Archive for the 'endurance' Category

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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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 […]

Ready.. Aim.. Fire!The BBC announced spending cuts last week, fearing that the recession will lead to TV licence fee evasion and reduced revenues. According to the FT,  it banned the corporate purchase of champagne in a sop to the newspapers, after being forced to reveal an annual spend on the bubbly stuff of £40,000. Of course, if the BBC had something to celebrate, this expenditure–provided it was on Veuve Clicquot–would not look like such a mistake. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Beeb brass were defending themselves in Parliament for the Brand/Ross/Sachs scandal.

It’s bad to bash the BBC if you get a lot out of the BBC, as I do. But it does often seem to be an organization that has lost its way. It remains somewhat technically innovative, although with unintended consequences (iPlayer), produces good costume dramas (Jane Austin/Dickens etc), entertains the kids well on Saturday evening (Dr Who, Robin Hood, Merlin) and continues its flagship natural history programmes, although these are starting to be more photographic than informational. Don’t tell anyone, but for the past few months I’ve come to believe that Radio 3 might actually be perfect.

More generally, though, its editorial and commissioning decisions seem not to be informed by either a current or future sense of what its public service needs to be. I’m waiting for the day, for instance, when its senior management is hauled before the UK’s Treasury Select Committee to answer questions about the role its programmes on property played in fuelling the real estate bubble.  But then, I wonder if the committee members have yet gotten round to reading any Robert Shiller. This, of course, is old news, well visited by belligerent websites, and even mainstream newspapers have pointed a similar finger, except of course that their own property supplements played an essential part in peddling the idea that rising property prices were for keeps.

But given that we are now at the end of a period of speculative excess, that we collectively passed the last outpost of the Shit Creek Paddle Company Shit Creek Paddle Companysome time ago and failed to take on supplies, it is hard to explain a programme I saw last week called Beat the Bank. Dragons’ Den fitness millionaire Duncan Bannatyne invited a young couple to wager their £10,000 house deposit on the abilities of one of three alleged experts to exceed the return from bank interest over three months.

The leading experts brought in were from the world of fine wine, antiques and fine art. Charming though these people were, they represented markets one could reasonably assume are highly correlated with the recent credit-fuelled boom, Veuve Clicquot HQ, Reims, Franceand not without their own fair share of fakers and finaglers to make the average punter’s chance of “beating the bank” slim at best.

But what bothered me was the premise that money in the bank was for schmucks. And none of us would want to be schmucks. The opposite in fact is true. Most of us are schmucks, and the bank is the best place for our money. The social service that the banks provide, or should provide, is as a repository of funds where we (the clueless, idle, or generally insecure) should choose to lay down our hard-earned, our windfalls and our easy-pickings, while the bank lends it out with discretion and on reasonable terms to the those with ideas, the adventurous, the quiet risk-takers, entrepreneurs and even the occasional desperado, each individually to try their luck: to fail, break-even or succeed, and on balance pay us back a decent rate of interest. All that while keeping the bank in sturdy buildings, functional IT, an occasional boozy lunch and not to forget the annual bonus payment–which should be conditional and deferred by 10 years (at least).

Squircle - Veuve Clicquot Champagne BottleThe idea that we should set a challenge to deliver excess returns over a three-month period flies in the face of all that a public service broadcaster should be providing in way of financial education. It would not be so bad if the three-month expectations cycle did not already blight the ability of many publicly-listed firms to deliver sustainable economic growth, lure them into all sorts of obfuscation or encourage all sorts of counter-productive hoop-jumping to appear to be performing satisfactorily.

If there’s a lesson that the BBC might better highlight to the risk-taker–whether in the domain of business, art, or experimental science, or even for those planning to cultivate a great vintage– it’s that you may have to bleed for forever and a day waiting for your ship to come in, before the muse descends or that eureka moment arrives, or some final vindication materializes from out of the blue. Then you’ll feel justified in tearing off the foil, untwisting the wire and popping your cork.

Veuve Photo credits: Top: Andrei Z , Middle: Matt Hamm, Bottom: jillclardy

Paddle Shop:  SailorRandR

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If there is one thing to be disappointed by in Barak Obama’s US presidential election victory it is that a lot of people who previously despised America are now happily declaring the US to be likeable again. To fall out of love with America because of electoral accidents and occasional egregious foreign policy mistakes, or to believe in some glib caricature of the crass American, ignores the enduring value of the US to the rest of the world. And when I think of the US, its primary virtue invariably seems to be that it’s a country of rejects. I wonder sometimes whether those who do the most loathing of the US might well have been the types the average American ancestor would have had to run away from some decade or century earlier at the point of a bayonet.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with my two children: both newly minted US citizens. They had themselves been through a kind of virtual Ellis Island a couple of days before in the Federal Building near City Hall; after a nearly four-hour wait, they swore allegiance and in return received a certificate and letter from George Dubbya himself. As a special treat–because they were the last and seemingly the only children processed that day–they both got a little flag.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island, October 2008

For the forebears of about 100 million Americans, a five-hour wait at Ellis Island itself was often the final chapter in an escape from famine, humiliation, hopelessness, religious intolerance or full-scale pogrom. The facility closed in 1954, and–if the account of the museum is to be believed–it was a pretty humane place, all things considered, especially compared with other places of mass human transit the world has seen over the past century. While 12 million entered through Ellis Island, only 2 per cent were turned away.

Of course, if you were really posh your immigration details would be processed on board ship; only the cattle class passed through Ellis Island (including the likes of Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, Isaac Asimov and Max Factor). And today, one of the central arguments of our current politics is income inequality. I like to have my cake and eat it on the subject: on the one hand, it never bothers me what others earn, and I certainly believe there need to be good incentives for the creative and entrepreneurial to take risk; on the other, when it starts to be a hot potato you may surmise that something has started to get out of hand–as it has done on Wall Street and among senior executives over the past few years. All reward and no risk. The fuss was perhaps a leading indicator.

Pay differentials are a much less important determinant of long-term economic success (and health), as far as I can tell, than the uneven distribution of grandmothers. Obama, until the beginning of this week, had both grandmothers extant: extraordinary for a man of 47. He was mostly raised by one (his mother’s mother), confirming how important they are in loco parentis. The immigrant experience is not always so fortunate; a limiting factor on economic, entrepreneurial, academic or even sporting achievement can be the availability of extended family to provide logistical (let alone moral) support, especially in a childcare situation. In aggregate, this holds up the progress of the immigrant group. Of course, things may vary in individual cases, and there were indeed a few babushki apparent from the pictures at Ellis Island, along with touching stories of adult children being reunited with their parents.

Well, the youngest Chip Off the Old Hack is not so lucky. Both his grandmothers were carried away by cancer and were thus denied the opportunity to coo over his crib. But such is the wisdom of the US immigration authorities that, a few years ago, they decided that they will naturalize a child through his US grandparent, provided the grandparent meets (or met when living) the necessary residency qualification. So, there are now a couple of extra Obama supporters in the citizenry–not that he needs them at the moment, of course.

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risk aversion

18Sep08

Tweet This term is being bandied about a lot at the moment. It has a formal definition in the literature. But in extreme environments — and we are in one now, economically speaking — behaviours that speak of the big risk-taker may be misleading. I came across the following in Finance Director Europe by risk […]


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