December 18, 2016

Review Corner

[T]he Köln Concert album has sold 3.5 million copies. No other solo jazz album or solo piano album has matched that. When we see skilled performers succeeding in difficult circumstances, we habitually describe them as having triumphed over adversity, or despite the odds. But that's not always the right perspective. Jarrett didn't produce a good concert in trying times. He produced the performance of a lifetime, but the shortcomings of the piano actually helped him.
The opening story and central theme to Tim Harford's Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is jazz great Keith Jarret's 1975 concert in Cologne, Germany.

Vera Brandes was 17 years old at the time, and saw that Jarret was touring Germany but not Cologne. The enterprising young fraulein contacted his management company, found an available date, then convinced the Opera House to open for a late night concert. All impressive, but there was a massive failure: on performance day, only a broken down old practice piano was available. When Jarret and manager came to look at the facility, he said it was "unplayable" and the event would have to be cancelled.

Brandes scrambled to find another, even recruiting friends to roll a relative's grand through the streets. But the weather was bad, no movers were available. She had to deploy the most powerful weapon in her arsenal: a tearful 17 year old girl convinced Jarret to continue.

Jarret asked it to be recorded as a joke or demonstration of how badly things could go awry. Three-point-five million sales later, Harford told Russ Roberts that it was not just his favorite jazz piano album -- it was his favorite album of all time.

The substandard instrument forced Jarrett away from the tinny high notes and into the middle register. His left hand produced rumbling, repetitive bass riffs as a way of covering up the piano's lack of resonance. Both of these elements gave the performance an almost trancelike quality. That might have faded into wallpaper music, but Jarrett couldn't drop anchor in that comfortable musical harbor, because the piano simply wasn't loud enough. 4

Being jarred off the script -- either accidentally or purposefully -- fills the rest of the book.
The scripted speech misreads the energy of the room; the careful commander is disoriented by a more impetuous opponent; the writer is serendipitously inspired by a random distraction; the quantified targets create perverse incentives; the workers in the tidy office feel helpless and demotivated; a disruptive outsider aggravates the team but brings a fresh new insight.
[...]
And the pianist who says, "I'm sorry, Vera, that piano is simply unplayable," and drives off into the rainy Cologne night, leaving a seventeen-year-old girl sobbing on the curbside, never imagines that he has passed up the opportunity to make what would have been his most-loved piece of work.

Even good computer algorithms require a bit of randomness. You can't run all the chess moves or test every point in a massive dataset. The idea is to try a random leap, then a methodical evaluation of the landing point. Harford pushes us to embrace or even force the random element. Brian Eno forces musicians to play each others' instruments and uses a card deck to force different ideas on them. This does not always go over very well, but Eno has had an incredible career. His name is hiding somewhere in the liner notes of hundreds of significant works.

Music is the home for improvisation, but Harford takes it to battle with Rommel, business with Jeff Bezos, and architecture with MIT's fabled Building 20, where every discipline which lacked the clout to get dedicated space could move in and hack the infrastructure.

A university or corporate research center can and should create interdisciplinary spaces in which well-established teams seek common problems to work on. But the anarchy of Building 20 went way beyond what any official effort at cross-cultural collaboration is ever likely to tolerate. It would be a brave CEO who'd play host to model railway enthusiasts and homeless botanists.

When Building 20 was at last demolished in 1998, MIT held what could only be described as a wake.


Chapter four builds to a powerful crescendo, comparing the hard working and organized to the improvisational. Martin Luther King soared to prominence as the latter, working 75 hours to craft a sermon word-for-word and deliver it from memory. Yes, some improvisers are masking lack-of-preparation. And some carefully crafted works are masterful. But King had a very dull speech prepared to give in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He looked down on a particularly unmemorable line when the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled out "Tell em about the dream, Martin!"

The publication date is listed as October 4, 2016, yet it still includes a chapter with quite a bit on Donald Trump. Trump is lumped in with Rommel and Jeff Bezos for his audacity and ability to disrupt his enemy/competitor.

In contrast to Trump's agility, the presidential campaigns of rivals such as Jeb Bush could be encapsulated by a word the German High Command used in conversation with Rommel in 1941 to describe the leadership qualities of the British Army. The German word was schwerfällig-- ponderous. The historian David Fraser elaborates: "There was demonstrated, in British actions, rigidity of mind and reluctance to change positions as swiftly and readily as situations demanded . . . great fussiness and over-elaboration of detail in orders." 25
[...]
Much like Rommel, Bezos, and Trump, David Stirling followed a messy road in pursuit of victory. If the opportunity was there, he would seize it and figure out the details later. When he hit an obstacle, he would abandon his plan and start improvising a way around it. And he pursued speed and surprise. A coordinated, well-researched move might look good on paper, but it would be useless if it meant giving the enemy time to react.

Harford applies to it many more examples -- traffic, forestry, Route 128 vs. Silicon Valley, banking, VW emissions, and an economist's view of children's games.
Recent research has found a correlation between playing informal games as a child, and being creative as an adult; the opposite was true of the time spent playing formal, organized games. 36

Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, points out that in an informal game, everyone must be kept happy: if enough players stop wanting to play, the game will end. 37 That implies the need to compromise, to empathize, and to accommodate younger, weaker, and less skillful playmates; no such need arises in formal games, where those who are having a miserable time on the losing team are obliged to keep going until the final whistle blows.


Am I wasting my time sorting my email? Yes, but not as emphatically as you're expecting from the title.

I am too likely to start a project without sufficient planning. I work for a Department and Company that welcome this. I should be reading the swift counterpart to this book. But I think we all know the people that plan and outline and Gantt chart a project until it's not needed, superseded, or the company goes bankrupt. A bit of balance is well warranted, and Harford comes to the aid of the audacious and spontaneous. The other guys have their own defenders and, Harford would say, an unwarranted hold on our conscience.

Five stars! Superb!

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at December 18, 2016 11:38 AM

Finally got around to reading this excellent RC. I find it validating and empowering. Like I need either of those. ;)

Posted by: johngalt at December 22, 2016 2:33 PM | What do you think? [1]