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.
Monthly Archives: June 2011
Connections, south of my days
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.
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.
Markets as feedback mechanisms
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.
Tim Harford at LSE: Dirigisme in action
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.
Patrick Leigh Fermor RIP
The Grauniad reports on the death of adventurer and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, aged 96. I recount a story about him and an ode by Horace, here.
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.
Concert Concat 1
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, up until the pandemic. In some cases, I am also motivated to write about what I heard.
- Gulce Sevgen, piano, in a concert at the Gesellschaft fur Musiktheatre, Turkenstrasse 19, Vienna 1090, Austria, 15 November 2018. This venue turned out to be a small room holding 48 seats in a converted apartment. There were 20 people present to hear Ms Sevgen play JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasie & Fugue in d-minor BWV903, Beethoven’s Pastorale Sonata, excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, Op. 54, and Liszt’s Concert Etude E/M A218 and Zweite Ballade, E/M A181. Ms Sevgen’s performance throughout was from memory, a quite remarkable feat. Her playing was perhaps too loud for the size of the room, even with the piano lid half-down. The Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn were all excellent. I have remarked before that I do not “get” the music of Prokofiev. His music for Romeo and Juliet is a prime example: the famous dance with its large-footed stomping bassline conjures up, for me, Norwegian trolls not feuding Italian merchant families, as if the composer had read a different play altogether. (Mendelssohn’s and Shostakovich’s incidental music to Shakespeare, by contrast, both make perfect sense.) The playing of the Liszt works was fluent and articulate, but devoid of any meaning; it is perhaps unfair to ask performers to add meaning where there was none, since these are simply show-off pieces, all style and no substance. But it is not unfair to ask performers not to play such vapid, meaningless music in public.