Archive for February, 2009

Frost

I imagine that, at the moment of first freezing, the pattern of frost is set.  So should a mutant, winter-dwelling butterfly flap its wings near your windscreen, a different pattern would appear than if it had not.  Dirt and debris on the screen, the micro-climate around the vehicle, the shapes of eddies: they must make for the variety of possibilities.  It’s about turbulence.

In an October interview, Benoit Mandelbrot said this:-

The word turbulence is one which is actually common to physics and to social sciences–to economics. Everything that involves turbulence is enormously more complicated: not just a little bit more complicated, not just one year more schooling; it’s enormously more complicated….

The behaviour of economic phenomena is far more complicated than the behaviour of liquids or gases.”

In the same joint-interview, Nassim Taleb said this:-

Never in the history of the world have we faced so much complexity combined with so much incompetence in understanding its properties….

You may have chain reactions we never imagined before. These come from intricate relationships in a system we don’t understand.”

So I guess we should beware of those who tell us confidently to expect future economic events to follow a familiar pattern.  They tend to be the same people who did not expect the current situation.

Frost

09122008633cropped.jpg

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For those who did not catch the original video, here it is:-

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toxic waste

12Feb09

Lifeblog post

Anyone who has read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings will recall the description in Chapter 10 of how the pressure to conform creates moral hazard. A powerful heuristic or default seems to operate: “don’t break ranks”. Failure to adhere can result in peer hostility. The experience of Paul Moore in trying to restrain HBOS executives reveals just how powerful and enduring a force that can be, assuming he is an accurate witness to his own experience at the bank. It goes some way to explain how groupthink can operate in the face of compelling contrary evidence. To quote from his memo to Tuesday’s Treasury Select Committee hearing:-

I am still toxic waste now for having spoken out all those years ago!

This might also reflect why today’s FT report leaking of an “independent inquiry” into Paul Moore’s allegations contained the following observations from the HBOS directors of his behaviour. A case of shooting the messenger?

They told KPMG that while Mr Moore’s technical abilities were “recognised as strong” and he gave his team a “strong sense of purpose”, they doubted his ability to work with his colleagues. His behaviour in one meeting was described by people interviewed by KPMG as “ranging from prickly to ranting to extraordinary to outrageous”.

For those not following these events, Moore was the head of Group Regulatory Risk Management for HBOS until 2005. He alleges that he argued with the board that HBOS’s sales culture was running out of control, creating huge risk for the bank should the economy and housing market turn downwards, and that there was a reluctance on the part of executives to have their decisions or behaviour challenged. At the time, HBOS CEO James Crosby dismissed his concerns and terminated his employment. Crosby then moved on to become deputy chairman of the Financial Services Authority. He resigned yesterday morning.

The full text of Moore’s memo is here. For the time being, it may be one of the most readable and historic documents of modern finance. One suspects there will be others.

Well, in his deposition to the Treasury Select Committee Moore mentions it, but I doubt that this five-minute module is mandatory yet at any business school. Let me know if I’m wrong.

Photo credit: Tim Penn

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A recent controversial report from the University of Buckingham found that UK schools specialising in music produce better physics results than those specialising in science. And then education watchdog Ofsted reported that half of the schools it had inspected lacked adequate provision for music education, that music teachers felt marginalized or isolated and did not receive the developmental opportunities they needed.

A couple of years ago Howard Goodall — who in this country is fast becoming to music what David Attenborough is to natural history — was given £10 million to expand the use of singing across the curriculum in primary schools. It was highlighted then that singing could be instrumental in the learning of a variety of subjects but that many teachers lacked confidence to deliver any musical experience at all for their students. A further £40 million or so seems now to have gone into the Sing-Up campaign.

Where teacher confidence is absent, I understand there are cascading techniques to spread music from older to younger children. Perhaps the Sing-Up promotional video hints at that:-

When something’s not working, or some kind of competitive differentiation is needed, there is a strategy (described by Scott Page) called “do the opposite“. So here’s a wild idea. Why don’t we give Howard Goodall the entire national education budget, not just £50 million, and then see what happens? I’d bet things would not get worse. And there’s an outside chance we’d solve many more of our educational difficulties than our current pragmatic approach, in particular the social problems that arise from the inability of barely literate children to take their proper place in an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy.

A whole chapter in a book of knackeredness could be devoted to the brokenness of modern musical experience. Music tends these days to be consumed rather than practised. The neat thing about Sing-Up is that it seems to be using technology to reverse this.

The institutions for participation in music are rightly or wrongly mostly organized by the classical music tradition, because that is where the majority of skills to perform and teach resides. But there exists now a kind of philistinism that has separated this world from the bulk of the population, as parents (and I suspect many teachers) prefer something more familiar and accessible (to them) from the world of pop. But in the past, whether it was colliery bands, or church choirs, quite serious music could be a source of social cohesion and, for the able person, a technology for social mobility.

Teaching children songs is a gift they keep for a lifetime, but the repertoire on offer seems to be diminishing. Sing-Up has its own Song Bank of high quality musical assets, which parents as well as schools can draw on. No matter how much music of whatever genre gets played at home, when a child really learns a song so that they can sing it out loud, and with others,  something more than just notes and words are rehearsed: a whole neurological, physiological and social complex gets activated. (Don’t tell anyone, but computer games, even I suspect Guitar Hero, don’t do that.)

When I was in primary school, the very flamboyant cathedral organist cruised in once a week in his rather incongruous metallic lime green Ford Mustang Mach I complete with thunderous tailpipes. We crowded his arrival, and believed, apocryphally, that this exotic vehicle (for small-town Yorkshire c1972) contained its very own mobile phone. He taught us folk songs from across the centuries, and from a standard school songbook. What a breath of fresh air if every child these days could sing the following paean to human fragility; it was my favourite.You wouldn’t catch a self-respecting pop musician touching that material these days, now would you?

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slow trains

03Feb09

fragment of map, Blandford cropped

1935 Map of the Somerset and Dorset Railway

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Moretehoe
On the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road
No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street
We won’t be meeting again
On the slow train.

I used to live near Blandford Forum, and for the past forty-three years have had some reason to pass through regularly or visit.  My grandmother was born there; my aunt and her husband ran a market garden from Blandford St Mary (it fed the town for two generations at least); my wedding reception was held there. But in the past 12 months it has ceased to be a node in my life.

I remember when they tore up the line, because it ran behind our home (see map).  It was part of the Somerset and Dorset Railway, the “Slow and Dirty” as it was  known colloquially.  I got into trouble for accepting a short ride between Charlton Marshall and Spetisbury from the workmen on their tractor and trailer.  My mother banished me to my room in disgrace, without any tea.  I was only four.

A few weeks ago, when I heard Joe Stilgoe’s version (right mouse-click open in new window, play track) of the Flanders and Swann classic Slow Train, my ears pricked up. This sounded special. The song is about the controversial closure of the local British railway network in the 1960s, of which the S&D formed a resonant part.  Where the original song is light opera, the cover is all cool jazz ballad.  Joe’s management put it up on Myspace especially for us.  Enjoy.

BromptonThere’s an argument — should it become necessary to mobilize a vast army of unemployed — to rebuild the railways.  If I put on my counterfactual-tinted spectacles, this network would never have been closed had the Brompton Folding Bicycle been invented earlier.   And there might not be a huge car industry now to drag us all into an even deeper crisis.  Just a thought.

Photo credit: Brompton Danny McL

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Tweet Nassim Taleb and Nouriel Roubini are trying something on Facebook.  With a self-styled “J’accuse,” they seek your friendship to support a campaign to get the bailout bankers to repay their bonuses.  Although I normally apply the Groucho Marx heuristic when it comes to joining clubs, I’ve signed up to this one.  They want it […]


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