Hamilton

I like Hamilton more than any other creative work I've ever consumed.



For much of the past few years, I've felt that I'm happier with life if I'm making something, or have recently made something and can look on it with satisfaction or pride. Whether it's a big project of some general interest, or just me coding some mathsy pictures for myself and a few interested friends, there's something about the effort that goes into it and the results that come out that give me a profound sense of purpose and usefulness. It's a feeling that very much isn't replicated by watching endless hours of sport on TV or reading essays in the New Yorker. I no longer have a TV and Foxtel subscription and I think I'm happier for it. I do now have a subscription to the New Yorker, and for the past six months I've been reading it and other long-form journalism or essay writing a lot more than I used to; it doesn't seem to give me any lasting happiness, and I've felt generally lethargic, perhaps burnt out after a hectic 2015.

(As a curious aside, reading books, electronic or paper, does bring me a feeling of accomplishment. But I haven't opened my Kindle since getting about a third of the way through Piketty.)

Daniel Kahneman talks about the experiencing self and the remembering self, and suggests that we usually give too much weight to the remembering self – ignoring the moment-to-moment happiness that we might feel but which later dissipates, instead focusing on our judgements when we reflect on what we've done or accomplished, or memories of experiences, even when we spend relatively little time enjoying any such reflections or memories.

There's a thought experiment of sorts, which I'll adapt very slightly for my purposes, that asks whether or not it would be worth it to hit a magic button that artificially made us happy all the time by directly stimulating the relevant parts of the brain (without any of the side-effects of narcotics). The LessWrong crowd call this "wireheading".

Despite largely accepting the logic of Kahneman's defence of the experiencing self, I nevertheless still care mostly about my memories and reflective judgements, as indicated by the second paragraph of this post. And I've generally been sceptical of being made artificially happy by wirehading – it would be a happiness without the reflective satisfaction that, rightly or wrongly, I seem to care about.

The one thing that's really shifted my mind on the wireheading question is listening to the Hamilton cast album. I'm not even a musicals person! I enjoyed it a lot on my first listen, but it grew on me enormously on subsequent listens.* I have never had such an intense emotional reaction to music. It's not like an Adele album or an hour spent on YouTube watching Paul Potts' Britain's Got Talent audition and related videos. Those work in ways that are well-crafted but basically expected. By contrast, after a week of listening to Hamilton, becoming more entranced each listen, I was moved to tears by the federalist papers. One night, after finishing the album and before falling asleep, I cried when thinking of Washington's Farewell Address.

*Perhaps this is partly because I wasn't following along with the lyrics on my first run-through. I'm not used to the speed of rap and missed quite a lot; also I was often unsure of which character was rapping/singing. I'm also not clever enough at understanding stories and musical themes to have made the sort of commentary in this very entertaining live-tweet Storify by someone listening to Hamilton for the first time.

This is on top of the more ordinary storytelling – the rousing battles in Act 1, and the assorted betrayals and deaths in act 2 and Eliza's epilogue in the final song. This mildly exaggerated and very silly video captures most of the effect (though, for whatever reason, I was never so invested in Hamilton's character that I felt hurt or frustrated when he cheated on his wife).

That first week was an incredible time. I'd spend my day at work looking forward to 5pm, so that I could go home and listen to Hamilton. I'd start it playing after dinner, and in calmer moments I might notice a clever rhyme that had previously flown past me, making me love the album a little bit more. But mostly, at least in my memory's telling, I was emotionally convulsing for the better part of two and a half hours. Exhausted and sobbing at the end of 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story', I felt that if I could put this listening experience on a constant loop, interrupted only to eat or sleep or shower, then that would be a satisfying life worth living, even if I accomplished nothing else of any merit.

I wondered how long these daily paroxysms would last. Sometimes when I hear a song I like I put it on loop and hear it several dozens of times in a row before I feel like changing it. Would I need to listen to Hamilton several dozen times before its effects started to wear off? No. The end of that week was the peak, and a couple of days later, my eyes weren't even watering at 'It's Quiet Uptown'. I thought that Hamilton would soon be merely in the category of "music that I like to listen to".

It got a new lease of life when YouTube recommended to me a bootleg video of 'Helpless' and 'Satisfied'.* I was a wreck a minute into 'Helpless' – seeing faces and colours and choreography made it a whole new level of wonderful. I started crying again when I next listened to the album straight through.

*My ethics on this are that if I see it on YouTube before Lin's lawyers launch the copyright claim, then it's fair game. I've resisted the urge to learn how to torrent to get the whole show.

And from then on, more than anything else, Hamilton as an abstract entity has been a radiating source of happiness. I check the Hamilton subreddit most days; I've cried at people excitedly posting that they have tickets and they'll soon get to see the show, and I've cried at fans writing reviews. I've watched lots of amateur covers and adaptations on YouTube and I almost always watch the videos a second time. I was well satisfied with the time I spent reading through a 23,000-word recap of the staging on Tumblr.

I've felt (and still feel) a sense of kinship with other fans of the show. Most of these are anonymous redditors or Tumblr users, but I've even felt some goodwill towards Louise Mensch (culture warrior and former Tory MP) after yesterday seeing her tweet a Hamilton line to a detractor and learning that she's been raving about the show since she saw it at the Public Theater last February. I've seen people who, for unaccountable reasons, dislike Hamilton, but for everyone else it really does feel to me like the show gives us a shared sense of humanity.*

*Freddie DeBoer: Me? Economically conservative but culturally liberal, I think poor kids should be fed expired Kraft singles but I like the Hamilton soundtra

The intensity of my reactions to the songs is now very much on the wane. I haven't even cried at 'One Last Time' for a couple of weeks, and that's perhaps given me some motivation to write this up – as a record for myself of what this extended listening experience was like.

The wonder of it is that Burr and Hamilton are hardly sympathetic characters. When Hamilton's motivated by high principles, it's for a subject as dry as federal government debt. It says something interesting about dramatic story-telling that this actually works to create a compelling part of Hamilton's character arc – as long as the character has some principle to fight for, the details of what's wanted don't matter so much, and we'll all go along for the ride.

I'm also fascinatd by my reaction to Washington's character. The historical Washington was a slave owner, and even put out an advertisement for the capture of a fugitive slave of his wife. The show regularly reminds the audience (or listener) about slavery, but Washington's own relation to the subject is mentioned only obliquely.* I love Washington's character. I don't know if that's because I can put up a wall in my brain between historical-Washington and the near-perfect character-Washington, or if I'm simply able to celebrate the good things while knowing about the bad, in a way that I'd perhaps previously have struggled with.**

*In the text, the closest is the deliberately ambiguous "Not yet" in response to John Laurens' "Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom." The actor Chris Jackson feels it keenly though, and he talks in this interview with some of the cast (at 27:45) about a subtle point of the staging in 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story'. When Eliza sings "I raise funds in DC for the Washington Monument," Washington responds with "She tells my story," and Jackson describes how he's exuding a revelling spirit at having his story told. Then when Eliza follows up with "I speak out against slavery," Washington feels shame, bows his head, and retreats.

**At first I felt it was the former, but I think the latter might be a growing principle in me. I've often enjoyed watching Barack Obama speak, but in recent years it's been an enjoyment accompanied by troublement, particularly about the millions of deportations he's been responsible for. But I was watching his commencement address at Howard University recently, it was interesting and inspiring in roughly equal measure, and I felt much freer, in a moral sense, to celebrate his words.

Of course all this reflection is by design – Jefferson in particular is made to be a brilliantly charismatic presence so that we enjoy him at the time and then later feel uncomfortable at having done so. I can only imagine what extra feelings it generates for Americans; I have to rely on cut-price borrowed patriotism to stir all these feelings up that extra little bit.



Michelle Obama described Hamilton (at 4:50) as "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life", which sounds absurdly over the top, but it's utterly appropriate. It is (so far) an enduring source of joy, and I can only hope that one day I'll actually see it live, as I impatiently await the film, to be released in circa 2036.

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.)

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.

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)%.)

Fixing relative notation in music

I've been learning a tiny little bit of music theory – major scales and chords and so on – and I would like to change everyone's use of relative notation.

The usual way of writing relative notes in a scale is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. In C major, this would correspond to C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Chords are usually written in Roman numerals, with capital letters for major chords and lower-case letters for minor chords: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio for C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim.

The first problem I see with this is when we want to describe secondary chords like V/V, "five of five": we temporarily go to the major scale of the 5, and extract the V chord from that scale. In C major, the V chord is a G major; in the G major scale, the 5 is a D, so the V/V is a D major chord.

I expect that people who work with these things regularly work these out as quickly as I can do my times tables, hopping between scales with ease. But I would like to work things out in terms of modular arithmetic. In the case above, things appear to work out: there are eight notes in an octave, 5 + 5 = 10, and 10 (mod 8) = 2, and D is the 2 in the C scale.

But this breaks down if we want the V/ii chord: 5 + 2 = 7, but the ii is D, and the 5 in the D scale is an A, not a B.

The mathematically-inclined may have already spotted at least one of the mistakes in the above reasoning. There are seven different notes in the scale, so we should be working modulo 7, not modulo 8. The second mistake is with the notation: the scale should start with zero, not 1.

To do the calculation properly, we need to first subtract 1 after doing the addition. So, V/V is 5 + 5 - 1 (mod 7) = 2. And V/ii is 2 + 5 - 1 (mod 7) = 6. It works.

Having to subtract the 1 is really annoying though, and the special case of ending on a 7 (e.g., V/iii which becomes zero mod 7) needs to be handled. A better scale would be

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

with chords
O, i, ii, III, IV, v, vio.

Then the normal-notation V/V becomes a IV/IV, and can be calculated as 4 + 4 (mod 7) = 1, the D major chord. And a normal-notation V/ii becomes a IV/i, and can be calculated as 1 + 4 (mod 7) = 5, the A major chord.

This is much cleaner, and the only minor issue is a roman numeral for the zero , which I wrote above as a letter O.

Taking into account how little music theory I know, I figure my proposal is somewhere about as optimistic as my suggestion for question marks.

Diamantina Drover

(A longer post than is likely warranted for not hearing lyrics correctly, but perhaps it's worth it if overseas readers (both of you) haven't heard the song before.)

I can't specifically remember it, but I think I first heard Diamantina Drover in the form of John Williamson's cover version on his album Mallee Boy. My parents had a few Williamson albums and that was definitely one of them. I recall later learning the lyrics in a primary school music class; I can't remember actually singing it, but we must have. Whether we sang something closer to Redgum's original or Williamson's more compactly arranged cover, I don't know, but certainly it's Williamson's version which remains one of my favourite songs (of any genre, and certainly within Australian folk).

The song's narrator tells us about how he moved from Sydney a decade ago to become a cattle drover. The first verse and chorus end with "I won't be back till the drovin's done." The last verse ends with "I won't be back when the drovin's done", a change kept in the final chorus as well.

I was at the YouTube video of the Williamson version of this song, and started reading the comments.

Musically i like Johns version but he should have stuck to the red gum lyrics. Changing that one little word at the end takes out all the impact and kind off the whole point to the song.

?????

I knew when reading this that the commenter was referring to the till/when switch, saying that Williamson had sung 'till' in every case instead of changing to 'when'. And I straight-up didn't believe this, until I played through the YouTube video, hearing "till the drovin's done" always and never hearing "when the drovin's done". I figured I couldn't have misheard the lyrics so consistently over so many years, so I checked the album version that I own... and I had misheard.

I'd obviously been taught the Redgum lyrics, and they'd stuck with me through many dozens of plays of John Williamson's version. Perhaps, many years ago, I noticed that John didn't make the till/when switch – having written this post I now recall noticing this sometime around 2000, listening to the song on cassette in Dad's car. But I'd long forgotten about it, if that is actually a genuine memory and not something I'm inventing for myself.

Someone not hearing lyrics right is hardly earth-shattering news, but this one feels much more interesting to me than others.

Having thought about this, I think a compromise would actually improve the lyrics even further. The final verse should switch to 'when', as in the original. But the final chorus should stay as 'till' – the final verse then would have that brief moment of raw honesty, before the narrator slips back into the lie that one day he'll move back to Sydney.

I V vi (iii) IV (I IV V)

In November 2006, Rob Paravonian posted his Pachelbel Rant to YouTube, and it quickly became popular, and now has 12 million views.



At the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Axis of Awesome played their Four Chords Song, and it became really popular, with that video having over 30 million views, and their 2011 official music video (with a slightly different set of songs) a tick under 20 million.

If you read the comments on the Pachelbel Rant video, you get things like this:

Was disappointed when the group "AxesofAwesome" completely ripped it off with "Four Chords".

I just realized that Axis of Awesome completely stole the concept of this video.


And OK, maybe those are the only two comments accusing the Axis of Awesome of plagiarising the concept. But I want to respond to them here anyway, because yesterday I discovered this video by Benny Davis (keyboardist for the Axis of Awesome) singing an early version of the Four Chords Song in November 2006.

So there we go, independent (re-?)discoveries of a piece of musical comedy.

YouTube comments

When Google made commenting on YouTube go via Google Plus, it created a loud chorus of online protest. News and tech sites ran with these stories, no doubt hoping to attract lots of eyeballs of angry YouTube commenters who didn't want to use Google Plus.

Left largely unremarked during the controversy, but generally known, was that YouTube comments sections were typically a cesspit featuring the absolute dregs of humanity. The switch to G+ comments has improved the quality of comments tremendously. You'll still see the occasional hundred-post-long flame war on Israel-Palestine on a video about ducks or whatever, but the percentage of non-offensive and even useful comments is much higher today than it used to be. I often read the comments, and occasionally I even find them useful – perhaps pointing me to an interesting related video, or raising some background information that I can go away and verify.

There's one exception to this general rule that I came across tonight. In the pre-G+ era, the saddest place I ever saw on YouTube was the comments of Mariah Carey's One Sweet Day. Almost all of the comments – literally 95% or more – were RIP messages to lost friends or family. Page after page of people finding some comfort from the song and leaving a little personal message. I don't know what motivated anyone to express their grief in the form of a YouTube comment, but the memory of those comments makes me tear up even now.

There's still some of that in the G+-style comments to One Sweet Day, enough to make me sad if I scroll through enough of them. But people posting the song to Google Plus are often not leaving a comment at all, or perhaps snarking about the evolution of Carey and pop music more generally since the 1990's.

A little bit of good Internet has been lost.