Eurovision’s catataxic voting bias

Eurovision voting has catataxic conflicts I spent last night watching the Eurovision Song Contest. What a hoot! So much better than X Factor or any of the other dreary  karaoke contests that clog our screens these days. The highlights for me were:

  •     1.The moonwalking bagpipe player in a white “body condom” outfit
  •     2.Russian grannies chanting while baking cookies, cunningly arranged in height like a set of dolls.  So cute that you just want to stack them inside  each other and put them on your mantelpiece.
  •     3.A howlingly dissonant Albanian with a choux puff on her head
  •     4.A “high concept” crooner in spangled blind fold because, as his song says, “Love is Blind” (see what he did there?)
  •     5.Turks in capes channeling a “sailor bat rapist” vibe
  •     6.The perky Edward Norton clone from Moldova with some re-clocked mutant Cheeky Girls twitching frenetically in puffball skirts.

And then there was the UK entry: poor old Englebert Humperdink who came second last. How embarrassing for him. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you know. And he was wearing a pendant that Elvis gave him for luck! Cue much handwringing and navel gazing about why UK always does so badly in the competition these days.

There is an almost petulant resentment among UK viewers which can be paraphrased like this: “They are singing songs in our language, Britain is the home of the Pop song, our music industry is the best in the world and our taste makers define what is cool globally. What is more, we pay the vast proportion of the sponsorship money for the contest. So why does no one vote for the UK? Those ungrateful wretches….”

It not too hard to spot the reason why the UK does not win much anymore. It is down to the two key rules in the voting system

  1. you can’t vote for the country you currently live in
  2. Each country’s voting weight is equal – regardless of population size.

Both these rules have a catataxic angle: a conflict between individual (level one) and country (level 2).The first rule introduces an expatriate bias. If you assume that everyone wants their own country to win, then expat votes are counted and local votes are not. If everyone is a partisan voter then it just becomes an expat census poll. How many British expatriates are there in Serbia? How many Serbian expats in Britain? Multicultural countries have a disadvantage. The second rule gives a big bias to small countries. Each citizen in San Marino (population 30k) has a vote that is worth 2,000 times more than the vote of a UK citizen(population 60m). If you combine the effect of both rules then the winning strategy is clear. Imagine you are in a recently fragmented country – say a place that has recently been divided into four smaller countries.  You will have lots of ‘expats’ on either side of the border and your overall country voting power has increased by a factor of four.

So how can the UK win – simple! Enter as four separate countries – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – the cross border effect will mean we all end up voting for each other. Here is an unexpected upside if Scotland wins its independence.  Better still let’s add in Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man as separate entities – the UN recognises them as such. Hell, let’s go all the way and do it on a county by county basis. After all Hampshire has a bigger population than Estonia, Montenegro, Cyprus and four other Eurovision entrants….

April showers and religious relics

the catataxic relicI am just back from a trip to Zimbabwe, exchanging the bold blue African sky for London’s grey misery. This April has been the wettest in the UK since records began with 152 different parts of the country currently on flood alert. Ironically, there is still a hosepipe ban in force, because the six preceding months saw an extreme drought. The Environment Agency says that groundwater levels will only be properly replenished by large and consistent amounts of steady rain for two months. Welcome to our British Spring!

This is not a new story. In fact, it is a very old one that goes right back to the birth of English literature. Eng.Lit. starts, as every skuleboy kno, with Geofrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And that starts with the General Prologue. And the general Prologue starts like this:


Whan that April, with his shoures soote,
            The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
…So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Which can be roughly translated into modern English as “ When April’s sweet showers pierce the drought of March, Nature stirs people up and makes them long to go on pilgrimages”. Strangely enough, I spent this Sunday on a pilgrimage of sorts: a country stroll with my brother near the Pilgrim’s Way in Kent. Our topic of discussion was the macguffin at the heart of his latest Robin Hood book and also the spiritual magnet for all pilgrims: we were talking about religious relics.

A relic is a holy object, often a part of the body of a saint that has been preserved in order to be venerated. The word comes from the Latin reliquiae meaning “something left behind” (as in relinquish).  Relics became big business in Christendom in the 7th century. After 747 AD, all new churches had to have a relic before they could be consecrated. This was the period when most of Northern Europe was being converted to Christianity so demand for relics was huge and, as a result, the prices for the rarest ones was astronomical. In 1237, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople sold the Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX of France for 13,134 gold pieces (maybe $ 3.6 bn in today’s money). Such high prices meant that the trade in relics was very lucrative, and it proved to be a goldmine for fakers and forgers. In the 11th century there were at least three “heads of John The Baptist”  in circulation. Calvin famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the “True Cross” in medieval churches to build a substantial ship.

With so many fakes around, how could you prove the authenticity of your relic? The best solution for establishing provenance, although seemingly at odds with Christ’s teachings, was to steal one from somewhere else. Many of Europe’s most famous pilgrimage sites proudly displayed their stolen relics. The justification went like this: if the saint allowed his relic to be stolen without punishing the thieves and it continued to produce miracles then clearly he was happy with the relic in its new home. Many of these relics can still be seen today in the churches around Rome. This eccentric list of ecclesiastic treasures includes the Virgin Mary’s belt (Prato Cathedral), Christ’s holy foreskin in Calcata (went missing in 1983),  the “doubting finger” of St Thomas (Santa Croce), 25 sets of medieval papal innards (Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio), the Head of St John the Apostle (San Silvestro) and the Holy Umbilical Chord (San Gionanni in Laterno).

The more unusual and unique your relic, the more pilgrims you could attract. In this pre-scientific era, there were no rational explanations for events in the physical realm.  Disease, the motion of the planets and fertility were all phenomena that occurred at the whim of an omnipotent God. It was a world in which mythical beasts were real and the fundamental building blocks of the material world were not chemical elements but spiritual humours. The physical world was a confusing, dangerous and irrational place governed by supernatural forces beyond human ken. The relic was a bridge that crossed this divide: a portal linking the corporal and spiritual worlds. In other words, it was a catataxic gateway. A relic possessed virtus, a mystic potency emanating from that sacred object that had the power to change things. By touching the object, wishes could come true, miracles could happen, good fortune could be granted and health restored. No wonder pilgrims travelled such distances for a chance to touch one. It was the very essence of the divine.

Relics are not just confined to the Christian world. The most important Islamic relics are known as the Sacred Trusts: six hundred items kept in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. These include the hand of John the Baptist, the sword of Ali, the hair of Muhammad, the staff of Moses, the turban of Joseph, the sword of David and the pot of Abraham. These objects are so sacred that they can only be seen during Ramadan and the Qur’an must be continuously recited over them for all eternity.

Even atheist societies have their relics. Communist dictators are often preserved upon death: Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and Georgi Dimitrov (Bulgaria) were all embalmed when they died and put on public display in purpose built mausolea. Zhisui Li’s (Mao’s doctor) describes in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao the problems of embalming Mao’s corpse in macabre detail. The body was injected with 22 litres of formaldehyde and became enormously bloated – like the Michelin Man. After two full days of desperate massaging, the corpse became more recognisable but his clothes still had to be slit up the back in order to fit. I saw his body in the 1980s in its helium filled crystal casket in the Memorial Hall of Tiananmen Square. The corpse was a curious orange colour (think Essex girl fake tan) and, according to rumour, it has now been replaced with a far more lifelike waxwork dummy.

A relic is a potent symbol of catataxis; of crossover and confusion between two levels. On the first (physical) level, the idea of worshiping an ancient finger bone is either ridiculous or grotesque. To view a relic as simply a physical object is to make a mistake in categorisation. On the second (spiritual) level, venerating a relic makes perfect sense. The bone is a physical manifestation of something far greater which has the demonstrable ability to produce miracles (for believers). It is the fusion of the two levels in a single object that gives the relic its totemic power. That is catataxis.

Death’s upside: the diamond skull

This morning is the first day back at work after the Easter break. Having overindulged on chocolate eggs on the weekend, I decide to get some exercise and walk to my Mayfair office from London Bridge station. As a result, I happen to be passing the Tate Modern as they open and pop in to see the Damian Hirst show on impulse. There is a huge queue for tickets but no queue or tickets required to see the ‘diamond skull’. The whole of the huge turbine hall is given over for the display of this one tiny piece.

But what an astonishing piece. Inside a small completely dark room the platinum skull, studded with diamonds, is the only thing visible. It is brilliantly lit and walking around it you see the scintillating, inner fire of all those diamonds shimmering at you. The effect is quite breathtaking. It is much smaller than I imagined and I was surprised by the strength of my emotional response. In the darkness, you feel torn between a push-back of revulsion and the tug of desire. The middle aged matrons next to me are completely hypnotised by it: rabbits in front of a snake. The only time I have felt a similar feeling is when my aunt took me to see Tutankamun’s golden death mask in the exhibition at the British Museum in 1972.

Both objects seem to be saying the same thing. Exquisitely crafted from priceless materials, they are simultaneously a celebration of death and a bid for immortality. In Hirst’s case there is another angle: the obsession of the art world with money.  The value of the diamonds is reputedly £14m and the asking price when it was displayed at the White Cube gallery was £50m. There is still some confusion about whether it was actually “sold” and it is apparently owned today by an anonymous consortium which includes Hirst himself. So there is catataxic debate about whether the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. How much value has the artist added? If you were to sell it today in the open market would it be worth more than the value of the diamonds that make it up?

I don’t want to go too far down that path because there is a different catataxic angle that I want to explore. In the train this morning, I read two articles in the newspaper, both of which are obliquely connected to the diamond skull. The first was a warning by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) that thousands of Britons face a “mortgage time bomb”. The second was about Shandong Helon, a Chinese chemical company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Let’s look at the mortgage time bomb first. Banks in the UK have been transferring customers over to “interest only” mortgages and these now make up 35% of the market. Many homeowners have been struggling to meet payments on traditional mortgages. Rather than calling in the loans, the banks have rescheduled them and switched their customers over to “interest only” products where the monthly payments are much less. A £200,000 mortgage would typically cost £1,000 a month if it was a traditional product but only £600 a month if it was “interest only”. They are cheaper because, as the name suggests, you are only repaying the interest and not the capital sum. The problem is that your debt is not reducing, so at the end of the mortgage period you are faced with a huge bill: the whole value of the amount you originally borrowed.

Why are the banks being so helpful? It may be that they have such a poor profile in the media right now that they want to avoid headlines about evicting impoverished homeowners, especially since half of them are now government owned. But the other reason is that if they repossessed the houses of the defaulting customers and sold them off they would drive house prices down thereby damaging their own balance sheets. It’s much better for all concerned for the loans to be classified as “in forbearance” rather than “in default”. Homeowners keep their house, the banks’ assets look better than they really are and house prices are kept artificially high.

There is a downside though. All this ‘benevolent’ activity is just storing up problems for the future. When interest rates finally rise, all hell will break loose. If people are struggling when base rates are 0.5%, what will it be like when they go up fourfold and return to a long term norm of 2%? In America, banks have been much more ruthless about mortgage foreclosures. House prices have halved, causing painful adjustments in the economy. But that is all history now, and the banks, having written off all their bad loans, are lending again driving growth in the economy. In contrast, the UK seems to be following the same path as Japan in the 1990s. Japanese banks hid their bad loans and the resulting drag on the economy meant no growth for more than a decade.

The second article about Shandong Helon has a similar theme. This Chinese chemical company has to repay 400m renmenbi  on April 15th. The market has been assuming that it will default; the first ever default in China’s fledgeling domestic corporate bond market. But a brief statement today confirmed that the bond will be repaid in full. No Default. Strangely, this is not good news at all. The problem with China’s bond market is that it has developed under the assumption that companies will always be bailed out by the state in the end (just like the EU Greek crisis). That means that risk has been badly mispriced.  So plenty of people were secretly hoping that Shandong Helon would default, thereby resetting the market’s sense of risk and allowing the market to function properly for the first time.

One of the five maxims of catataxis is  “virtue reverses at a catataxic boundary”. In other words, what is good for the individual is bad for the collective (and vice versa). Death (or default) is a good example of this. Death, from the individual perspective, is pretty much the worst thing that can happen. But from the collective perspective it is vitally important: a positive thing in that it allows the chemical elements of the life form to be broken down (through bacterial decay) and redistributed more profitably to other parts of the ecosystem. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; it’s all part of the great circle of life. Similarly, in the economy,  the parallel to death is default, which, after the bad debts have been written off, allows capital to be redistributed to those who deserve it more.

So that’s the message that I take from Damian Hirst’s diamond skull. Death should be celebrated and not feared. It’s an important part of the process. Death has an upside.

Lynn Margulis and the Eukaryotic Cell

When you think of evolution what image first springs to mind? It’s probably a hall in the Natural History Museum filled with fossils. All the dinosaurs, trilobites, coelacanths and ammonites together make an awesome menagerie of extinct creatures. The stepping stones of evolution are laid out before you in rock and bone. But there is something wrong with this picture – it’s just depicting animal evolution which means it is only telling part of the story. There are five other kingdoms of life (plants, fungi, protozoa, bacteria and archaea) and animals showed up relatively recently. Life on Earth started 4 billion years ago but the first animals evolved 0.5 billion years ago, half-way through the last quarter of the game. So that fossil hall in the museum is like a history of the world that only covers one continent in recent time. A history of the world that starts with American Independence and never strays beyond its borders. (Yes. I know. For many Americans that really is the history of the world but bear with me)

Most famous evolutionary biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Haldane, Maynard Smith, etc) come from a background in zoology. Their expertise is in the comparative study of animals. Lynn Margulis, who died aged 73 in November last year, was different. She was a microbiologist who focused on the evolution of eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus) and became convinced that the scientific consensus was wrong. The mainstream thinking was that the engine driving the evolution of species was random genetic mutation in which only the fittest survived. Margulis agreed that natural selection picked winners but disagreed about how the competing variants were created. She believed that evolution was driven by the symbiotic cooperation of organisms: the competitors in the race worked together rather than competed with each other. The mainstream saw the creation of new species as a divergent process; just as twigs and branches diverge from the trunk of a tree. Margulis believed that new species were created by a process of fusion and merger. She wrote a paper about it in 1966 called “ Symbiogenesis: the origin of eukaryotic cells”.

And then nothing happened. In fact, worse than nothing. Fifteen academic journals rejected her paper. One actually said “Your research is crap. Don’t ever bother to apply again”. Maybe it was because she was a woman. Maybe it was her abrasive personality and appalling temper. After extensive reworking, she finally managed to get her paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. It was a groundbreaking piece of work. For the first time, the evolution of cells had been properly examined: a history of a continent that was not America had been published. The response from the mainstream was…..complete silence. No one bothered to respond because no one really cared.

And then, very gradually, the years passed and data began to trickle in to support her theory. A single cell is more complex than you might imagine; it’s more than a nucleus in a little sack of protoplasm. The diagram below shows that there are 13 different entities inside it. The crucial evidence to support her theory came when scientists discovered that some of these entities had DNA that was different from the nucleus. The DNA of mitochondria, chloroplasts, basal granules and plastids is not the same as the DNA in the nucleus. This implies that a cell, the fundamental building block of all animals, is a fusion of different bacteria-like creatures. At some time in the past, a group of different bacteria clumped together to form a eukaryotic cell. This cell was dramatically more successful that the individuals composing it and became the basis of all higher lifeforms. The living creatures that we see around us all stem from that initial cooperative merger. Nature is not wholly “red in tooth and claw”.

1. Nucleolus
2. Nucleus
3. Ribosome
4. Vesicle
5. Rough endoplasmic reticulum
6. Golgi apparatus (or “Golgi body”)
7. Cytoskeleton
8. Smooth endoplasmic reticulum
9. Mitochondrion
10. Vacuole
11. Cytosol
12. Lysosome
13. Centriole




Lynn Margulis’s theory has now become scientific orthodoxy and her book “Symbiosis in Cell Evolution” is seen as a classic of 20th century biology. Her concept of symbiogenesis is at the core of the fifth catataxic maxim “Today’s groups are tomorrow’s individuals”. Time acts to drive individuals up the catataxic ladder. In a social history of the world, families become tribes, tribes become nations, nations become empires and all long before the founding of America. So too in biology. Bacteria merge to become eukaryotic cells, single cell creatures merge to become multicellular plants and animals, and the resulting flora and fauna knit together to form complex ecosystems.

Catataxic funds outperform

Recent research from Collins Stewart, a UK stockbroker, shows that investment trusts have comprehensively outperformed open ended funds over the last 10 years. These funds are rarely recommended by financial advisers since they don’t pay commissions (i.e. kickbacks) to the IFA’s who promote them. In major markets, Investment Trusts gave investors a 106% return while unit trusts only returned 36%. In emerging markets, the difference was even greater: 357% vs 230%.

OK. So maybe the last time someone tried to explain the difference between an Investment Trust and a Unit Trust to you, you edged away and went to find the fun guys at  the party. Maybe you would even prefer to be stuck on a long distance flight in the seat next to an overenthusiastic proctologist, than listen to an explanation like that. But here goes anyway, because there is a catataxic twist to the story.

An Investment Trust is a form of collective investment that has been around a long time (since 1868). It is a closed end fund constituted as a public limited company. So unlike a normal unit trust, once the money has been raised no new money comes into the fund ( that’s why it is called “closed end”). Investors buy and sell shares in the company which can trade at a premium or discount (more likely) to the underlying asset value.

For an open ended fund, like a unit trust, OEIC or mutual fund, investors money can flow in and out. When it is performing well, new money floods in. When it is performing badly, investors pull their money out forcing the fund to sell its holdings which further reduces prices and potentially creates a downward spiral. It is this ‘forced selling‘ effect which may explain the difference in performance. The manager of an investment trust can afford to be more long term in outlook. The money he manages is locked up in the trust and can’t be withdrawn. He only has to worry about stock market performance, not about investors pulling their money out. He is therefore less likely to panic, and more likely to outperform in turbulent markets.

In catataxic terms, an investment trust is a level two entity, hermetically sealed off from level 1. In contrast, a unit trust has a permeable membrane between the two levels so is not truly a level 2 entity. An investment trust is a catataxic fund, a unit trust is not. The research proves that the key to outperformance is catataxis.

Stimulation or austerity: the catataxic debate

Gold CoinMost Western countries are having the same economic debate at the moment: austerity or stimulus? Britain’s coalition government, Germany and the Tea Party in the USA want more austerity. The logic is simple. If you have too much debt then you should stop spending. But the counter argument goes like this: government cutbacks depress the economy, recessions mean less tax revenues which mean more cutbacks. The result is an ever decreasing spiral like the one in Greece where the economy is shrinking 5% a year. So governments should be spending to stimulate the economy and worry about balancing the books later when the private sector is booming again. Rubbish, say the fans of austerity, you can’t spend your way out of a debt crisis…

This “stimulus versus austerity” debate can be recast as an example of catataxis. It hinges around the fundamental concept of money which has three main functions: a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. These three functions form three different “levels” and the stimulus vs. austerity debate is a conflict between these levels. Let’s look at each of the three in turn.

The first function of money is as a medium of exchange. It acts as a physical token that is exchanged when a transaction takes place. In this sense, money can be cowrie shells, gold bullion, coins or notes. In a prison, cigarettes are often a medium of exchange. It also does not need to be that ‘physical’. If you transfer money between two bank accounts through a BACS transfer, then some digital tokens are being exchanged between two computer systems. Likewise, air miles are a form of money which can be exchanged for seats on an airplane.

The second function of money is as a unit of account. It acts as a common yardstick for measuring the value of different things. In a barter economy, you can exchange two sheep for three goats. In a monetized economy, you might say that both were worth six shillings. Money as a unit of account tells you what things are worth. In our example, a sheep is worth three shillings and a goat worth two.

The third function of money is as a store of value. This arises because you don’t spend money the instant you get it (unless you are my daughter, Flora). There is a timing difference between transactions. Having sold your sheep for six shillings, you may not spend the money for a couple of weeks. While it is in your pocket (or under your mattress) it is a store of value. The money is worth something while you hang on to it.

These three different functions give us the three different levels. The first is physical, the second is conceptual at a mathematical or accounting level. The third is at conceptual level one higher than that. The store of value is not about numerical equations but about the crystallization of confidence; the distillation of belief. Catataxis is level confusion: the conflict between these different interpretations of money.

If you view money at level one as a physical medium of exchange, then you want your economy to have as much of it as possible. That means that more physical exchanges can take place. In other words, more trade and more growth in the economy.

If you view money at level three as a store of value, then you want your economy to have as little of it as possible. The less there is, the more valuable it is. By restricting the supply of money you keep its value.

A good illustration of the difference between these two views is the “shopping in Vietnam” example. You can pay for your goods in a shop in Vietnam in US dollars, but you will get your change in Vietnamese dong. The shopkeepers would prefer to hoard the dollars as they see them as a better store of value but the medium of exchange is dong – that’s how you get the change.

Some would argue that the US dollar is not a very good store of value. When Nixon broke the link between the dollar and gold in 1971, gold was worth $35 an ounce. Once the link was broken, the US government was free to create as much money as it liked. This “freeing up” of the physical medium of exchange led to a period of spectacular global economic growth. More money, more exchanges (more trade). But now, 40 years later, gold is worth $1,900 per ounce. In other words, the dollar has declined in value by 98% (many currencies have fared worse) so its role as a store of value has been damaged.

The stimulus vs. austerity argument, in effect a debate about whether the money supply should be expanded or contracted, is a catataxic debate. A conflict between the level one and level three views of money. It is also a debate between creditors and debtors. Creditors (people who are owed money) favour level three. They are concerned with the store of value and want their money to be worth something when they are paid back. Debtors (people who have borrowed money) favour level one. They want a lot of economic activity so they can earn the money to pay back their debts. If the value of money falls in the process so much the better – that means less to pay back in real terms.

Normally, the debtors are many and the creditors few. So the populist position is to be on the side of the debtors and let the money lenders take the punishment. This was true when the economy first began to be monetized in 1190 with the terrible massacre of the Jews at York (see the novel Holy Warrior for a graphic description of this appalling event). It is still true today. Maybe the current trend for “banker bashing” is a reflection of this.

Phillip Coggan in his excellent book Paper Promises points out an interesting irony in US politics this time around. The Tea Party is a populist, grass roots movement that is pro-austerity. They favour level three and are concerned about the store of value. Wall street bankers, who would normally be level three advocates, are the ones calling for stimulus at level one. So the traditional positions of the banker and the populace have recently become inverted in the USA.

Costa Concordia: catataxic catastrophe

How sad that on the centenary of the Titanic disaster of 1912 another huge cruse ship should sink. It may be insensitive to be grandstanding and pontificating at a time of tragedy, but one of the causes of the Costa Concordia disaster is catataxis. As cruse liners have ballooned in size, the safety systems have not scaled up appropriately. In this case, more of the same is not just different but also deadly.

Cruise ships have been a boom industry and as a result the ships have got bigger and bigger in order to achieve economies of scale. Today’s ships are twice the size of a decade ago and can carry 6,000 passengers and 1,800 crew. That’s the size of a small town and four times bigger than the Titanic. Since most passengers want a nice view from their cabin, there are more and more decks stacked above the waterline. At the same time, the ships need to be able to get into traditional old ports (where tourists like to go) rather than to anchor offshore and be ferried in on small boats. That means they need a shallow draught. Both factors mean that ships are becoming increasingly top heavy: there is a lot more above the waterline and too little underneath.

A second factor is the lifeboat problem. This technology has not really changed since the time of the Titanic. When the top heavy Costa Concordia heeled over, that put half the life boats out of action because they could no longer be lowered into the water. Every passenger is (in theory) allocated a berth in a lifeboat matching their cabin allocation. It is a logistical nightmare to try and shepherd 7,800 people to their allocated lifeboat seat. Just picture this. A typical movie theatre has say 250 seats. Now imagine 30 cinemas stacked on top of each other in a sky scraper with every seat full. You randomly distribute tickets with seat numbers in a different cinema to all the members of all the audiences. Then you blow a whistle and tell them to find their new seats in the new auditoriums. Result: utter chaos. Now imagine doing it in the dark, at sea with the rooms gradually tilting over to one side…..

This lifeboat issue is such a logistical problem that the International Maritime Organisation advises Captains to try and use the ship itself as a “big lifeboat” and return as fast as possible to port for evacuation. In other words, the best advice available about lifeboats is to try to avoid using them at all.

Both the ship design and the lifeboat problem are problems of scale. Andrew Linington of Nautilus International, a maritime union, says “The alarm bells have been ringing with many of us for well over a decade now. These ships are floating hotels – skyscrapers, really. The design has been extrapolated from that of smaller ships. We believe a lot of basic safety principles are being compromised to maximise the revenue”

A big ship is different from a scaled up small ship. That is catataxis. If you just inflate the ship design like a balloon it becomes top heavy. Logistical problems with large numbers of passengers grow exponentially. More of the same is different.

Rage on, Ken Russell

Ken Russell Rage on I was saddened to hear of Ken Russell’s death last week. He was a particular hero of mine. I saw my first Ken Russell film at boarding school. It was introduced by a wimpy teacher, wringing his hands and describing the intense, moralistic debate the school board had just had about whether it was appropriate to screen this movie. After 10 minutes of this gentle, concerned bleating, he finally left the stage. The projector cranked up and a hall full of schoolboys got their first exposure to a work by The Master: it was The Devils.

Wow ! What a movie. Like a fusion between The Exorcist and The Crucible. Based on The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley it is set in Cardinal Richelieu’s France and tells the true story of the nuns in Loudun Convent being ‘possessed’ by devils. Starring Oliver Reid and Vanessa Redgrave, the film is visually stunning and delivers a knockout blow around themes of hypocrisy, religion, kinky sex, torture, authority and the abuse of power. Nothing here that public school boys don’t already know about, so the concerns of the teachers were clearly groundless.

The film caused a huge furore on its release in 1971. It had to be heavily cut even to get an X rating. It was banned by 17 local authorities in the UK and in many countries, and could only get released in the USA after further substantial cuts. Astonishingly, it is still unavailable on DVD and rumours of the release of a Directors Cut version have been repeatedly postponed.

It’s a wonderful movie. The combination of its gorgeous visuals and its powerful message had a big impact on me as a teenager. I felt that my eyes had been opened and I had witnessed “The Truth” for the first time. More importantly, it was a non-verbal truth. I was not really able to properly articulate my thoughts about it later because I had absorbed it at a level beneath the verbal.

All good movies are like that. When people try to describe them to you they normally tail off with a rather weak “….well, you really ought to see it yourself”. Stories are a verbal medium but movies are a visual one; you have to experience them.

The Italian proverb traduttore, traditore meaning “translator, traitor” meaning the act of translation is an act of distortion or betrayal. In a similar vein, to tell someone the story of a movie verbally is a gross distortion. It is a catataxic error. Sound and visuals are the language of emotions that belong on level one. Prose and the spoken word belong on level two language: precise, grammatical and rule bound. Rock journalists sometimes explain the conundrum like this: Writing about music is as impossible as explaining architecture through the medium of expressive dance.

Cinematic filmmakers like Ken Russell, Nic Roeg and Terrence Malick are the masters of a form of inarticulate veracity in which words are lies and images are the truth. Appropriately, the best example of inarticulate veracity is in a scene from a movie: Taxi Driver. It’s the speech by The Wizard (Peter Boyle) where he attempts to explain the meaning of life to De Niro and fails utterly, tailing off with “I’m a cabbie. What do I know?” . But in his very inarticulateness, he is in fact expressing a great truth. See the clip below. There is no better exposition of one of my favourite catataxic maxims: The truth is that which can not be put in words

See a transcript here

Europe: the Federated States of Catataxia

Catataxis means level confusion and the Eurozone crisis is a catataxic one. I will explain the problem with the state(s) of Europe in a moment, but first a little bit more background about the state of catataxia.

When things start to get bigger, sooner or later a certain point arises when there is a discontinuity. Getting past that requires a transformation in structure or organization. To get to the next level, something more than just size must change. Think of the biggest insect in the world. It will not be more than a foot long. Those giant ants towering over houses in 50’s sci fi movies are a physical impossibility. A creature with an exoskeleton reaches a physical limit to growth. There comes a time when the muscles required to move the external carapace get so big they can not be contained inside that carapace. Think of an enormously fat knight; his armour is so heavy he can no longer lift it. So in order for an ant to grow to be the size of an elephant, he has to cease to be an ant. His body form must be reorganized. His exoskeleton needs to be replaced by an exoskeleton. Mammals have endoskeletons: internal bones not external shells. Mammals range in size from a tiny shrew to a gigantic blue whale. That “exo to endoskeleton ” transformation marks a catataxic boundary: a discontinuity in a smooth linear expansion. A necessary reorganisation before further growth can continue.

Hence, the catataxic maxim “more of the same is different”. Let’s look at a corporate example instead of a biological one. A common cause of failure amongst small companies is not that that they fail to adapt when things are going badly but when things are going well. Sudden rapid growth can be just as dangerous as a declining market. As they expand quickly to become a big company they face a number of complicated hurdles, mostly to do with internal organisation. They must develop more robust systems in HR, admin, compliance and legal. They must navigate through a deadly miasma of corporate structure and org charts. This is the equivalent of the “exo to endo” transformation: the ant becoming the elephant. To most employees, this pointless bureaucracy and red tape is a big dead weight; sapping energy, crippling natural agility and dragging down performance. It is true that an ant can perform prodigious feats. Insects can carry many times their own weight or jump many times their own height. An elephant can’t jump at all, but it is BIG and that brings many different benefits.

Let’s look at a social example. When two or three people go out to dinner in a restaurant it is quite easy to settle the bill: just split it down the middle. But with 12 people there, suddenly the argument is all about who had the lobster to start with and how much wine did Jimmy drink. More of the same is different. It’s hard for a big group of people to pay the bill. Often its best to appeal to a higher authority: someone picks up the tab and takes a chance by sticking it on his corporate credit card. That way some higher level corporate entity can sort it out.

And so back to Europe. Everyone agrees that there should be a bailout for the Eurozone but no one wants to pay the bill. There is no leadership and no one to take charge because they can’t. There is no institution big or powerful enough to deal with it… yet. In Europe, we are privileged enough to be watching the ant turn into an elephant before our very eyes. Yes, this will require upheavals, reorganisations and much red tape. In the end, the Federated States of Europe will emerge. This lumbering, dull witted mastodon, much mocked and stung by the agile insects around it but big enough to crush them without even noticing.

The press has delighted in pointing out that the Groupe de Francfort, the eight public figures including Merkel and Sarkozy that are attempting to lead the response to the Eurozone crisis, are largely unelected and therefore have no democratic legitimacy. But then again, no one lauds a catataxic transformation. Have you ever heard a front office employee praise a corporate decision to double the number admin staff and increase red tape. This transformation is happening because it is an inevitable consequence of scale. Globalisation has made the existing structures redundant or unfit for purpose, and new institutions must replace them. It is a naturally emergent phenomenon driven by the environment, like a high tide or a wildebeest migration.

The ant must turn into an elephant. The Groupe de Francfort is its emergent head. A catataxic boundary must be crossed. It is a necessary transformation before growth can continue.