Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

John Martyn

I must be working too hard because I failed to notice that John Martyn had died at the end of January. It feels strangely personal and judging by the vast amount of tributes on the web I'm not the only one to take it that way. His music was the soundtrack to my student years in London and when I hear one of his songs I feel that those days are only yesterday. I can almost smell them, can almost reach out and touch the bittersweetness of experiencing everything of importance for the first time.
My flatmate was a great fan and gave me a tape with some of the songs from Inside Out on it. I had never heard anything like it. It was the music of confession, everything on display, the agony and the ecstasy. I rushed out to the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street and bought Solid Air and Grace and Danger. The latter I can hardly bear to listen to, the musicianship is stunning, but it seems indecent to consume so much of another's pain. More recently I bought One World and was blown away. Here was trip-hop 20 years ahead of its time. With music as good as this you don't need illicit smoking substances to appreciate it.
Looking at early recordings of his performances - there are some superb Old Grey Whistle Test sets - you see a man with the good looks of a Greek god and the voice of an angel. You also see the seeds of self-destructive tragedy. I only saw him live once, in the mid-nineties at the Festival Hall. He played a mostly electric set, ear splittingly loud, punctuated by the obligatory and perfunctory accoustic rendition of May you Never. It was a magical performance without any of the drink and drug fueled incoherence that his live act was notorious for. He could have sat back on his laurels and just played the standards from his back catalogue, but he was still pushing out in new musical directions.
May you Never is one of those songs whose success partly depends on the fact that you can read into it more or less what you like without it being so full of holes that it becomes completely vacuous. I think I read somewhere that it is actually addressed to his baby step-son which makes perfect lyrical sense. It's not my favourite Martyn song but I do like the fine version with Danny Thompson and Kathy Mattea from the BBC's Transatlantic Sessions. I think the performance epitomises musical intelligence. You can judge for yourself at:

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Brian Barry

Brian Barry, who died earlier this week, was a political theorist I admired. I can't claim to be an aficianado of the genre but I enjoyed the clarity of his thought and the abrasive style with which he expressed himself. It also helped that I more or less always tended to agree with him. Culture and Equality which provoked howls of outrage from the multiculturalism lobby seemed to me to be as good a statement of the liberal egalitarian position as anyone has managed. If you are a liberal egalitarian you want, amongst other things, the same substantive rights for everybody (including the opportunities to realise those rights), not special deals for some. Though we overlapped at the LSE for several years I barely exchanged a word with him, but colleagues in the Government Department would often tell me what a good job he did as Departmental Chair. He sorted out some people that badly needed sorting out and encouraged fresh young talent.
I have a particularly fond memory of once attending the salon seminar that he held in his basement flat in Bloomsbury, just round the corner from the British Museum. The topic was, I believe, something like rational choice theory and sociology. A group of youngish men and women from half a dozen universities - some far beyond the M25 - sat around his front room, drinking red wine and discussing a paper. Brian was quiet for most of the discussion but suddenly came to life when somebody or other's latest book was mentioned. Then he interjected and said that he had read it in manuscript and it would have been rather better if it had been half the length. In itself, nothing special, but I can still remember the feeling that somehow I was participating in a significant event amongst people who thought that ideas actually mattered and were worth arguing about, even falling out over. As I get older and more cynical it is good to be reminded of the value of serious honest thought free of pose and sad that it took the death of an intellectual giant to do it.
For tributes from people who knew him, his work, or both well see:

Monday, 9 March 2009

Writing a Master's Thesis

It's that time of year when my MSc students are starting to seriously worry about choosing a dissertation topic. With that in mind here are my top tips:

1. You should choose something that is challenging enough to be worth doing, but not so difficult that you can't make any real progress with it. Significant difficulties will be: lack of data; poor quality data; so much data that you exceed the computational capacity of your hardware; data whose structure requires the application of sophisticated techniques that you don't know or can't easily acquire on your own. If any of these difficulties seem likely, think again.

2. Choose a topic that relates to something you have studied this year. That makes it so much more likely that your dissertation will be rooted in an ongoing scientific research programme that somebody around here cares about rather than looking like a 'puzzle' that fell out of the sky.

3. Have a question, preferably one that you don't already know the answer to. If you can't formulate what you are doing as a question then you probably haven't got a suitable dissertation topic. If you know the answer already then it probably isn't worth doing.

4. The English critic F. R. Leavis had some good advice on choosing a dissertation topic : choose one that gives you something practical to do on Monday morning. That way you get a sense of making progress .

5. Have realistic expectations about what your supervisor can do for you and how long it will take them to do it. If they are a specialist in the area you choose you will get more out of them than if you choose to work in an area they know little about. The choice is yours and, as in life, there are trade offs to be made that have to be lived with.

6. If you think you want to collect your own data, be realistic about how long that is likely to take, how relevant it is and how good the quality will be. Listen carefully to your supervisor's advice. A dissertation in which all your time is eaten up in data collection is unlikely to be terribly successful.

7. If you plan to leave Oxford during the Summer to collect data or for other reasons be realistic about the consequences. In principle supervision by email is possible, but it is rarely entirely satisfactory and if you choose this way of doing things then: caveat emptor!
If you are completely clueless about what to do then you could do worse than read the following paper by Gary King. It's not exactly about writing a dissertation, but a lot of the advice is transferrable as indeed is the strategy of starting off by trying to replicate a published study.

The Protestant Ethic in 2009

It's more than 100 years since Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I'm told that it is a long time since economic historians took the essays seriously, but that hasn't prevented the text being a mainstay of sociological theory reading lists. The main reason for this, I suspect, is probably the wilful obscurity of the text itself. Not being entirely clear about what exactly it is that you are claiming is great for the secondary and tertiary level exegetical works that flourish on the corpse of a masterwork. Usually I'm bored by this kind of thing but I was recently intrigued to see an article in a German newspaper reporting work done by a pair of economists examining the relationship between religious confession and economic success in late 19th Century Prussia. Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann use county (Kreise) level data from the 1871 Prussian Census together with a couple of similar sources to investigate whether level of economic development in Weber's time was related to the proportion of Protestants residing in a county. The answer is yes, but the relationship is spurious and disappears once level of literacy is controlled. They make the argument that whatever Luther and Lutherism may have done to theological and ultimately popular notions about 'the Calling' and the ethics of economic behaviour, a more fundamental consequence of the reformation was Luther's stress on literacy. Luther argued that Germany's Protestant princes should encourage the schooling of their subjects so that they could read the word of God. Protestant's built more school's than Catholics and Protestant's were more motivated than Catholics to become literate because salvation came not through the intercession of a priest but through understanding God's written word in His book. Literacy was, of course, also pretty useful in economic life and gave Protestants the edge over Catholics. All in all Becker and Woessmann tell a pretty convincing story, but I'm left with an uneasy feeling. After a century of worrying over Weber's text sociologists have remarkably little of real value to show for it. Two economists come along, do some spade work, unearth some relevant data, extract a remarkable amount of information from it, and without much fuss produce an answer to a very basic question. How come sociologists aren't capable of doing this?
Becker and Woessman's article will appear in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. A working paper can be found at: http://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/1366/1/weberLMU.pdf