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God doesn’t work for the Yankee dollar; God doesn’t plant bombs for Hezbollah

OK, time for a few more book reviews. First up, “Butterfly Economics” by Paul Ormerod. This is all about Ormerod presenting his alternative version of how economic modelling should be done, and how to correct some of the more egregious errors of conventional neoclassical theory by relaxing the key assumption that agents are independent of each other. Ormerod illustrates most of his arguments by reference to a simple model of the behaviour of ants making their decisions over which of two food sources to visit. So why isn’t it called “ant economics”? Presumably because either Ormerod or his editor wanted to sell the book to the James Gleick pop chaos theory crowd, and wanted to use the “butterfly flaps its wings in Venezuela and causes a storm in Stockholm” metaphor as a shorthand, despite the fact that butterflies aren’t discussed in the book as being relevant to economic modelling; ants are. Which gives you some idea of how much care and attention has been lavished on this book; pretty close to bugger-all.

I have to confess that I don’t know what Ormerod’s overarching prescription for the reform of economics is, because on page 157 he refers to Piero Sraffa as “an old Stalinist”, and sad to say, the book did not survive the outburst of rage this occasioned in me1. Which is certainly a weakness of this review, but I daresay I wouldn’t have been so impassioned if I wasn’t already in a bad mood because of the horrendously annoying tone of the previous 156 pages. Ormerod is of the school of writers which believes that you can leaven a dull passage by shoe-horning in a semi-related joke, after the manner of some Church of England vicars. And his jokes tend to be pretty weak; saying that someone’s book is so boring it might make you go to sleep is about the level. It reads like it’s been collected together from a really annoying column in the FT, but since Ormerod doesn’t actually have an annoying column, I can only assume he was kind of auditioning for one. The “ants model” is quite appealing, but you can pick that up by reading the first 15 pages in a bookshop (D-Squared Digest! Reviews You Can Use!).

Also … an oldie but a goodie. Some people in the comments section have been pleasant enough to say some nice things about the style of writing used on this weblog. Or at least, I say that they have, and the comments aren’t working so you can’t prove they haven’t. Anyway, if you like this prose style, you will like “The King’s English” by Kingsley Amis. The pop-didactive tone used on D-Squared Digest, and a fair proportion of the actual jokes, have been copied more or less completely from Amis’ workbook, except that I take much less care over my sentences, resulting in horrendous elongated run-on sentences like this one, and I use words like “basically” far too much because I’m typing this as an unrevised first draft and this is how I talk. It’s not a proper style guide a la Fowler or Strunk & White; it’s basically an alphabetised collection of Kingsley’s personal prejudices relating to linguistic matters, many of which tend to degenerate into cheap shots at unrelated hobby-horses and targets of opportunity. Check it out, although don’t blame me if your written output for the rest of your life starts to resemble a pale imitation of a studiedly facetious and overeducated patrician.

I listen to music! On the D-Squared Digest stereo at the moment are some of the finest moments of English Funk. This strange musical subgenre should be carefully distinguished from “Britfunk” which was funk and soul music produced by Black Britons in the 1970s and 80s (probably the most famous example being Cameo’s “Word Up” or, at a stretch, “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate; “Hot Chocolate” is probably the winner in anyone’s contest for Band Names You Simply Couldn’t Get Away With These Days).

Nope, by “English Funk”, I’m referring to a strange musical subgenre which stands in the same relation to funk as the Finnish Tango does to the tango. (For those unfamiliar with the Finnish tango, here’s the official history; basically, the Finns, for reasons best known to themselves, are still overcome by the worldwide tango craze of the 1920s, and are not put off in their enthusiasm by the fact that as a nation they are a) known for emotional reticence and b) more or less innocent of anything one might call natural rhythm. The resulting sound and dance has a distinctly military feel to its movements; it’s extremely precise and sort of jerky. The Finns greatly prefer it to the Argentine version, which is no longer really to their taste). English funk is simularly disconcerting; you’re sitting there listening to a piece of music with funk instrumentation and some semblance of a funk production, but it isn’t in the least bit funky.

I think it was James Brown who claimed, with good evidence, that white drummers fundamentally couldn’t play shuffles; they started off OK, but after about a minute you listen to them and they’re playing the rhythm of an oompah band. I also seem to remember this criticism was levelled in particular at Ringo Starr, but it’s a reasonably good description of the rhythm section of Ian Dury and the Blockheads. They start off like the Average White Band (oompah oompah), but by the first chorus they’ve given up any pretence of playing black American music and settled down for a right old knees-up, in which project they’re joined by a jaunty keyboard player. The rhythm guitarist and the horn section make a decent attempt at dragging the band back in the direction of Detroit rather than Dagenham, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re outnumbered. But this sounds like I’m slagging them off and I’m not; I’m a sucker for a good music-hall tune, and Dury himself is a poet. He’s got a fantastically dirty exaggerated London accent — actually, of course, he’s Essex, but who’s counting? — and a surprisingly deft lyrical touch which allows him to get away with absolutely outrageously filthy innuendi that, in less sensitive hands (missus) would just turn into rugby songs. “Reasons to be Cheerful”, the greatest hits compilation (marketed in the US as “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll”) is the one I’m listening to at the moment; I think I would be pretty scared of anyone who owned more than three Ian Dury albums, but less than one is probably too few.

With a similarly unfunky funky vibe, but a rather more serious tone and fewer Max Miller references, is the source of the headline quote above, the album “Mind Bomb” by The The, a bunch of earnest 80s types of approximately the same vintage of myself. It’s got The Smiths’ Johnny Marr on it (as far as I can tell, there was some sort of tax dodge in the 1980s which involved having Johnny Marr on your records), so a fair old number of Smiths completists will be pleased that it’s been reissued along with the rest of the The The (note capitalisation) back catalogue. In the UK, that is; I suspect that you Yanks can go whistle. I bought it for the single “The Beat(en) Generation”, an absolutely fabulous track about everything and nothing which to my mind demonstrates what a good band the Smiths would have been if they’d been a band rather than a vehicle for Morrissey’s ego. Elsewhere on the album it’s all pretty leadenfooted English nonfunk stuff, with more an electronic sound than the Dury album, but recognisably coming out of the same place, and always deeply intelligent. Matt Johnson can’t sing for toffee, obviously (the 1990s album of Hank Williams songs, “Hanky Panky”, which is also top stuff, proved that he didn’t learn), but in the right sort of environment (dark) and with a few glasses of whisky in the back of the neck, his half-spoken croon is really quite affecting. If you’re not ashamed to be British (which, arguably, you probably should be), you’ll enjoy it.

All the above provided without the usual whoring Amazon links, because I’m keeping it real and thinking about the kids.


1The facts of the matter are; in his youth, Sraffa was a fan (and a friend) of Antonio Gramsci, and Gramsci was a Stalinist by most peoples’ lights. But Sraffa fell out with the Gramsci crowd quite early on in his career at Cambridge, and it was very hard to work out what his politics were by the time “Production of Commodities By Means Of Commodities” was published. He was certainly never active in supporting Stalin, because he almost never said anything in public at all.

In semi-related news, Sraffa was one of the few people who Ludwig Wittgenstein considered an intellectual equal, and there’s decent evidence that a lot of the ideas of later Wittgenstein are heavily influenced by him.

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