Archive for the 'stress' Category

overgrown paths

03Dec09

Purely by accident, in the mid 1990s, I bought a CD of Janacek’s Piano Works. It’s just possible that it was playing when I was browsing in the old Music Discount Centre on Ludgate Hill of a lunchtime. For economy, it was packaged in a cardboard sleeve on the Harmonia Mundi label; I associated them with early music and had had a lucky streak of enjoying everything I’d bought from them, sight unseen, as it were. That probably clinched it.

Despite what I now know of its relative lack of grand melodic themes cf. Rachmaninov and relative inaccessibility to early audiences, I soon found I really liked it. I’d dream that if I were to have kids, and they ever played piano, they might play this.

Before I met the Janacek, there were times in my twenties and even thirties when, feeling particularly mortal, I’d console myself that I’d at least played some (if not all) of a Mozart horn concerto. And, to be accurate, the slow movements of a couple without obvious error. I even won that competition in Yorkshire when just 12.

For that momentary brush with the hem of the musical gods’ raiment I always thought that I could count myself blessed: it was not fame nor fortune but it was a quantifiably better condition than most people in human history might have hoped for. Even within my own extended family, the only other person to have reportedly graced the public with musical performance was a bugler in the Northampton Boys Brigade. With my horn I’d somehow defied, if only for a little while, a more philistine destiny.

For reasons that are very complicated, I stopped playing the horn aged 18, two years after the only available teacher in the district moved away. I continue to dwell on this fact because of my faith that it may well illuminate the difficulties we all face in adhering to the protocols necessary to succeed in a complex discipline; we need a better understanding of fallibility if we are to create robustness.

The consequence of my giving up the horn (or was it the horn giving up me?) was that both metaphorically and neurologically some musical pathways became sadly overgrown; I lost that knowledge of music “from the inside”.  More recently, however, when I took the horn out and went through the warm-ups recommended in a manual that I acquired back in 2001 during an earlier attempt to reopen those paths, I reached a top B: that is, the B above third line C. There was even a hint (though not a full tone) of top C itself. Whether it is just over the summer holidays, or a period of 25 years, the extent of that overgrowth will be different: your mileage may vary (or YMMV, as they like to say on Twitter).

As a technology of inspiration for mid-life extension, Janacek would command a five-star review. A spiky character, his career was marked by relative obscurity until he was around 50, whereafter it took off. Unusually for a composer, his work got better and better until he died. I’m just about to start reading his biography, The Lonely Blackbird.

Oh, and before I forget, the music shop called today to say that the sheet music for On An Overgrown Path has just arrived.

Following VIII. Unutterable Anguish, is IX. In Tears.

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No tag for this post.

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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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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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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I only know the one Georges Brassens song. But that one song, La ballade des gens qui sont nés quelque part (ahem, roughly translated: The ballad of those who are born somewhere), sprang to mind the other day, and I can’t shake it off. It is a satire on chauvinism in general, and tells the story of those who get too excited in relating the merits of their particular locale.

So it could be about me. I live in Bath, a World Heritage City, don’t you know. Beautiful stone buildings, wonderful museums, great shopping, and don’t get me started on the music festivals. Have I mentioned the Children’s Literature Festival?… I did? You’ll not be surprised then that, happy fool that I am, I think Bath is different!

Well, not really. Closer to the truth may be that the Knackered Hack’s somewhat nomadic path thus far is more characteristic of the Beatles’ Nowhere Man.

But the reason why we live in a place now has scientific form, according to researchers at Cambridge University:-

The authors of the new study argue that the strongest personality traits within a given population become self-reinforcing by influencing the region’s life and culture.

For example, where the population is creative, imaginative and intellectual (as was found to be the case in states including New York and California), one might expect to find people who are interested in art, literature and science. This may in turn lead to the establishment of institutions such as universities and museums. These institutions then influence the views and values of the local populace, encourage more creative and imaginative people to move to the region, and give people who do not fit that profile less reason to live there.

Dr Jason Rentfrow, who was also behind a recent paper The content and validity of stereotypes about fans of 14 music genres, is cautious but nevertheless fairly confident that the findings stack up:-

Obviously it’s not as simple as saying that a person is guaranteed to be more anxious if they come from West Virginia or more religious because they happen to live in New Mexico; but we did find pretty clear signs that there are meaningful differences in the personalities of people living in different areas of the United States.

What is particularly impressive is that the results show the effects of personality on people’s social habits, values and lifestyles are so pronounced that they have an impact on much bigger social forces.”

I wonder if this is specific to the US, where population migrations and the evolution city identities might be a little more recent. About Bath–joking aside–I’ve tended to think that it has historically sat at the cross-roads between “mainland” England and the more independent and remote Celtic parts of the British Isles, making it a kind of cultural cross-roads, where metropolitan money meets Glastonbury grunge. And that this probably goes way back.

Before you think this is all hokum, a little more about the methodology:-

Using an established framework called the “Five Factor Model” they divided personality types into five broad categories: “Extraversion” (sociable, energetic, enthusiastic people); “Agreeableness” (warm, friendly, compassionate); “Conscientiousness” (dutiful, responsible, self-disciplined); “Neuroticism” (anxious, stressful, impulsive); and “Openness” (curious, intellectual, creative).

Over six years, 619,397 people from across the US took part in an online test in which they were asked to read 44 short statements, such as “I see myself as someone who is outgoing” and “I see myself as someone who is very religious”. The respondents had to mark their level of agreement with each statement on a scale of one to five.

When I’m next in the States, I’ll have to consider carefully how to plan my trip around the geographical clustering of personality traits that the study revealed. Turns out it’s not random:

“Neuroticism” was, for instance, highest in the east along a line stretching from Maine to Louisiana, and lowest in the west, suggesting that the country has an identifiable “stress belt”.

The Wall Street Journal has more here (possibly behind the subscription wall). Below is Georges Brassens. Lyrics (in French) are here, including a reference to Montcuq, which I think is now a legal requirement of the Académie Française. Loosen your ceinture a notch, crack open a bottle of red, strike up a Gauloise, kick back and enjoy.

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