A sad post to note the passing on of Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), musician and Zen teacher. Her books, full of practical wisdom and psychological insight, have been constant companions, as I alluded here.
Archive for June, 2011
I have previously posted Judith Wright’s famous poem South of My Days, here. For anyone growing up in rural eastern Australia, this poem with its stories of the great cattle droves of the late 19th and early 20th century resonates.
The SMH recently carried an obituary for John Atkinson (1940-2011), a mechanical engineering lecturer at Sydney University and member of the Matherati. Atkinson’s mother, Gwen Wilkins, had been a university friend of Judith Wright (1915-2000) at Sydney University in the 1930s. Atkinson’s father Tom managed a cattle station in Southern Queensland for Wright’s father, Phillip, and Judith apparently introduced Atkinson’s parents to each other.
This long-ago connection of farming families reminded me of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Stinson aircrash in the remote and treacherous sub-tropical jungles of the Lamington Ranges National Park in Southern Queensland in February 1937, a commemoration I attended. The crash was the occasion of a famous rescue by bushman, Bernard O’Reilly, trekking alone on a hunch, recounted on the O’Reilly Guest House site here. My father, with me that day in 1987, was surprised to encounter a work colleague also present. It turned out that the O’Reilly family had farmed in the Kanimbla Valley in the Blue Mountains in central NSW, on a property adjoining my father’s colleague’s family property, before moving up to the McPherson Ranges in 1911. Despite the distance (about 600 miles) and the remoteness of both locations, the two families had kept in touch through the intervening 76 years, with each new generation becoming friends.
O’Reilly wrote a famous book about his pioneering bush experiences and the Stinson rescue. Among those I met that day were members of the rescue party that O’Reilly gathered together in 1937.
POSTSCRIPT (2011-12-23): I remembered that Judith Wright wrote a poem about James Westray, who initially survived the Stinson crash, a poem I have posted here.
Bernard O’Reilly : Green Mountains. Brisbane, Australia.
The report and documents of the official Queensland Government Inquest into the Stinson crash are here.
A remembrance of John Atkinson by a bush-walking friend is here. Apparently, Dr Atkinson drowned in the surf.
I just posted after hearing a talk by economic journalist Tim Harford at LSE. At the end of that post, I linked to a critical review of Harford’s latest book, Adapt – Why Success Always Starts with Failure, by Whimsley. This review quotes Harford talking about markets as feedback mechanisms:
To identify successful strategies, Harford argues that “we should not try to design a better world. We should make better feedback loops” (140) so that failures can be identified and successes capitalized on. Harford just asserts that “a market provides a short, strong feedback loop” (141), because “If one cafe is ordering a better combination of service, range of food, prices, decor, coffee blend, and so on, then more customers will congregate there than at the cafe next door“, but everyday small-scale examples like this have little to do with markets for credit default swaps or with any other large-scale operation.
Yes, indeed. The lead-time between undertaking initial business planning in order to raise early capital investments and the launching of services to the public for global satellite communications networks is in the order of 10 years (since satellites, satellite networks and user devices need to be designed, manufactured, approved by regulators, deployed, and connected before they can provide service). The time between initial business planning and the final decommissioning of an international gas or oil pipeline is about 50 years. The time between initial business planning and the final decommissioning of an international undersea telecommunications cable may be as long as 100 years. As I remarked once previously, the design of Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) packets, the primary engine of communication in the 21st century Internet, is closely modeled on the design of telegrams first sent in the middle of the 19th century. Some markets, if they work at all, only work over the long run, but as Keynes famously said, in the long run we are all dead.
I have experience of trying to design telecoms services for satellite networks (among others), knowing that any accurate feedback for design decisions may come late or not at all, and when it comes may be vague and ambiguous, or even misleading. Moreover, the success or failure of the selected marketing strategy may not ever be clear, since its success may depend on the quality of execution of the strategy, so that it may be impossible to determine what precisely led to the outcome. I have talked about this issue before, both regarding military strategies and regarding complex decisions in general. If the quality of execution also influences success (as it does), then just who or what is the market giving feedback to?
In other words, these coffees are not always short and strong (in Harford’s words), but may be cold, weak, very very slow in arriving, and even their very nature contested. I’ve not yet read Harford’s book, but if he thinks all business is as simple as providing fmc (fast-moving consumer) services, his book is not worth reading.
Once again, an economist argues by anecdote and example. And once again, I wonder at the world: That economists have a reputation for talking about reality, when most of them evidently know so little about it, or reduce its messy complexities to homilies based on the operation of suburban coffee shops.
This week I heard economic journalist Tim Harford talk at the London School of Economics (LSE), on a whirlwind tour (7 talks, I think he told us, this week) to promote his new book. Each talk is on one topic covered in the book, and at LSE he talked about the GFC and his suggestions for preventing its recurrence.
Harford’s talk itself was chatty, anecdotal, and witty. Economics is still in deep thrall to its 19th century fascination with physical machines, and this talk was no exception. The anecdotes mostly concerned Great Engineering Disasters of our time, with Harford emphasizing the risks that arise from tightly-coupling of components in systems and, ironically, frequent misguided attempts to improve their safety which only worsen it.
Anecdotal descriptions of failed engineering artefacts may have relevance to the preventing a repeat of the GFC, but Harford did not make any case that they do. He just gave examples from engineering and from financial markets, and asserted that these were examples of the same conceptual phenomena. However, as metaphors for economies machines and mechanical systems are worse than useless, since they emphasize in people’s minds, especially in the minds of regulators and participants, mechanical and stand-alone aspects of systems which are completely inappropriate here. Economies and marketplaces are NOT like machines, with inanimate parts whose relationships are static and that move when levers are pulled, or effects which can be known or predicted when causes are instantiated, or components designed centrally to achieve some global objectives. Autonomous, intelligent components having dynamic relationships describes few machines or mechanical systems, and certainly none from the 19th century.
A better category of failure metaphors would be ecological and biological. We introduce cane toads to North Queensland to prey upon a sugar cane pest, and the cane toads, having no predators themselves, take over the country. Unintended and unforeseen consequences of actions, not arising merely because the system is complex or its parts tightly-coupled, but arise because the system comprises multiple autonomous and goal-directed actors with different beliefs, histories and motivations, and whose relationships with one another change as a result of their interactions.
Where, I wanted to shout to Harford, were the ecological metaphors? Why, I wanted to ask, does this 19th-century fascination with deterministic, centralized machines and mechanisms persist in economics, despite its obvious irrelevance and failings? Who, if not rich FT journalists with time to write books, I wanted to know, will think differently about these problems?
Finally, only economists strongly in favour of allowing market forces to operate unfettered would have used the dirigismic methods that the LSE did to allocate people to seats for this lecture. We were forced to sit in rows in our order of arrival in the auditorium. Why was this? When I asked an usher for the reason, the answer I was given made no sense: Because we expect a full hall. Why were the organizers so afraid of allowing people to exercise their own preferences as to where to sit? We don’t all have the same hearing and sight capabilities, we don’t all have the same preferences as to side of the hall, or side of the aisle, etc. We don’t all arrive in parties of the same size. We don’t all want to sit behind a tall person or near a noisy group.
The hall was not full, as it happened, so we were crammed into place in part of the hall like passive objects in a consumer choice model of voting, instead of as free, active citizens in a democracy occupying whatever position we most preferred of those still available. But even if the hall had been full, there are less-centralized and less-unfriendly methods of matching people to seats. The 20 or so LSE student ushers on hand, for instance, could been scattered about the hall to direct latecomers to empty seats, rather than lining the aisles like red-shirted troops to prevent people sitting where they wanted to.
What hope is there that our economic problems will be solved when the London School of Economics, of all places, uses central planning to sit people in public lectures?
Update: There is an interesting critical review of Harford’s latest book, here.
For about 300 years, and especially from the introduction of universal public education in the late 19th century, western culture has been dominated by text and writing. Elizabethan culture, by contrast, was primarily oral: Shakespeare, for example, wrote his plays to be performed not to be read, and did not even bother to arrange definitive versions for printing. One instance of the culture-wide turn from speech to text was a switch from spoken to written mathematics tests in the west which occurred at Cambridge in the late 18th century, as I discuss here. There is nothing intrinsically better about written examinations over spoken ones, especially when standardized and not tailored for each particular student. This is true even for mathematics, as is shown by the fact that oral exams are still the norm in university mathematics courses in the Russian-speaking world; Russia continues to produce outstanding mathematicians.
Adventurer and writer Rory Stewart, now an MP, has an interesting post about the oral culture of the British Houses of Parliament, perhaps the last strong-hold of argument-through-speech in public culture. The only other places in modern life, a place which is not quite as public, where speech reigns supreme, are court rooms.
Fermor attended Kit Marlowe’s old school, King’s School Canterbury, together with Alan Watts, who apparently wrote his first book about Zen Buddhism while still at school. Fermor famously was expelled from this school.
As part of the diverse mental attic that this blog is, this post simply lists live music I have heard, as best my memory serves. In some cases, I am also motivated to write about what I heard.
- Pekka Kuusisto (violin) and Olli Mustonen (piano), at London’s Wigmore Hall, 11 April 2013, playing Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A (Op. 30, #1) and Mustonen’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (world premiere).
- The Choir of King’s College London and Baroque Ensemble under David Trendell, in Bach’s St. John Passion, with Rupert Charlesworth as the Evangelist, Chapel of King’s College London, March 2013. The bright and resonant acoustics of this chapel were filled perfectly by this warm interpretation. In the German Lutheran tradition, the Rev. Richard Burridge gave a short sermon before the interval, on Bach’s imperfect use of John’s gospel text.
- Chilingirian Quartet and Bulgarian Friends, at King’s Place London, as part of the Second London Festival of Bulgarian Culture, November 2012, playing Moreni (Dobrinka Tabakova, composed 2007), Piano Quartet in Eb (Schumann), and the Octet (Mendelssohn). The additional performers in the Octet were Ivo Stankov and Yana Burova (violins), Dimitar Burov (va), and Tim Wells (cello). As an encore, the performers replayed the Scherzo of the Octet.
- Solistes de Musique Ancienne, in St James Church, Picadilly, directed by Joel Newsome, playing Leclair (Recreation Deuxieme de Musique), Corelli (Christmas Concerto, Op. 6, No. 8) and Bach (Cantata BWV 132), October 2012. The second half (which I missed) included Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus and Vivaldi’s Dixit Dominus RV807. Another fine performance from this great ensemble. Of the music, the Leclair was justly forgotten, the Corelli very well known but not profound, and only the Bach worth the effort of braving the heavy rain to hear. The acoustics of the church, with its barrel roof and its wide balcony on 3 sides, supported by 5 stone columns down each side, had a strong reverberation. The sound was thus strong and clear, although the bass soloist in the Cantata did not project his voice well: that he was looking down at, instead of out at, his score, meant his voice hit the floor instead of the audience. Why do singers in churches so often not project their voices, I wonder? Does singing in a church make them timid? The soprano at this concert was an exception, superbly filling the length of the church to the top of its high ceiling with her voice. (The program notes do not, sadly, name the soloists.)
- Brass in Tyalgum: Queensland Conservatorium Brass Band at the 21st Annual Tyalgum Classical Music Festival, Tyalgum Literary Institute Hall, Tyalgum, NSW, September 2012.
- 68th Annual Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center Concert in Jewett Arts Centre, Wellesley College, Wellesley MA USA, August 2012, including performances of: Concertino by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), Year without Summer by Jacob Gotlib, Excerpts from 44 Duos for Two Violins by Bela Bartok (1881 – 1954), fluttuazione/attimo by John Arrigo-Nelson, Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Reves Transcendants by Hendel Almetus, and the Horn Trio in Eb Major by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). I last heard Brahms’ horn trio 37 years ago (in Murwillimbah, with the piano part played by David Urquhart-Jones) and even after all these years I think this combination of instruments perverse and unpleasant; those aspects of the horn timbre that combine well with the piano sound clash with the aspects which combine well with the violin sound, and likewise for the other two pairings. What a shame nobody listens to this piece: If they did, no one would play it.
- Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire playing Mozart (Piano Concerto #20 in D minor) and Villa Lobos’ Momoprecoce, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, and Mussorsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Boston Symphony Orchestra under Marcelo Lehninger at Tanglewood, July 2012. There is a review here.
- Mendelssohn in Mansion House: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under Edward Gardner, with Alina Ibragimova, in the Egyptian Room of Mansion House, London, June 2012.
- Organ and Trumpet: Richard Hall, organ, and Robert Landen, trumpet, in St Mary le Bow Church, Cheapside, London, June 2012.
- Brahms’ String Sextet #2 in G and Mendelssohn’s Octet, performed by the Piatti and Castalian Quartets in Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, 3 May 2012. The Sextet was performed by the Castalian 4tet together with David Wigram (viola) and Jessie Richardson (cello) from the Piatti. The Octet had some unfamiliarities: chiefly, an extra note after each ascending phrase in the 1st violin in the theme of the first movement, the extra note being lower than the top of the phrase. The first time, I thought I heard a mistake. A second time and I thought perhaps I was hearing some acoustic artefact, an echo perhaps. By the time the theme returned, with these extra notes still to be heard on each phrase, I thought either a deliberate affectation or perhaps the performers were not playing the standard score. Was this the original manuscript version, perhaps, which Mendelssohn later revised? In any case, the standard version is better, as the force of the ascending phrase is reduced with a lower note after each top-most one.
- Bach’s St John’s Passion, Solistes de Musique Ancienne and Siglo de Oro in St Stephen’s Church, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London, April 2012.
- Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Britten Sinfonia and Sinfonia Voices, under Andreas Delfs, London Barbican, March 2012.
- Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Baroque Ensemble of The Royal Academy of Music and the Choir of King’s College London, under David Trendell, King’s College Chapel, London, February 2012. An excellent and moving performance. The acoustics of the KCL Chapel are very clear, with little reverb, and the sound was full. The organ continuo part was shared by Christopher Woodward and Richard Hall, the current College Organ Scholars.
- Pekka Kuusisto (violin) and Britten Sinfonia under Thomas Ades, in a program of Couperin, Stravinsky and Ades (Violin Concerto), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, February 2012. PK also briefly played the piano.
- Baiba Skride (violin) and Lauma Skride (piano) in Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat (K454) and Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F, Wigmore Hall, London, December 2011.
- Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra under Yuri Bashmet, London, December 2011.
- Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (excerpts) and Mass in B Minor, Brandenburg Baroque Soloists and Medici Choir, St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, London, December 2011.
- Handel’s Messiah, Solistes de Musique Ancienne and Siglo de Oro in the Church of St Giles-in-the-Field, Holborn, London, December 2011.
- Mendelssohn in Wigmore Street: Scottish Ensemble and Alasdair Beatson playing Stravinsky and Mendelssohn, Wigmore Hall, London, October 2011.
- Queensland Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra, under Michael Morgan and with Cameron Jamieson (violin), playing Mozart and Arriaga, Brisbane, August 2011.
- String Fest 2011, including Grammar Chamber Strings, Ferny Grove State High School Chamber Orchestra, Mansfield High School Camerata, Brisbane Girls Grammar School Senior Strings, Somerville House Strings, and the Festival String Orchestra, at Brisbane Grammar School, August 2011.
- A Celebration of 125 Years of the Salvation Army in Bundamba, Queensland, August 2011.
- Premiere of Two Boys, opera by Nico Muhly, performed by English National Opera, London, June 2011: I say thee, Yay, Mr Muhly, Yay!
- Daniel Hope (violin) and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s E-Minor Violin Concerto (original version) and Respighi’s Pines of Rome at Royal Festival Hall, London, May 2011.
- Mulatu Astatke (vibes, keyboards, percussion) at Jazz Cafe, Camden, May 2011.
- Luka Sulic (cello) and Nadav Hertzka (piano) at Wigmore Hall, London, May 2011. Winner’s Recital for the RAM Patron’s Award 2011. Program included Debussy Cello Sonata, Sibelius (Valse, Berceuse and Rondino) and Britten’s Cello Sonata in C. A superb performance. I could only catch the first half, which meant I left humming the catchy final theme of the Britten. Both these artists will be worth watching in the future.