Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

I managed to live over 40 years without ever consciously hearing the word “pianism“.  And perhaps that explains why there is no appropriate Wikipedia entry. Then again, maybe this is a genuine example of social media failure.  How can it be that a word that describes the technique of playing one of the most transformative musical inventions of all time has not been covered yet by one of us wisdomofcrowdshivemindtypewritermonkeys?

If I follow the logic of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, it is actually my fault there is no entry for pianism; being the first person to have discovered the chasm in the wikicrust, I should have done my social media duty and filled it in with what passes for the aggregate of my knowledge so that others following would not stumble into the same psychotic abyss.  Instead, selfishly, I thought I’d share this glaring absence with you my few friends for a bit of a snigger.  But you are probably not sniggering, except perhaps at my archness, which, after all this time, I’m a little disappointed that you’re not accustomed to yet.

In mitigation, social media delivered me a gem just the other day: one of those recycled gems that litter the digital steppe.  Via some path I can’t now recall, I ended up on Amazon reading a DVD review that immediately and uncharacteristically prompted me, Pavlov-canine-like, to click “Add to Shopping Basket“, surreptitiously bypassing the obligatory cooling off period in “Wish List“:

My title [One of the Most Extraordinary Piano Films Ever Made] applies primarily to the 1965 black and white film of Alexis Weissenberg playing Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, amazingly creatively filmed in Stockholm by Åke Falck. I remember seeing this film on TV almost forty years ago and the memory of it has stayed with me ever since. I am so pleased finally to have a copy of that marvellous film. Weissenberg was in his early thirties at the time and at the very height of his considerable form. The views provided by Falck are highly unusual but each has a clear intention of adding to our enjoyment of the music by showing us in closeup both the hands of Weissenberg and the movements of the mechanism of the piano; the camera actually almost climbs inside the piano. The whole thing is filmed with high-key contrast. This is one of the great piano films ever made.

Having confessed to an ignorance of pianism, I am not, however, going to reveal here that I had not heard of Alexis Weissenberg either, nor ever knowingly listened to Petrushka (orchestral or piano version). So don’t ask.

About 18 months ago, I did finally come across this word “pianism”, and on Saturday mornings now I sometimes get to observe it (albeit at my own not inconsiderable expense) being painstakingly transferred from one generation to another.  But I would not dare create a wiki based on these fly-on-the-wall insights.

The other day too, I overheard someone say that, in contrast to the guitar, the piano always sounds like the piano.  Reining in my passion for contradiction I said nothing, even though I was sure that couldn’t be right.  Pianism is about making the instrument sound like all sorts of things that it is not.  A little way in to the Petrushka, the piano does stop sounding like a piano (around 1 minute 35 seconds). In the DVD “extras” Weissenberg too makes an argument that the sounds a piano can make defy the physics of hammer hitting strings. (Ironically, you will find out if you buy it that to film the Petrushka they had to use playback and build a piano without strings).

By other miracles, the copyright owners appear to have provided this enticement for your limbic system. Neurologically speaking, and pace Clay Shirky, the definitive book on pianism might be subtitled How Change Happens When People Spend A lot of Time On Their Own.

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No tag for this post.

There should be a rule that if Professor Robert Shiller is speaking in public within a hundred miles of you, you must make tracks to hear him. A statistical analysis of my own movements over the past 12 months might show that I’m already following this rule. However, with just the two data points, you should not bet the farm on it…though many have done worse (I know: I’m related to some of them). When they reform Parliament, they should sneak that rule in there for our politicians, and then apply it more broadly to the population at large. Once you’ve read Shiller’s new book, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (US edition), with Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, you’ll know why.

I’ve more or less finished Animal Spirits, and the purpose of my Monday trip to Policy Exchange was to hear Shiller discuss the book and his new pamphlet for the hosts: a proposal that the UK adopt an inflation-indexed unit of account, like Chile’s Unidad de Fomento, as a means to cure the population of money illusion. I felt blessed to be invited.

Animal Spirits is surely essential reading for any student of our broken times. And The Case for a Basket, which you can download for free, has a good chance of becoming government policy; when I last saw Shiller in London in the autumn, he’d been in to see Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Lord Mandelson, if I recall correctly. Meanwhile, as the leading centre-right think-tank, I understand that Policy Exchange will be the leading source of ideas for any future Tory administration, assuming they can keep their moats clean, as it were.

But I could not help wondering if Shiller’s audience was taking all this behavioural economics stuff in, or whether he was just another speaker on the Westminster agenda to be consumed: knowledge of his ideas being a necessary source of signalling to others in polite conversation. Shiller’s argument that our animal spirits have been dangerously discounted by economic thinking surely makes him a heretic in this milieu; the reformation he foretells has barely started. There are a lot of PPE graduates out there, and a greater concentration within 100 yards of Parliament.  Would they not need to go back to school, or be reprogrammed?

But I digress.

To imagine how the “basket” would work, you have to understand it is a unit of account, a measurement of value that would not alter with inflation. Or deflation, for that matter. If you had your house to sell, and wanted to make sure you got what you paid for it a year later, you would offer it at the same basket level. You would avoid having to perform a complex accounting calculation that, on a day-to-day basis, is beyond most of us, including our elected representatives. We prefer to think in nominal prices rather than real terms. So we get easily persuaded that houses are a sure winner when we should all know there ain’t no thing as sure winners. Shiller shows US house prices actually closely track inflation over the longest time. A basket system would be especially useful for fixing ongoing contracts, like legal fees or alimony payments; the “basket” ensures that a figure agreed today will buy the same amount of goods and services in the future for the recipient.

Shiller maintains that the Chilean system — introduced in Chile in 1967, but only really taking off in the 1980s — has worked successfully, despite local complaints about its long-term viability, and could prove just as useful in low-inflation economies like the UK and US.

What I find attractive about it is that it is a simple solution to a complex set of pernicious social behaviours. According to Shiller, all that the government needs to do is supply its institutional credibility to a calculation and then create a website. Electronic payments systems would enable any number of assets and commodities to be listed in baskets and payment settled via a real-time currency calculation. In effect it stops you being defrauded by history.

The idea of Animal Spirits, meanwhile, is not new. Shiller points out that the phrase was used by John Maynard Keynes. But in their book, Shiller and Akerlof seek to increase the emphasis on non-rational factors which modern economics has tended to ignore. Money Illusion plays a key role. But they also emphasise issues like trust, bad faith, and corruption. And there is a wonderful qualification of the power of capitalism, with perhaps more than a gentle poke at our more optimistic libertarian friends:

…the bounty of capitalism has at least one downside. It does not automatically produce what people really need; it produces what they think they need, and are willing to pay for. If they are willing to pay for real medicine, it will produce real medicine. But if they are willing to pay for snake oil, it will produce snake oil.

Shiller is a curious student indeed. He reads old newspapers in his quest to understand mood and capture the narratives that transmit bad economic ideas. In Monday’s talk he regaled us with a newspaper column from the 1880s deploring the a collapsed property boom in Los Angeles. The columnist boldly asserted that never again would people be so stupid. To be fair, for nearly a century that was correct. So how do these animal spirits get going? This is what he and Akerlof say:-

Why do new kinds of corrupt or bad-faith behavior arise from time to time? Part of the answer is that there are variations through time in the perceived penalties for such behavior. Memories of major government crackdowns against corruption fade over time. In a time of widespread corrupt activity, many people may get the impression that it is easy to get away with it. Everyone else is doing it, it seems to them, and no one seems to be getting punished. To some extent, lowering one’s adherence to principles at such times is a perfectly rational thing to do. Lower principles at certain times may also reflect a social osmosis, as information about the probability of punishment for certain kinds of crimes spreads through a net of personal acquaintances, as Raaj Sah has documented. Such a process may be part of the confidence multiplier, as corruption feeds back into more corruption.

The variation through time in the extent of corruption of bad faith is also to some extent a reflection of the fresh opportunities that arise as new financial inventions of one sort or another appear, or as financial regulations allow innovations to be implemented. These innovations may not be understood initially by the public. This variation occurs because of cultural changes unrelated to fear of punishment or to changes in technology. These changes are clearly within the realm of pure animal spirits. Culture changes over time to facilitate or hinder aggressively competitive or predatory activities. Because these cultural changes are difficult to quantify, and fall outside the field of economics, they are rarely connected by economists to economic fluctuations. They should be.

Shiller and Akerlof continue with examples of how widespread flouting of 1920s US prohibition led to a more generalized disrespect for the rule of law. Then in the depression years things shifted again. By 1941,  bridge was the most popular card game in America, encouraging, as it does, cooperation, while also not being played for money. By contrast, the early years of this century have been characterised by the rise of Texas hold’em, bluffing, and the poker face, both literally and metaphorically.

You don’t have to look far for these animal spirits. If Shiller is now more likely to be the first voice the Tories turn to on matters to do with housing markets, this will be an improvement on a previous foray which enlisted the Honorable Kirstie Allsopp, presenter of property porn TV programme Location, Location, Location. I’ve often wondered why the kindling of animal spirits by one of our public service broadcasters had not long ago been scrutinized by a House of Commons select committee or two. But recent evidence shows the same spirits had taken hold there also.

Now if it were real animal spirits we needed to calm, Louis Armstrong would be our man. In the 1938 film Going Places, Armstrong plays Gabe whose music is the only thing that will settle the unrideable horse Jeepers Creepers.  Yes, you know where this is heading. Tell me I’m wrong, but it sounds like he too is asking “where did you get those PPEers?” How they hypnotize!

And did you Twitterers note how Duke upbraids Maxie? “Why don’t you stop thinkin’ up snappy sayings and start concentrating on business…”

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Sweet and Dangerous

A Scottish doctor today is arguing for a tax on chocolate to tackle obesity and the concomitant rise in type II diabetes. Of course some, including myself, have been labouring under the impression that chocolate might just be good for you, and that this might explain certain cravings, assuming you are eating the very high cocoa solid variety. But an empirical test this morning confirmed that it is not the chocolate I crave but the sugar. I read somewhere on the internet that if you think you crave chocolate because of a nutritional deficiency you should try eating some pure cocoa. So I did just that. It took about a quarter of a teaspoon of Green & Black’s Cocoa powder to convince me that it’s the sugar in chocolate that I’ve been craving. I’m pretty good at acquiring tastes but cocoa is nothing on its own: it needs sugar. And all that sugar does, it seems, is boost your insulin levels and leave you wanting more when your blood sugar crashes again later. Chronically, this will kill you.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes. If he is correct, the book pictured (above) by John Yudkin is from the graveyard of nutritional science. Published in the US in 1973 for a cover price of $1.95, this copy of Sweet and Dangerous appears to have left a thrift store some time later — somehow riding a wave of inflation to sell for $2.75 — before hopping the Atlantic where it would have been acquired by my late mother-in-law from a UK charity shop for 40p. By this time its bubble had finally burst, and Yudkin’s work is now well out of print. Were it not for the normal prevarication over getting rid of any books in the Knackered household, this battered edition might already have returned to second-hand bookstore oblivion; instead, it has been sitting on my desk for nearly nine months asking to be blogged about, reprieved by Taubes’ mention.

According to Taubes, the hypothesis that sugar consumption could be a primary cause of heart disease and other chronic illnesses was being taken seriously in the research community in the early 1970s. But it was in competition with Ancel Keys prevailing hypothesis that dietary fat was what mattered. This is what Taubes says:-

By the early 1970s, Keys’s dietary-fat hypothesis of heart disease, despite the ambiguity of the evidence, was already being taught in textbooks and in medical schools as most likely true. After Yudkin retired in 1971, his hypothesis effectively retired with him. His university replaced him (at Queen Elizabeth College London) with Stewart Truswell, a South African Nutritionist who was among the earliest to insist publicly that Keys’s fat theory of heart disease was assuredly correct and that it was time to move on  to modifying the diets of the public at large accordingly.

Yudkin became a figure of ridicule, and further research into the sugar and refined carbohydrate hypothesis was avoided by those who knew what was good for them professionally, so says Taubes.

Taubes draws out just how dramatic has been the increase in our refined sugar consumption over the past two centuries, suggesting that Yudkin was right to be more concerned about sugar metabolism:-

But the greatest single change in the American diet was in fact the spectacular increase in sugar consumption from the mid-nineteenth century onward, from less than 15 pounds a person yearly in the 1830s to 100 pounds by the 1920s and 150 pounds (including high fructose corn syrup) by the end of the century.

A fuller review and more mentions of Taubes’s book will arrive in due course. Just to say that I’ve been wondering whether it might be the most important book I’ve ever read. The paperback edition is now out in the UK.

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IMG_9551.CR2Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and author of Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently(UK)/(US), was interviewed this morning on Radio 4′s Today programme exploring the role of neuroeconomics in understanding the current crisis.  He’s in Davos for the World Economic Forum, with all the large fromages.

Back in the day, the Knackered Hack used to dispatch a team of reporters to Davos. Press places were then scarce.  Now I’m watching it all on Twitter, my very own self-organizing newswire, and tossing in the occasional iconoclastic observation of my own.  Who-da thunk it?  Everyone and his dog seems to be there; some shuddering, and not from the cold.

Berns message was about as negative as you can get when considering the current crisis.  He deftly applied the old-dog-new-tricks teaching heuristic to an entire generation:-

One thing that we know is when people make decisions that they are uncertain about is that they look to other people… We have seen along the way how other people’s opinions essentially pollute those judgments. Now,  modern markets are great. Now, economists like to talk about efficient markets and all of that, but the problem is that they are only efficient when people behave as individuals and render independent judgments.  Now I would probably go as far as saying the current crop of adults is a lost cause in that I think we should be focussing our efforts on the next generation and how to teach them to make judgment that are independent of each other and stop this crazy herd behaviour.

So there you have it.  All current adults are sheep.  Better cancel the Twitter account ;-) .  You can listen to the whole thing here.  I think it was edited, so there may be some context missing and the above quotation therefore not adequately representative. That’s mainstream media for you.

All that said, like a dog barking in the wind, I myself did tweet the following just a few weeks ago:-

Haunted slightly by counterfactual sense the boom promoted an entire generation of the wrong type of manager”

I’ll come back to that idea soon, I hope.  But in the meantime, given Berns’ imperative that we focus on the cognitive capacities of the next generation, it was a neat little coincidence that a review copy of a new textbook by David Hardman, entitled Judgment and Decision Making, arrived in the post yesterday from Wiley. US version available here.  Just take a look at the contents:-

  1. Introduction and Overview: Judgments, Decisions Rationality
  2. The Nature and Analysis of Judgment
  3. Judging Probability and Frequency
  4. Judgmental Distortions: The Anchoring-and-Adjustment Heuristic
  5. Assessing Evidence and Evaluation Arguments
  6. Covariation Causation, and Counterfactual Thinking
  7. Decision Making under Risk and Uncertainty
  8. Preference and Choice
  9. Confidence and Optimism
  10. Judgment and Choice over Time
  11. Dynamic Decisions and High Stakes: Where Real Life Meets the Laboratory
  12. Risk
  13. Decision Making in Groups and Teams
  14. Cooperation and Coordination
  15. Intuition, Reflective Thinking, and the Brain

Back of the net, as they say in soccer.

David Hardman's Judgment and Decision MakingDavid, with others, runs the London Judgment and Decision Making Group, whose seminars I’ve been lucky enough to attend when I’m in town.  If Berns is right, David should be needing a larger venue.  David assures me he will be blogging on the book before too long, so I’ll let you know when that happens.  We can definitely benefit from a regular dose of wisdom from this discipline.  Of course, it’s a little known fact that the Knackered Hack is already one of the leading decision science blogs on the web.  It says so here. And if you are wondering how that happened, the answer remains … well … uncertain.

Photo credit: stephenphampshire

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Tweet I wonder if Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success is going to inadvertently create a popular misunderstanding about success similar in form to my previously stated fear about what a superficial reading of Gut Feelings and The Wisdom of Crowds would do for effective decision-making. In a few Twitter exchanges yesterday, the notion […]


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