The breathing (middle) Earth

Winter is coming. It’s not only the fans of Game of Thrones who know it. The first leaves are starting to fall from the trees as we enter the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. “To every thing there is a season…” according to Ecclesiastes, but John Nelson has put it even more eloquently in his animated GIF called “The Breathing Earth” shown above.

Constructed from a series of cloud-free satellite images from NASA, it shows the ebb and flow of snow cover and vegetation as the seasons pass. It beautifully illustrates the climatic rhythm of the world; the earth as a beating heart.

As you watch the snow line advance and retreat, one striking fact becomes clear. The United Kingdom is extremely fortunate as regards to its weather. Yes, it’s true. Look at the top part of the image. Despite a reputation as a land in which everyone constantly moans about the weather, in fact the UK has it good. Look how far down the snow line comes in winter elsewhere. It reaches all the way to places like Colorado, Turkey and Afghanistan, all more than thousand kilometres further south. Meanwhile, the British Isles remain remarkably warm thanks to the Gulf Stream.

The fact that there is a Gulf Stream should not be a surprise, since every school child knows that. But this animated map demonstrates its effect and gets the point across very efficiently. If you consider the different means of communicating information such as speech, the written word, numbers or pictures there is a clear hierarchy of efficiency when it comes to delivering facts. As the old adage has it, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Let’s consider speech first. The spoken word is very good at communicating emotional content. Vocal inflections help the listener to interpret the message and gauge, for example, the self-confidence of the speaker or the intended level of sarcasm or humour. In contrast, emails lack this. That is why it’s always a mistake to send an email in the heat of the moment. It is likely to be misinterpreted. But other than for emotional communication, the spoken word is very inefficient.

Proof? Here are two examples. First, on a presentation training course you are always told never to hand out your power point pitch in paper form at the beginning of the meeting. Why? Because the audience will then read it and race ahead of you when they are bored. Actually, this has always struck me as bad advice. Surely it’s more important to make sure your audience is not bored rather than deliberately keep them in a state of somnolent stupefaction. The main point is that they can read it faster than you can speak it. The written word is therefore more efficient at delivering information speedily than the spoken word. And they want it fast.

The second example involves a regular fixture of the winter calendar – a Peter Jackson movie about hobbits. When he made the Lord of The Rings, Peter Jackson condensed the original text of half a million words into three films, each of which lasted around two and a half hours. But when he proposed to turn the Hobbit, a slim book for children of less than 100,000 words, into a trilogy of films of a similar length there was uproar amongst the critics. Surely this was just a cynical marketing move. By stretching out the meagre source material to sell tickets for three separate trips to the cinema, he was clearly slicing the salami far too thin.

In fact, if you crunch the numbers you will find out that this is not true. If you were to read the Hobbit out aloud, it would take just over 11 hours. At least, that is the length of the unabridged audio book. Three movies at, say, 3 hours each for the extended DVD versions, would clock in at 9 hours. By that arithmetic, he could probably get away with making it into four movies. Coming back to our main point, it is further evidence that the spoken word is not a very efficient way of transmitting information.

The written word trumps the spoken word when it comes to speed of delivery. Taking the national average reading speed of 300 words a minute, it would take 5.5 hours to read the Hobbit, from cover to cover, in one sitting. In other words, it is twice as fast as reading it out aloud. But even the written word is much less efficient than pictures. If you want to know what happens in the Hobbit, then the plot can be summarised in just one diagram, such as the one below.


No one would suggest that the fun of reading one of the classics of children’s fiction can be replicated by a glance at simple map but, leaving aside the rich descriptions, characterisations and interwoven story arcs of that imaginary world, it does at least present the bare facts of the story in a quickly digestible form. In a world where time is of the essence, text is being gradually replaced by infographics because pictures and numbers get the story across quicker. Web gurus often tell you that ‘pictures are the new text’. Nowadays, having the time to read is a luxury – something you do on holiday to relax.



Feudal lessons in tax avoidance

At the top of David Cameron’s agenda when Britain hosts the G8 this year is tax avoidance. In a presentation in Davos in January he called for an internationally co-ordinated clampdown on companies that pay too little tax. In his view companies that don’t pay their fair share needed to “wake up and smell the coffee, because the public who buy from them have had enough.” But he was then quick to point out that the UK had a “great offer” to companies because it was cutting its rates of corporation tax. The speech was strangely schizophrenic, castigating those who did not pay enough tax while trying to seduce at the same time by offering a lower tax rate. A bit like being nagged by a prostitute in fishnets.

The big problem facing the Western world at the moment is that governments are essentially bankrupt. They can’t afford the promises and commitments that they have to the general populace. They need more money which means more taxes and so the corporate sector is an obvious target. But this is not a new problem. It fact, it is so old that it goes all the way back to a time before companies, and even nation states, existed; all the way back to feudal times.

The feudal relationship between a king and his nobles was one of personal obligations: the use of land owned by the king in return for loyalty and military service. Over time wars, intermarriage and complicated inheritance customs resulted in a patchwork of decentralised authority with many overlapping jurisdictions. Nobles could own land in several different kingdoms therefore owing fealty to several different kings. This caused friction and feudal history is, essentially, a history of the struggle for power between kings and nobles with each looking to bribe, cajole or conquer the other.

As the economies in Western Europe developed, trade and wealth began to be concentrated in cities which disrupted the old feudal arrangements. In essence, the cities became a third player in the struggle between the nobles and the kings. This ‘three way’ game had different outcomes in different countries. In Germany, weak kings meant the cities banded together to form leagues (such as the Hanseatic League) to protect their interests against the nobles. In Italy, the cities became large and strong enough to defend their own economic interests and so formed independent city states that resisted the authority of the Emperor or Pope. In France, the cities and the king banded together against the nobles creating a strong central bureaucratic state. The cities and the king had many interests in common, both benefiting from a uniform legal system, a standardised  tax system, good transport infrastructure and a standing military force to keep the peace. In the end, the French model proved to be the most successful and in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 most of Europe followed suit and the modern notion of the nation state was born.

What lessons can we learn from this history? We can cast the struggle in catataxic terms like this. In feudal times, the king had legislative authority, the nobles had power (particularly military power) and the cities had wealth. The alignment of the wealth creating cities with the highest legal authority (in the form of the king) against the political power of the nobles was the winning combination.

Now let us replace the feudal chess pieces with their modern equivalents. In this case, the EU is the highest legal authority and the wealth creators are the multinational companies. The nobles with the political power are the national governments. In other words, David Cameron is the equivalent of a feudal baron. If history repeats itself, you can expect the multinationals to club together and pay corporate taxes directly to the EU rather than to national governments. Both parties would benefit from a truly single borderless market in legal and taxation terms. It is the nobles, in this case the national governments who could have the most to lose…