The hour between dog and wolf

There is an old French aphorism that calls sundown ‘the hour between dog and wolf’.  At dusk,  the familiar domestic pet turns into a rabid hunter.  Dusk is the hour of metamorphosis. This is how Jean Genet puts it in his 1986 memoir “The Prisoner of Love” (Un Captif  Amoureux):

[The hour] between dog and wolf, that is, dusk, when the two cannot be distinguished from each other, suggests a lot of other things besides the time of day … the hour in which … every being becomes his own shadow, and thus something other than himself. The hour of metamorphoses, when the people half hope, half fear that a dog will become a wolf. The hour that comes to us from at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when country people believed that the transformation might happen at any moment.

I spent last weekend at the Hop Farm festival, a three day mini-Glastonbury in Kent. Since it is British Sumer Time, the sun does not go down until 9.30pm so the headline acts are hitting the stage at dusk. We had two grand old men of rock: Peter Gabriel on Friday and Bob Dylan on Saturday. Both of them underwent a metamorphosis at dusk, since neither were presenting their seminal rock tunes in their original form. In both cases, their back catalogue had been radically transformed to such an extent that it was almost unrecognisable.

Dylan first. Listening to his incomprehensible growling and barking interspersed with the occasional yelp,  it was definitely a lupine transformation but I could not tell if it was a dog or a wolf. It was more like a metamorphosis frozen between the two, like a ghastly science experiment gone wrong or the dog monster from John Carpenters The Thing. The creature was clearly in excruciating pain judging from its piteous yowling, as was the audience that had to listen to it. More puzzling was the fact that the big video screens to the side of the stage were stuck on a single long shot showing a tiny figure in a white hat – exactly like the view from where I was standing – which made the whole thing utterly pointless. Technology negated by a man so vain that he had banned all close ups of his 71 year old face.

When he came on he was greeted with a huge cheer befitting his iconic status, but by the fourth song half the audience had drifted away to the other stages (Primal Scream, Gary Numan, New Order). This left a hard core knot of Dylan Fans in the gathering gloom exchanging quizzical glances as they tried to work out what song His Bobness was actually singing – sometimes it took until the second chorus to work it out.

Was I disappointed ? No. I last saw Dylan live 25 years ago when things were pretty much the same but just with a faster tempo. He has been on a never ending tour ever since. There is a PE ratio for live shows. Not the Price/Earnings ration beloved of financial analysts, but a Performance to Expectations ratio. Seasoned concert goers know that that Dylan is always the lowest ranked on this basis (followed by Van Morrison in a close second). The greatness of his artistic halo is repeatedly shattered by the awfulness of his live show.  The concert promoters had crowed in the advance publicity that this was to be Dylan’s “only UK Show in 2012”. Now we know why…

Peter Gabriel, in contrast, was terrific. His metamorphosis was triggered by setting himself an artistic constraint: no drums or guitars. So his rock oeuvre had to be completely reinterpreted for an orchestra to play…with spectacular results. The audience was still playing a game of  “guess the song” but in a good way.  The orchestral versions of his songs brought new resonance and meaning to his work. It is good example of how an artist can take a risk and and reach new heights.

The interesting point is how self-imposed restraint promotes artistic excellence.  Rhyming poetry has more artistic merit than blank verse, and blank verse more so than prose.  Art house movies often use black and white rather than colour. Peter Gabriel’s ‘no drums or guitars’ restriction was in a similar vein. But the best example of “high art through restraint” is calligraphy. Picture the master calligrapher standing in front of a blank sheet of paper with his inked up brush in his hand. The ink is black – no colour is allowed. The character he must paint is pre-defined. Even the very order in which he makes the strokes is set by centuries of historical convention. Yet despite, or maybe because, of all these constraints he produces something of such transcendent beauty that it is seen as the ultimate art form by more than half the world: the true mark of a civilised man.  Artistic endeavour must be honest; a truthful expression of inner conviction. This is pithily summed up in this maxim:  Lies cripple the artist. To this we can add another: a strait jacket sets him free.

Excellence through restraint was also very much on show in the movie I saw as I was recovering from the festival weekend. This was X Men – First Class. The restraint in this case being that there are pre-formed familiar characters – a lot of them – all of which have to be woven into the story.  This summer’s blockbuster Avengers Assemble, which I also enjoyed, carries a similar burden with four strong hero characters (Hulk, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man) all having to be fitted into a single movie. With X-Men – First Class we also know where we have to end up because this is a prequel. So unlike a typical story, we already know the ending and the character ‘development’ is similarly constrained. The fun and skill comes in delivering us (the audience) to that pre-agreed destination through the most enjoyable route. This is the storytelling equivalent to a third option on your satnav that lets you chose not the fastest, nor the shortest route but the most scenic.

The dilemma at the heart of the X Men movies is this: is being a mutant a disease from which you should be cured ? Or is it a beauteous and natural thing that should be celebrated. Should Wolverine be transmuted back into a domestic pet? In the movie the answer is no. So the series can be read as a thinly veiled critique of right wingers who believe that being ‘gay’ or ‘different’ is something that can be cured.

This month also sees the publication of a new book entitled “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust” by John Coates, a successful Wall Street Trader turned Cambridge neuroscientist. Coates took saliva swabs from 250 traders on the dealing room floor over a two week period. He then plotted testosterone levels against risk taking and trading performance. Those with higher testosterone levels took bigger bets, greater risks and subsequently made the most money.

In the book,  John Coates seeks to explain “irrational exuberance” of the markets through blood biochemistry – testosterone and other hormones coursing through the veins of amped up traders in the dealing room causes them to be overconfident, take unnecessary, irrational risks and so cause financial bubbles. Having found a ‘reductionist’ explanation for financial excess, maybe it can now be ‘cured’ ?

In my view, the error underlying this blood chemistry approach is the idea that financial bubbles are a mistake – something that needs to be eliminated or cured. The X men movies make the same point. Bubbles are not a mistake, they are a naturally occurring phenomenon, part of the fabric of nature. Their existence is not a sign that something has “gone wrong” but that everything is working fine. They may be inconvenient and cause financial damage but this is to misapply a human concern to an entity on a higher level. It’s the same type of error as calling the law of gravity “immoral”

King Canute ordered his throne to be carried in to the shallows of a rising tide. The reason normally ascribed is that he believed he could command the waves. In fact, his intention was to mock his courtiers and to demonstrate he was not all powerful: he could not control the waves. The tides follow their own cycles, dictated by celestial bodies in a higher dimension beyond the control of man. Likewise financial cycles, belong at a higher level.

Set up three levels: blood chemistry, trader, market. We can join the dots with two causal arrows pointing upwards crossing the catataxic boundaries like this: blood chemistry controls the trader, the trader controls the market. Our we could reverse them and have the causal arrows pointing downwards. If we want to control the market (eliminate financial bubbles and crashes) we must control the trader and to control the trader we must control the hormones. This leads to some rather farcical conclusions. This reductionist argument is really a reductio ad absurdum. Maybe the FSA should prescribe testosterone suppressant drugs in order to eliminate boom and bust? Or maybe firms should only employ women on the dealing floor?

Just as it is wrong to view the trader as purely a product of raging hormones  (drunk driving excuse- the booze made me do it). So it is wrong to see the market as purely an amalgam of traders. To do so is to make a catataxic error. Each entity belongs on its own level with its own rules. The point is that you can not control the market. King Canute knew that a thousand years ago. Some of us are still struggling to understand that now.

Microsoft’s management kills innovation

Vanity Fair this month has a great article titled “Microsoft’s lost decade”. It describes how the corporate giant lost its way and changed from being an indomitable technology Titan to a has-been. Just as IBM did a decade earlier. The reason? A management technique known as “stack ranking”. Every business unit had to rank a certain percentage of its employees as “top performers”, “average” or “poor” and this effectively crippled the company’s ability to innovate. In contrast, Apple (for decades underdog to Microsoft) generates more revenue with a single product  – the iPhone – than the whole of Microsoft Corp.

“Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Kurt Eichenwald writes in Vanity Fair. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

This internal competition vs external competition is a catataxic debate and it lies at the heart of the resurgent interest in group selection theories of evolution. The question is whether the natural selection that drives evolution acts at the level of the group or at a genetic level. If evolution is the “survival of the fittest”, then the question becomes the fittest what? Is it the fittest group? The fittest species ? The fittest individual? The fittest set of genes ? This question about “which level rules” is the essence of catataxis.

In social animals such as ants and termites you can clearly see a form of individual altruism: insects that sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony as a whole. This seems to imply that natural selection is operating at the level of the group. However, Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” pins natural selection definitively to the genetic level. He explains the “self sacrificing ants” in a bottom-up genetic way. The ants in the colony are all related to each other; they share the same genetic material. So in sacrificing yourself for the sake of the group you are still indirectly propagating your genes. This genetic cause of altruism is summed up in Hamilton’s Rule which states that the degree of altruism depends on the degree of genetic relatedness. It can be summed up in this grim biologists joke :

I will lay down my life for two brothers, four nephews or eight cousins

Other biologists such as David Sloane Wilson see a group selection argument for altrusim which goes like this: If you mix a group of selfish people and altruistic people together, then the selfish people will always win. They act in their own self interest and exploit the generous altruists. But if you move up a level and observe the competition between groups then you see a different effect. Groups that are full of altruists working cooperatively together outcompete groups full of selfish people fighting each other. So at a group level teams of altruists win, but at an individual level selfish people win. So, turning this around, you can say that wherever you see altrusitic behaviour then it is a sign that competition between groups is a stronger force than competition inside groups. Or, as Microsoft has found out, when management emphasises internal competition the group as a whole will fail.

This “level of selection” controversy is still a hot topic of debate amongst biologists. In this June’s issue of Prospect Magazine,  Richard Dawkins wrote an excoriating review of a book by fellow biologist Edward Wilson titled “The Social Conquest of Earth”. Wilson was arguing for the theory of group selection outlined above. Dawkins violently disagreed. His review concludes “…this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force…”. This vigorous denunciation provoked a huge backlash. The Dawkins article received more responses than any other in Prospect Magazine’s history. In effect, it was the atheist equivalent of watching the Pope beat up the Archbishop of Canterbury on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The debate also provides a controversial conclusion for management consultants. If you want your company (group) to win then you should embrace the cult of mediocrity. Suppress internal competition and focus on external competition.

In fox hunting circles, when the Master of the Hounds is training a new pack, he takes the dogs for their first outing in spring to see how they perform. He then shoots both the first few pack leaders and the last few stragglers, keeping the mediocre middle performers because he knows they will form the most effective team.

Could this translate across to corporate management. Is the secret to commercial success to sack not just your worst salesmen but also your best? Let me know what you think….