The Olympics – who really won ?

Andy Murray Olympic MedalistI spent a few weeks in Scotland at the Edinburgh festival on my summer holiday. I was struck by how the local press was trumpeting how successful “Scotland” had been in the Olympics, even though it was competing as part of the UK. Had Scotland been a separate county it would have come 12th in the league tables with 13 medals ( UK as a whole won 65). On the other hand, people who dream of an independent Scotland must have been disappointed to see Scots like Chris Hoy and Andy Murray draped in the Union Jack after winning their golds and proclaiming their pride in being part of “Team GB”.

The Olympic medal table shows how many medals each country won. You might think that it should be very easy to figure out was is the overall winner. Not true. Even with such a simple set of underlying facts there are plenty of tricks you can play in the interpretation of those facts. Which only goes to prove the old adage “Statistics are often used as a drunk man uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination”.

The version of the table most familiar to readers of the UK press goes like this, with the UK in third place:


Rank      Country               Gold            Silver            Bronze            Total

1.             USA                     46                 29                   29                  104

2.             China                   38                 27                   23                     88

3.             UK                       29                 17                   19                     65

4.              Russia                 24                 26                   32                     82

5.             Germany              11                 19                    14                     44


But you will notice that this ranking is on the number of Gold medals. If you rank countries by the total number of medals won, then Russia is third with 82 medals and the UK moves down to fourth place with 65.  Then again, maybe it is not fair to rank each medal the same. Surely a Gold medal should be worth more than a Silver. So you can give a weight to each medal like this: a gold is worth three points, silver two points and bronze one point.  After crunching the numbers, the result is still the same. Russia is third with 156 points and UK fourth with 140 points. For some other countries it makes a more dramatic difference. South Korea won 13 gold medals and relatively few medals of other rank. They score 5th on the “Gold only” ranking but only 10th on the weighted points method.

There are further steps to you can take to come up with a fair method of deciding who really won. Not all countries are the same size. Large countries have a larger pool of talent to pick from. So maybe a fairer method would be to adjust for population size and measure  medal haul per head of population. If you do this the ranking becomes:

Olympic medals per capita

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. Bahamas
  4. New Zealand
  5. Trinidad and Tobago
  6. Montenegro

Then again, since training top level athletes is expensive, it might be fairer to adjust for a country’s wealth rather than population size. If you look at the medals to GDP ratio then Granada and Jamaica are still at the top but the rest all change change:

Olympic medals to GDP ratio

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. North Korea
  4. Mongolia
  5. Georgia
  6. Kenya

There is another possible factor that might distort the results: team size. If you enter lots of athletes then you are likely to win more medals. So if you adjust for the size of the olympic team that was sent to the games the table looks like this :

Olympic medals to olympic team size ratio

  1. China
  2. Jamaica
  3. Iran
  4. Botswana
  5. USA
  6. Ethiopia

All of which goes to show that if you play with the data enough then everyone is a winner. Maybe a better conclusion is that sport is about athletes competing and that the glory should belong to the individual not the country. In other words, all the arguments about which “country” was the winner are merely a catataxic distraction. The spirit of the competition lies at level one (the person) not level two (the nation). Nationalistic triumphalism hijacks the very essence of the competition. Maybe things have not changed that much since Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936.

All of the above examples are merely reshuffling the order of existing countries as recognised by the Olympic Organising Committee.  We can highlight the catataxic issues at the heart of the debate by playing with the concept of “country” which is much more flawed than you might think. Let’s returning to the Scottish example we started with. Scots athletes won 13 medals, but this includes team medals.  If you exclude the team sports (show jumping, gymnastics, rowing, canoe slalom, tennis doubles, team cycling) where the team was not 100% Scottish then you are left with only 3 medals – two golds ( Hoy and Murray)  and silver in swimming from Jamieson. Not too encouraging if Scotland competes under the blue saltire flag in Rio in 2016.

Would Scots athletes automatically be part of Team Scotland? Not necessarily. Northern Ireland sets an interesting precedent.  It is technically under the jurisdiction of the Olympic Council of Ireland, despite being part of the United Kingdom. Athletes from Northern Ireland can choose whether to join the Irish or UK Olympic team. There were three people in the team that won the Sprint Cycling medal for the UK: an Englishman, a Scotsman and a German (Phillip Hindes). Sounds like the beginning of a joke? Well, it is. The joke being nationalism in the Olympics.

I must confess to getting a small frisson of pleasure when I saw a medal ceremony with the three flags of the UK, New Zealand and Australia in gold, silver and bronze positions: they all had the union jack in at least part of the flag. One definition of a country is “a group of people who share the same flag”. If you were to recast the table so that all countries with a Union Jack in the flag were viewed as a single entity then then the supra-country “Union Jack Land” beats China with 42 gold medals and 113 medals overall.

Maybe can use a different definition of a country: territories that are united by a single head of state. The USA has President Obama. We can theoretically create  “Elizabethland”: those countries that have Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State.  This, amongst others, includes UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada.  The total medal haul is 143, of which 48 are gold, which puts this entity top of the list whichever way you count it. The USA is second with 105 and 46 respectively.

A third definition of country could be this: a group of territories that form a single economic entity with a single currency. In which case the Eurozone would be the overall winner by far with a total (weighted method) medal score of 276. This is possibly the only positive thing that can be said about membership of the Eurozone at present….



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.

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

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…

Country, nation or state?

Wooden yoruba masksCountry, nation or state?  These three words are often used interchangeably. For example, the United Nations website describes itself as being “founded by 51 countries in 1945… and now providing a forum for 192 member states”. Let’s just run that past one more time : The countries in the United Nations consist of 192 member states. So all three words mean the same thing, right?

In fact nation, country and state all mean different things as the Latin roots of these words illustrate.  Nation comes from the Latin ‘natio’ meaning ‘to be born’, and refers to a group of people. Country comes from the Latin ‘contra’ meaning ‘against’ and refers to an area of land with a defined border. Why against? Because at the border, two countries lie against each other. State comes from the Latin ‘status’ whose meaning in English is the same. State refers to the status or power of the government. So a State is an organised community living under one government.

You can have a nation without having a state; think of the Cherokees, the Roma or even the Celtic Fringe*. These groups are defined through cultural and racial ties rather than land ownership or government. You can have a state without a country; think of Palestine or the Free French government in exile based in London in World War 2. You can be a country without being a state; Scotland and Wales are countries that are part of the sovereign state of the United Kingdom. But not all states are sovereign. A state may transfer some of its sovereign powers to the higher entity of a federal government. If so, it becomes a federated state as in the USA, Germany or India.

Each of these words is an attempt to describe the fourth rung on the ladder of society. The bottom three rungs are the individual, the family and the local community. What should you call the next rung up? If you are considering race or culture as the defining characteristic you would call it a nation. If your concerns were territorial you would call it a country. If you were focussing on who rules the people you would call it a state.

So what? Does any of this verbal gymnastics matter ? Well,  yes, it does to me because it is a catataxic problem. And it matters to you because the mismatch between the nation and the state is one of the primary causes of geopolitical instability. This stuff causes wars.

This week is a bad week.  The terrible tsunami  in Japan and the fighting in the desert in Libya seem like unconnected events on different sides of the world. But there is a link. Japan’s crisis is caused by the earth’s fixed tectonic plates colliding with each other. Libya’s civil war is essentially a conflict between tribes. Gadaffi’s tribe against the Rebel tribes.  The “tectonic plates” of the nations collide inside the state.

A geologist can identify the “Rim of Fire”. The places where earthquakes are bound to happen because plates collide : New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, California, Greece, etc. A political analyst can identify the places where conflicts can occur because tribal boundaries are misaligned with those of the state: Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Israel and West Africa. See my map of West Africa below. Can you spot the difference? Do you foresee a geopolitical tsunami?

West Africa Tribal map
Tribal map of West Africa




Continue reading “Country, nation or state?”

Nestle and the Sugarbabes

Jelly baby playtime #2 front focus

In 1988 Nestle bought Rowntree, the UK confectionary company famous for its fruit gums and jelly babies. It paid £2.5 bn which was three times more than the market thought it was worth. Nestle then had a big problem with its accounts.

Traditionally,  accountants would only look at the value of tangible assets; physical things like equipment and buildings. The difference between what you paid for a company and its tangible assets was called goodwill and had to be written off. Rowntree at the time had tangible assets of £0.5 bn. So according to the accounting principles of the day, Nestle had just blown £2 bn on intangible assets that had no true recognised value.  It faced having to declare a huge loss.

Nestle argued this was nonsense. The intangible assets were not worthless, in fact they were very valuable. They were consumer brand names that had cost many millions in advertising  investment to build up. Moreover, they were more valuable than physical equipment. Machinery wears out  and breaks down in the end; it depreciates in value. Brand names don’t. They last for ever.

This debate about accounting policies ran on for over a decade. The proper accounting treatment of brands was not settled until 1999 in the UK and 2002 in the US. Nestle’s view won out. Brands do have financial value and don’t depreciate.

Brand valuation is an example of catataxis. It’s the value of a concept rather than a physical object. Beauty is in the eye if the beholder. Brand is in the mind of the consumer. So accountants are now valuing things one level higher than the physical.  They are pricing emotions in your head. How you as a consumer feel now has a recognised monetary value. That is catataxis.

The ultimate expression of a brand is a pop group. Rowntree’s jelly babies is a physical product with some warm consumer associations. But a pop group is not a physical product at all. Its pure concept. So a band is the ultimate brand. It can exist without its physical parts. Forget jelly babies, look at the Sugarbabes.

The Sugarbabes formed in 1998 with three members: Siobhan Donaghy, Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan. One by one, all three of the original members have left the group. The line up in 2010 is Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jane Ewen. The constituent parts are completely different from ten years ago, but the band is still the same. It is still selling out big arenas so clearly the fans don’t mind. The band is not its members. It exists at a higher level. A catatactic success story.

Cynics can point out that this is a manufactured girl band. It is run by Crown Management, so of course the members are mere interchangeable components. This view is unfair. Organically formed bands who write their own material have similar problems.  The Rolling Stones as a band (and brand) is still as strong as ever. But the solo albums by the members are embarrassing flops. Mick Jagger released a solo album in 2001 which sold only 954 copies on its first day. A few years later the Stones “Bigger Bang” tour played to 3.8 million people and grossed $500m. So when Mick writes songs and releases them under the Stones banner its completely different from releasing them on his own. That is catataxis.

Consider Pink Floyd. This band lost its creative mainspring  not one but twice. Syd Barrett left in 1968 and Roger Waters left in a very acrimonious breakup in 1985. Roger Waters wrote almost all of the The Wall which has sold 20m copies worldwide. His first solo album was “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking”. This is very similar to The Wall, even down to the artwork by Gerald Scarfe. It was written at the same time as The Wall and at one time could have been recorded by the band. It was an embarrassing flop.

A big dispute followed about the ownership of the Pink Floyd name.  Roger Waters lost out and the remaining three band members kept ownership of it. They have since released two successful albums and had three sellout tours. Roger Waters is touring “The  Wall” right now – though not under the Pink Floyd name. Is it any good? I’ll tell you next year. I am lucky enough to have tickets to his May shows in the UK….


( the show was great by the way – and I had seats right at the front – see pics below) 

French Roma catatactic sandwich

Gypsy catataxisFrance has deported more than a 1,000 Roma in the last month, after President Sarkozy  decided that 300 illegal gypsy camps should be disbanded. He views the camps as sources of illegal trafficking , child exploitation, prostitution and crime. The decision was triggered by a riot in the town of St Aignan. Dozens of Roma attacked a police station after a gendarme killed a 22 year old from their community.   Cynics believe Sarkozy’s hardline but populist stance is an effort to raise his low approval ratings in the polls.

However, the EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has called the French actions “a disgrace” . She has urged the European Commission to take legal action against France since EU law bans discrimination against any ethnic group or nationality.  Inevitable comparisons have been drawn with the round up of Jews and Gypsies by  the Vichy government in the Second World War.

This is a catatactic sandwich. There are four hierarchical levels involved: citizen, nation, state and supranational entity. In this, the Roma are a ‘nation’ in its traditional sense: a group of people who share a culture, language and ethnic origin. The Cherokee nation is another example. Though the words nation, country and state are often used interchangeably they have distinct meanings. A country is the land that belongs to a nation. The State is the government of the nation and the country. We are habituated to think in terms of the sovereignty of the “nation state”, where the nation and the state are a single entity. The more multicultural we become, the more inappropriate this is. There are now many nations in each state.

The Roma are unusual in that they are a nation with no country. They are believed to have left north-west India  a millennium ago and migrated throughout Europe. They are most concentrated in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey but have communities in every part of Europe.

The French government claims it is acting against citizens who are in the country illegally. The EU believes France is discriminating against an ethnic group or nation. So level 3 thinks it is fixing a level 1 problem while level 4 thinks laws are being broken on level 2. That is the catatactic sandwich.

Its one step more complicated because the EU also has laws about the free movement of EU citizens. In other words, level 4 also has oversight at level 1. Unlike Britain, France requires citizens of Rumania to have special work permits.  This special exception to the EU rules expires in 2014. So in three years time, Bulgarians and Rumanians will be free to work anywhere in France. Any deported Roma can legally come straight back again.

It seems the future will be one of united nations and disunited states.

Water – the catatactic commodity

Coal was the key commodity of the 19th century. It powered the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century it was oil. The wars in the Middle East in the latter part of that period were clearly oil based conflicts. But oil played a significant part in both of the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. In the First World War, oil first demonstrated its importance. It powered the British Navy. The internal combustion engine in the form of the tank and the airplane created the decisive breakthroughs to end trench warfare. My grandfather was wounded in the ill fated Mesopotamian Expedition. They were fighting to protect British oil supplies in modern day Iraq.

In the Second World War, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour was in retaliation to the USA’s oil embargo. Japan’s invasion of South East Asia was an attempt to capture the oil fields there. Likewise, Rommel’s war in North Africa and Hitler’s invasion of Russia has the ultimate goal of securing oil supplies. Hitler diverted his tank divisions from the doorstep of Moscow south to the Caucasus. He viewed the oil fields there as the more important prize. That led to Stalingrad and his eventual defeat. It is easy to see why some historians view all conflicts in the 20th Century as “Oil Wars”.

So what of the 21st Century? Some pundits believe water will replace oil as the key commodity. Water resources are finite. Demand is increasing dramatically. This is not just because of the drinking and washing requirements of a population growing exponentially. Both agriculture and industrial manufacturing consume a lot of water. It takes xx litters of water to produce a cheap cotton T shirt. Limited supply, voracious demand. Will the price of water skyrocket?  It is already an investment theme. There is a good selection of Water funds you can buy, and a matching Dow Jones Index.

And now the chance of the first Water War. Five nations near the Nile’s source have recently signed an agreement to share the river’s water between them. Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda want to use Nile water for their own irrigation and hydroelectric schemes. Egypt is sabre rattling in response. Anwar Sadat, when making peace with Israel in 1979, said ” The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water” . Maybe he will be proved right.

Egypt and Sudan use 90% of the water in the River Nile but only make up a quarter of the population along its banks. Around  80% of the water that ends up in the Nile falls first as rain on the Ethiopian highlands. Half of the population of Ethiopia is close to starvation and there is a chronic lack of water for irrigation. So why shouldn’t they use some of the water for themselves? Eqypt’s reply is that it has hardly any rainfall so the Nile is literally its lifeline. Any attempt to divert that water is a serious threat to national security.

The problem is this. Water is not like any other commodity. Oil fields stay put, so there is not much dispute about who owns it. It belongs to whoever owns the land above it. You could sneakily try to drill in from the side.  (Please see the movie “There will be Blood”. Only Daniel Day Lewis could make the line “I’ll drink your milkshake…”  sound so terrifying). In practice, you have to own the land to own the oil. That’s not true with water. Water does not stay put, it flows. And half the time its not on the land anyway. Its in the sea, or in the sky. So its not really a commodity, its an ecosystem. A meta commodity. How can you use 19th century territorial laws to define the ownership of a cloud in the sky? That is catataxis.

General McChrystal’s catatactic blunder

General Stanley McChrystal, the most senior military commander in Afghanistan, was summoned to the White House last week and  sacked by President Obama following a candid interview in Rolling Stone magazine. What does this demonstrate? Well, one conclusion is all is well. Here is proof that the military is subordinate to politics, just what a healthy democracy needs. Another conclusion is they are both subordinate to the media. This is also probably healthy. But its not new. Journalists got the President sacked in the Watergate scandal. Rolling Stone Magazine are probably very happy though. Its a triumphal moment for the leading counter cultural monthly to take a general’s scalp.

What did General McChrystal do wrong? Is it really news that a bunch of soldiers when relaxing in a bar bitch about politicians? Is the public really shocked? There has been a scene like that in almost every war movie. Its so commonplace that it can’t be news. A soldier fighting a war thinks the politicians on the other side of the world are out of touch. Thats such a cliche…

So what did he do wrong? It was a catatactic blunder. It was a level confusion. It was a breaking of the barrier between the private man and the public role. There is no problem with an individual having those thoughts. There is a problem with the leader of the armed forces disagreeing with the President in public. Rolling Stone is also guilty here. General McChrystal did not call a press conference and announce to the world his misgivings. His aides were making in appropriate jokes getting drunk in a bar in Paris. We have all done that. It was Rolling Stone who took it across the barrier from the private to the public.

You may say it is foolish to air your true feelings when there is a journalist lurking around. Its only a small step from there to believing that public officials should routinely lie to the press. That is not a good result. The real fault lies with us – the reading public. We are not able to hold in our minds the difference between the private person and the office he occupies. Those two are one for us. We collapse the one into the other. That is catataxis.