Archive for the 'collaboration' Category

is it worth it?

11Jan10

Robert Wyatt quit Twickenham when it started to gentrify, he complained.  I feel partly responsible because my moving in coincided with his moving out.  I don’t think it was my fault, although I did arrive with two cars — a cardinal error for a cycling campaigner — but neither was a BMW.

In fact, one was a 1981 Mark V Ford Cortina Estate, beige, purchased specifically for the move.  In subsequent years it didn’t do much: being lent to visiting family and friends, or used occasionally to transport our tandem.  It cost me less than one month’s car allowance. OK,  the car allowance makes me sound yuppie.  I was a 28-year-old bureau chief:  precocious perhaps,  but I think the Cortina shows I was handling it well.  The other car was a Citroen 2CV6 Dolly, cream and maroon, about which there is no denying that it was a convertible.

I’m not an avid Robert Wyatt follower, but he does hold a special place in my musical affections  because when I was about 17 I rushed out to buy Shipbuilding on 12″ vinyl the moment I heard it, even though its melancholy reflection on the Falklands War, if I’m honest, probably did not fully reflect my politics at that time.  The record contained a haunting version of Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight.

Some of you will know thatWyattingis a verb for entering a pub and playing  weird tracks on its  juke box to upset the regulars.  In response to a Guardian question as to whether he would himself “Wyatt”, the psychedelic jazz-rock guru uttered this immortal line:-

Oh no. I don’t really like disconcerting people. Although often when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway.

On New Year’s Day, Wyatt was the guest editor of BBC Radio 4‘s flagship news programme Today, and he did a bit of disconcerting there too.  Wyatt revealed that, despite having no god, his private passion is to wander up to his local parish church in Louth, Lincolnshire, and listen to the choir — his argument being that amateur choirs, lacking the ticks of professionalism with which he’s all too familiar, are what music is really all about.  How odd.

It’s true enough, the parish choir is about as unsung in our culture now as it’s ever likely to get, unless you think Wyatt’s advocacy is a sign of some incipient church choir revival.  That said, the National Secular Society recently celebrated the forecast that church attendance will fall off a cliff.  So maybe the days of the church choir are truly numbered, Wyatt or no.

And when you think about it, what a peculiar thing the parish choir is.  What motivates people to turn up at least twice a week first to practice then to sing to and with an ever-narrowing community of the faithful?  Surely, these musicians, and especially those with the skill to lead such ensembles, have better things to do with their time?  Why not ply their art on You-tube or Britain’s Got Talent?

For my own part, I hesitate to disconcert those who come here for an intermittent dose of skepticism but, despite a consistent pattern of anti-clericalism since childhood, for the past five years I have been been climbing into a threadbare blue cassock and surplice (which may have already seen in excess of half a century’s service) to supply my inadequate baritone voice to a local church choir. This choir, on some winter nights,  had looked so thin that there were doubts whether it could rally a quorum for the next weekend’s communion service. My own voice — which, from the point of view of the choirmaster, probably shares many of the handling characteristics of a Mark V Cortina Estate  — sometimes feels that it has barely improved despite all the practice; it still struggles over the familiar, and can fall apart when overly exposed. But, like the Cortina did all those years ago, it normally gets me from A to B, and (with a following wind) sometimes other notes in the octave too.

From the choir stalls, a modern congregation can look like a strange perversion of the Pareto principle.  Twenty per cent may be over eighty.  Or is it that eighty per cent is under five? — a function of making church attendance mandatory for entry to any associated faith-controlled school.  All garbed up in an elaborate frock, you might be forgiven for thinking that you are just window-dressing to the young urban-professional parents’ will to secure the best for their little ones in an Ofsted-mediated educational world without having to pay.  They disappear after a while, when the school gate has been opened to them, which is incidentally where you will next see them.

Then there are the times at the weddings of young women, who you might be lucky to have seen three times before,  when you feel you may be not much more than a bridal accessory, helping those among their family and friends who have lost their voices through decades of their own neglect stumble through what were once familiar rousing hymns to some common heritage.  You earn your money by filling the gap while registers are signed and witnessed, money which for some time  in our case has been hypothecated to a fund for new robes.  By the way, I heard tell of one bride (not local) who, when asked why she didn’t have the parish choir sing at her nuptials, replied that it was because they were too ugly.  Nice to know that, for some ladies, the parish choir is  in a category below corsages.

But then, there are the times when you have to contain your own tears at the funeral of a fellow singer whose participation has lasted decades and for whom singing provided a source of sustaining health and inter-generational companionship.  Or the time when you glance up momentarily from your score in a quotidian service to catch the doleful eye of  someone recently bereaved, or otherwise troubled, or the transfixed gaze of a musical toddler, someone who may later be driven to sing too, arm stretched aloft as they are dragged down the aisle to be blessed at the communion rail, perhaps witnessing real music for their very first time.

There is no shortage of music in the world, most of it now free at the point of download, but it sometimes seems that, for the handful of minutes that we pipe up every second Sunday, and perhaps this is what Wyatt is driving at, some power law of love is in operation, disproportionate to the music’s duration and even its absolute quality.

All that said, if we can press the pause-button on self-deprecation for a second or two, it is not always as haphazard or mark-missing as it sounds.  In the week before Christmas in a great many churches, and for as far back as it now matters, secular and liturgical have met as some sort of equals in the traditional carol service, something for which most choirs put in many hours of disciplined practice.  Doubtless, Wyatt was invoking this when he referred to his favourite piece of music as being Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the Herefordshire carol This is the Truth Sent from Above, a truth he  nevertheless rejects.  As chance would have it, it was part of our candlelit Nine Lessons & Carols this year too. Through little bits of luck that brought in some new voices, our choir finally delivered a performance worthy of its tireless director: better, in his estimation, than any in the previous 20 years.

It’s a little rehearsed fact that English church music is the oldest Western musical tradition, stretching back 1400 years. Is it worth it? Only time will tell.

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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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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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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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