receive.

In the last couple of years, Vanguard's VHY fund has been giving distributions (which I gather is called a different term to 'dividend' because the distribution comprises lots of individual dividends from all the companies in the fund) around 70% franked. Plugging in f = 0.7, we get (37.5% - 0.7*30%) / (1 - 0.7*30%) = 20.9%. So about a fifth of the distribution you get will go to the tax office.

(This remains the case even if you set up an automatic re-investment plan; the ATO treats it as though you received the income in the form of partially franked dividends, then bought more shares with it. The income is taxed.)

We can use this to estimate the effective returns from a fund. From the above link, VHY's growth since inception has been an annualised average of 13% p.a., comprising 7.1% p.a. growth in the unit price and 5.9% p.a. in distributions. Since about a fifth of the latter is eaten up by tax, the effective return has been a bit under 12% p.a. rather than 13%.

My eyeballing of the table in that PDF file suggests that taking a percentage point off the returns is a decent rule of thumb for working this out, at least if you're in my tax bracket. The forecast growth is 8%, so I'll interpret that as around 7%. (And remember that as a 95% confidence interval, the forecast for a single year is more like (8 +/- 25)%.)

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