onsdag 31 oktober 2007

Huge queue to get in to the London Dungeon


London Dungeon Queue
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

The latest advert promotes a simulation of a hanging, and presumably this is the attraction. No doubt if public hanging was reintroduced, it would become a popular spectacle, possibly even more than football.

This raises an interesting possibility. If it were televised and streamed over the internet, the rights would be worth a fortune, so one could envisage hanging, drawing and quartering being put out to tender as a PFI initiative. It would probably be won by one of the US firm operating in Iraq, like Blackwaters. They might botch the odd execution but what the heck.

torsdag 25 oktober 2007

Northern Rock and its aftermath - missing the financial point

The Bank of England and the financial commentators are missing the point about the recent Northern Rock crisis. The Guardian's commentator, Larry Elliott said today...

'The City risks financial turmoil on a renewed and intensified scale unless it learns the lessons from a catalogue of weaknesses evident in the run-up to this summer's credit crunch, the Bank of England warns today. The Bank says Britain's financial system is vulnerable to further shocks after ignoring repeated warnings about the "seriously flawed" model used by institutions to expand lending rapidly in recent years.

'It admits it would need to learn its own lessons from the handling of the three-day crisis at Northern Rock - the first run on a big UK bank in almost 150 years - but said there were already signs of a return to the lax lending practices that were the root cause of the freezing-up in financial markets, in Britain and globally.

'In its half-yearly Financial Stability Review, the Bank is critical of the way banks made risky loans and then passed them on to other institutions. "The 'originate and distribute' business model, which has facilitated rapid growth and strong profitability at major financial institutions in recent years, has been shown to have significant flaws," the FSR says. "These include inadequate information about the true credit risk underlying financial instruments; an excessive dependency on rating agencies, opaqueness about the distribution of risks in the financial system; over-reliance on continuous liquidity in financial markets; and inadequate liquidity risk management." '

Banks create money out of nothing. This can be for a perfectly legitimate purpose. Classically, it was for an enterprise such as farming, where the farmer had to survive between the time the seeds were planted and the crop was harvested and sold. The reality was that this credit enabled the farmer to live off previous years' production. The bank could be fairly certain that the credit would be repaid, unless some disaster intervened.

But when money is loaned for land purchase, things are different. Land purchase - usually wrapped up as house or other property purchase - is, in principle, nothing more than the purchase of a stream of rental income, real or imputed. The problem arises in the first instance because expectations of future increases in the rental stream are factored into the capital value. A further issue then comes into play, because land becomes a commodity to be traded in speculatively.

When loans for land purchase are secured on land prices in a market where speculative trading is going on, increasing amounts of money will become available for buying land, driving prices up higher and higher. Eventually, they will reach a point where returns on this "investment" fall to the point where, even with expectations of future income growth, the yield is unacceptable. At this stage, the market falters and crashes, with people who purchased at the peak finding themselves with large debts and an asset that is worth less than the amount borrowed. This then becomes a problem for the lenders whose loans are secured on a value that no longer exists. Historical evidence indicates that the process is cyclic, with a period of about 18 years.

Northern Rock's problems, which are related to a larger scale disruption in the USA, are an inevitable consequence of the financial system. Better oversight or control is not going to prevent these periodic financial disruptions.

If the right system of land value taxation were in place, the rental stream accruing to land ownership would be small or non-existent. Land would not be traded in the way that it is under the present arrangements which leave the rental income stream with the land owner. Land holders would be taking on the liability to pay the annual land value tax, which would still entitle them to use the land for whatever they wanted, just as leaseholders today are willing rent premises in order to use them for their business. There would be no point in holding land speculatively, however, as there would be nothing to speculate in, because the true rental value is always captured and land as such would effectively have no selling price.

The banks, deprived of the opportunity to lend on land purchase, would be limited to make their advances on the strength of the creditworthiness of the borrowers, without reliance on the shaky collateral represented by inherently volatile land values - as has been proved historically.

This change is a prerequisite for bringing about the necessary reform to promote good practice in the banking system.

tisdag 23 oktober 2007

Race and intelligence again

Intelligence itself is a murky concept - the notion of using poison gas during the first world war was conceived by one of the most brilliant scientists of the time. But primarily, it is the ability to make high scores in intelligence tests, for what they are worth.

Intelligence tests arose through the need to predict future performance, and they are of some, though limited value. But even if they showed that individuals from particular ethnic groups had a tendency to score high or low, there are so many other factors involved that it would be difficult if not impossible to establish to what extent there was a genetic component.

In the case of people of African descent, possible non-genetic causes of low scores in these tests would be cultural factors, poor nutrition and childhood illness, and poverty, which can mean that parents are so busy trying to survive that they are unable to give their children the necessary time to promote their intellectual development.

In so far as low intelligence (whatever that means) is a poverty issue, it would be cruel to try, out of reasons of policial correctness, to pretend there is not a problem when there is, and which needs to be addressed.

måndag 22 oktober 2007

Armed guard at US embassy


Looks like Judge Dredd. I think it is dangerous to walk this way.

This used to be an open building. Now it has been turned into a fortress. It is hideous. And in a Conservation Area, too!

What has the USA done to make itself such a target?

Ethical Travel


I saw an article today in a publication called "Ethical Consumer", about the benefits of travelling by rail. But having done so extensively over the past couple of years, it is easy to understand why so many people do not. It can take a lot of determination and effort to use the train instead of driving or going by plane.

Long distance (international) travel by rail is troublesome these days, mostly due to the difficulty of buying tickets. Some railways have confusing and awkward web sites. Others will refuse to sell tickets for other than the most popular routes and destinations or will not accept payment by foreign credit or debit cards. Poor computer systems are another hazard. It can take up to a quarter of an hour to buy a ticket from their Rail Europe shop in London as staff struggle with their terminals; there was a two-hour queue there recently. Yet another is being told that trains are fully booked when they are not, due to badly designed reservation systems which do not allocate the same seat to different passengers each travelling on only part of the route. I have travelled in "fully booked" trains which were never more than 60% full. A further difficulty is the inflexibility of having to travel on a particular train, and passengers are told that a train is fully booked when this is not so. Altogether, things are too complicated; If you succeed in booking a return journey to Stockholm, you will end up with two dozen tickets!

Earlier this year my attempt to travel to Sweden by train failed entirely. I was unable to book a return journey on Eurostar, as my return was too far ahead to be on the computer system and was offered a single ticket at an extortionate amount. Then the UK office of Deutsche Bahn was unable to renew my Bahncard, so I gave up on the idea of the train. Instead, for the same money I travelled to and from Denmark on the luxury cruise ferry, with my own cabin with sea view, and dinners and breakfasts. That got me most of the way with no trouble, on one ticket!

Conditions on the actual journey are often not what they ought to be either. Some trains, like the Danish IC3 and German ICE designs, are reasonably spacious and pleasant, with seats well placed in relation to the windows. But seating layouts on many trains are cramped and poor, and because it is common practice to book everyone into a particular seat, people often end up being allocated a place which is not to their liking; from many "window seats", all that can actually be seen is a bit of curtain. This happens even on a scenic route like Oslo to Bergen, which is like going to an opera and finding one's view blocked by a pillar. Then a game of musical chairs takes place with people moving from one empty seat to another, as and when they are available.

Luggage storage is often a problem. On older trains there is usually a good space between seat backs, which means one can keep one's luggage close by, but the vogue for airline style seating on trains means that these spaces do not exist. Thus, on busy Swedish trains, luggage just collects in a heap on the floor, while on the Thalys between Cologne and Paris, luggage sometimes has to be stuffed into the doorway and unloaded onto the platform at stations just so that people can get off the train.

Double-deck trains are another bugbear for people with luggage, as it has to be dragged up flights of stairs, again, with nowhere to put it. In Finland (picture), I found that an attempt had been made to deal with the problem by providing lockers by the doorways, but they were only big enough for medium sized cases.

If people are going to return to using rail in any numbers, there is a need to analyse and cater for passengers' needs, starting with the time they are planning their journey.

söndag 21 oktober 2007

Observer Journalist advocates Local Income Tax

William Keegan has been writing for the Observer for too long. He is an unreconstructed Keynesian, which means that while he is very good at putting his finger on economic problems, he almost never has anything useful to say about what should be done about them.

Today, he wrote a piece in support of the Liberal Democrats' proposal to fund local councils by means of a local income tax. Now, such taxes do exist elsewhere, so they are not completely impracticable. But the pages of technical papers like Computer Weekly report constant problems over computer software and large scale mistakes, and tax systems need to be simplified, not made more complicated. The tax system already costs about £25 billion a year to run, about 6% of what is collected, to say nothing of the £130 billion of lost production annually that results due to the way it kills off economic activity.

The administrative problem is this. Most people work for an employer, who will have staff working in different local authority areas. Under a system of local income tax, the PAYE system would become more complex as employers would have to deduct tax at different rates and the correct amounts would somehow have to be remitted to the different local authority areas. This means that somebody would have to keep track of people's addresses, to ensure that the were living where they said they were and not in some fictitious address where local tax was low. This is one of the problems that killed off the poll tax.

It gets worse. Apparently, investment income cannot be taxed in this way, and so it would not be related to ability to pay. And how would second homes be taxed? Or wouldn't they?

Advocates of local income tax never answer these questions. Which will not prevent some stupid politicians from persisting with the notion.

Watson and race

James Watson, one of the team of four scientists who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, has come under attack for suggesting that there is some connection between being African or having African ancestry, and having low intelligence.

He seems to be suggesting that there is a genetic component to intelligence which condition in Europe have selected for this attribute more strongly than in Africa, though it is not clear exactly what he getting, but that has not stopped people rushing to attack, and silence him.

The whole subject area is murky, with several strands to this debate. The first is what precisely does intelligence tests measure? The second is whether the whatever-it-measures has a positive, negative or neutral moral value? The third is to what extent it is inherited through DNA and how much is a result of environmental factors? The fourth is whether it fuels racism?

Friends who have worked in Third World countries in Africa and elsewhere relate stories about being in the bush and the resourcefulness of their drivers when things go wrong. The skills that they describe are not the kind of thing that ordinary pencil-and-paper intelligence tests would measure. So the tests themselves need to be regarded with suspicion.

As for the moral value of intelligence, it was Einstein who famously said, on hearing of the atom bomb tests, "I wish I had been a watchmaker". The generals and politicians, and their scientist servants, who hatched the immensely destructive wars of the twentieth century, would no doubt have scored highly in intelligence tests. The quality of a society in terms of the happiness of its members depends more upon the prevalence of positive moral values than on the intelligence of its members. Africa's problems seem primarily to do with the corruption of its politics, and this is largely to do with the way the government of those countries interact with western institutions.

Whether mental capacities are inherited though DNA or environmental factors would be inherently almost impossible to establish. Studies of identical twins are of limited value, as we now know that the ante-natal environment is critical. But poor maternal nutrition and illness will inevitably affect brain development both before children are born and in the early years of their life, whilst poverty itself tends to result in an environment where children are less stimulated by parents, partly, perhaps, for cultural reasons but equally, because they are too busy with just trying to survive.

Sadly but inevitably, to raise this issue is, on the one hand to fuel attacks the one hand from people who cry racism, and on the other, to give propaganda to racists. Ironically, white racists themselves appear to be of well below average intelligence, however measured. This comes to light in Britain when members of the BNP win local elections and often turn out to be unable to handle ordinary council business.

Perhaps white racists should be invited to demonstrate their intelligence by participating in tests? They might get a shock at their low scores.

lördag 20 oktober 2007

Can we, together, lift one village out of the Middle Ages?

That was the subject of an article in today's Guardian. The village was in Uganda, and the people who live there are plauged by malaria, flood, food shortage, poor medical services, inadequate infrastructure, chronic poverty.

Nice to know that something is being done, but we aren't told who owns the land, or why people stay in such a poor environment instead of moving to somewhere better.

It sounds as if these people are living in a marginal location, but if development is successful and lifts it above the margin, it is the villagers who will benefit or will the gains be claimed by the landlords through rent increases?

Sadly, the author of the article has neglected to highlight this important question.

Not this kind of cycle


Copenhagen cycles
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

Although it was high tide when we went to swim this morning, we still had a long walk across the beach to get to the water. This is because today the tides are in their Neap phases, and there is only a 2 metre range between high and low water. In two weeks' time, we will be back to Spring tides and the range will be over six metres.

Everything is cyclic. Anyone who spends a lot of time out of doors or is involved with the sea will know this. The seasons, and the tides, for instance, are all cyclic. The sun rises and sets once every 24 hours. The tides come round roughly twice every 25 hours. Twice a month the tides cycle from Springs to Neaps. And this variation in tides changes with the seasons, and with other factors due to the inclination of the orbits of the earth and the moon. Then there is the 11 year sunspot cycle, which seems to have an effect on the weather. All these changes have astronomical causes.

There are some very long-term astronomical cycles of between 21,000 and 400,000 years, known as Milankovitch cycles, related to the way earth and moon wobble on their axes and move round each other, and round the sun, in orbits which are slightly eccentric. These appear to have an effect on the climate, though there the theory of how this might happen remains contentious. Beyond this, there may be even longer-term cycles as the solar system is in orbit round the centre of the galaxy, taking 225 million years to complete the circuit, with the possibility of encountering all sorts of objects on its way round.

There are also geological cycles. The present continents were formed from the break up of the supercontinent of Pangea, beginning about 200 million years ago. The evidence suggests that Pangea formed about 300 million years ago, and it appears that it came about from the collision of earlier contents, which themselves were the product of the break-up of an earlier supercontinent about 600 million years ago. And when the earth's land is clumped together in a supercontinent, the weather had a tendency to extremes of cold, heat and dryness, whereas when the land is separated into continents, the climate tends towards the wet and temperate.

On top of these cycles, there are biological cycles. Individual creatures and species seem to arise, flourish and decline with the passage of time.

It is also claimed that there are astrological cycles, based on the movents of the planets around the earth, but no-one has shown how the movement of distant and relatively lightweight planets could have a significant long-distance effect, or even that there is any real link can be detected. Possibly, planetary movements are a proxy for something else, but what?

There are economic cycles, too. The most familiar is the boom-bust cycle, of about 18 years. This manifests as a property price boom and bust, but in reality it is a land price irregularity. There have been two since the end of World War 2, with booms ending in crashes in 1974 and 1992. We seem to be heading for another, on schedule in 2010. But what could be the cause? There is a lunar cycle of 19 year, on which the Jewish calender is based. Its relevance is obvious to anyone calculating the dates of eclipses of the sun and moon, but what has that to do with the economy? Another suggestion is that it is related to the internal dynamics of the land market, but how, and why 18 years?

There is much that needs explaining.

More train trouble - French this time


Montbard with TGV
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

I just want to buy a train ticket for a journey in France. I don't even want a reservation.

I went into the French Railways' Piccadilly shop and was told there is a two hour queue. That is nearly as long as the time it takes to travel from London to Paris! Their telephone service is under-staffed so callers just pay to wait and listen to their music. Online booking was useless as the web form will not come up with the station I am trying to go to and there was nowhere to type it in. It will only let you book to the stations on the list.

What is the use of spending all the money on sexy trains and expensive infrastructure if it is not supported by booking facilities and a sensible fares structure?

The problem seems to be Europe-wide.

Postscript - Eventually I got through to someone quite quickly who was very helpful and I got my tickets with nice discount and when I explained that my destination was not on the system they waived the booking fee.

torsdag 18 oktober 2007

Heresies

What Is Heresy? Summarised from The Great Heresies (Catholic Anwers)

Heresy is an emotionally loaded term that is often misused. It is not the same thing as incredulity, schism, apostasy, or other sins against faith. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.

To commit heresy, one must refuse to be corrected. A person who is ready to be corrected or who is unaware that what he has been saying is against Church teaching is not a heretic.

A person must be baptized to commit heresy. This means that movements that have split off from or been influenced by Christianity, but that do not practice baptism (or do not practice valid baptism), are not heresies, but separate religions. Examples include Muslims, who do not practice baptism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not practice valid baptism. [Thus, Belloc was technically incorrect when he described Islam as one of the great heresies.]

It is important to distinguish heresy from schism and apostasy. In schism, one separates from the Catholic Church without repudiating a defined doctrine. An example of a contemporary schism is the Society of St. Pius X—the "Lefebvrists" or followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre—who separated from the Church in the late 1980s, but who have not denied Catholic doctrines. In apostasy, one totally repudiates the Christian faith and no longer even claims to be a Christian.

The major heresies of Church history are.

The Circumcisers (1st Century)
The Circumcision heresy may be summed up in the words of Acts 15:1: "But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’"

Many of the early Christians were Jews, who brought to the Christian faith many of their former practices. They recognized in Jesus the Messiah predicted by the prophets and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Because circumcision had been required in the Old Testament for membership in God’s covenant, many thought it would also be required for membership in the New Covenant that Christ had come to inaugurate.

Gnosticism (1st and 2nd Centuries)
"Matter is evil!" This idea was borrowed from certain Greek philosophers. It stood against Catholic teaching, not only because it contradicts Genesis 1:31 ("And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good") and other scriptures, but because it denies the Incarnation. If matter is evil, then Jesus Christ could not be true God and true man, for Christ is in no way evil.

Montanism (Late 2nd Century)
Montanus claimed that his teachings were above those of the Church, and soon he began to teach Christ’s imminent return in his home town in Phrygia.

Sabellianism (Early 3rd Century)
The Sabellianists taught that Jesus Christ and God the Father were not distinct persons, but two aspects or offices of one person. According to them, the three persons of the Trinity exist only in God’s relation to man, not in objective reality.

Arianism (4th Century)
Arius taught that Christ was a creature made by God. By disguising his heresy using orthodox or near-orthodox terminology, he was able to sow great confusion in the Church. He was able to muster the support of many bishops, while others excommunicated him.

Arianism was solemnly condemned in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, which defined the divinity of Christ, and in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These two councils gave us the Nicene creed, which Catholics recite at Mass every Sunday.

Pelagianism (5th Century)
Pelagius denied that we inherit original sin from Adam’s sin in the Garden and claimed that we become sinful only through the bad example of the sinful community into which we are born. Pelagius stated that man is born morally neutral and can achieve heaven under his own powers. According to him, God’s grace is not truly necessary, but merely makes easier an otherwise difficult task.

Semi-Pelagianism (5th Century)
After Augustine refuted the teachings of Pelagius, some tried a modified version of his system. This, too, ended in heresy by claiming that humans can reach out to God under their own power, without God’s grace; that once a person has entered a state of grace, one can retain it through one’s efforts, without further grace from God; and that natural human effort alone can give one some claim to receiving grace, though not strictly merit it.

Nestorianism (5th Century)
This heresy about the person of Christ was initiated by Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who denied Mary the title of Theotokos (Greek: "God-bearer" or, less literally, "Mother of God"). Nestorius claimed that she only bore Christ’s human nature in her womb, and proposed the alternative title Christotokos ("Christ-bearer" or "Mother of Christ").

The Church reacted in 431 with the Council of Ephesus, defining that Mary can be properly referred to as the Mother of God, not in the sense that she is older than God or the source of God, but in the sense that the person she carried in her womb was, in fact, God incarnate ("in the flesh").

Monophysitism (5th Century)
Monophysitism originated as a reaction to Nestorianism. The Monophysites (led by a man named Eutyches) were horrified by Nestorius’s implication that Christ was two people with two different natures (human and divine). They went to the other extreme, claiming that Christ was one person with only one nature (a fusion of human and divine elements). They are thus known as Monophysites because of their claim that Christ had only one nature (Greek: mono = one; physis = nature).

Iconoclasm (7th and 8th Centuries)
This heresy arose when a group of people known as iconoclasts (literally, "icon smashers") appeared, who claimed that it was sinful to make pictures and statues of Christ and the saints.

Catharism (11th Century)
Catharism was a complicated mix of non-Christian religions reworked with Christian terminology. The Cathars had many different sects; they had in common a teaching that the world was created by an evil deity (so matter was evil) and we must worship the good deity instead.

The Albigensians formed one of the largest Cathar sects. They taught that the spirit was created by God, and was good, while the body was created by an evil god, and the spirit must be freed from the body. Having children was one of the greatest evils, since it entailed imprisoning another "spirit" in flesh. Logically, marriage was forbidden, though fornication was permitted. Tremendous fasts and severe mortifications of all kinds were practiced, and their leaders went about in voluntary poverty.

Protestantism (16th Century)
Protestant groups display a wide variety of different doctrines. However, virtually all claim to believe in the teachings of sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone"—the idea that we must use only the Bible when forming our theology) and sola fide ("by faith alone"— the idea that we are justified by faith only).

The great diversity of Protestant doctrines stems from the doctrine of private judgment, which denies the infallible authority of the Church and claims that each individual is to interpret Scripture for himself.

The doctrine of private judgment has resulted in an enormous number of different denominations. According to The Christian Sourcebook, there are approximately 20-30,000 denominations, with 270 new ones being formed each year. Virtually all of these are Protestant.

Jansenism (17th Century)
Jansenius, bishop of Ypres, France, initiated this heresy with a paper he wrote on Augustine, which redefined the doctrine of grace. Among other doctrines, his followers denied that Christ died for all men, but claimed that he died only for those who will be finally saved (the elect).

Tax woes again

Yet again, Computer Weekly reports troubles with tax. This time (9 October) the story is of firms being wrongly fined. But nearly every issue of Computer Weekly carries a piece about some tax problem or other.

The article mentioned the cost without putting a figure to it. At a conservative estimate the tax system costs around £25 billion a year. This is to pay for the government departments involved, plus compliance borne by the private sector, such as administration, accountancy and legal services. But this figure is overshadowed by another - the deadweight loss to the economy. This is wealth that is never created because of the disincentive effect of tax; according to the best estimate, this amounts to a staggering £138 billion a year (Harrison, "Ricardo's Law", published 2007).

There is an urgent need to reform the tax system and relieve the wealth creation process of this crippling burden. There is a perfectly viable alternative - to raise revenue from a charge on the rental value of land. The land value component of every piece of real estate would be assessed and an annual charge levied on that value. Given a realistic time scale for its introduction, implementation would be a smooth transition, as developed land is already assessed either for Council Tax or Business Rates. To assess site values alone would be simpler as there would be no need to take account of buildings or other structures and improvements. And as present taxes were phased out, the reform would initiate a benign cycle.

Unlike present taxes on the wealth creation process, with such a system, there would be no deadweight loss.

Given the present state of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), this form of land value taxation, combined with a reliable register of land ownership and billing system, would be straightforward to implement and keep up to date. If the former rating system is any guide, once it had bedded-in, costs should be less than 1% of the amount collected.

In this age of IT and globalisation, where everything moves but the land, LVT the only logical and effective system.

onsdag 17 oktober 2007

Planning Gain Supplement ditched

The government has for some time been concerned about the windfall gains that accrue to landowners following planning consents. It has also been hoping to try to increase the supply housing, especially in London and the South East, and to this end appointed a committee chaired by Kate Barker, with the idea that they would come up with suggestions. After several years of deliberation, Barker proposed a "Planning Gain Supplement" (PGS), a levy on the difference in land values before and after the consent had been granted. There was severe criticism from various experts who pointed out that something similar had been tried three times before, and failed. Land value taxation was put forward as an alternative means of collecting not just land value enhancements following planning consents, but of land value in its entirety.

But the PGS met with approval from the government and more consultation followed.

Now the proposal has been dropped. How much has all this cost? And should landowners be able to pocket the increased value resulting from a decision by a committee charged with protecting the public interest?

Comment is not so free - is The Guardian trying to suppress debate?

I began posting when I was away from the UK during the summer. If you have followed these blogs, you will know that my main interest is not religion but the environment, transport, economics and taxation. A consistent theme amongst their journalists in those subject areas is an excellent and penetrating description of an issue, let down by a failure in analysis, often leading them to advocating policies which would be ineffective or indeed counter-productive.

Occasionally, there are flashes of insight in the responses, but sadly they are rare. Given that most people would agree that there is hardly an area of public policy in Britain which can be regarded as an unqualified success, this lack of insight is worrying, and frankly I fear for the future of this country to the extent that I am seriously considering emigrating, to one of the Scandinavian countries.

Which of course naturally leads to the issue of religion. The Scandinavian countries have received large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East, from Lebanon, Palestine and more recently Iraq. Of these, the Christians have integrated quite well in the circumstances, but a substantial proprtion of Moslems have not, and in fact despise the countries in which they have taken refuge. Rosengård, a suburb or Malmö, has become a virtual no-go area and would merit a feature in its own right. Article about Rosengård

All this has tested the traditional tolerance of the Scandinavians to beyond breaking point and is the motivation behind the recent Danish and Swedish cartoon incidents, which echo what has become a widespread sentiment.

The comment on the evils of the Catholic Church was intended as parody which was obviously too subtle too be noticed, but was essentially the message intentionally put out by around 20% of the posters responding to the article by Conor Foley, as well as the original article by Conor Foley, which was quite frankly offensive, as is the lie that the Catholic church is the cause of people dying of Aids, when it is in fact the largest provider of care for people with this illness.

I was open minded about Islam until I picked up some literature, together with the Koran, from a group which was visiting Brighton. The content and threatening tone of this literature and of the Koran itself are offensive to Christians and Jews. So, given the reluctance of many of those whom the Guardian gives editorial space to talk about the offensiveness of Islam's foundation texts, the question - "What is Islam for?" is a valid one. Evidently it is one that can no longer be asked in public. The 7th century origins of Islam also need to be examined and not brushed away from discourse. Where does the Koran come from? Is it a divine revelation, somebody's voices in the head or a fabrication? How can it condemn idolatry when the most important action in Islam, the Haj, involves processing round what is probably a meteorite which was long venerated by the pagans who lived in the area before Islam came to prominence? Then there is the record of the religion's founder, a cruel warrior who personally directed the massacre of hundreds of Jews. One must surely ask what kind of person would follow anyone capable of doing such a thing?

Jews can legitimately ask what the subsequent religion of Christianity is about and will receive an answer, which of course many will find unacceptable, but there should be no reason why both should not get along amicably together. Likewise for Buddhism as an offshoot of mainstream Hinduism.

The two principal offshoots of orthodox Christianity, Islam and Protestantism, on the other hand, can only justify themselves by denying some elements of Christian teaching. This is inevitably a recipe for potential conflict. Protestants will normally give a polite answer stating what it is in orthodox Christianity that they find objectionable and it is possible to conduct a discourse. Moslems, asked the same question will seemingly just cry "foul". Of course the Guardian has a perfect right to suppress discussion, but what will the effect be?

The final point about the effect of giving such a lot of editorial space to Muslim apologists, is that it stirs up hostility, as anyone can see from responses to such articles in Comment is Free. If the aim is to build up good relations, it is counter-productive.

My own personal experience of Muslims is, like most people's, through everyday encounters. I was perfectly happy to put my life in the hands of a Muslim anaesthetist a few year ago, and have no problem about visiting the new local grocery emporium which has opened near where I live, obviously run by devout Muslims.

But when I read the history of this religion, and the present day activities of some of its adherents, or its foundation texts, wariness seems the most appropriate response.

Why I was banned by the Guardian

This is what the Guardian told me. The parody was too subtle to be recognised for what it was...

You had your posting rights removed after you wrote posts such as this:

"But everyone knows that the Catholic Church is a continuation of the Nazi Party and the Pope is the sucessor to Adolf Hitler. And all priests are paedophiles.
So it was a good move of Amnesty to come into the open and shake off this evil reactionary organisation.
Why the surprise that it has responded precisely as it did when Amnesty took the principled stand it did.
Abortion is a basic human right. Everyone has a right to be aborted."

and

"We seem to be getting defensive articles about Islam two or three times a week. Judging by the comments, their main effect is to stir up hostility. In which case silence might be more productive. As an aside, what precisely is Islam for? When Islam came into existence, thre were already two perfectly good religions for people who want to believe in God - Judaism and Christianity. If consequences are anything to go by, Islam adds absolutely nothing positive and much that is negative.
Since nobody is forced to remain in the religion they inherited from their parents, why are Muslims so resistant to considering the alternatives? Do they have lazy minds or what?"

I am not sure whether you were trying to be funny, or merely trying to provoke other users, but your posts were offensive in the extreme. You also display prejudice towards Muslims, which we had several complaints about. In order to post on CIF, you first agree to abide by our talk policy. You have breached this, and are therefore no longer allowed to post.

tisdag 16 oktober 2007

Banned by the Guardian

I have been banned from posting on The Guardian's "Comment is Free" website. I have not yet found out why.

Since the both the site and the paper will freely allow almost unlimited licence for vituperative attacks on Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, I eagerly await the explanation, if any. I wonder what I have done to deserve this honour.

Presumably what I have been saying detracts fom their anti-Catholic/anti-Christian campaigning.

That letter from the Moslem academics

136 Muslim academics have written to the Pope, asking for dialogue. Now the idea that Muslims and Christians should get together and emphasise the common essentials of the two religions is an interesting one.

Some years ago Muslim missionaries from Birmingham set up a stall locally for a few weeks, with literature promoting Islam and attacking Christianity. What was said in the anti-Christian books demonstrated that the authors had only the haziest notions of Christian theology and what they were attacking bore little resemblance to Christianity as it actually is.

The same applies to the anti-Christian references in the Koran itself; since Islam largely defines itself by spelling out its differences from an imagined version of Christianity, it is curious that there should now be a desire to emphasise the similarities.

Can we therefore expect the signatories of the petition to start by taking instruction in Christianity so that they understood what it was actually about?

måndag 15 oktober 2007

Green Party imposes candidate from outside

Brighton Pavilion is considered to be one of the best prospects for a Green MP at the next General Election. We have long had an excellent Green councillor, Keith Taylor, and it had been assumed that he would be given the opportunity to stand as MP. And if not him there were a couple of other local people who I would have been happy to vote for.

But now, the MEP Caroline Lucas has been imposed on the constituency. I had a thoroughly unsatisfactory correspondence with her recently, worse even than any I have had with David Lepper, the present Labour MP. This is saying a lot as he does little more than forward letters to ministers who send them to civil servants who draft a stupid reply that makes out that what the government is doing is the best possible in the best of all possible worlds.

Lucas is infinitely worse. Her PA flatly refused to discuss the matter, which was a non-contentious matter about the EU regulations as they affect Brazil Nuts.

If one cannot communicate on a matter such as that, what kind of MP would she make? I could not possibly vote for her. And this affair also raises questions about the nature of the Green Party, which, now that it is within a whisker of gaining a voice at Westminster, is showing itself to be no better than the others.

söndag 14 oktober 2007

The benighted Middle Ages


Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France (Southern facade)
Originally uploaded by Merowig.

Why is it that the Middle Ages are used as a shorthand for a time of darkness, cruelty and superstition dominated by religion, which at that time was orthodox Christianity?

In Europe, it was a period of moral and technological advance. Serfs became free men. Wars mostly affected only those who were actually in the armies. The rule of law prevailed. Universities were established. Until the Black Death, there was prosperity and growth. All sorts of inventions had their origin in the Middle Ages.

Another feature of the Middle Ages, feudalism, also has an undeservedly bad press. It is a system of land holding in a chain from the monarch, in which each land holder has duties to his superior in the chain.

Nowadays the predominant system of land holding is one of outright ownership without obligations, which, it can be shown, lies at the root of the economic and social divisions in Western societies. Which is the benighted system?

The real cruelty began in the sixteenth century with the post-Reformation religious persecutions. The seventeenth century saw devastating wars throughout the continent. The eighteenth and nineteenth saw the growth of the slave trade, the peasantry driven off the land and into the industrial slums, the excesses of the French Revolution and subsequent wars, and the great land robbery that was colonialism. The twentieth gave us murderous ideological regimes and wars on an unprecedented scale.

In the light of subsequent events, do the Middle Ages not stand out as a beacon of enlightenment?

fredag 12 oktober 2007

Two hour queue to buy a train ticket


TGVs
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

I went into the French Railways shop in Piccadilly to buy tickets for a journey next month. I was told to book by telephone as there was a two hour queue, even though there only seemed to be a few people waiting and there were several staff selling the tickets. But considering that it usually takes 20 minutes to buy a train ticket there, the wait was less surprising.

Why has buying train tickets become so complicated?

The root of the problem seems to be something called "Yield Management", which is about getting as many seats as possible occupied to maximise the load factor. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, as it not sensible to run half-empty trains. There is nothing new about it. Almost since the begining of railways there have been cheap fares for travel at less popular times. But things changed about thirty years ago. Before that, railways used to keep a reserve fleet which were used to carry the extra people who wanted to travel during the rush hour and in the holiday season. These were old vehicles which could be added to trains to provide extra seating, or for running extra trains.

But from the 1970s the fixed formation train - like the British Inter City 125 - became the vogue. Such trains cannot easily be lengthened to provide extra seating and so it became more important to match demand to supply by having different fares for travel at different times.

Making matters worse is the high cost of rolling stock, which is many times higher, in real terms than it was fifty years ago and continues to rise. A mark 1 coach cost around £6000 in the mid-1950s. The equivalent today will cost around £800,000, which, allowing for an inflation factor of around 30, is over four times the price. Compare this to the price of a car, which has gone from around £600 to £12,000, a fall in real terms.

There are many reasons for this. There are few train manufacturers. Trains are not mass produced like cars. But perhaps the main issues are the complexity and inflexibility of modern trains, together with the tendency to have self-powered trains instead of individual locomotives.

However, the problem is compounded by the booking systems in use and the practice of booking each passenger into a particular seat. Some systems seem unable to allocate the same seat to different passengers travelling on different legs of the journey, and report that a train is full when it is not. I came across this on the Bergen to Oslo line, when a supposedly fully booked train was never more than one-third full, and again on a Stockholm to Malmö service when a passenger was advised to get on the "fully booked" train and just move from one empty seat to another if anyone turned up to claim their booked seat.

In any case, the whole exercise of booking passengers into particular seats can be counter productive for the passengers. Many so-called "window seats" are nothing of the kind but give their occupants a fine view of a plastic panel or piece of curtain. Finding such a seat not to their liking, the passengers then go and sit somewhere else until the passenger who has reserved that seat turns up, when they move. The Hamburg to Köln express seems to run on that principle, with a game of musical chairs going on after every station stop. It isn't good, and moving seats is a way of losing one's belonging.

There are all sorts of issues entailed here, from the seating layouts inside the trains to the way that traffic is managed to match supply and demand.

If the aim is to get passengers to travel by train instead of by plane, it is something that needs to be looked at.

Modernism and church architecture


inside church of st. joseph
Originally uploaded by lomokev.

There is a view around that the Modern Movement had a disastrous effect on church architecture. The argument is that it has driven out the sense of the sacred.

This church designed by August Perret proves that this is not the case. So many Catholic churches built since the 1960s do indeed lack a sense of the sacred, but the causes lie elsewhere and have more to do with the clients than the architects.

torsdag 11 oktober 2007

Poor Palestinians

The subject came up over coffee this morning. Someone said that we would not have had Al Quaida and terrorism if it were not for Palestine.

Now I do not support what the Israelis are doing these days. However, the Palestinians have no-one to blame but themselves for their predicament. People seem not to be aware of the recent history of this conflict.

Jews began to settle in the country then known as Palestine from the 1880s when it was part of the Ottoman empire on land they had purchased. At that time the population was small.

About a year before the end of the First World War, the British Government issued the following statement known as the Balfour Declaration.

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country"

In the post war settlement, Britain was given what was called a "Mandate" to govern the country. Jewish settlement continued on land that had been purchased. Opposition from Arabs developed, with incitement from Moslem religious leaders, principally Haj Amin el-Husseini. There were pogroms in 1920, 1921, 1922, 1929 and 1936.

During the Nazi period in the years before the Second World War, and again, immediately afterwards, Jewish immigration to Palestine continued, and after the war, inter-communal violence grew. In 1947, a United Nations Commission advocated partition, with the predominantly Jewish areas to become part of a Jewish state. On the withdrawal of the British, a state of Israel was declared and was immediately attacked by five Arab countries whose aim was to eliminate Israel. Fighting continued for about a year and ended with a cease-fire but no agreement, on borders which were determined by the armistice line; this resulted in Israel having more land than originally allocated, and with large numbers of Arabs becoming refugees. Arab leaders would not negotiate with the Israelis as they did not recognise its existence; thus, a formal state of war remained.

In the immediate aftermath, large numbers of Jews took the opportunity to escape persecution in Arab countries and to leave for Israel, so that about 40% of the present population of Israel consists of Jews whose ancestors lived in places like Morocco, Algeria, Iraq and Yemen. In the meantime, the Arab countries made no attempt to settle their refugees but kept them confined in camps in places such as Ramallah and Gaza. Neighbouring Egypt and Jordan absorbed those areas of Palestine which remained. Parts of Jerusalem, including the old Jewish quarter and the holy sites, ended up under Jordanian occupation and Jews were denied access.

Sporadic attacks from Arabs continued in the 1950s, with occasional punitive retaliation from the Israelis.

The next major event was the war of November 1956, carried out with British and French co-operation, the latter two countries wishing to regain control of the Suez Canal which had been nationalised by Egypt under Nasser. This ended with Israel being made to withdraw to the previous armistice line, and with a United Nations peacekeeping force being placed in Gaze between Egypt and Israel.

Over the next decade, with Soviet support, Egypt built up its army with the intention of attacking Israel from its postion in Gaza. By June 1967 it was ready, the UN force was asked to leave and the army brought up to the border. The situation became increasingly tense and the Israelis appear to have made the first move with an air strike on Egyptian air fields. The Egyptian campaign ended with the Israelis in occupation of land all the way to the Suez Canal and in the Sinai desert as far as Sharm-al-Sheik. Jordan and Syria joined in and these two interventions also resulted in land being lost to the Israelis. Thus Israel came to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, with large Palestinian populations.

This was entirely unexpected. Nearly everyone, including the Israelis themselves, had expected that the better armed Arabs would lose the conflict. Israel ended up with a large population of Arabs under its control. Its first initiative was to try give up this land in exchange for recognition, but no Arab leaders would talk to them. Rather than go into a conference room with the Israelis, the Palestinian response was to form the Palestine Liberation Organisation under Yasser Arafat and adopt guerilla tactics instead.

Eventually, after the 1973 War, the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israelis and the Israelis withdrew from all Egyptian territory. But Sadat was assassinated for his efforts.

In the 40 years since the 1967 War, the Israelis have changed. Their leaders are no longer the kind of social democratic moderates like those who run countries such as the Netherlands. Palestinians are now having to deal with Israeli leaders of a tougher and less compromising cast of mind. They missed their big opportunity.

Other opportunities have presented themselves subsequently but time and time again the same thing has happened. And a conciliatory Israeli prime minister also fell to an Israeli assassain.

It is a hopeless situation. If there are people to feel sorry for, how about the Tibetans, the Kurds and the people of Darfur? Or the continuing Russian occupation of parts of Finland? Who protested about the brutal occupation of the Baltic states by Soviet Russia until 1991? Given the selectiveness of the sympathy, I cannot help suspecting that those who affect support for the Palestinians are either naive or motivated by anti-semitism.

And what of the link to Muslim terrorism today? If Israel vanished into thin air, it would continue. After all, there is Muslim terrorism in countries like Thailand and the Phillipines. What has that to do with Palestine? If one wants to look for a cause, surely it is the US involvement in Saudi Arabia which has gone on since the 1920s?

Taxing the Family Silver

Much nonsense has been written during the current debate on Inheritance Tax.

Those who are opposed to the tax say that people have already paid huge amounts of tax out of their hard earned wages and are entitled to pass on the fruits of their labour to whoever they want. Together with the family house. And in any case, the money is likely to be wasted or spent on wars.

The main argument of those in favour argue that inheritance enshrines privilege and inequality.

These two opposing positions appear irreconcilable but this is not so. Most of the value that is being hit by IHT is actually land value, and speculative land value at that. It is not the family house that is at issue, it is the land the family house is standing on. As anyone who owns one will know, an old house is a wasting asset; the walls crack and let the damp in, the roof leaks, the timber goes rotten, the heating system wears out or becomes obsolete and the decoration must be regularly renewed. So the reality of inheriting a house is the gift of a liability. In the meantime, the land underneath usually goes up in value quite steadily, a process boosted by by the actions of government.

So the opposing positions can be reconciled by separating out that proportion of property value that is actually land value. But there is a third voice which has been little heard in the debate, which says that the concern should not be about taxation of the dead but taxation of the living.

Taking the three together, a satisfactory policy is achievable: that taxation should fall not on people but on the land they occupy. That way, people could get to keep all their wages and pass what they have earned to whoever they like. Land, being a tax liability, would not be worth buying, selling or inheriting.

Stealing one another's policies

There is nothing wrong in with one party adopting the policies of another, since it shows that democracy is working.

The trouble is that the policy concerned is a bad one. Unfortunately, the in question is surrounded by a thick fog of confusion, as was evident from almost every comment made on the subject by politician, journalists and the public at large in forums such as Comment in Free.

No sensible policy could have possibly have emerged from the public debate in the terms that it was being discussed and what this affair shows is that our democracy is working badly.

For it to work well would demand that the public raise its level of understanding on matters of principle.

måndag 8 oktober 2007

More on Inheritance Tax

Some commentators are saying that the Conservative proposals on Inheritance Tax tipped the polls to the point that Labour backed off from having an election in November. Perhaps. But nearly all the politicians and commentators are missing the point. There is a need for clarity.

Inheritance tax should be zero. Nil. Zilch.
Taxes on wages, goods and services should also be zero. Nil. Zilch.

People should be allowed to keep everything they earn from work and pass it on to whoever they want. Governments have no business getting their hands on it.

What needs to be taxed is land values. 100% of the rental value of land and the land element of all property. Why? Land value is created by the presence and actions of the communty. It is not earned. It is a public value and the government should collect it. Some of this revenue should be used for the essential purposes of government ie administering justice, defence (not attack), highways and emergencies. What is left over should be distributed equally to every citizen in the land as a national dividend, sometimes referred to as Basic Income.

Under such a tax regime the price of land would fall to zero. There would be nothing to tax. Windfall land value bubbles would not occur in the first place. Inter-generational injustice is almost entirely related to the inheritance of land, not that vague and ill-defined entity referred to as "wealth". Only land has an enduring value. Everything else wears out, decays or become obsolete.

Land value taxation is a prerequisite for justice from one generation to the next.

söndag 7 oktober 2007

Tory tax plans are a nonsense

The Conservatives announced they they would raise the Inheritance Tax threshold and abolish Stamp Duty for first time house purchasers.

Both policies are cynical or nonsensical or both.

Inheritance Tax has become a problem for many people in London and the South East as a consequence of the house price bubble, in reality a land price bubble. If it was not for that, it would not be an issue. Since the land price bubble is also a problem for house purchasers, surely that is what needs to be addressed?

Cuts in Stamp Duty will not help first time buyers. The effect will simply be to drive up house prices or prevent them from falling. The beneficiaries will be the house sellers. To propose a cut in Stamp Duty to help purchasers demonstrates a worrying failure in understanding of economics. That said, there is no justification for taxing property transactions per se. This merely discourages people from moving or selling, and creates shortages. Stamp Duty should be no more than is needed to cover the costs incurred by the Land Registry.

The appropriate way to tax land is through the right sort of land value taxation.

This would enable a Chancellor to make substantial cuts in other taxes. It would also address the problem of high land prices and then IHT could be allowed to wither on the vine.

As worrying as the Conservatives' lack of economic understanding is the corresponding lack of understanding on the part of journalists and media commentators who also seem not to appreciate what the effects of the proposals would be.

lördag 6 oktober 2007

Back in Brighton

Picked my way through the rubbish past the homeless people living in shop doorways this morning. Isn't it nice to be back in Britain.

Brighton Trail of Squalor

Crossrail gets the go-ahead

This is sort-of good news but the project as proposed sounds like bad value for money and could cause other problems.

It appears that the main services will run from Shenfield and Abbey wood in the east to Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west. Why Maidenhead? No good reason but they cannot go on any further to Reading as there is not enough capacity there. On the east side, it should take some pressure off Liverpool Street. But to the west, it will use up the capacity on the GW main line and there have been concerns that there will be no room for freight services. Surely a better destination would be Hammersmith, which would take pressure off a busy section of the Circle Line and allow improvements in services in the North Kensington area?

Then there are the trains themselves. Illustrations show they have two sets of doors on each side of each vehicle. Surely this is not enough and will cause excessive station dwell times? And surely the most appropriate stock is an AC version of that being developed for the LUL surface lines? Which has three sets of doors per side.

This of course raises the question of the suitability of the stock for longer journeys, which is a problem with Thameslink where passengers end up travelling for over an hour on trains that are of necessity meant for short distance crush loading routes. Perhaps it is a mistake to have long distance services running through Central London.

Finally, there is the matter of the money. One third of the £16 billion will, the government claims, come from the private sector, but nobody seems clear how this contribution will be collected. Of course, with the right system of land value taxation in place, the contribution would flow into the government's coffers without the need for further action.

The Journey East #3

The local situation The Catholic church in my part of the world is apparently in quite good shape. However, the liturgy is resolutely Luthe...