Costa Concordia: catataxic catastrophe

Costa Concordia catataxic catastrophe

On the centenary of the Titanic disaster of 1912 another huge cruse ship sank. The Costa Concordia ran aground in January 2012 hitting a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Although most of the passengers and crew were evacuated safely over a 6 hour period, 32 people died. There is a catataxic side to this tragedy. 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.

Big cruise ships are top heavy

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.

Lifeboats and logistics

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”

Surface area to volume problem

A big ship is different from a scaled up small ship which is the essence of catataxis. If you just inflate the ship design like a balloon it becomes top heavy. This is a version of the surface area to volume problem.  The outside surface of the ship – which passengers have to get to in order to escape  – increases with the square but the internal volume increases with the cube. So logistical problems with ever larger cruise ships grow exponentially. More of the same is different.

If you build it they won’t come

I was working on a local history project in Kent (where I live) when a friend gave me some old photos. They showed men in frock coats handling hops on long trestle tables. These are city workers handling an agricultural product. It took me some time to track down where the photos were taken.  It turns out they were hop factors in the 1920s, working in 15 Southwark Street opposite the Hop Exchange in London.

The vanished hop trade

The hop trade was once a major industry in Southwark. Back when there was only one bridge over the Thames (London Bridge) everyone passed through  Southwark . Its coaching inns and breweries have been famous since Chaucer’s time; this is where the pilgrims gathered before setting off for Canterbury. There was plenty of traffic up the other way too. Kentish hops, grown in the Garden of England, came up the A2 and the Old Kent Road to the market traders in Southwark Street, around the corner from Borough Market.
The hops were dried in oast houses and then tightly compressed into 6 foot sacks called ‘pockets’ and sent up to the middlemen, known as hop factors, in Southwark Street. Each load was sampled by cutting a foot square brick of pressed hops out of one of the pockets. This cube was wrapped in brown paper and secured with brass chair nails. Samples from a particular grower were all strung together with waxed hemp.

Another set of middlemen, the hop merchants who acted for the brewers, came to inspect the samples. These photos show the merchants (e.g. man in top hat on left) examining the hop samples displayed by the hop factors. The room is starkly functional. A big glazed roof lets in plenty of natural light to help the inspection and a big clock to measure opening and closing times. Nothing else. No decorations at all. After all, this is a serious place of business.

Three factors kill the trade

Hop production peaked in Kent in 1878 and has been declining ever since. Kentish hop varieties, such as Fuggles and Goldings, add bitterness to beer and ales, whereas German hops have low bitterness and strong aroma and are used for lager. So a number of trends conspired in the decline of the Kentish Hop industry. First was the trend towards lager over bitter. Second was the decline in exports as Australia and South Africa began growing their own hops. The third blow came in 1973 when Britain joined the Common Market and cheaper continental hops wiped out most of the growers in Kent.

Bomb damage in WW2 meant that many warehouses were rebuilt in Paddock Wood in Kent and the hop merchants moved what was left of the industry down there in the 1970s.The last hop merchant, Wolton Biddell in Borough High Street, closed its doors in 1991. All the buildings have been redeveloped. The area around London Bridge and Borough has become one of the hottest development areas in London as evidenced by the Shard, Europe’s tallest building. The old Hop Exchange has become a general purpose office building.

A magnificent open outcry design

But what a beautiful building. Opened in 1867 and designed by R.H.Moore it is now Grade II listed. When you step inside you can see the vast open atrium and the three tiers of balconies overlooking it. It is designed to allow ‘open outcry’ ; traders on the floor, merchants on the balconies shouting their orders back and forth to each other. Its just like the old stock exchange before it became computerised, or the Royal Exchange where futures were once traded but which is now an upmarket shopping mall. The Lloyds Insurance building has the same “atrium and balcony” design, letting all the brokers hear the stroke of the Lutine bell to inform them of bad news. In the hop exchange, all the balconies bear the crest of Kent – a white horse on a red shield – to remind occupants that this is the trading place for Kentish hops.

I live opposite a oast house and travel to London Bridge every day. The oast house across the road from me has been converted to a spectacular county home. My daily journey encompasses the agricultural history of Kent both at the beginning and end; from an oast with no hops to a hop exchange with no brokers. A palace for a product that no longer exists. There are plenty of brokers getting off the train at London Bridge these days, but they are not broking hops any more but financial products instead.

If you build it, they won’t come

You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in all of this. This tale is not just a personal trip of nostalgia, because there is one more twist to the story: the hop exchange was never full of brokers. The Victorian developers built it in a burst of progressive optimism hoping to capture and consolidate the hop trade inside its walls. But the hop factors and merchants already had their own various premises and saw no reason why they should move. So the hop exchange has only ever been a general office building and not a commodity exchange at all.

The Victorians were keen on making the abstract concrete. Think of the statues of “Trade” or “Progress” that adorn Victorian metropolitan buildings. These are industrial versions of the ancient Greek muses; abstract concepts in female form. The Hop Exchange was an attempt to cast economic activity in architectural form. Sadly, it did not work. This building designed to house speculators was itself a speculative failure. This was a catataxic blunder. Just because a building exists at level 1 does not mean that the trade at level 2 will be captured by it. In this case, the motto is: if you build it, they will not come.

Markets are a bottom up phenomenon; a spontaneous eruption of emergent behaviours. They can not be created top down. Building a building to try capture that magic is a s fruitless as running around trying to capture lightning    in a bottle. That does not stop people from trying. The latest disaster in the making of this type is the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Some $10bn has been spent building 59 skyscrapers in an attempt too lure international banks into the desert.  These hopes are built on sand.

General McChrystal’s catataxic blunder

General McCrystal's catataxic blunder

General Stanley McChrystal, the most senior military commander in Afghanistan, was summoned to the White House in 2010 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 also.   Journalists got the President sacked in the Watergate scandal. Rolling Stone Magazine are probably very happy though. It’s 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. It’s 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. That’s such a cliche…

So what did he do wrong? This was a catatactic blunder. It was a level confusion, a breaching of the barrier between the private man and the public role. In this case, the individual is on level one and the public office is the meta-level above it. 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 – and the need to view the category of ‘public role’ as more important than the human one. Surely this was a case where the context of the comments  was a vitally import qualifying factor. They got ignored as the categorisation process crossed the catataxic boundary between the human level and the public level. 

 

The Catataxic baguette

Catataxis 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.

Not just ‘your daily bread’

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.

Surface area to volume ratio

Where does the catataxis come in? Well, it’s to do with this variety of forms. 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.

This surface area to volume issue is a key factor in catataxis, and one of the main ways that ‘more of the same is different’ when you try to change the scale of something. For another example, consider the reason why no insect is ever bigger than a foot long: its exoskeleton design cannot support the interior  mass at bigger scales.

 

How Microsoft’s management killed innovation

microsoft logo

Vanity Fair in July 2012 had a great article titled “Microsoft’s lost decade”. It described how the corporate giant lost its way and changed from being an indomitable technology Titan to a has-been. Just as IBM did a decade earlier. The reason? A management technique known as “stack ranking”. Every business unit had to rank a certain percentage of its employees as “top performers”, “average” or “poor” and this effectively crippled the company’s ability to innovate. In contrast, Apple (for decades underdog to Microsoft) generates more revenue with a single product  – the iPhone – than the whole of Microsoft Corp.

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

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

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

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

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

This “level of selection” controversy is still a hot topic of debate amongst biologists. In the  June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine,  Richard Dawkins wrote an excoriating review of a book by fellow biologist Edward Wilson titled “The Social Conquest of Earth”. Wilson was arguing for the theory of group selection outlined above. Dawkins violently disagreed. His review concludes “…this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force…”. This vigorous denunciation provoked a huge backlash. The Dawkins article received more responses than any other in Prospect Magazine’s history. In effect, it was the atheist equivalent of watching the Pope beat up the Archbishop of Canterbury on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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

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

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