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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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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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 […]

I think I’ve gone on before about the emotional and physiological effects that exceptional, unexpected events can have on people: an icy-cold sinking feeling of eviscerated powerlessness, for starters.  Such feelings must be especially intense for those who exercise significant power and yet meet more than their match when a complex system turns against them.

Financial markets and wars represent the most severe tests for politicians, who can probably feel pretty satisfied with themselves on a day-to-day basis that some part of the world appears (at least) to dance to their tune. But today, on BBC Radio 4′s Broadcasting House programme, veteran political journalist Michael Cockerell, in partnership with presenter Paddy O’Connell, provided some long overdue insights into those limits of power by joining the dots between the current financial crisis surrounding the Brown government/Chancellor Alastair Darling and previous occasions when proud governments have been forced through the mincer.  There are some real insights here for fans of Gordonfreude.

Cockerell has interviewed eight British prime ministers, so is fairly unusual among current working journalists.  Today’s 15-minute segment (about 32 minutes into the programme found here on iPlayer: podcast version here) is definitely worth your while clicking through to. It’s also the first time I’ve seen news media challenge the orthodoxy (apparently accepted by most journalism) that the economic problems now facing the UK are mostly a function of external events.  Cockerell observes an historical pattern.

For a long time  it has been very convenient in Labour mythology to blame the international speculators, ‘the banker’s ramp’, as it was called.

But perhaps more interesting are the personal recollections of Labour Chancellors Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey, and Tory Norman Lamont of a collapse in the pound.  This following reflection is from John Major, the then Prime Minister, on Lamont’s demeanour the day sterling was ejected from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM):-

Norman Lamont came in and he was pretty white-faced and edgy, as well he might have been, and he said ‘It hasn’t worked’ by which he meant the intervention and the two-per-cent interest rise. ‘It hasn’t worked, and they’re still selling.’

The starkest warning for politicians about that experience comes though from Kenneth Clarke, the last Tory chancellor before the current Labour government, and a cabinet member on that Black Wednesday.

We were powerless in the face of events.  I think I had always believed theoretically in the power of markets but I’d never seen such a dramatic illustration–felt such a dramatic illustration–that the Prime Minster, the Chancellor, leading members of the government were utterly out of control of events and the markets were going to devalue the pound.”

For the diligent who care to listen to the end, there’s a good line about King Canute.

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gordonfreude

27Jun08

Tweet It’s been a year since Gordon Brown arrived in Number 10 Downing Street, uncontested. I don’t normally look to record anniversaries (apart from this and this, and maybe this), nor comment directly on politics. I wish politics were better, of course, and I think the political media must take a lot of responsibility for […]


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