Archive for the 'creativity' Category

Down in the comments of an earlier music post I dug up a seminal BBC documentary about Richard Feynman.  I must have seen it when it first came out.  I recommend you plug your computer into the TV, sit down and watch it with any children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces or godchildren; there may be no greater gift.  A few minutes in he says this:

When you are thinking about something that you don’t understand you have a terrible, uncomfortable feeling called ‘confusion’. It’s a very difficult and unhappy business.  So, most of the time you are rather unhappy, actually, with this confusion.  You can’t penetrate this thing.  Now, is the confusion… is it because we are all some kind of apes that are kind of stupid working against this? Trying to figure out to put the two sticks together to reach the banana and we can’t quite make it? …the idea ? And I get that feeling all the time: that I am an ape trying to put two sticks together.  So I always feel stupid. Once in a while, though, everything — the sticks — go together on me and I reach the banana.”

Last Journey of a Genius

When it came to deciding on a business card for the blog, there must have been some spooky action operating at a distance, for this is what we came up with.

Knackered Hack

Long-time readers will remember my own grappling with bananas only to find that, as usual, I was thwarted. Parce que…

it is not a banana

banana photo credit -eko-

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I don’t know much about Lévy flights, and I don’t know much about Artie Shaw.  While I don’t have any Artie Shaw recordings (yet) he is a little bit of a hero of mine.

The standard biographical narrative of Shaw was that his performing career — which experienced some of the highest peaks in 20th century commercial musical achievement — was punctuated by periods of creative and physical exhaustion, including revulsion toward his popular success.  So, not many similarities to the Knackered Hack’s experience, except the downside elements, I admit.

In one of his later periods of retreat, it seems that Shaw was preoccupied with studying high-level mathematics.  I wonder if his creativity could perhaps be defined by the concept of Lévy flights?  Now, if you think I’m talking Jackson Pollocks here, you might indeed be right. For the distribution of paint by the very same may have been following some form of fractal pattern:-

There are two revolutionary aspects to Pollock’s application of paint and both have potential to introduce chaos. The first is his motion around the canvas. In contrast to traditional brush-canvas contact techniques, where the artist’s motions are limited to hand and arm movements, Pollock used his whole body to introduce a wide range of length scales into his painting motion. In doing so, Pollock’s dashes around the canvas possibly followed Levy flights: a special distribution of movements, first investigated by Paul Levy in 1936, which has recently been used to describe the statistics of chaotic systems.

I understand there is a risk of seeing heavy-tailed distributions everywhere, particularly to my untrained eye.  But with the creative arts — the clustering of success — it does seem to follow.

I wonder too if it explains, at a very banal level, the frequency of my blog posting, about which I know a few of you are concerned.  To illustrate the two extremes of recent Knackered Hack experience, some Artie Shaw to entertain you.  In the meantime, I will be trying to produce a cluster of posts.  Shaw fans can correct me, but the first piece below reflected the essence of the man, while the second was what people liked him for.  The titles will amuse Mandelbrotian students of markets.  And Shaw’s exuberant swing music flourished in the depression.

At the end of this one, Artie Shaw and sidekicks explore bounded rationality and sum up the perennial challenge for all businesses.

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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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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 […]

French Horn Close UpWhat has the French Horn to do with the science of uncertainty? The Economist review of journalist Jasper Rees’s book I Found My Horn may have nailed it.  The book chronicles Rees’s mid-life crisis in which he picked up his childhood instrument rather than running a marathon ;-) .  It’s now being published in the US as A Devil to Play: One Man’s Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument.  More pertinently, a play starring co-writer Jonathan Guy Lewis opens this very night on the London stage.

What makes the horn quite so hard to play is the length of tubing necessary to produce its tonal range; despite three valves, it is very easy to hit the wrong note, or fall off the right one. There’s a level of doubt about each outcome that does not trouble other musicians to quite the same degree.  Even professional orchestral players are more exposed than most to public musical catastrophe, because of the horn’s expressive value to composers.  For this, among other reasons, horn players are considered a breed apart.  This is how Simon Rattle puts it:-

You never eyeball a horn player. You just don’t. They’re stuntmen. You don’t eyeball stuntmen when they’re about to dice with death.”

Given the Knackered Hack’s quest for antidotes to hubris, perhaps mastery of the horn (if that is not a contradiction in terms) should be considered an essential qualification for public or corporate office?  I’ve noticed that this website seems to attract a disproportionate number of horn players (at least two).  Perhaps there’s a connection? You can purchase a CD by one of those readers below.

[By way of full disclosure, the Knackered Hack was placed first in the under 12s brass section of the Harrogate Festival in 1976, performing the second movement of Mozart's Fourth Horn Concerto K495, cough... :oops: ]

Photo credit: vtengr4047

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