torsdag 30 oktober 2008

Parliament should move here

Royal Albert Hall
Originally uploaded by Aubrey Stoll

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the shape of British politics. Because the MPs sit opposite each other, debates becomes a shouting match with a lot of smoke and no light. There is literally no space for for views other than those held by the two protagonists, who connive in agreeing on their terms of discussion. Perhaps the Government should should move out of Westminster, which could become a tourist attraction and hotel. Where would they go?

How about the Albert Hall? It has a circular seating plan. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they tried it. It could transform British politics.

onsdag 29 oktober 2008

God probably does not exist

So goes the notorious poster which has aroused lots of attention.

I was convinced God did not exist. Till I met him. This was worrying. I thought at first I was having some kind of mental breakdown or suffering from delusional symptoms. But strangely I felt perfectly OK, better than ever before, and well disposed towards the world and everyone and everything in it. Then I met others who had had the same experience, and they all seemed more than averagely balanced, sensible and pleasant and generous individuals, well able to cope with their lives and the ups-and-downs they encountered.

This is a widely reported experience, which has nothing to do with indoctrination or brainwashing. If I and they were all suffering from delusions, then whatever those delusions were could not be be regarded as a pathological condition. A benign condition, perhaps. So to my astonishment, starting from my atheistic position, God turned out to be not a spaghetti eating monster in the sky, but a external reality that can be found at the core of the individual's being. Being a determined atheist simply restricts the individual's access to that reality.

So perhaps the poster should have read "God probably does not exist, but don't worry if you happen to meet him"

There have been masses of comments on the subject in the Guardian's "Comment is Free". Having read through these, I am left wondering how many of the contributors are sufficiently conversant with science to have taken the study of one of the hard sciences (chemistry, physics, maths, engineering, biology or other closely related disciplines) to degree level or higher. Not very many, I suspect, to judge by the quality of the argument. The quality of the arguments against God isn't up to much either - in fact my parish priest can put up a better case for atheism.

As regards evolution, people have been sent to the gallows on far less evidence than there is to support it. Creationism is nothing more than a silly aberration based on a misguided reading of ancient texts. Religious extremism and terrorism appear to be embedded in one particular religion since they are authorised in its foundational texts. People in authority in other religions have often abused their powers and covered up abuses by those under them, but such abuses have always been in breach of the codes of practice or laws of those religions. The religions themselves cannot be blamed when their claimed adherents breach the rules.

Those who have been suggesting that religion is about belief in a "pixie in the sky" are setting up a classic straw man. The "pixie in the sky" is a straw man because mature religious faith is about a connection with something that is accessed interiorly to the person. If you don't like that idea, there remains the need for a language that can be used as a shorthand for attempting to describe a widespread set of subjective experiences. That those experiences are subjective does not make them unreal or delusional, which is what those who use the term "pixie in the sky" are trying to suggest, whilst not having experienced what is being talked about. It is an arrogant supposition and discourse is futile since it is taking place across a gulf of incomprehension.

The atheist party seeks for proof in reality. But the brain constructs reality out of what people know and expect. Familiar examples of the same thing are the apparent hyper-reality of impressionistic and pixellated pictures, the difficulty of understanding a spoken foreign language when one can already read it quite well, and closer to home, the ability to pick out a conversation in a room where a lot of people are talking, a skill which consumes a large amount of mental processing power.

Science, they believe, is real and solid, in contrast to religion which is abstract. But "abstraction" is precisely what science is about. From the mass of data about the physical world are abstracted apparent regularities from which can be derived laws and provisional theories which describe and account for the behaviour of the entities under consideration, and which can also be used to predict what will happen in tightly specified circumstances.

But the laws of science are only a proxy for reality, limited by the notational systems available at the time.

The terms used by religion are also a notational system used to describe mental or "spiritual" phenomena. The problem seems to be that a lot of people are taking the metaphoric or analogic descriptions literally and others are assuming that they are meant to be taken literally. Hence the references to pixies in the sky.

The different world religions are not equal or merely different ways of saying the same thing, but the convergences between them suggests that they are describing some kinds of mental phenomena which are, and always have been, a widespread human experience. This is not in itself an external reality, but there have been attempts using PET and MRI imaging techniques to study the patterns of brain activity associated, for instance, with meditational states. That is surely objective evidence enough to support the claim that religions are at the very least attempting to interpret real physical occurences. Patterns of neural activity in themselves prove nothing but are subjectively meaningless in the absence of an interpretative framework such as that which religions attempt to provide, and which do in fact point to an external reality.

How to make lots of dosh without working

Last week I went to talk about how to make money. The line was that the only way to do it was to build up a property empire - it couldn't be done by real work. Land is used as an investment, but in reality it just produces an income stream which is roughly linked to inflation and general prosperity. Over lending and over borrowing caused land titles to increase in price to the point that the rate of return dropped and dropped, priming the crash. So it was not such a good investment after all.

The vested interests, who are a handful of landowners and bankers, would make sure that a land tax, the only way to reduce the force of boom-busts, is never discussed. Try and get it raised on, say, Any Answers? They won't touch it. The place of land in economics has been virtually expunged from the theory. Even Ricardo is mentioned only in passing. I wouldn't call it a class war, because if the information got out, the vested interests could be faced down, eg the fact that five families own the most valuable areas of London is scarcely known.

I have no realistic expectation of anything good happening in the UK, it will be one of the most refractory countries in Europe when it comes to implementing change.

torsdag 23 oktober 2008

Depressing state of British politics

I was listening to the broadcast recording of yesterday's parliamentary debate. It was the usual slanging match, conducted in sneering tones, the main objective apparently being to score points off each other. The row concerned the conversations that were alleged to have taken place when George Osborne boarded the yacht belonging to a Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska whilst on holiday in Corfu.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Osborne and Andrew Feldman, the Tory party chief executive, have admitted meeting the billionaire on his yacht off Corfu this summer. Subsequently, financier Nat Rothschild told the two that Mr Deripaska was willing to donate £50,000 to the Conservative Party through Leyland Daf, the UK company he owns. Mr Rothschild said that Mr Osborne initiated the discussion about donations, but the Shadow Chancellor vehemently denies this and said in a statement that he did not ask for the money.

The donation was turned down, but the fact they they were on the yacht at all says something about the Osborne and Feldman - what were they doing on the boat in the first place? At the very least, their presence was bound to cause them the trouble they have now got themselves into, quite unnecessarily. Someone with reasonable prudence and circumspection would have politely declined the invitation. But more worrying is that the atmosphere in which debate is conducted on any subject is absolutely inimical to measured consideration of circumstances and the development of effective policies. Good communication cannot occur, whilst misrepresentation and over-simplification of issues can flourish. One must wonder how the suggestion of land value taxation would fare in an environment so hostile to reasoned and cooperative discussion.

The political options in Britain present a depressing picture, with Labour floundering around, seemingly to no effect despite the tens of billions being thrown at the banks, the Conservatives with nothing plausible on offer and the Liberal Democrats presenting no clear picture of what they are about. It does not help, either, when time is taken up with distractions like this.

Swedish economy

On the tram
Originally uploaded by seadipper

These 1960s trams have just been refurbished for yet another 10 years in service.

tisdag 21 oktober 2008

Usury and the Religious Right

The Religious Right claim to follow the bible, literally. So they will oppose the teaching of evolution, homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, masturbation, &c. It is strange then, that they totally ignore the contents of chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus, reproduced here in full. The passages printed in red relate to usury and land holding. There is nothing about handing the land over to banks as security for money lent out for interest.

The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying,

2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD.

3 For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits

4 but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.

5 You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.

6 The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you,

7 and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

The Year of Jubilee

8 You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.

9 Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land.

10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.

11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.

12 For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the field.

13 In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property.

14 And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.

15 You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops.

16 If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you.

17 You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the LORD your God.

18 Therefore you shall do my statutes and keep my rules and perform them, and then you will dwell in the land securely.

19 The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely.

20 And if you say, 'What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?'

21 I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years.

22 When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives.

Redemption of Property

23 The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.

24 And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land.

25 If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold.

26 If a man has no one to redeem it and then himself becomes prosperous and finds sufficient means to redeem it,

27 let him calculate the years since he sold it and pay back the balance to the man to whom he sold it, and then return to his property.

28 But if he has not sufficient means to recover it, then what he sold shall remain in the hand of the buyer until the year of jubilee. In the jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his property.

29 If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption.

30 If it is not redeemed within a full year, then the house in the walled city shall belong in perpetuity to the buyer, throughout his generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee.

31 But the houses of the villages that have no wall around them shall be classified with the fields of the land. They may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee.

32 As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites may redeem at any time the houses in the cities they possess.

33 And if one of the Levites exercises his right of redemption, then the house that was sold in a city they possess shall be released in the jubilee. For the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel.

34 But the fields of pastureland belonging to their cities may not be sold, for that is their possession forever.

Kindness for Poor Brothers

35 If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.

36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you.

37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.

38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.

39 If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave:

40 he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.

41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers.

42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.

43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.

44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you.

45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property.

46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.

Redeeming a Poor Man

47 If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, 48then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him,

49 or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself.

50 He shall calculate with his buyer from the year when he sold himself to him until the year of jubilee, and the price of his sale shall vary with the number of years. The time he was with his owner shall be rated as the time of a hired servant.

51 If there are still many years left, he shall pay proportionately for his redemption some of his sale price.

52 If there remain but a few years until the year of jubilee, he shall calculate and pay for his redemption in proportion to his years of service.

53 He shall treat him as a servant hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight.

54 And if he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee.

55 For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

torsdag 16 oktober 2008

What most train passengers prefer

Adelante train interior
Originally uploaded by seadipper

A survey by Passenger Focus has found that 66% of passengers prefer facing seats to airline style. Since they also provide a decent amount of luggage space between seat backs and ought to weigh less, why do most trains have airline layout seats with separate luggage stacks?

måndag 13 oktober 2008

A good time to renationalise the railways?

A good time to renationalise the railways? Transport journalist Christian Wolmar seems to think so. Of course the old nationalised railways did some excellent things but huge and often strategic mistakes were made, with matters being aggravated by political interference. It does not altogether matter how the railways are run if they have incompetent managers, of which there were too many in BR days, and they got in the way of the good ones and morale was often low. How they held down their jobs is a mystery but there was, reputedly, a masonic lodge at the old British Railways Board HQ in Marylebone Road. If this was true, it would explain quite a lot.

The main problem now is that important decisions are being taken by the technically illiterate, but that isn't new either - eg the proliferation of different types of incompatible rolling stock, all under the eye of successive rail regulators, who are the people who would end up running the nationalised railways. Had there been sound technical input, the railways would have developed in a very different way since 1996, but such people cannot be pulled out of a hat. The most experienced front-line BR engineers retired soon after privatisation but they would have gone by now anyway, and privatisation offers the possibility of bringing people in from the continent, where there is not an ingrained attitude we have in Britain, that the most respectable way to make a livelihood is by moving money around. Engineers are regarded as worthy of respect, and the involvement of companies like Deutsche Bahn and Netherlands Railway can only be a good thing.

Just to put things into perspective, a list of BR successes: Mark 1stock in all its variations and permutations, the BR standard steam locomotives, the HST, the mark 3 carriage, 25kV electrification, extension of 750V electrification, class 158 DMU, Sectorisation, the British Rail Technical Centre, the Pandrol clip, Train Protection and Warning System, RETB wireless signalling. Against that there is a horrible catalogue of bungles and waste.

Post privatisation successes have been a fleet of new trains, generally clean trains, refurbishment of trains, more frequent services, disabled access. Against that have been horrible design of many trains, complicated ticketing, engineering closures with poor alternatives laid on, horrendously expensive consultancy, micro-management of franchises by the Department of Transport, proliferation of incompatible and route-specific classes of rolling stock.

Privatisation would not address these faults.

lördag 11 oktober 2008

Lewes Pound

The Lewes pound is a new local currency with a picture of Tom Paine on one side. It demonstrates an important economic principle. The purpose of money is to avoid the inconvenience of barter. Nobody would normally want to swap, say, a sack of potatoes they have grown on their allotment for a pair of trousers. But they might do that because the value of the trousers would not have to be included on their tax return as "income". Sometimes people actually do exchange services in this way to avoid having to pay both income tax and VAT. Such exchange of services by mutual agreement, whilst not immoral, is of dubious legality. The Lewes pound will facilitate this kind of barter, but only until the tax authorities notice what is going on and insist that people declare, on their tax returns, income received as Lewes pounds. As they will of course insist that all tax is paid in ordinary Bank of England pounds, the Lewes pounds will then become pointless. This is one reason why all local exchange trading schemes have ultimately fizzled out. But until the Revenue intervenes, Lewes pounds will have more purchasing power than those with a picture of the Queen on them.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The lesson to be learnt is that the present tax system has a destructive effect on the economy and needs to be reformed.

onsdag 8 oktober 2008

Bank robberies larger and larger still

This evening's news reported the start of a trial for a £53 million bank robbery. Yet there has been no suggestion those responsible for the £multi-billion fraud which has brought the banking system to near-collapse world-wide might have to face trail and possible imprisonment.

The fraud - misrepresentation and obtaining money by false pretences, has been committed by those who devised the so-called securitized debts - mixed bundles of good and bad debt backed by land as collateral, that was worth only a fraction of what was claimed. An analogy would be a dishonest street trader who sold boxes of rotten fruit with a few good ones on the top. It is inconceivable that they have not already fallen foul of existing criminal law for which a lengthy spell in prison would be the correct punishment. If they are going to be allowed to get away with it, what is the point of regulation?

There may also have been actual criminal activity on the part of the bankers who failed to check what they were being sold, as well as borrowers who misrepresented their incomes.

onsdag 1 oktober 2008

Rushing to disaster

The US bank "rescue" plan is supposedly intended to avert a disastrous collapse of the economy, which is threatened by the increasing difficulties in obtaining credit.

The word credit comes from the Latin "credo" which means "I believe". Given what has been happening, it should not be surprising that there has been a collapse in trust. However, the so-called bipartisan approach will lead to inflation and a drop in the value of the dollar, which will hit peoples' savings and lead to industrial unrest as people find the value of their wages is shrinking. And it has been suggested that the cost of the rescue is much higher than the figures currently being quoted. It is shocking that there is agreement across the two US political parties.

It would probably be safer and more effective to let the collapse happen - these were only ever paper values, after all - and introduce land value taxation, which would promote a quick recovery and save the US dollar. Given the extent of dollar balances held outside the US, a sell-off could lead to a rapid collapse - and what will that do for the US economy and for its political influence?

Guardian Takkiya

In a fine example of takkiya , Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari writes " Should we blame Islam for terrorism? " Shariatma...