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.

Rogue Trader? Rogue Numbers!

SPSS for psychology studentsMy niece is about to go to University to read Psychology. I was surprised to find out that on her required reading list is a book called “Discovering statistics using SPSS”. It’s a monster tome of over 800 pages filled with maths. There are chapters on multivariate analysis of statistical variance, the chi-square test with standardised residuals and a section on factor extraction with eigenvalues….. No? Me neither!

SPSS stands for Statistical Package for Social Sciences. It first appeared in 1968 and has been much updated since. The SPSS manual has been described as one of sociology’s most influential books. Why? Because it turns sociology into a science. Most of the statistical methods used in the program, such as the least squared method, were invented by physicists in the 1800s. SPSS allows sociologists to plunder the wardrobe of physics. By dressing up in their clothes, it makes their discipline look more like a hard science and less of a touchy feely one: it now has numbers and maths.

One of my metaphors for catataxis is a shrink consulting a physics textbook when you are lying on his couch telling him about your father issues. He is analyzing your emotions, which are seated in the brain. And the brain, at the most fundamental level, is made up of subatomic particles. But you can’t analyse emotions by looking at subatomic particles; to do so is a catataxic error. You need to use therapeutic techniques not quantum physics – the right tool for the right level. Hence my surprise on finding out that psychology students have to study statistics.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, statistics are useful things. They enable you to see a pattern that you might miss if you were too bogged down in the details. Statistics transmute a problem up one level, from messy reality on level one to pristine, summarising numbers on level two. Statistics let you see the wood for the trees. To run a regression on a set of data is to perform a catataxic transformation; one that can save lives with medical trials and the like. The problem is that having reduced the world to a numerical one, the judgements made on those numbers can be flawed. There is a nice warm feeling of security that you feel after you have ‘crunched the numbers’ and shown that they support your case. But your confidence in that numerical data mining may well be misplaced.

Which leads us to the UBS rogue trader who just lost that bank £2.3bn dollars. I must confess to some degree of schadenfreude. UBS took over Phillips and Drew in the 1980s, the partnership that I started work with in the City. They then proceeded to destroy it. So to see this global bank that boasts of its risk management skills humbled by a rogue trader brings a wry smile to my face.

“When will banks learn to control risks properly?“ many commentators ask. Surely the lesson is that it is not possible to control risks, not with a spreadsheet anyway. Most statistical methods rely on the bell curve; they assume a normal distribution of risk in order to make the maths work. The problem is that risk is not normally distributed, so traders keep dropping huge sums unexpectedly. Apples fall to earth, tides go in and out, riots happen in the summer and traders bankrupt banks. It’s the natural order of things. Nothing that really needs explaining.

I imagine that the senior managers at UBS looking at the trading accounts felt comforted by the numbers showing how profitable they were. But just as with psychology students, converting things up one level to the numerical domain does not necessarily make things safe, or even true. Just looking at numbers gives a false sense of confidence. Better to look one level down at the real world, the human world, messy and unstructured as it is. I bet the guy sitting on the desk next to the rogue trader all day for the last three years knew something funny was going on…

The catataxic baguette

One of the great joys of a holiday in France is the early morning trip to the boulangerie, in my case the Ti Ar Bara in Audierne. The baker has been up since 3.00am, working hard for your sybaritic pleasure. And what a true pleasure it is. As that gorgeous smell of freshly baked bread steals into the still morning air, you feel a rushing lift of the spirits. Yes, any day with such a blest beginning will surely bring all manner of  wondrous things later.

It’s not just the smell of the bread, it’s the glorious range of different things on offer. It is a mark of true civilisation to take a so pedestrian a concept as ‘daily bread’ and turn it into this transcendent cornucopia of golden joy. There are croissants and pan chocolat, flaky and light as a cherubim’s kiss, the eggy richness of the many different styles of brioche and, here in Brittany, the dense layers of caramelised butter in the kouign amann  and the far breton.  But even in the simplest things there is still a riotous diversity. “White bread” in the Anglosphere is a simile for bland and unimaginative mediocrity. In France, white bread comes in dizzying array of forms; boules, epis, plats and rondes. Even the quintessentially French baguette comes in many different formats. There is the Ficelle, thin as the string it is named after, the shorter Batard, the pointy ended Festive, the double sized Parisienne and the giant Pan Ordinaire, which is not ordinary at all but a massive truncheon of crusty extravagance.

Baker holds a ficelle and a pan ordinaire

Where does the catataxis come in? Well, it’s to do with the variety of forms. The first point to make is that such variety is only possible in a freely operating market. Variety may be the spice of life but it only arises in response to a diversity of demand. So breadth of choice is a catataxic indicator; it is a level three phenomenon indicating the presence of a diverse community on the layer below or,more correctly, a diversity of tastes in the community beneath.

There is a second more subtle point. Why so many different types of baguette? If you want more bread why not just buy two normal sized ones rather than one big one? Two Ficelles weigh the same as one Batard so in ‘volume of bread’ terms they are identical. But mathematicians know that they are not the same thing at all. This because surface area and volume don’t scale up in the same way. Surface area scales in proportion to the radius but volume scales with the square of the radius. Gourmands know this difference too, but they put it a different way: you get a lot more crust with two Ficelles. A Ficelle is all crust; it’s so thin that there is very little doughy interior. So if you like the crust then get two Ficelles. By the time you get up to the monster Pan Ordinaire there is relatively little crust and a huge expanse of doughy interior. You can easily slice it and put it in a toaster.

So the Ficelle to Pan Ordinaire transition is a good example of catataxis: more of the same is different. Crust lovers buy Ficelles, crust haters buy Pan Ordinaire. Chacun a son gout…

Riots: hysteria and hysteresis

police and community frustrationI am on holiday in France this week. Every cafe and hotel has a TV screen with a French presenter gleefully covering the riots in the UK. Shocking footage of looting and burning buildings, so far from the traditional image of the English on the continent. Whatever happened to the tradition of repressed feelings and the stiff upper lip?Clearly something is terribly wrong with British society. If only they had the sense of community that we French have here in France. Britain clearly can learn a lot about how to organise society from us.

If you cast your mind back a few years you will probably remember British commentators making exactly the same points at the time of the French riots but in reverse. How the French have a lot to learn from the Brits about multiculturalism and how to make minority groups feel included. Maybe that is not too much of a surprise because all coverage of riots in all countries is always the same. The story runs like this a) riots are sign that something is terribly wrong b) the government’s policies are clearly to blame c) something must be done to fix them.

Do riots really mean that something is wrong? The alternative view is that they are a naturally occurring phenomenon like stock market crashes or tsunamis. They happen from time to time regardless of government policies. If you look back in history in any country one conclusion must be this: communities riot. That’s how a level 3 entity loses it’s temper. Its not unnatural for an individual to feel angry from time to time. Quite the opposite, any human who lived their whole life without ever losing their temper would not be human. Likewise with communities and riots. Sudden summer storms clear the air, a build up of static electricity clears with a shock and riots vent community frustrations. Everyone feels much better afterwards. They are not a sign that something is wrong. It’s just part of the natural behaviour of complex systems. It’s a sign that everything is working normally.

Firefighters in California and Australia are coming to the worrying conclusion that the recent spate of costly and highly destructive forest fires are a direct result of their tampering with nature. By being so efficient at eliminating small forest fires for the last century, they have left the woodlands surrounding their towns with an unnaturally large load of dry wood. This sets the stage for an inevitable monster conflagration which, when it comes, is beyond their power to control. Firefighters are coming to the conclusion that they should maybe just let a few forest fires burn every few years along with a few houses too. That way they avoid the big one: a few high tides but no tsunami. So firefighters have learnt the counterintuitive trick of standing by and doing nothing when a fire rages. What chance is there of a politician doing that when a riot happens?

Not much.The reaction to the riots has been hysterical. There is no shortage of ‘reasons’ given for causing the riots: moral decline, absence of authority, lack of religion, poor schooling, government budget cuts, the breakdown in family values, soft policing and consumer advertising. Yes, the last one argues that if you bombard the underprivileged  with too many adverts for high end aspirational consumer goods  in the end they will crack under the pressure and just help themselves by looting. Each of these ‘reasons’ then has it’s own ‘solution’ which you can pick according to your bias and your political agenda. Only a very few commentators, like my friend Harriet Sargent in the Sunday Times, are able to keep a cool head. Looking at the extraordinary diversity of the rioters passing through the courts, it’s clear that there is no one reason. Looters included a postman, a social worker, an heiress and several university graduates along with the usual youth suspects from underprivileged minorities. What links this disparate group together other than a thrill seeking urge to counter the long, hot boredom of the summer?

The hysterical reaction and the rush to find ‘reasons’  is only to be expected. Its the natural  counter reaction of the body politic. Its an involuntary response, like white blood cells rushing to the site of infection. But beyond the hysteria there is another deeper mechanism at work. Engineers call it hysteresis, which crudely speaking means ” you can’t get back to where you started “. Hysteresis is a type of memory or lagging effect that is a common phenomenon in nonlinear complex systems. It is often seen in magnetic devices, thermostats, electric circuits, neurons in the brain, cells when they divide,economic systems and, of course, communities that riot.

A hysteresis loop is characterised on a graph as a rectangle or lozenge rather than a single line. It is ‘nonlinear’ because a particular input can have two different outputs. Think of a thermostat controlling the heating in your house. You want the temperature to be 20 C. You could just set up a switch which turns on or off at precisely 20 degrees but this could get very irritating because the system would be constantly switching on and off every minute. So instead you set up a thermostat with a hysteresis loop that does this : turn on at 18 degrees and turn off at 22 degrees.  Now you have a system that only switches on once or twice an evening and keeps the temperature nicely hovering around 20 degrees. Now consider this: when the temperature is 20 degrees is the system on or off? The answer is it could be both ( it’s a nonlinear system). It could be in heating phase moving from 18 to 22 or it could be in cooling phase moving back the other way. It depends which path the system is on.

In economics,  exports often show a hysteresis effect. It can take a big effort to start up an export program but once it is set up it takes little effort to maintain that momentum. However, once exports begin to tail off it can take another big effort to reverse the negative momentum. So the answer to the question “how much effort is required to get exports to a certain level” is that it depends which part of the path you are on. Just like with the thermostat, there is more than one possible answer when you have a hysteresis loop.

Back to riots. Let’s take one of the ‘reasons’ for the riots: soft policing. We can ask the question “How much policing is required to prevent rioting”. The answer is it depends which part of the path you are on: before the riots not much, after the riots a lot. A community is a complex nonlinear system that exhibits hysteresis effects. It has a collective memory. You can’t put things back to how they were before, at least, not quickly. We need fewer hysterical reactions and more recognition that riots are a natural phenomenon. Communities have hysteresis loops; memory effects and lagging results that will sort themselves out in the end. Like the firefighters, maybe the politicians should have the courage to do nothing.

Theory of everything explains nothing

Stephen Hawking’s new book “The Grand Design” has been all over  the press in the last week. His last book  “A Brief History of Time” published in 1988 ended with the door left open for God the Creator. This book slams that door shut. It concludes that God is not required to explain the creation of the universe. The laws of physics can do this perfectly well without the need for a divine creator. He writes “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist”. The book puts forward M-theory, a multifaceted collection of string theories, as the ultimate theory of everything.

There is an old joke that goes like this: A man walks into a bar. The bartender asks him what he wants. “Nothing,” he replies. “So why did you come in here?” “Because nothing is better than a cold beer.” This joke is the backdoor entrance to the long standing philosophical debate about whether nothing is in fact something or literally no thing at all.

We can rephrase the question mathematically like this: is zero a number? Hawking’s book says that you don’t need God to explain how to get from zero to one. That is a perfectly logical numerical sequence. But where do the numbers come from? Who created those?

“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the whole world.” That is the opening sentence of Robert Kaplan’s exquisite book “ The nothing that is” which is a far more illuminating read. It is a history of the concept of zero. The number zero is something that we all take for granted, but imagine how hard it is to do simple addition without it. The Romans had no zero; what is MCMLXXIII plus CLIV?

How do you create something out of nothing?  How do you take the first step on the catatactic ladder? Hawking says God is not required in the explanation. It is hard not to feel that he is being a bit of a kill joy.  Science aims to explain the magic, to illustrate the workings of the conjuring trick. Where is the fun in that?  Don’t you feel a twinge of regret when something is explained?

The rational response is that only the truth matters. I would say two things in reply. First the enigmatic line on Keats’s urn “Beauty is truth, truth beauty “. The second is this: sometimes the truth is that which can not be put in words. Wittgenstein’s last line of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus sums it up quite wellWhereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”